Spiritual and sacred journeys, from Japan to Sri Lanka
Whether Shinto, Taoist or Buddhist, the religious buildings of Asia are set apart by their architecture and distinctive decorations. The following are ten of the most impressive temples, sanctuaries and pagodas.
The temples of Angkor in Siem Reap, Cambodia
The temples of Angkor silhouetted against the sky is one of Asia’s most recognisable sights. Their ruins stand as a reminder the power of the Khmer Empire that ruled the area from the ninth century. These imposing structures were designed to create a link between the king and the spiritual world. The Khmer built their religious buildings—the mountain temples—in the image of Mount Meru, the mythical centre of the universe and home of the gods in Hindu mythology. Built at the beginning of the 12th century, Angkor Wat, the site’s principal temple, was originally dedicated to Vishnu before being converted to a Buddhist sanctuary. A UNESCO World Heritage site since 1992, Angkor Wat is the most visited monument in Cambodia and appears on the national flag.
Borobudur in Java, Indonesia
1814. Indonesia is under British rule. The governor of Java, Thomas Stamford-Raffles, who is passionate about the history of the island, has heard rumours of a monument hidden in the forest for centuries. After two months of clearing the jungle, his emissaries manage to uncover the temple of Borobudur, built around 800 and abandoned around 1100. This Buddhist sanctuary is unlike any other: the main structure takes the form of a square mandala, measuring around 120 metres on each side and 35 metres in height. Built using 1,600,000 blocks of volcanic stone, its four floors are made up of galleries to allow pilgrims to access the central stupa at the top of the pyramid. Borobudur is richly decorated, with 2,670 bas-reliefs depicting the life of Buddha, as well as gargoyles, statues of lions and Buddha, and superb openwork stupas. The temple was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1991.
Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok, Thailand
Located within the Grand Palace in Bangkok, the Wat Phra Kaew temple, also known as the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, is one of the most important sacred sites in Thailand. This complex is actually made up of several buildings, including the main structure housing the famous Buddha and the Royal Pantheon, where many statues of ancient kings are on display. The whole temple is richly decorated with golden statues: Yakshas, benevolent spirits known to protect treasures, Nāgas, representing prosperity, and Garudas, the emblem of the monarchy. As for the Emerald Buddha, its origins remain unclear. Carved from a single jade stone, this 76 cm statue was discovered in 1431 in the northern city of Chiang Rai. It is believed to bring luck. Its outfit is changed three times a year during a solemn ceremony attended by the king or one of the temple ministers.
Man Mo Temple in Hong Kong, China
The Taoist Man Mo Temple in Hong Kong is the oldest and largest Man Mo temple in the city. Built in 1847, it is dedicated to the god of literature (Man) and the god of war (Mo), both of whom are required for academic success and the resolution of conflicts or disputes. The temple offers a welcome refuge from the hustle and bustle of Hong Kong, epitomised by the nearby financial district. Inside the building, the immense spirals of incense suspended from the ceiling create a mystical atmosphere.
Kek Lok Si Temple in Penang, Malaysia
The largest temple in Southeast Asia, Kek Lok Si, also known as the “Temple of Ultimate Happiness”, has towered over Penang Island since the end of the 19th century. This Buddhist temple combines Chinese, Thai and Burmese architectural styles, attracting believers and tourists from around the world. The elaborate decorations, lanterns and colourful buildings all contribute to the temple’s spiritual aura, especially when it is illuminated after dark. Visitors to this enchanting place are sure to appreciate its beauty and sense of harmony.
Khoo Kongsi Temple in George Town (Penang), Malaysia
As the grandest Chinese clanhouse in Malaysia, the Khoo Kongsi Temple is a must-see attraction for visitors to George Town. Khoo Kongsi is a testament to the Chinese presence on Penang Island: having arrived from Fujian at the end of the 19th century, the Chinese wanted to build a veritable palace, richly decorated with gold and statues of phoenixes and dragons. After it was devastated by a fire, the structure was rebuilt in 1902. Today, visitors can once again admire the architectural splendour of the temple and the surrounding houses, reserved for clan members.
Itsukushima-jinja in Miyajima, Japan
Immersed in one of the most beautiful landscapes in Japan, the Shinto shrine of Itsukushima-jinja, on the sacred island of Miyajima in Hiroshima Bay, symbolises serenity. Itsukushima, the official name of the island, literally translates to “island dedicated to the gods”. It is famous for its torii, a 16-metre vermilion red gate that seems to float on the water at high tide. A testament to 1,400 years of history, the temple was declared a National Treasure of Japan in 1952 and a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1996. The site is made up of a gallery, the Haraiden or purification pavilion, several sanctuaries, including the Marodo sanctuary, ponds, venues for dance performances, including a Noh stage, and several bridges, creating a sense of profound calm and harmony. Miyajima is also known for the 500 deer that roam the island.
The temples of Bagan, Myanmar
The monuments silhouetted against the pink sunrise, the hot air balloons floating gracefully in the sky… The magic of Bagan has made it one of the most popular sites in Southeast Asia; a relic of the empire that once rivalled Angkor. Today, 2,500 buildings remain in this 42 km2 Burmese territory, where 10,000 stood in the 13th century. The most iconic monuments include the Ananda Temple with its golden spires, the raised Thatbyinnyu Temple with its massive yet refined architecture, and the Dhammayangyi Temple, the largest Buddhist temple in Bagan.
The Temple of the Tooth, in Kandy, Sri Lanka
Located in Kandy, the former capital of Sri Lanka, the Temple of the Tooth is one of the most prominent sites in the Buddhist world. Housing the relic of the tooth of the Buddha, this finely decorated temple has earned the city a great deal of recognition, leading it to be listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1988. An ancient symbol of royal power, closely guarded by a succession of kings, the relic has been protected by monks since the British arrival in Sri Lanka in 1815. Every summer, the reliquary is taken out of the temple, placed in a ransivige on the back of a male elephant and presented to the faithful during the Esala Perahera processions. As one of the biggest festivals in the country, these celebrations bring dancers and mahouts with their animals from all over the island. Each elephant is adorned with flamboyant lights and ornate garments: a truly unique spectacle!
The Trấn Quốc Pagoda in Hanoi, Vietnam
Surrounded by water and trees that are silhouetted like lace against the azure sky of Hanoi, the elegant Trấn Quốc Pagoda is one of the most important sacred buildings in Vietnam. It is also ranked among the oldest pagodas in the country, erected 1,500 years ago under the reign of Emperor Lý Nam Đế. Originally built on the shores of the Red River, it was moved in 1615 due to the instability of the banks. Ever since, it has stood on an islet in the immense West Lake, the largest in the Vietnamese capital. Over the years, the building has been extended and restored, from its bells to its statues. The iconic tower, measuring 15 metres, was added in 1998, and six statues of Buddha stand on each of its 11 floors. The wooden footbridge that leads to the Trấn Quốc Pagoda transports visitors from the hectic streets of Hanoi into a verdant world of peace and tranquillity.
Photos credits : © iStock / © Unsplash / ©Fotolia / © AdobeStock
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