Famen Temple

Famen Temple
Famen Temple is situated in Famen Town ten kilometers north of Fufeng County seat, 120 kilometers west of Xi'an. It is well-known not only in Shaanxi Province but also in China. The Temple was built in the Easter Han Dynasty to house the finger bones of Sakyamuni, the founder of Buddhism.

Famen means the initial approach to become a Buddhist believer. Famen Temple was constructed because of the pagoda there. Pagoda, Sanskrit, stupa, is actually of Indian origin. It means "relic preserver" which was built to mark the spot where sacred relics were buried. After Sakyamuni had achieved nirvana, his ashes were said to have been divided into 84,000 parts by King Asoka of India, a devoted Buddhist. Each of them was enshrined in different parts of the world, and a pagoda erected in each place to mark the holy spot. There are 19 such stupas in China and Famen Temple Stupa was one of them. This is why Famen Temple and its stupa enjoyed the fame of being the "forefather of pagodas and temples in Central Shaanxi".

Famen Temple Pagoda was originally named Asoka Pagoda. During the years of Zhenguan (657-649 AD) in the Tang Dynasty, it was reconstructed into a wooden four-storey structure. But the wooden pagoda fell down in 1596 due to an earthquake. In 1579, Buddhists in Fufeng County collected alms and donations to rebuild an exquisite and splendid brick octangular one of 13 storeys, 47 meters in height. The whole project took 30 years to complete.

Collapse of the pagoda
In 1976, the pagoda tilted towards the southwest because of excessive rainfall in the area and the impact of the Songpan (a city in Sichuan Province) earthquake that occurred in Sichuan. In 1981, the western side of this tilted pagoda fell off after a long rainy season. Shortly afterwards most of the body of the Pagoda collapsed and only part of it remained.

Discovery of the underground palace
In 1987, archaeologists accidentally discovered the underground palace when clearing up the base of the pagoda. The entrance gate was flanked by stone tablets 120 centimeters tall, one of them listing precious objects presented to Famen Temple by the Tang emperors, the other tablets recording the history of the temple and the events of 873 AD during the Tang Dynasty. The underground palace was made up of three chambers partitioned by stone gates, each of which was decorated with relief sculptures. The objects found inside the palace tallied exactly with the "inventory" engraved on the stone tablets at the entrance. The underground palace, about 21.2 meters long, covers an area of 31.84 square meters. It is the largest underground palace in all the temples so far discovered in China.

Finger bones of the Buddha
Altogether four finger bones of the Buddha were discovered in the palace. The first one was found in an exquisite container of eight cases one within another, in the back chamber of the underground palace. Each case was secured by a silver lock with its key alongside. The outermost case was made of sandalwood with a silver top. The seven interior cases were either gilded of inlaid with silver, pearls of gems, all very magnificent and elegant. Some of them were carved with pictures about Buddhist tales in linear strokes. The innermost case was a four-door miniature pagoda with a single-tier eave, topped with a pearl. The finger bone was hollow and set on a silver bar inside the gold mini-pagoda. The finger bone is 40.3 millimeters long and hollow on both sides. The second finger bone is like the first in shape, and was kept in a double-eave marble chest in the central room of the palace. The third one was kept in the jade coffin encased in a five-layered treasure chest, which was hidden in a secret niche in the back room. This finger bone is the tube-like, 37 millimeters long and white and yellow in color. The fourth one was kept in a color-painted King Asoka stupa decorated with painted Bodhisattvas in the front room. Its color and shape are very much like those of the first and second finger bones.

According to Zhao Puchu, Chairman of the All-China Buddhist Association, the third one is the real finger bone of the Buddha. The other three were "shadow bones", or the imitations which were probably made by the Tang emperors in order to protect the real finger bones of the Buddha. But in the eyes of Buddhist believers, even the "shadow bones" are so sacred that they too should enjoy equal significance and importance as the real one. According to an archaeological repot, these four finger bones of the Buddha are the only ones found so far.

Treasure unearthed
Among other relics found at Famen Temple were 120 articles of gold and silver used by the Tang royal household, mainly in connection with the relics of the Buddha. There is monk's staff of gold and silver, 1.96 meters long and weighing three kilos with 12 gold rings on the head. It took a craftsman 9 months to make the staff for Emperor Yizong for the occasion of the worship of the Buddha's finger bones.

Another important find is the porcelain produced exclusively for the imperial household. According to historical records, this kind of porcelain is "sky blue, shiny as a mirror, and rings like a chime stone". The process of its making and firing was kept secret and the products were never seen outside the imperial court, hence the term Mi Se Ci (secret porcelain). The art of making this secret porcelain was lost after the Tang Dynasty, and this is the first time that the secret porcelain has been discovered. Altogether 16 pieces were unearthed. The discovery provides much information for the determination of the age and the characteristics of this type of porcelain.

Over 700 pieces of silk goods were discovered in a tunnel inside the underground palace. Most of them were offerings from the emperors, empresses and imperial concubines to the relics of the Buddha. Unfortunately, most of them were rotted and stuck together. Some, such as prayer rug woven with gold thread and female ruler, both in name and in practice, are well-preserved even after over 1,000 years. Among them, the Tang Dynasty brocade in raised gold thread is the first of its kind ever discovered in China. Another rare treasure is Kasya woven with gold thread of an average diameter of only 0.1 millimeter, the finest thread only 0.06 millimeter. A one-meter long piece of thread consists of 3,000 twists of gold around the central thread. It is so delicate that it would be impossible for us to emulate it nowadays.

As to the gold utensils unearthed, most of them were offered by Emperor Yizong and Emperor Xizong. Among them are a elaborate gold Buddhist statue and a gilded silver incense burner. The inscription on the latter is said to have provided invaluable materials for the study of the organization of the gold and silversmiths’ workshop at the Tang court, the official position held within the workshop and the system of weights and measures of the time.

Both the Famen Temple and the pagoda were rebuilt based on the model from the Ming Dynasty. There is a passage leading to the underground palace where we can pay homage to this sacred place. On the right side of Famen courtyard lays the Famen Temple Museum which was built according to the architectural style of the Tang Dynasty. It now consists of three main exhibition halls: the Exhibition Hall of the Unearthed Treasures, the Exhibition Hall of History and Culture of the Famen Temple and the Exhibition Hall of the Buddhist Culture, covering an area of 2,800 square meters. The Famen Town has also been reconstructed to cater to visitors’ needs and has developed a thriving business nowadays.

Opening Hours: 08:00 - 18:00

Ticket Price: CNY 35