The world is crowded with temples, humble or extraordinary, where people flow together to bestow their prayers, acknowledge their fears, and ask for divine support in their dreams. Built at the convergence of meridians of higher energy and spirituality, many of these holy places also indicate political power, highlighting earthly and selfish motives; yet, all of them enclose the echo of the human heartbeat, the essence of laughter and tears, and, hence, they have been, and will forever remain, revered and sacred.
While traveling and hiking in Asia, I crossed paths with the following temples which, for some reason, left a permanent stamp in my memory. Some are landmarks – and rather touristic – others are more ascetic and secluded. And although the hidden gems might seem more appealing – or, at least, more mysterious – every place is majestic on its own, sometimes for reasons I cannot understand but can deeply feel.
- Jela Dzong, Bhutan
Jela Dzong (a fort and a monastery) dates back to the 16th c, strategically located at an altitude of 3,450m on the mountainous path between Paro and Thimphu (the two largest cities of Bhutan). Through the centuries, the travelers could pause there to pray, rest, and replenish their supplies. Like all places in the country, this monastery is also surrounded by a legend, according to which, Zhabdrung – the founder of Bhutan – being chased by the Tibetan army during the 15th c invasion and accompanied by the protective deity Mahakala, managed to escape to the mountains. At the precise location, the deity saw that Zhabdrung was safe, and, as a result, separated from him (apparently, “Je” means “separation”).
Today, Jela Dzong is rather deserted and in ruins, and is not regarded as the most famous or beautiful temple in Bhutan. I think it has never been. However, during our hike on the Druk Path trail, imitating many travelers from old times, we stopped among the wrecked walls to pray and rest. There, under an unexpectedly beautiful Buddha statue, among wafting incense and a couple of monks, we meditated at the sound of Om-Mani-Padme-Hum, and although our bodies got quickly cold on the barren ground, our hearts warmed up next to the spirits and deities that reside there for ages. Coming out of the building, escaping from the large pieces of ice melting from the roof and falling loudly at dangerous proximity to our heads, we watched the sun shining brightly, the wind flapping through the Tibetan flags, the rhododendron buds breathing open welcoming the upcoming Spring, and the sacred Himalayan peaks rising proudly above the clouds. The blessing hummed in our soul for the rest of our trip, and, I believe, it is still there, for we all shiver and tremble in inexplicable joy whenever we recall those few moments at Jela Dzong.
- Tengboche Monastery, Nepal
Nestled at an altitude of 3,867m in the Khumbu valley of Eastern Nepal, Tengboche Monastery is accessible to the numerous hikers but not to the mere tourist. Built in 1916 at the site where Lama Sangwa Dorje, a clairvoyant spiritual master, left, a few centuries ago, a footprint on a rock while meditating, it is today part of the “Sacred Sites Trail Project” of the Sagarmatha National Park (a UNESCO Heritage site). Being the only shrine on the path to Everest, it has gained tremendous sentimental value for the Sherpas and mountaineers who attempt to summit the tallest peak in the world. Even though it is still vibrant and prosperous (as indicated by its 60 monks), the Tibetan monastery has been destroyed twice: at the 1934 earthquake, and in 1989, in a fire caused by a malfunction in the electric circuits. With the support of the international community, it has been restored, and, in its chilly rooms, surrounded by famous Himalayan peaks, all Everest expeditions receive the necessary blessing with incense burning and mantra chanting.
Unavoidably, every hiker towards Everest or Everest Base Camp passes by the monastery twice, since the trail is linear and not looped. Both times, reaching the holy site is something that needs to be earned through managing steep ascends on treacherous paths. For our group, though, Providence kept an additional surprise: a snow storm of unexpected vigor and tenacity that lasted for almost two consecutive days, erased all paths, prohibited our visit to the monastery on our way up, and turned everything into hostile icy mud on the way down. My memories connected with Tengboche include a delirium of joy upon the sight of the deep fresh snow, and the taste of a juicy yak steak at the cottage next to the monastery while drying up around a heater operating with dried yak poop. Then, on our descent, frost and hostility awaited us in a lodge challenged by lack of electricity, but also hope because the hardest part was behind us, and Namche Bazaar, green slopes, and civilization were now finally close.
- Temple of Literature, Hanoi, Vietnam
Built in 1070, the Temple of Literature in Hanoi is one of the several temples in Vietnam dedicated to Confucius and scholars. It consists of five courtyards constructed in linear form, i.e., one after the other, while maintaining the traditional components of balance and serenity. In the first two, the scholars could relax and disconnect from the outer world while resting among trees and gardens. The third courtyard includes the Thien Quang well, introducing the element of water to reinforce the harmony of the place. It is only after traversing this rectangular pond that the visitor can enter into the true sanctuary of the temple: the Stelae of Doctors, the fourth courtyard with the building where Confucius and his four disciples are worshiped, and the fifth courtyard, added in 1076, with the Imperial Academy.
