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Sacred Structures: Mapping the World's Best Temples & Shrines 42

Are you a culture vulture, a history buff or an architecture aficionado? Maybe you're on the path to enlightenment and haven't quite found it yet. If so, join us, add your own images and prepare to get spiritual by shattering coconuts on the ground, decoding mysterious Mayan glyphs, reading paper fortunes straight from the stars and much more as we create the ultimate visual map of planet earth's very best temples and shrines. A visit to a temple is an intensely rich, immersive and multidimensional affair and in addition to mesmerizing design and architecture, temple rituals and ceremonies offer authentic cultural and spiritual insights like no other. Everything that goes on inside a temple anywhere in the world provides a glimpse into how people go about their daily lives as they communicate with their gods, purify their souls and ask for spiritual guidance. Temples and shrines inspire, amaze and humble us and it comes as no surprise that these enchanting and mercurial holy structures are near the top of so many travelers' bucket lists. Grab an incense stick, dust off your prayer book and come with us on a cosmic, karmic and soul-nourishing pilgrimage across the globe and maybe, just maybe, to the stars and the heavenly realms as we explore the best temples and shrines on the planet.

Temple of the Inscriptions, Palenque

Jul 17 2012

Deep in the jungle of the Mexican state of Chiapas, the Mayan city of Palenque is one of the most iconic archaeological sites on the American continent. The complex contains what are thought to have been a dozen Mayan temples, and arguably the best of these is the 'Bʼolon Yej Teʼ Naah', which literally means 'House of the Nine Sharpened Spears' in Mayan and is now known as the 'Temple of the Inscriptions'. Built in the seventh century AD, the Temple of the Inscriptions was designed solely as the resting place of K'inich Janaab Pakal I, Palenque's most famous Mayan 'ajaw', or ruler.

King Pakal's Tomb, Temple of the Inscriptions, Palenque

Jul 18 2012

K'inich Janaab Pakal I is known today as King Pakal for short and the Temple of the Inscriptions, itself part of its own court area, stands as a step pyramid-style structure in the southeast of the Palenque complex. As its name suggests, the Temple of the Inscriptions features hundreds of Maya glyphs and carvings which tell stories from myth and legend. Arguably the highlight of any trip to Palenque, however, is catching a glimpse of the sarcophagus in the tomb of King Pakal himself. The glyph carvings on the sarcophagus show King Pakal's journey into the afterlife, with a set of jaguar jaws below him representing Xibalba, the Maya underworld, and Itzam-Yeh, the bird god, is perched above him in Yax Imix Che, the cosmic tree featured in the Maya creation story. Image Credit: Pascal Votan

Hochob Maya ruins, Campeche state, Mexico

Dec 2 2014

In the Maya 'Los Chenes' region, in what is today deep in the jungles of the Mexican state of Campeche, the ruins of Hochob features some of the most striking and ominous-looking ruins ever found in Mesoamerica. The name Hochob literally means 'Place of Ears' and the whole complex sits on thirty metre-high a rise in the middle of the jungle and archaeologists estimate that the site dates back to the Late Classic Maya period, in roughly 800 AD.

Monster Mouth doorway, Hochob Mayan archaeological site, Chenes style

Feb 16 2015

Undoubtedly the most striking feature of Hochob are the 'Monster Mouth Doorways' which lead into many of the site's buildings and structures. Structures 5 and 6 at Hochob were specifically designed as temple buildings which contain a total of six individual temples which would have been used to worship various gods. Archaeologists believe that, as the whole of the Hochob complex was dedicated to the Maya sky and creator god Itzamná, most if not all of the site's temples would have been used to worship him.

Qenko, Cusco, Peru

Jan 1 1983

Located close to Saqsayhuman, about 6 kilometres from Cusco, Qenko is a rock shrine complex which was once used by the Incas. The Spanish gave it the name Qenko after the Quechua word meaning “labyrinth or zigzag.” The name may have derived after the small yet intricate network of underground passageways that make up the site, or perhaps for the mysterious zigzag channels carved into the rock.

