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To take our minds off of the cabin fever of being stuck at home (in a pandemic…in the snow), today’s post features one of the world’s most extravagant and beautiful buildings. This complex is Wat Rong Khun, the white temple of Chiang Rai in Northern Thailand. Sources inform me that it actually totally exists, right here in the real world (although I find it somewhat difficult to believe such a thing, because, well, just look at it!).

Wat Ron Khun was an extant Buddhist temple (one of thousands throughout Southeast Asia) which, by the end of the twentieth century, had fallen into disrepair. In 1997, Thai visionary artist Chalermchai Kositpipat restored/rebuilt the temple into the fantastical form which you see in these photos. Interestingly Wikipedia now balks at calling Wat Rong Khun a temple and instead describes the complex as “a privately owned art installation” where people can meditate and learn about Buddhist teachings (and which is intended to ingratiate Kositpipat into Buddha’s good graces and ensure immortal life for the artist). Hmm… How is that different from just saying “temple”?

Anyway, the bridges, gates, and buildings of Wat Rong Khun are all white or reflective with one big exception. The building which houses the compound bathrooms are gold. The white/mirror colors reflect the mind and the intellect–colorless, pure, and abstract. The bathroom compound however is gold to contextualize worldly and physical concerns (such as material wealth).

Still, it’s a pretty nice bathroom

Gardens aside, the other non-monochrome portion of the compound is found in the main ubosot, where mind-bendingly strange murals illustrate the human condition. These murals are not as, uh…restrained (?) as the rest of the wat, and I will write about them later when I feel stronger. Suffice it to say that if anything belonged inside this squirming albescent nirvana-cake, it is the paintings which are indeed in there.

Although I suppose I should be comparing Wat Rong Khun with Wat Pa Maha Chedio Kaew (the “temple of a thousand bottles”) what it truly reminds me of is Orvieto Cathedral, another installation/temple which is completely bedazzled with mind-altering religious ornamentation (and which features insane hell frescoes inside). Let’s all get vaccinated so we can go to some of these places in the real world (assuming they can indeed actually be found there).

Presentation of Jesus at the Temple (Luca Longhi, ca. mid 16th century)

Americans celebrate February 2nd as Groundhog Day, but the celebration is properly Candlemas, an ancient Christian holiday which got mixed up with an even more ancient winter holiday of pagan Germany (which involved forecasting the weather based on the behavior of badgers and bears). We will get to the bottom of that ancient pagan badger worship thing at some later date: for now, let’s talk about Candlemas which is one of Christianity’s oldest holidays and has been celebrated in Jerusalem since at least the 4th century. The original form the ancient holiday took was as “The Feast of the Presentation of Jesus Christ” (the synoptic gospel source for all of this is the second chapter of Luke) and it celebrated the redemption of infant Jesus at the temple of Solomon (Luke has muddled this up with the purification ritual for women who have given birth, but for the sake of clarity I am going to ignore that as well and write only about infant redemption which is the critical ancient Monotheistic kernel of this holiday).

Baby Jesus required redemption from the temple because he was Jewish–more specifically, he was a firstborn Jewish male infant and thus the somewhat rare rite of pidyon haben was required. Here is what the Book of Exodus has to say concerning the subject (this is from Exodus Chapter 13–so the speaker here is, uh, God and the listener is Moses, understood to be the chosen representative of the chosen people):

That thou shalt set apart unto the Lord all that openeth the matrix, and every firstling that cometh of a beast which thou hast; the males shall be the Lord’s. And every firstling of an ass thou shalt redeem with a lamb; and if thou wilt not redeem it, then thou shalt break his neck: and all the firstborn of man among thy children shalt thou redeem. And it shall be when thy son asketh thee in time to come, saying, What is this? that thou shalt say unto him, By strength of hand the Lord brought us out from Egypt, from the house of bondage. And it came to pass, when Pharaoh would hardly let us go, that the Lord slew all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both the firstborn of man, and the firstborn of beast: therefore I sacrifice to the Lord all that openeth the matrix, being males; but all the firstborn of my children I redeem.

