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July 7, 2019

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China’s tallest pagoda stands as an iconic symbol to Buddhism

CHINESE pagodas are often a sight to behold — lofty, multi-tiered towers against a vast backdrop of blue. The tallest brick pagoda in China — Liaodi Pagoda, more commonly known as the Pagoda of the Kaiyuan Temple — stands at 83.7 meters in Dingzhou, Hebei Province.

Pagodas are temple compounds of the Buddhist religion. The origin of a pagoda can be traced to a low dome-shaped monument in India called stupa. Pagodas and stupas are both used to store sacred relics.

The pagoda was built during the Song Dynasty (AD 960–1279). Under the reign of Song Emperor Zhenzong, construction of the pagoda began in AD 1001. Monk Huineng brought back precious Buddhist scriptures from his pilgrimage to India. To store these scrolls at a sacred place, the emperor ordered his men to build a pagoda.

The pagoda was built inside Kaiyuan Temple. Today, the temple is no longer there and only the pagoda stands tall.

Apart from providing spectacular views, the pagoda also served as a watchtower. Dingzhou was located along the borders between the Song and the Liao kingdoms, who were often at war.

The pagoda served as vantage point to observe enemy movement from the Liao territory. It is thus named as “Liaodi,” which means to watch out for your enemy’s moves.

Resting on an octagonal base, the brick-and-wooden pagoda is made up of 11 octagonal tiers. Its exterior is painted white. The top of the pagoda has an eight-ridged green roof. Atop the roof sits a brick-carved lotus petal base and a bronze steeple.

The interior of the pagoda is dotted with valuable cultural forms. On the first floor, there are murals of large Buddhist figures in vivid colors.

Multi-colored cloud carvings on doors and windows of each floor symbolize the light from the Buddha’s halo. Another sign of the Buddha’s light is at the main door, where it is painted with flame patterns.

The inner walls of the pagoda have inscriptions from successive dynasties. Other precious relics discovered include the Diamond Sutra and the Ming Dynasty’s bronze statues.

An intriguing fact, setting the pagoda from the rest, is that it has a pagoda within a pagoda. A slice of the outer pagoda is cut away, revealing an inner pagoda. The outer and inner layers are connected by a cloister. The inner tower has a winding staircase that leads visitors to the top of the pagoda.

It is a miracle that the pagoda still stands today. It has experienced various man-made and natural disasters, with more than 10 earthquakes. In 1884, the pagoda experienced its most severe earthquake. The north-eastern corner of the tower was in shambles and was left run-down for almost a century.

More than a dozen types of bricks were used to build the pagoda. This leaves the structure unsymmetrical, as each brick exerted a different amount of force. It made the reconstruction difficult as finding appropriate materials became a challenge.

In summer, the top of the pagoda leaned southwest due to the wind. In winter, it leaned northwest.

In 1985, funds were allocated to rebuilt the pagoda. It took three decades of ongoing construction. In 2003, the pagoda was completely restored.

The Pagoda of the Kaiyuan Temple was declared as the first batch of cultural relics under national protection in 1961.


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