Qenko, Cusco, Peru

Jun 30 2000

One of the most famous of the mysterious carvings at Qenko is a a rock found in the ruins' central amphitheater. Thought to be some sort of ceremonial or sacrificial altar, scholars believe the rock to have been carved in the shape of a puma or modeled on a star formation seen by Inca priests as they looked up and surveyed the milky way on crystal clear nights in the Andes.

Temple of Saturn, Rome

Apr 8 2014

Built in 497 BC for Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, the last King of Rome before the establishment of the Republic, 'Templum Saturni', or the 'Temple of Saturn', is located on Rome's Capitoline Hill at the western edge of the Forum. The temple stands in ruins today, but its classical Roman portico columns are still intact and the structure was dedicated to Saturn, the god of wealth, agriculture and the harvest, who was such an important mythological figure that the Romans equated him with Cronus, the leader of the Greek titans and the father of Zeus.

Temple of Saturn, Rome

Aug 8 2003

The Temple of Saturn was such a staple of Roman life that the structure once held the Aerarium, the treasury in which all of the imperial gold and silver were stored. Legend also has it that a statue of Saturn himself once stood inside the temple, made from wood, filled with oil and equipped with a scythe. The present structure is the third incarnation of the temple's ruins, rebuilt in 42 BC after being destroyed by a fire and an inscription on one of the portico columns reads 'Senatus Populusque Romanus incendio consumptum restituit', meaning 'The Senate and People of Rome have restored what fire consumed'.

Garni Temple, Armenia.

Jan 11 2008

The Temple of Garni is located in its namesake village in the central Armenian province of Kotayk. Despite the Temple of Garni showcasing all the architectural hallmarks of a classical Greek or Roman temple, scholars now believe that the structure dates back to the first century AD when it was built by the Armenian King Tiridates I and dedicated to Mihr, the Zoroastrian sun god. Nine high steps lead up to the entrance of the temple, supported on either side by two square pedestals both carved with images of Atlas, the Greek titan condemned to hold up the sky on his shoulders for all of eternity, seemingly holding up the entire structure in the same way.

Greek Inscription at Garni Temple, Armenia

Sep 12 2011

In 1945, Armenian painter Martiros Saryan discovered a chunk of stone featuring a Greek inscription which bore the title of Tiridates the Sun, another name for King Tiridates I. After centuries of debate, the discovery appeared to confirm that the ancient Armenian king was indeed the founder of the Temple of Garni. In modern times, the Temple of Garni became the only Greek-style columned building in the Soviet Union and until 2005 the temple was printed on the back of Armenian 5000 Dram banknotes. Image Credit: 23artashes (Wikimedia Commons)

Ramanathaswamy Temple, Tamil Nadu, India

Apr 23 2016

Nestled in the Bay of Bengal, on the island of Pamban which acts as part of a kind of peninsula separating India and Sri Lanka, Ramanathaswamy Temple is a Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva. As with all Hindu temples across India, Ramanathaswamy Temple has a fascinating legend attached to it. The story, which appears in the epic Hindu text known as the Ramayana, tells of Rama praying to Shiva to absolve him of the sin of a murder he committed during a battle with the Sri Lankan King Ravana. He requested that Hanuman, the monkey god, bring him a lingam which would be the largest ever seen and Hanuman duly set off into the Himalayas to find it. Rama grew impatient with Hanuman and instead his wife, Sita, made a Shiva lingam out of sand from a nearby beach. Hindu devotees believe that this legendary sand lingam is the one seen in Ramanathaswamy Temple's sanctuary today. Image Credit: Ssriram mt (Wikimedia Commons)

Ramanathaswamy Temple, Tamil Nadu, India

Feb 19 2011

As with all South Indian temples, Ramanathaswamy Temple features two huge tower gates known as 'gopurams' and the complex also boasts the longest set of corridors of any Indian temple, with one corridor stretching 657 feet from north to south and the even longer east to west corridor stretching on for a colossal 865 feet. Sandstone pillars are dotted around all of the corridors in Ramanathaswamy Temple and one of the junctions in the western corridor is uniquely laid out in the form of a chess board known as Chokkattan Madapam on which idols and statues of the gods, known as Uthsavar, are placed during the Hindu spring festival of Vasanthotsavam.

