Three Pagodas

The Three Pagodas of Chongsheng Temple, dating from the 9th and 10th centuries, are located near the old town of Dali in China’s Yunnan Province. Made of brick covered with white mud and arranged on the corners of an equilateral triangle, they are situated at the eastern foot of the 10th peak of the Cangshan Mountains and face the western shore of Erhai Lake. There is also a lake behind them named Juying Chi (“reflection pond”), known for its reflections of the pagodas (below).

The square-shaped pagoda in the center (above), known as Qianxun, was reportedly built starting in 823 AD. Its designers are said to have come from the Tang Dynasty capital of Chang’an (present-day Xi’an), which is the location of a similar, but older pagoda known as the Small Wild Goose Pagoda. At a height of 227 feet, the main pagoda in Dali stands 16 stories tall, making it one of the tallest in Chinese history.

Each of the tiers is fringed with upturned eaves and contains a white marble Buddha statue sitting inside a carved shrine at the center of each façade. From the 1st to 8th stories, the inside of the pagoda is hollow and surrounded with walls 10 feet thick. Its two sibling pagodas, standing to the northwest and southwest, were built about 100 years later and like their older sibling, they are decorated with Buddha shrines on every level. However, they are considerably shorter, standing only 10 stories tall at a height of 140 feet and are completely solid and octagonal in shape.

The pagodas’ elegant, balanced style is unique in ancient Buddhist architecture in China and their purpose is two-fold: 1) to invoke the Buddha’s protection against floods and earth-quakes, and 2) to store Buddhist scriptures and other precious religious objects. During major repair work in 1978, more than 700 Buddhist antiques were discovered inside, including sculptures made of gold, silver, wood and crystal as well as religious documents, including three copper plates which recorded the exact years of previous repairs (1000 AD, 1142 AD, and 1145 AD).

According to local legend, the Three Pagodas were built for auspicious reasons in order to deter the dragons around the swampland of Dali that were believed to deliberately create natural disasters. In fact, they are especially known for their resilience, having endured several man-made and natural catastrophes over 1000 years. It was even recorded that the Qianxun Pagoda, after having been split in an earthquake in 1515 AD, miraculously recovered 10 days later due to an aftershock!! The most recent recorded severe earthquake in the area occurred in 1925, when only about 1% of the buildings in Dali survived, and with the Three Pagodas being completely undamaged.

  • Visited: July 1996

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