China’s quietly reverent Lama Temple (Yonghegong)

IMG_0747On our first of many hot, steamy days touring China, we left the Beijing Zoo, navigated the labyrinthine subway system (completely dependent on the kindness of strangers), boarded Line 2 of the Circle Line, and walked the sidewalk lined with vendors to the Lama Temple.


These little stalls offered paper flowers, books, and long sticks bundled in beautiful paper. We later learned these were called joss sticks, a sort of incense-burning candle/stick combination so important to the worshipers who journey here from all over the world. But we still had no idea how they would be used until we got inside the Lama Temple.


We entered the grounds of the Lama Temple after buying our tickets.  This magnificently decorated portal (paifang) welcomed us to what some of our tour guides have said is the world’s largest and perhaps most renown Tibetan monastery in the world.

Originally built in the late 17th century to house the court’s eunuchs, it became the residence of Prince Yong who, in 1722, was named Emperor Yongzheng. When he ascended the throne, the palace became a home for Tibetan lamas. Monks still live within the monastery, guarding the treasures and directing the worship activities.


A quiet walkway led us to the five expansive halls filled with statues, murals, ornamentation, and many Buddhas.



Silence was all around — in the buildings and the courtyards where the fires were lit for worship.  People held the joss sticks in the fire, and then moved to the kneeling benches. Holding the sticks in front of their bodies, they closed their eyes, prayed, and then bowed three times before placing the burning sticks into the fire. We, too, stood still — silent and observant at the sight. It was hard to believe we were in a city of millions.


We looked up and around, taking in the buildings as well as the people visiting.  Blues blended with reds, and golden Sanskrit writing on the beams intrigued us, even though we had no idea what the words said or meant.

As a comment on the architecture, one of our guide books (Intercontinental’s Best of China) noted that many influences were involved: Han, Tibetan, Mongolian.


For the most part, roofs were the golden color of emperors and almost every corner was adorned with odd numbers of mythical creatures lined up parade-like to form an outward marching procession.  At the head of each glazed ceramic line-up, a man rides a phoenix to lead a variety of animals (nine at most) with a large, rather daunting, imperial dragon at the end.


The last building (and well worth the long walk to get there), the Pavilion of 10,000 Blessings, was the most notable of all, for it held a towering statue of Buddha standing 59 feet tall, carved from a single piece of white Tibetan sandalwood.  It really was magnificent.

(Since photography wasn’t allowed inside the buildings, we’re sharing the Guinness proof, just for the record!)


But one of our favorite shots may be even more telling.  It’s this one juxtaposing the newness of the glass and steel buildings so prevalent in crowded Beijing with the elegant lines of this traditional, well-preserved place of holiness.  The old in the midst of the new.


As we walked out, we noted the coins left in honor of the monks . . .


and one of the ornate creatures of this mysterious Far East culture.


We were thrilled to have been there to see the Lama Temple in Beijing!



For more information:

This blog is one in a series about a Viking River Cruise from Beijing to Shanghai.  To access the first post, It’s Panda-monium at the Beijing Zooclick here

Viking River Cruises: Imperial Jewels of China:

Wikipedia article on Yonghe Temple:

Lonely Planet review of Lama Temple:

Recommended reading:

Law, Eugene (n.d.). Intercontinental’s best of China. China Intercontinental Press.

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