The Stelae of Doctors is an impressive area which includes 82 remaining steles of carved blue-stone turtles, erected to honor talent, bearing the engraved names of the 1307 graduates of 82 triennial royal exams. The Turtle is one of the four holy animals in Vietnam, a symbol of longevity and wisdom (the other three being the phoenix, the dragon, and the unicorn); touching the heads of the steles used to be an act for good luck. Although today this is forbidden as the turtles remain out of reach, the area maintains an imposing energy that enfolds the visitor and cannot be overlooked.
The Imperial Academy, Vietnam’s first national university, constitutes the most thrilling part of the temple. Many students lived and studied there, underlining the importance that was given to education. Emphasis was placed on the teaching of the Chinese language, literature, philosophy, and history. A series of exams led up to the royal Đình Examination (Thi Đình), during which the monarch himself posed the questions to the finalists.
Today, students take their ceremonial end-of-the-year photos in the temple. During my visit, the fourth and the fifth courtyard were buzzing with life, and lines of young Vietnamese women with, surprisingly, only a few men, posed for group photos in front of the main buildings: flower wreaths on the heads, broad smiles on the faces, and the afternoon breeze winnowing casually through the ao dai dresses.
- Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China
Hordes of tourists flood the open spaces among the various buildings, posing for photos with the Hall of Prayer of Good Harvests – the familiar round-shaped temple – in the background, squeezing at the entrances for a hasty peek inside (maybe another photo too), or yelling “hello” while standing at the center of the Circular Mound Altar to confirm the quality of the famous echo effect. Thousands of Chinese occupy the benches and corners of the vast garden area, some enjoying a calm tai chi sequence, others playing with a gymnastics’ silk ribbon, or competing over a mah-jong game. Kids chase each other, the elderly smoke heavily and gossip, and life is vibrant in this complex of temples.
Since the early 15th c, emperors – the representatives of heavenly authority on earth – have been standing in the same spots in much more seclusive ceremonies, to offer sacrifices to Heaven and pray for abundance in the harvest season, confident that the echo effect carries their words clearly to the welcoming ears of the gods.
Heaven is dominant in the royal-blue tiled roofs and the circular shapes of the constructions; Earth, represented in the square and rectangular patterns, merges with Heaven in a balanced connection and unification. The complex’s design is based on the use of sacred symbols, embodied, for instance, in the utilization of the number 9 (which represents the Emperor) and its multiples for the stairs and structure of the Circular Mound Altar, or the number of pillars in the Hall of Prayer of Good Harvests (four in the center, twelve in the middle, and twelve outside representing the four seasons, the twelve lunar months, and the twelve Chinese hours respectively). Ceremonies were held twice a year, at the solstices, and attention was paid to the accuracy of the most minute detail since even a tiny mistake was perceived as a bad omen for the months to come.
Despite the noise and the ongoing rush of people pushing and dashing around, I have found this temple one of the most peaceful and serene areas in Beijing. Maybe it is the mystic symbolism of the place that energetically conveys the feeling of life in harmony. Or, perhaps, the abundant blue that joyfully and placidly rolls on the roofs and dribbles on the ground. I have stood silently amidst the cacophony of the loud crowds, and, for a few moments, every sound faded away, and only vision remained, vibration, and a feeling of connection with Heaven through the ether that stands, as a conductive element, in between the immortal souls.
- Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, Isfahan, Iran
The vestibule leading to the central chamber of the mosque was dim, sunken in gloom, and peculiarly twisted. My eyes tried to adjust, still carrying the brightness of a sunny autumn day. I followed the flow of the crowd that squeezed its way through the narrow path and was propelled into the main hall. There, under the stunning dome that emerged out of the darkness soaring with the loftiness of veritable elegance, I stood in awe and almost fell on my knees to surrender to the power of the Divine.
Sheikh Lotfollah mosque was built at the beginning of the 17th c during the reign of Shah Abbas I of the Safavid dynasty. One of the four main attractions around the Naghsh-i Jahan Square in Isfahan, it easily stands out with its eloquently decorated dome reflecting everlasting grandeur under the sunlight. It was meant to be used only by the royal court and not the public (unlike the Imam Mosque nearby, on the same square); hence, it does not have minarets, and its structure is much smaller, limited to one dome, without interior iwans or courtyards. An underground corridor (not in use today) was connecting the Ali Qapu Palace (across the square) with the mosque, ensuring that the women of the harem would be protected as much as possible from any exposure. The winding dark corridor leading to the dome chamber is an architectural device: on one side, with its L-shape, it solves the challenge created by the fact that the entrance iwan and the mihrab could not be aligned (as a result, the dome does not stand exactly behind the entrance, as can be observed from the outside); on the other hand, it reinforces the humility in the heart of the faithful, before the latter reaches a state of ascension when standing under the dome.