Venkateswara Temple, Tirumala, India

Aug 8 2006

Located almost 2800 feet above sea level in the hilltop town of Tirumala in Andhra Pradesh, Venkateswara Temple plays on the idea of a major Indian temple being devoted to a specific incarnation of an important deity. In this case, the temple honours Venkateswara, an avatar incarnation of Vishnu, the supreme deity of a branch of Hinduism known as Vaishnavism. Venkateswara Temple dates back over one thousand years to when it was initially constructed by the Pallava dynasty. Three entrance ways lead into the temple's 'Garbhagriha', or inner sanctuary with the main powder white-coloured gopuram, or temple tower, standing at fifty feet high and on any given day Venkateswara Temple sees upwards of 75,000 visitors.

Hindu Puja Offerings at Venkateswara Temple, Tirumala, India

Jun 26 2009

Like most Dravidian temples in southern India, Venkateswara is a great place to witness the intensely exotic and immersive daily ceremonies known as puja rituals, in which offerings are made to the gods. Three of these puja rituals, Ushakala puja, Madhyahna puja and Nisi puja, take place every day at the temple as lotus petals, jasmine flowers, coloured rice flour, spices and honey are offered to Vishnu as well as the milk and flesh of shattered coconuts. Vast donations of gold and diamonds from the rulers of Vijayanagara Empire in the 14th and 15th centuries also meant that Venkateswara Temple became one of the richest temples on the Indian Subcontinent. This renowned wealth continues to this day as visitors and devotees place gold and money into 'hundi', or donation pots, as offerings and Venkateswara has been known to receive a staggering 22 million rupees presented as offerings to Vishnu in a single day.

Temple of the Tooth Relic, Kandy, Sri Lanka

Apr 1 2013

Just north of the lake in Kandy, Sri Lanka's fifth largest city, and known as Sri Dalada Maligawa in Sinhalese, the Temple of the Tooth Relic is undoubtedly the most frequented attraction in the city and perhaps Sri Lanka as a whole. The site is not just a temple but a vast religious and cultural complex which includes two museums and homages to three of the four devales – followers of the Buddha and divine protectors of Sri Lanka – in Natha Devale, Pattini Devale and Vishnu Devale. As the place is one of the most venerated Buddhist sites on the planet, visitors can expect the place to be very busy, especially around the three-times-daily puja rituals.

Temple of the Tooth Relic, Kandy, Sri Lanka

Sep 26 2015

The reason why the temple is so revered among Buddhists worldwide is that it houses an actual tooth of the Buddha, said to have been salvaged from the ashes of his funeral pyre, brought from India and now enshrined and immortalised in a golden casket. Visitors and devotees are forbidden from seeing the tooth relic itself, but they are allowed to view the golden, dome-shaped casket-come mini stupa which contains it, along with six mini versions of the casket beside it. The adjoining World Buddhism Museum showcases the various manifestations of the faith around the globe and the Sri Dalada museum exhibits the vast array of gifts and offerings which have been brought to the temple by worldwide visitors, as well as documents detailing British colonial attitudes to Sinhalese Buddhism and its followers. Image Credit: Pierre Andre Leclerc (Wikimedia Commons)

Dambulla Cave Temple, Sri Lanka

Apr 10 2010

At the centre of Sri Lanka's 'cultural triangle', sixty four kilometres south of Anuradhapura and seventy two kilometres north of Kandy, is a site which is pencilled almost universally into all Sri Lankan travel itineraries; Dambulla’s Cave Temple complex. The cave temples illuminate the area entirely, injecting a sense of mercurial Sinhalese magic into a place which could otherwise easily be overlooked. The five cave temples are chiseled out of a granite and rose quartz cliff which towers 160 metres over the surrounding plain. Dating back to the seventh century BC Dambulla's Cave Temples have been constantly been redecorated and updated over the centuries.

