Dr. SkySkull in China, part 2: the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda

I arrived in Xi’an late on a Saturday night, two hours later than expected due to a weather delay flying out of Beijing.  So I was pretty exhausted on Sunday, but that didn’t stop me from wanting to get out and see some of the sights!

After a nice lunch, my former postdoc advisor and his graduate student took me to see the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda, a historic and still active Buddhist temple which is also a popular tourist destination.  It was a great opportunity for me to practice making stitched panorama photographs using PTGui, an excellent piece of software which I haven’t played around with for a long time.  I uploaded most of the panorama pictures, and many of the other ones, at high resolution, so be sure to click on them if you want to see details.

Front of the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda.

Front of the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda.

The pagoda and temple lies on the southern side of Xi’an, surrounded by the bustle of the city. It has been there for a long, long time, originally constructed in 652 C.E. by Emperor Gaozong of the Tang Dynasty.  The original building had five stories, but it was an unstable structure and collapsed within fifty years.  In 704 C.E., Empress Wu Zetian rebuilt the structure to a height of ten stories.  So it remained for over 800 years, until the devastating Shaanxi earthquake of 1556, which killed an estimated 830,000 people and collapsed the three top stories of the pagoda, and it has remained at this height ever since.

One of the main functions of the pagoda, from its very beginning, has been to hold Buddhist relics that were brought back from India by the monk Xuanzang (602-664).  These artifacts included sutras (holy texts) and figurines of the Buddha.

Xuanzang’s journey to India is quite an amazing story.  As I understand it, he grew frustrated with the conflicting accounts of Buddhism in China at the time and decided to travel to the source to resolve them.  Though the Emperor had forbidden foreign travel at that time, Xuanzang was able to sneak out of the country and spent 17 years abroad, collecting texts and artifacts.  To quote Wikipedia,

On his return to China in AD 645, Xuanzang was greeted with much honor but he refused all high civil appointments offered by the still-reigning emperor, Emperor Taizong of Tang. Instead, he retired to a monastery and devoted his energy in translating Buddhist texts until his death in AD 664. According to his biography, he returned with, “over six hundred Mahayana and Hinayana texts, seven statues of the Buddha and more than a hundred sarira relics.”

The statue in the photo above is of Xuanzang, and is not the only statue of him on site, as we will see.

Right inside the entrance to the complex, one gets a great view of the pagoda, and on either side are the bell and drum towers.

Just past the entrance to the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda complex.  Note the same fellow appearing three times in the image, thanks to panorama stitching.

Just past the entrance to the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda complex. Note the same fellow appearing three times in the image, thanks to panorama stitching.

As I noted in my previous post, the bell was rung to indicate the start of the day, and the drum was struck to mark the day’s end.  Each of the buildings is ornately decorated.

Bell tower interior, Giant Wild Goose Pagoda.

Bell tower interior, Giant Wild Goose Pagoda.

Interior of the drum tower.

Interior of the drum tower.

Closer to the pagoda itself, one finds an elegant staircase with a dragon carving.

Closer to the main temple complex.

Closer to the main temple complex.

Below is a detailed photo of the carving, which is quite lovely.

Dragon carving on the stairs.

Dragon carving on the stairs.

Unlike in Western cultures, dragons in China are generally considered beneficial creatures, and were usually used as a symbol of the Emperor and his power.  It is fascinating to note that the Chinese historian Chang Qu misidentified dinosaur bones as dragon bones way back in 400 B.C.E., and that such bones may have helped spark the dragon myth.

Here’s a closer look at the stairs and entrance to the temple complex in panorama form.

Closer look at the stairs to the temple complex.

Closer look at the stairs to the temple complex.  On the right, at the top of the stairs, was an area for worshippers to burn incense.

The main building right ahead of us, if I recall correctly, was the main shrine to the Buddha himself.



I was careful to be respectful and not take pictures while people were praying in front of the Buddha, which happened almost continually while we were there.

On either side of the main temple were a number of halls dedicated to other important figures.  The first hall was the Guardian Hall, and on the left was the figure of “Prince Zhituo.”

Image of Prince Zhituo, in the Guardian Hall.

Image of Prince Zhituo, in the Guardian Hall.

I have been unable to connect the Chinese names of the figures to the original Indian names, so let me just quote the information sign that was present outside the hall:

Guardian in Sanskrit means monastery.  Enshrined inside is Yonghufula the Bodhisativa protecting the land of Jialan.  The statue in the middle is that of Posinuowang on the both sides of which are those of Prince Zhituo and the Venerable Elder Xudaduo.

At the beginning of Buddha Sakyamuni’s preaching, for the purpose of inviting Buddha to preach sermon in Shewei City, the venerable elder Xudaduo of Shewei City consulted Shelifo, disciple of Buddha, to choose a place for Buddha to stay.  They considered the garden of Prince Zhituo of Kingdom of Shewei as an ideal place.  Zhituo was unwilling to offer the place and would give in on the condition that the garden be paved with gold.  Xudaduo met his condition without hesitation.  Moved by Xudaduo’s dedication to Buddha, Zhituo volunteered to offer his garden to Buddha for his preaching.  This is the earliest Buddhist monastery.

Next to the Guardian Hall was the Manna Hall, a place to “chant scriptures, ask blessings, dispel disasters and pray for the deceased.”


The Manna Hall.

See if you can guess what the next hall is dedicated to!



This hall, with its array of golden statues, is the Hall of Wealth, my favorite!  (Though wealth in this case doesn’t just refer to money, but good fortune.)

There were many other halls, though we did not stop at every one of them.  (In my defense, I was jetlagged and it was a very hot day!)  I did stop to admire some of the smaller carvings around the temple, including the lovely dragon below.

My favorite dragon.

My favorite dragon.

At this point, we were right below the pagoda, and I stopped to get a picture to really illustrate its massiveness.

The Giant Wild Goose Pagoda, from right below.

The Giant Wild Goose Pagoda, from right below.

We did not actually go up in the pagoda on this trip.  As I already noted, it was very hot out, and the pagoda didn’t look particularly well-ventilated.  Also, there was an additional charge to go up into it, and the tiny windows didn’t look like they would provide the best view!

Fortunately, there was much more to see on the other side.  There was a magnificent shrine dedicated to Xuanzang himself, which I believe was called the “Light Hall.”

Xuanzang in the Light Hall.

Xuanzang in the Light Hall.

On the walls behind Xuanzang are intricate carvings that tell the story of his life.  Below is a sample of the left wall of the Hall.

The left wall of the Light Hall.

The left wall of the Light Hall.

There was much more to see, but I was still very tired at this point in the trip and we opted to slowly make our way back out of the complex.  I managed to take a few photographs of some curiosities along the way, including an elephant sculpture and a small Buddhist shrine.





A few days later, we would be back in the area of the Pagoda at night.  My iPhone was not completely up to the task of night photography, but the image below gives an idea of how lovely it looks after dark.



You may be wondering about the name of the “Giant Wild Goose Pagoda.” Is there a smaller “Wild Goose Pagoda?” In fact, there is!  The Small Wild Goose Pagoda was built between 707-709 C.E. under Emperor Zhongzong of the Tang Dynasty, not long after the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda was rebuilt.  This pagoda was also damaged in the 1556 earthquake, but remained largely intact.

I did not have time to visit the smaller pagoda, as I was saving my time to achieve a lifelong dream: to visit the Terracotta Army of the first Emperor of China!  I will talk about that trip in my next China post.


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