Exodus 13: 12-15

Wow! This is some old-school religion! Yet, to be honest, I am not sure I would understand any of that if it had not been carefully explained to me. Here is the best interpretation/explanation I can offer. All firstborn male mammals belong to God (in his pre-Abraham days as a god of nomadic shepherds, El was very big on sacrifice: this is frequently reflected in the Old Testament and sometimes glimmers of the truly old ways of human sacrifice can be seen–as in the stories of Abraham and Isaac or of Jephthah’s daughter). God no longer wants human sacrifice, but first born males are pledged to the temple and the priestly caste as servants. This obligation, however, can be dispensed with through a business transaction: parents can trade the price of a lamb, 5 shekels of silver to the kohens to redeem their child from the Lord’s service [One of the twelve tribes of Judaism, the Levites, were the priests. Moses’ elder brother Aaron was of this tribe. Because of Aaron’s special service, God made him high priest, and all of his descendants, the kohanim are priests. Jews with the surname Levi or Cohen have special priestly duties and privileges to this day]

The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple (Fra Angelico, 1440-1442) fresco

Jesus lived in Judea during the final days of the Temple of Solomon. His parents had to take him to the temple and pay the priests. Luke specifies that Joseph and Mary took the option given to poor people, paying the price of a pair of doves rather than of a lamb (doves, like sheep and asses, are sacred animals in Christian mythology). In the temple an ancient prophet, Simeon recognized Jesus and prophesied him to be “A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel”. This is what is celebrated by Candlemas aka”The Feast of the Presentation of Jesus Christ” and it was of great importance to the first Christians living in ancient Israel. The original meaning of all of this, however has faded over thousands of years and it is now difficult to understand (except to very devout Jews) and so The Feast of the Presentation of Jesus Christ has now become Groundhog Day in the country’s largest Christian nation! I wonder what will happen to February 2nd in another thousand years or so.

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The Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple or Thiruvarangam is a colossal temple to the Hindu god Vishnu (or, more specifically, it is dedicated to Ranganātha, a reclining form of Vishnu).  Located on an island in the Cauvery river in Tamil Nadu, the temple is one of the most illustrious (and largest) temples in India. The complex includes 21 monumental ornamental towers (including the 72 meter (236 foot)  Rajagopuram), 39 pavilions, fifty shrines, all within a 156 acre complex which includes six miles of concentric walls.  The shrines, walls, and towers are bedecked in stunning stone statuary painted in all of the brilliant colors of South India.

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The story of the temple’s creation is steeped in Hindu myth: Lord Rama, the seventh avatar of Vishnu completed his devotions to Vishnu by worshiping a mysterious idol.  After killing Ravana and returning victorious from Sri Lanka (as detailed in the Ramayana) Rama gave this sacred statue to King Vibhishana.  The king planned on taking the statue to Sri Lanka, but when he set it down while resting on an island, it became rooted to the spot.

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The temple itself was built by the Chola Dynasty, India’s longest lived dynasty.  There is a further legend of the temple’s construction: a Chola king chased a parrot into the deep forest and found the idol overgrown by jungle.  He built the complex around the statue and the temple was maintained and expanded by the great dynasties of Southern India–the Chola, Pandya, Hoysala and Vijayanagar dynasties.  The oldest parts of the building seem to date back to the 10th century AD, but written sources do not accurately convey the precise chronology.  The great temples of South India are themselves primary historical sources, but alas, they are not as particular about dates as historians might like.

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It is difficult to even begin to describe the sumptuous beauty and complexity of the ornaments of Sri Ranganathaswamy.  The colorful and intricate statues of the figures from Vishnu’s lives and incarnations have an otherworldly and alien beauty not found elsewhere.  Nor will I attempt to  describe the meaning of Vishnu’s iconography (although if you are as smitten by his reclining beauty as I am you can read about Ananta Shesha, the many headed cobra god which serves as his divine couch).

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In the Roman pantheon, Janus is the two-faced god of beginnings, limits, doors, gateways, and departure.  Unlike the other Greco-Roman deities, Janus was not imported from Greece to Rome.  How he arrived in the Roman pantheon is unclear: some scholars believe that he was originally a gatekeeping deity of the near East while others argue he was an original Latin deity who was worshipped in Italy before Rome rose to power.  Similarly there are different myths concerning his origin.  The most dramatic tale of his creation asserts that he was made by Uranus, god of the primal heavens as a love present for dark Hecate.  Janus despised being in the underworld so he escaped from Hecate by diving into the river Styx and swimming to the world above.