Dambulla Cave Temple, Sri Lanka

Jul 17 2012

A grand total of 153 individually carved Buddha statues inhabit the cave network, along with statues of three ancient Sinhalese kings, two statues of Vishnu and two statues of Ganesh, outlining the complex’s cultural mix of Buddhism and Hinduism. The walls of caves two and three are decorated with some of the most intricate murals in the world which document countless scenes from Buddhist, Hindu and Sinhalese mythology, portraying everything from the royal to the cosmic as ancient kings, guarded by cobras, sit peacefully in lotus gardens and Maitreiya, the future incarnation of the Buddha, preaches to a group of celestial beings. The caves also feature their own interior stupa dome, an entire grotto devoted to Vishnu, a ten metre long reclining Buddha, a meditating Buddha and the shadowy demon, Mara, even finds himself immortalised in the murals.

Dakshineswar Temple, Kolkata, India

Jun 15 2010

On the eastern bank of the Hooghly River in Kolkata, Dakshineswar Temple is a Hindu temple devoted to the dark goddess Kali. The temple was built in 1853 by a well known devotee of Kali named Rani Rashmoni who was also a renowned philanthropist in Kolkata in the nineteenth century. The complex is also built according the Bengali architectural principle of 'Nava-ratna', with nine spires built onto the upper two of the temple's three storeys and the whole structure sitting on a stepped platform.

Kali Statue, Dakshineswar Temple, Kolkata, India

Feb 28 2011

While Kali is at times thought of as a dark, scimitar-wielding deity with a necklace of skulls draped around her neck, Dakshineswar Temple presents a very different image of the goddess. Statues and relics within the temple grounds depict Bhavatarini, one of the incarnations of Kali and whose name literally means 'She who liberates her devotees from the ocean of existence'. This refers to Kali acting as a guiding light to Hindu believers stuck in part of the karmic cycle known as the 'cycle of aimless drifting'. As is often the case with Bengali representations of Kali, statues of the goddess in Dakshineswar Temple depict her with her tongue sticking out and there are also twelve separate shrines dotted along the riverfront outside the temple which are dedicated to Shiva, Kali's cosmic companion. Image Credit: Jagadhatri (Wikimedia Commons)

Angkor Thom, Siem Reap, Cambodia

Jan 11 2006

Once a gigantic temple city covering an area of nine square kilometres and home to a staggering one million people under the rule of Khmer Emperor Jayavarman VII, Angkor Thom is part of Cambodia’s iconic and world famous Angkor Archaeological Park, formerly the vast capital of the Khmer empire and located six kilometres north of the town Siem Reap. Alongside its more famous sibling Angkor Wat, and together with Baksei Chamkrong, Banteay Kdei and countless other mesmerizing Khmer Hindu-Buddhist religious structures, Angkor Thom roughly dates back to the twelfth century.

Angkor Thom, Siem Reap, Cambodia

Nov 19 2004

Flanked by an eight-metre-high square wall known as a 'jayagiri' and protected by a moat, Angkor Thom oozes architectural elements inspired by Hindu and Buddhist cosmology and the complex features five gates intricately decorated with elephant carvings and four-dimensional motifs of Avalokiteshvara, a legendary Buddhist figure said to symbolise compassion. Each of these five gates feature carvings, statues and murals of a total of 108 gods and demons, representing Shiva’s Samudra Manthan, or the ‘Churning of the Ocean of Milk’, a famous story in Hindu mythology. As well as the Terrace of the Leper King, which archeaologists believe to have been the royal quarters of either Jayavarman VII or Yasovarman I, Angkor Thom’s precise geographical centre features Bayon Temple, which takes its architectural inspiration from the sacred Mt. Meru, the centre of the universe in both Hindu and Buddhist mythology and, as legend has it, also the meeting point of heaven and earth.