Words are poor to grasp the essence of this dome’s splendor. Rings of bands, ornamented with arabesque designs and decreasing in size as they move towards the center, guide the eyes of the worshiper towards Heaven. There, a peacock – a symbol of awakening, spirituality, guidance, and protection – is discovered, its head painted at the center of the homocentric circles, its long tail formed out of the beams of sunlight coming through the dome, resting elegantly on the adorn surface: a manifestation of the physical and spiritual elements in permanent union. Turquoise cable-form designs connect the low dado with the base of the dome, a link between Heaven and Earth. The asymmetric symmetries, the balance of movement and stillness, the toying of glazed and non-glazed tiles, the attention to every detail that plays its individual, subtle, yet eloquent role, the acknowledgement of perfection’s elusiveness – all, concepts repeated in the designs of the famous Iranian carpets as well – reinforce the ennoblement of the spirit and the cleansing of the human heart.
- Kirinda Rajamaha Viharaya, Sri Lanka
The humble, white stupa is located on the top of a rock overviewing the sea. At its bottom, the waves from the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean crash loudly on the flat formations of the rocky beach, in the familiar wildness of a primordial song, painted in the unfamiliar – to me – malachite colors of the Asian waters.
The temple is simple and modest. As per the myth, in the 2nd c. BC, King Kelanitissa (or Kawanthissa) was forced to sacrifice his daughter to calm the enraged waters that were flooding the island (possibly an ancient tsunami). Consequently, Princess Viharamahadevi was put on a boat and left alone at the mercy of the waves. Miraculously, the story has a happy ending, with the sea levels receding and the princess surviving, landing on the beach of Kirinda, where she got married to the local king. The temple is dedicated to her and commemorates the story of her sacrifice and survival.
We climbed several slippery, stone-carved stairs to reach the shrine, passing by a few cows feeding freely inside the holy area, and a sizable statue of a standing Buddha, recently erected, ensuring that the temple will not be missed. At the top, and after walking anti-clockwise several times around the sanctuary in prayer and meditation, I lied on the rocks, tasting the salty wind on my lips, gusts messing with my hair, my back firmly in touch with the earth, and my core open to a receiving state of gratitude. Sometimes, the energetic presence of the four elements surrounding a temple is enough for the worshiper to experience ecstasy and bliss.
We ambled down the hill, towards the beach and the small fishermen’s village. Stalls of dried fish and decorative animals made out of shells lined up on either side of the small dirt path. The sea was dominant everywhere; it seemed there was no other sound but its rumble: a song, a moan, and a howl merged into one voice. It was a moment of peace.
- Pura Desa Puseh Batuan, Bali, Indonesia
Bali, the “Island of a Thousand Puras,” is a spiritual haven, dotted with thousands of shrines, lavish or modest, sprouting in the center of every village and the entrance of any small shop or house.
Pura Desa Puseh, situated in the highly artistic village of Batuan in the Gianyar region, is neither the biggest nor the most important temple on the island. However, it was the first one I visited and, hence, its impact remained clearer and its memory much more compelling than other Balinese shrines which might be aesthetically superior. Built at the beginning of the 11th c, it belongs to the type of temples (Pura Desa) reserved for the founders of a village and the worship of Brahma and Vishnu. Centrally located, it stands as the religious and ceremonial heart of the region, with traditional dances performed twice per month to please both the gods and the increasing number of tourists.
The entrance is a split gate guarded on either side by the Dwarapala spirit: two mirroring statues representing good and evil and the balance between the two – a message that the existence of the one is impossible without the presence of the other. The gate leads into an open-air worship area with several buildings and innumerous statues. The ornamentation of all constructions, influenced by the Indians, the Dutch, and the Chinese, is breathtaking. The whole sanctuary seems to be vivid, dancing at the pace of the cosmic rhythm, protected through bulging-eyed spirits, playful and apperceptive to the joy of life. The statues impersonate ancient figures, demons, and mythological creatures, entangled with lions, elephants, lotuses, and other floral patterns in a festive confusion. Carved out of the ashy, volcanic sandstone found in the local river banks, they encompass the power of lava, the breath of water, the stability of the stone into which they dry as time passes by, and the lightness of the air enclosed in the perspiration of the material and the grace of their movement. Leaving the temple, one feels infused with comfort and elation, confident that communication with the spiritual realm has been achieved while respecting the earthly essence of our humanity.
Photos: © Konstantina Sakellariou (except for the photos of Tengboche Monastery and the dome of Sheikh Lotfollah mosque)
Photo credits of Tengboche Monastery: © Ibrahim Al Rekhais
Photo credits of Sheikh Lotfollah dome: unknown