Janus

After fleeing the underworld, Janus acted as one of the earliest kings of Rome in the golden era when the titans ruled the world, however at the end of the titanomachy—the epic war between titans and Olympians—he made the poor decision to give shelter to Saturn, hated father of Jupiter.  Jove was furious at Janus because of this betrayal and he cursed him with immobility and with a second face.  Thereafter Janus stood at the threshold of heaven to open and close the gate as Jupiter came and went.

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Janus was a popular god for the Romans and they worshipped him whenever they started a new venture or embarked on a trip.  January is named after the god and the first day of every month is dedicated to him. The ancient temple of Janus stood in the center of Rome was open during war and closed during times of peace.  Since the Romans were a warlike people the temple was rarely closed and sometimes stood open for hundreds of years at a time.

The largest body of fresh water in China is Lake Poyang in Jianxi Province.  The size of the lake fluctuates tremendously between the wet season when the lake’s surface area is 4400 square kilometers and the dry season when it shrinks down to 1000 square kilometers.  So every year Lake Poyang shrinks from being the size of Utah’s Great Salk Lake into being the size of Lake Champlain.  Lake Poyang is the southern wintering ground of a huge number of migratory birds.  It is also the site of what was reputedly the world’s largest naval battle.   The north side of the lake is treacherous to navigate and it is said that more than 100 ships have vanished there in the past hundred years.   There is a temple on the northern shore of the lake named Laoye Miao (temple of the Old Fellow) and locals call the waters near the temple the “death area” and the “demon horns” because so many ships are lost in that area.

Laoye Miao Temple

Lake Poyang did not always exist.  In 400 AD it was an inhabited plain along the Gan River, however when the Yangtze River switched courses the entire plain flooded.  Located halfway along the Yangtze, the lake has great strategic importance.

In the middle of the fourteenth century, the Yuan dynasty had lost control of China.  Various groups of rebels fought each other to seize the throne of heaven.  By summer of 1363 AD there were two main contenders for control of China, Zhu Yuanzhang, the charismatic but ugly leader of the red turbans, and Chen Youliang, the king of Duhan which controlled the most powerful fleet on the Yantze.  The former had a smaller force of maneuverable ships while the latter had greater numbers of men (Chen’s navy was believed to have had more than 600,000 men) and a large number of huge tower boats—literal floating fortresses.    The total number of combatants on the lake is reckoned to have numbered  over 850,000 men.

Artist’s Conception of the Battle of Lake Poyang

Unfortunately for Chen Youliang, the battle started as the lake began to dry out.  To prevent the dauntless troops of Zhu Yuanzhang from scaling the tower boats with hooks and ladders, Chen ordered his boats to hold close formation, but this turned out to be ruinous since Zhu launched fire boats into the consolidated line.   Hundreds of thousands of sailors died in the horrible fiery battle, and Zhu Yuangzhang went on to found the Ming dynasty, one of China’s greatest dynasties.

Over the centuries, the lake itself kept claiming ships at an astonishing rate.  Some of the stories are quite colorful. In 1945 a Japanese ship loaded with plundered treasure sank almost instantly, drowning all 200 sailors and a large treasure.  A team of Japanese divers attempted to salvage the wreck but all the divers drowned except for the expedition leader who went permanently insane. After the war, several members of an American team also drowned.   On just one day, August 3rd, 1985, thirteen ships foundered or sank.

Some people have tried to ascertain what makes the lake so treacherous.  Some experts believe that a huge sunken sandbank tends to cause whirlpools and unexpected currents.  Local legend is more inventive.  According to myth, an immense capricious turtle lives beneath the lake.  Although the turtle often sinks ships, he can also be benevolent.  The story of how the Laoye Miao temple came to be built is that the turtle intervened in the great naval battle of 1368 by directly rescuing Zhu Yuangzhang.  When Zhu took the title of Hongwu emperor he returned and built the temple to the ancient turtle.

Lake Poyang is drying out.

Although boats are still vanishing today, it is a less bigger problem than the vanishing of the lake itself.  The migratory birds are relentlessly poached and the river fish are going extinct from overfishing and industrial waste.  A more direct threat comes from the great three gorges dam upstream on the Yangtze.  Because of the immense dam the lake appears to be drying out, and in January of 2012 it only had a surface area of 200 square kilometers.   If the situation continues, the enigmatic and treacherous lake may go back to being a dry plain like it was in 400 AD.

Lake Poyang

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