Wat Phu, Champasak, Laos

Aug 31 2014

Stretching up the face of a mountain known as Phu Pasak and four kilometres from the banks of the Mekong River in Laos' southern Champasak Province, Wat Phu is a ruined Hindu and Buddhist temple complex and a remnant of a time when the Khmer Empire dominated huge swathes of Southeast Asia. Centuries after the demise of the Khmer Empire, Wat Phu became a Buddhist shrine and temple and worshipers can still be seen today meditating and making offerings to its gold and copper Buddha statues draped in saffron-coloured robes. Spread over an area of just under 1.5 kilometres, Wat Phu faces eastward in a similar way the vast majority of other Khmer temples in Laos and includes two ruined palaces, a Shiva lingam sanctuary and a ruined library.

'Crocodile Stone' at Wat Phu, Champasak, Laos

Oct 28 2012

Two completely unique features distinguish Wat Phu from all other temples in Laos. A natural mountain stream which flowed down from the summit of Phu Pasak fed both Wat Phu's reflecting pools and its Shiva lingam sanctuary. The natural stream was considered by the Khmer Hindus who built the complex to be a representation of the holy ocean and as a result, the holy water was channeled so that it constantly bathed the Shiva Lingam in Wat Phu's sanctuary. Secondly, a uniquely carved and ominously sized stone is found at the site. The stone is indented with a human-sized carving of a crocodile and, influenced by reports from Chinese travellers to the area during the Khmer period, archaeologists now believe that the stone was used as a kind of sacrificial altar.

Văn Miếu-Quố, Hanoi, Vietnam

May 21 2011

Built during the reign of Vietnamese emperor Lý Thánh Tông in 1070, Văn Miếu-Quố is a Confucian temple complex located in Hanoi. One of Văn Miếu-Quố's main unique and distinguishing features is that it is also the home of Quốc Tử Giám, Vietnam's 'Imperial Academy' and the nation's very first university. Spread across a total area of 54000 square metres and dedicated above all else to the legendary Chinese philosopher Confucius, Văn Miếu-Quố's design and layout is similar to that of the Qufu's Temple of Confucius in Shandong, China. The temple comprises five courtyards, immaculately manicured temple gardens as well as a rectangular water well known as Thien Quang Tinh, or the 'Well Of Heavenly Clarity'. Image Credit: Dennis Jarvis (Wikimedia Commons)

Văn Miếu-Quố, Hanoi, Vietnam

Jul 17 2012

Văn Miếu-Quố is often, and mistakenly, referred to as the Temple of Literature and this misnomer probably stems from Văn Miếu-Quố's position as Vietnam's first university. In 1484, emperor Lê Thánh Tông ordered 116 turtles sculptures to be carved from blue stone and placed just off the temple's third courtyard. Alongside the phoenix, the unicorn and the dragon, the turtle is one of Vietnam's sacred animals and Lê Thánh Tông had the blue stone turtles built both to encourage students of the Imperial Academy in their studies and as tokens of good luck during their exams. Văn Miếu-Quố also appears on the back of a Vietnamese 100,000 Dồng banknote and one of the most famous sights in and around the temple are the calligraphers who inscribe messages of good fortune in classical Chinese Han characters on pieces of white paper just before the Vietnamese lunar New Year festival of Tết gets underway in Hanoi in either January or February.

Candi Prambanan, Java, Indonesia

Nov 3 2005

When most people hear the words 'Java' and 'temple', they instantly think of Borobudur, but the temple complex of Candi Prambanan, fifty kilometres to the southeast, is to Javanese Hinduism what Borobudur is to Javanese Buddhism. Located seventeen kilometres northeast of Yogyakarta and straight out of the golden age of the ancient Javanese kingdoms, Prambanan’s construction was completed in 856 AD during the reign of Rakai Pikatan, a king of the Sanjaya dynasty. The site continued to expand as new temples were built and added to Prambanan by later Sanjaya rulers, with all the structures seen today completed at some time in the tenth century.

