What: Temple of Heaven
Where: Beijing, PR China
When: 15th – 20th Century
One Christmas, when I was about seven or eight years of age, Santa Claus left my brother and I a board game called Chinese Checkers under the Christmas Tree. I don’t think my brother and I ever learnt how to correctly play the actual game, but it came with beautiful marbles with, what looked like wings of an angel embedded inside each clear glass ball, different coloured wings of reds, greens, blues and oranges. The box, made of thin wood, hexagonal in shape, was covered in a royal blue crepe and had the most wondrous picture of a three tiered round shaped Chinese looking building on the front. This was pre-internet days so no one could tell us what that building was, and as we had found it under the Christmas Tree, it was already kind-of magical and so we stared at it, in fascination for years as we chipped the glass marbles with our own made up games.
I was doing on of those ‘quickly-see-everything’ day tours of Beijing, I’d climbed the Great Wall, stood in Tiananmen Square and walked through the Forbidden City yet it wasn’t until I came to The Temple of Heaven that those childhood memories of my brother and I contemplating what that strange unknown building was on that box that my heart started pounding, I was about to find out and see it in real life – it was The Temple of Heaven.
Constructed at the same time as The Imperial Palace, also known as The Forbidden City, The Temple of Heaven has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1998 It was built during the reign of Emperor Yongle in the early 15th century and used by the Emperors of the Ming and Qing Dynasties to pray for good harvest. The Temple of Heaven is the only place outside of the Forbidden City that Emperors were allowed, twice per year, to travel to. These biannual ventures were shrouded in secrecy and no commoner was ever permitted to see the holy processions between Palace and temple.
With my guide, I entered through the Southern gate and the first temple we came to was The Alter of the Worship of Heaven. Also known as the Alter for offering Sacrifices to Heaven and as the name suggests, it’s where the Emperor would make annual sacrificial offerings during the Winter Solstice for a bountiful harvest for the people. The outdoor, tri-level circular alter, surrounded by marble statues is centered with a circular round marble stone called the Heavenly Heart Stone where, as the Emperor stood, his voice would sound naturally strong and powerful, thus reaching heaven.
Next we came to the single-gabled hall, The Imperial Vault of Heaven which, resembles the main temple but is smaller and sits on one single marble stone. This is where the memorial tablets of previous sacrifices by the Emperors forefathers are laid. The gabled roof, with dark blue glazed tiles, is representative of Heaven and is built with no nails or beams. From here, it is around a 300 metre walk along marble to the main building, The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest.
The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest is the magnificent triple gabled building that most would be familiar with and the building that was pictured on my childhood game. The structure made of wood and stone, stands on three tiers of marble terrace, 6 metres high. The hall, again with blue glazed roof tiles, is 38 metres high and measuring 32.72 metres in diameter was believed to be the closest place to heaven.
The intricate interior of The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest is just as impressive as the exterior. Built of wood with no nails, beams or crossbeams it is solely supported by 28 massive wooden pillars, each 1.2 metres in diameter. The inner four pillars represent the four Seasons, the next twelve, the twelve months of the year and the outer twelve representing the traditional units of time.
Beside the main Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest are ornate buildings which once housed the sacred butchering pavilion, sacred kitchen and sacred warehouses. Now exhibiting artifacts from the times of the Emperors, it is well worth a look at the fascinating objects they now house.
As I exited through the Northern entrance, contemplating my childhood attachment to The Temple of Heaven while watching friendly locals practicing Chinese character calligraphy, I considered learning a Chinese language. I turned to my guide and asked “With there being 26 letters in the western alphabet, how many Chinese characters are there?” She replied” About 60,000, but you only need to know around 2,500-3,500 to be able to read a newspaper” My jaw dropped…. I think I might learn to play Chinese Checkers first. 😉