The Temple of Heaven
When you visit China, plan to visit the Temple of Heaven. You won’t regret it. As with anything new, first impressions are everything – and this one left me speechless. Which, if you know me well, is a rare thing indeed. Standing alone in front of the bright blue circular building, I couldn’t help feeling small in the grand scale of time. I was moved to silence as I tuned everything out around me. The sea of tourists were everywhere, but somehow it felt like I was alone. A million questions flitted across my mind – most of them beginning with either ‘Why’ or ‘How.’ How had a simple, yet perfect structure passed the test of time? Why did these people think that animal sacrifices were the answer? As 600 years of history has passed, the answers have since been documented, the feelings and emotional ties to the site have long passed, but somehow even today the Temple of Heaven instills a connection with anyone who visits.
If you could travel at anytime to Beijing, let it be in the months of April, May, September or October. Not only is the air a little cleaner and easier to breathe, but the temperature is perfect for traveling. Be ready to brace the crowds at any tourist destination in China. The easiest route to the Temple of Heaven is via a group tour where the provider will take care of your entrance fees and safely transport you there and back while providing ample time to look around the attractions. If a group tour isn’t your thing, the next best options are either by subway, which will drop you off within walking distance, or taxis which will conveniently drop you off at the front gate.
If you are a history buff, visiting the Temple of Heaven is going to feel like winning the informational lottery. For the rest of us, who get a little sleepy-eyed when anyone starts to talk about history, I’ll try to keep this as entertaining as possible.
The Temple of Heaven is recognized globally as a UNSECO site. Tucked away in the southeastern corned of Beijing, the Temple of Heaven was commissioned by Emperor Jianjing in the early 1400’s concurrently with the Sun, Moon and Earth temples, which reside in east, west and north locations, respectively. At this time, the Ming and Qing dynasties were in full swing, and these sites functioned as yearly ceremonial destinations.
The 3 Buildings:
The main site attractions are The Circular Mound Altar, The Imperial Vault of Heaven and The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests. The Circular Mound Altar is perhaps the most significant of the three buildings…think animals, fire and sacrifices on the winter solstice, but unfortunately it is the most uneventful to photograph. It is a simple circular marble platform raised three sections off the ground. From within the platform, the structure is such that even a whisper will be amplified. During sacrificial ceremonies these acoustics were used to give flairs of theatrics, as it would amplify the emperor’s voice like a call from the heavens.
The Imperial Vault of Heaven is a mini version of the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests. Encased in the vault were the God’s tablets as a convenient storage location between ceremonies. If you’re lucky this building may be slightly less crowded and easier to photograph. Just maybe. Remember that the Temple of Heaven is of course a very busy tourist destination. If you are after that pristine photograph, be sure to arrive early or much later in the day, to avoid all the group tours. The main building attraction is The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, a spectacular temple that will lure shutterbugs back time and time again. Here I am pictured with the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests.
Wondering About The Ceremony Itself?
Originally the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests was the sole altar at the Temple of Heaven site. Several generations later, it was deemed only be acceptable for Earthly sacrifices. As a response, the Circular Mound Altar was built for Heavenly sacrifices. Ceremonial buildings designated for music, animal preparation and for fasting are also present, as there were strict rules adhering that no meat could be eaten before the rites. Ceremonies were performed bi-annually, one on the winter solstice that boasted a very elite guest list, barring public admittance. Exact precision during ceremonies was paramount. Mistakes made during ceremonies were seen as bad omens that would bring ill fortune to the entire country for the following year.
The 70 Year Old Door
Interestingly enough, the quirkiest element of the Temple of Heaven is the infamous 70-year old door. Somehow I always find myself drawn to these random pieces of history on my travels. It was said that the door was installed for Emperor Qianlong, when his health was beginning to fail, to shorten his walking distance to the ceremonies. To keep his pride intact, a decree was made that the door could only be used by his offspring who also reached the same age of seventy. However, none of them lived that long, so he was the only person to ever use the door.
The Temple of Heaven is a truly magnificent and historical world heritage site. A must visit destination when in Beijing, and a bucket list item for anyone planning a trip to China. For me, visiting the iconic Temple of Heaven is a life long memory I will always treasure. Know anyone who is going to Asia in the near future? Be sure to share this with them!
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