Candi Prambanan, Java, Indonesia

Dec 23 2010

An inter-dynastic union between the Hindu Sanjayas in south-central Java, and the north-central Buddhist Sailendras, are the likely reason why many of the structures at Prambanan are an infusion of Shivaite and Buddhist design styles. Local history has it that a catastrophic earthquake struck central Java in the sixteenth century, shaking Prambanan to its very core and resulting in what can be seen today – the fragmented ruins of a total of six large temples and 284 small temples. Most of the magic comes from Candi Shiva, which contains a statue of the destroyer himself along with carvings which include an epic retelling of opening chapters of the Ramayana. Candi Brahma, which carries on the story, and Candi Vishnu enlighten visitors as to the story of Vishnu and Krishna, his terrestrial avatar, and these are the three largest and most impressive of the Candi Prambanan's temples.

Man Mo Temple, Sheung Wang, Hong Kong

Apr 19 2014

On the corner of Hollywood Road in Hong Kong's Sheung Wan area is Man Mo Temple, one of the island city’s best-known cultural sites. Luck and good fortune are mantras at Man Mo and locals and tourists alike donate hundreds of Hong Kong dollars daily for the temple’s upkeep and the replenishment of its incense sticks. Hopeful believers ignite the sticks and people from all over China fasten red ribbons to the temple walls to sweet-talk the gods and spirits. At the top of a tiny staircase, linking the front and rear halls, two idols of the twin temple gods themselves are visible. At the back of the temple’s rear chamber, a statue of Guan Yu, god of war, wielding a double-edged sword called a 'jian', and another of Wen Chang, god of literature, holding a 'máo bǐ', or ink brush, stand among hundreds of other god sculptures and piles of oranges and chocolate are also left stacked up as offerings on the altar.

Man Mo Temple, Sheung Wang, Hong Kong

Dec 7 2014

Man Mo Temple oozes Hong Kong's typical cultural fusion as deities and legendary figures of both Taoism and Buddhism are honoured, specifically Guan Yu and Wen Chang. Man Mo is relatively compact by Chinese temple standards and among the granite pillars, ritual drum platforms and rows of red tiān dēng lanterns, it is immediately apparent where the intense smoky smell comes from as visitors from around the globe reach upward to light individual sections of the grid-shaped framework of honey-coloured incense spirals which hang coiled from the ceiling, complete with good luck inscriptions attached on pieces of red and white paper.

Pura Besakih, Bali, Indonesia

Dec 6 2010

The most important of all Balinese Hindu temples, Besakih resembles more of a small town than a religious site and the complex encompasses 23 individual temples and over sixty adjoining shrines. Perched at the edge of the south-western slopes of Mount Agung and framed by volcanic mountain streams and rice paddies, Besakih is considered the 'Mother of Balinese temples' and is terraced on six levels at the bottom of the slope of the mountain.

Pura Besakih, Bali, Indonesia

May 3 2016

Pura Penataran Agung acts as the main sanctuary of the wider Pura Besakih complex and at its centre is the 'Padmasana', or 'Triple Lotus Shrine'. Dedicated to Acintya, the Balinese sun god, Pura Penataran Agung is the holiest and most revered place in Besakih, with Pura Gelap, or Temple of Lightning, also being a highlight. The complex's 23 separate temples each have their own individual and fascinating stories and myths surrounding Besakih, its layout and its meaning. Perhaps the most fascinating of these, is the theory that the upper and lower temples represent heaven and the underworld respectively, with three of the lower temples being dedicated to the naga, cosmic guardians in the form of water serpents who appear in many traditional Hindu and Balinese epic texts.

Temple of Heaven, Beijing

Oct 26 2014

Located in central Beijing's Chongwen District, the Temple of Heaven is one of China's most enduring and iconic cultural sites. Construction on the complex was finished in 1420, having taken sixteen years and been commissioned by the Ming Dynasty's Yongle Emperor who also built Beijing's Forbidden City. Despite being widely viewed today as Taoist religious complex, the Temple of Heaven was originally intended for the Chinese concept of heaven worship which predates Taoism and for this reason, the emperors who performed rituals at the site were referred to as 'Tiānzǐ', or 'Sons of Heaven'.

The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China

Jul 30 2009

Despite its name, the Temple of Heaven was originally intended as an altar for use during Chinese harvest festivals. With its circular temple halls sat on square bases and the northern edge of the site being semi-circular and the southern edge being sqaure-shaped, the design of the entire Temple of Heaven complex reflects the Chinese idea of Tiānyuán Dìfāng, which dictates that 'the heaven is round and the earth is square'. With its explosively colourful purple, red and blue interior as well as a carved golden dragon and the imperial seal embedded into its ceiling, the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests is the main and most recognisable building in the Temple of Heaven complex, followed by the octagonal Imperial Vault of Heaven and the Circular Mound Altar, on which emperors would offer oxen as sacrifices in return for good weather and prosperous harvests.

Tongdosa, Yangsan, South Korea

Jan 1 2008

South Gyeongsang Province's Tongdosa is Korea's largest temple and is considered to be one of the country's three 'Sambosachal', or 'Three Jewels Temples', along with Haeinsa and Songgwangsa in South Jeolla Province. According to Korean legend, Tongdosa was founded when a monk named Jajang recited a magic spell to rid a lake of nine evil dragons. The dragons refused to leave and Jajang wrote the Chinese character for fire on a piece of rice paper and tossed it into the sky. After landing in the lake, the piece of rice paper ignited the water into a roaring inferno and eight of the nine dragons flew off to escape. The last dragon, unable to escape the flames, begged Jajang for his life and the monk spared him on the condition that he guard Tongdosa for all eternity.

Tongdosa, Yangsan, South Korea

Feb 19 2015

A unique, one kilometre-long trail of sand leads up to the front of Tongdosa from the main entrance gate and the temple is home to a total of 65 individual temples and shrines, with each one honouring a specific incarnation of Buddha. Surprisingly for such an integral part of Korean Buddhist culture, Tongdosa is renowned for its almost complete absence of any kind of Buddha state and is often accordingly referred to as 'The temple without a Buddha’. Instead of statues, Tongdosa is said to house 'Sari Jinsin', a collection of priceless Korean Buddhist relics stored in a reliquary stupa, known as a 'budo', including a begging bowl, ceremonial robe and a bone from the skull of the Sakyamuni Buddha. Image Credit: Simon Desmarais (Flickr)

Amanoiwato-jinja, Takachiho, Japan

Aug 30 2013

In the far north of Miyazaki Prefecture, adjacent to Mount Aso on the Japanese island of Kyūshū, the relatively compact town of Takachiho is home to Amano Iwato-jinja, one of Japan’s most spellbinding and photogenic Shinto shrines. En-route to the shrine on the walking trail, the Gokase River trickles serenely through Takachiho Gorge with its water alternating in colour between jade green and cobalt blue depending on the time of day and the river is framed by onyx-coloured black and grey volcanic cliffs which are said to resemble the scales of a cloud serpent. Getting down into the gorge and witnessing the real prize on offer at Amano Iwato-jinja first requires passing through a wooden shrine building with a purifying pool, or 'chōzubashi', for visitors to wash their hands before entry. Image Credit: Norio Nakayama (Flickr)

Amanoiwato-jinja, Takachiho, Japan

Oct 28 2012

Complete with a bamboo Torii Gate, Amanoiwato-jinja shrine-proper is located inside the very cave in which the sun goddess Amaterasu, one of Japan's supreme Shinto deities, is said to have hidden herself from the cruel pranks of the other gods, depriving the world of sunlight until she returned. The short walk down the forest path outside the wooden shrine building to Amanoiwato-jinja cave also provides access to the pristine and tranquil stream, now a site of Shinto pilgrimage and an offshoot of the Iwato River and in which believers scatter rocks which have now formed thousands of small stacks as a sign of devotion to the sun goddess.

Kongobū-ji, Koya-san, Japan

Mar 21 2011

In the year 805, Shingon Buddhism was introduced to Japan by a monk named Kūkai, or Kobo Daishi, who built a temple on a mountain just over 100 kilometres south of Osaka in 826. The mountain soon developed into a kind of temple village, known as Kōya-san, and the site became the home of Japanese Shingon Buddhism. Kōya-san soon grew into a small town which even featured its own university dedicated to the study of Shingon Buddhist theology and doctrine. The main area, in the west of Kōya-san is known as Danjō Garan-on and features the iconic and bright red coloured Konpon Daitō inside of which sits a statue of the cosmic guardian of Shingon Buddhism, Dainichi Nyorai, as well as four other statues which serve as his aides. Kongobū-ji, a former temple converted into a mausoleum by legendary samurai Toyotomi Hideyoshi in 1593 in honour of his mother, features a zen rock garden which easily rivals any other in Japan and also acts as Kōya-san’s spiritual core as well as the official headquarters of Shingon Buddhism.

Okunō-in Cemetery, Koya-san, Japan

Nov 26 2014

In the east of Kōya-san is Okunō-in, a graveyard shrouded just as much in mist as eerie serenity. Among those honoured in Okunō-in’s mausoleums and graves are Kūkai himself, famous samurai warriors, key figures of various periods of the Tokugawa Shōgunate as well as soldiers of the Japanese Imperial Army who perished fighting against the United States and Great Britain during World War II. In typically quirky Japanese fashion, Okunō-in is also home to a grave built by an Osaka pesticide company in memory of the insects which have been killed using their products. With over 200,000 individual tombstones at Okunō-in, legend has it that Kūkai never actually died and that he instead sits in tranquil meditation, waiting for Miroku Nyorai, the Japanese version of the Buddha of the future, to arrive and show him the path to nirvana and true enlightenment.

Tsurugaoka Hachimangū, Kamakura, Japan

Jul 28 2010

Roughly 50 kilometres southwest of Tokyo, Tsurugaoka Hachimangū can be found in the Japanese city of Kamakura's Yukinoshita district. The complex, at the exact geographical centre of Kamakura and with an almost 2 kilometre-long approach road known as Wakamiya Ōji leading up to it, is unquestionably the city's most important Shinto site and was originally built in 1063. The location of the shrine was later moved in to its current location 1180 by Shōgun Minamoto no Yoritomo. Tsurugaoka Hachimangū is heavily intertwined with the legendary Japanese samurai culture due to the assassination of Minamoto no Sanetomo, son of Minamoto no Yoritomo, one snowy night of February, 1219, and the whole complex is dedicated to Hachiman, the Shinto god of all of Japan's samurai.

Tsurugaoka Hachimangū, Kamakura, Japan

May 19 2015

At the end of the Wakamiya Ōji approach road to the main part of Tsurugaoka Hachimangū, the 'Jogu', or main hall, sits at the top of a large stone staircase and houses important relics such as samurai swords, masks and preserved examples of edicts from various Japanese shōgun. Either side of the approach to Tsurugaoka Hachimangū's main shrine building are two ponds, one with three stones and the other with four. The pond with three stones represent the Minamoto samurai clan who founded the shrine and the pond with four stones represents their arch rivals, the Taira Clan. The story goes that the pond representing the Taira Clan features four stones because 'Shi', the Japanese the word for four, can also mean 'death'. Tsurugaoka Hachimangū is also home to a secondary shrine named Wakamiya, a stage for dance and music performance known as 'Maiden', and a wall of colourfully decorated sake casks left behind by Shinto worshipers.

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