Yunnan often appears to be a vast repository of historically significant artifacts that not only spans enormous amounts of time, but also encompasses myriad people, cultures and traditions. Some of the most intriguing of these, and arguably the most mysterious, cling to the cliffs and forested slopes of Shibao Mountain (石宝山) in the western reaches of the province.
Two monasteries built more than five hundred years ago provide an impressive prelude for one of the province's most important archaeological sites, the grottos of Shizhong Temple (石钟寺). Carved directly into cliff faces by artisans of the Nanzhao Kingdom (南诏国) around the year 800, the grottos have been slow to give up their secrets and their provenance remains a hotly debated topic among Chinese academics.
Today the most common way to visit the splendors of Shibao Mountain is by driving along the paved road that replaced an old cobblestone lane two years ago. Just past the visitors center, shrouded by towering pine and poplar trees, Haiyun Temple (海云居) sits perched behind sagging, whitewashed walls.
Haiyun Temple and Gehui Festival
Built in 1684 by the monk Pu Lian (普联), Haiyun Temple is still used much as it was hundreds of years in the past. Most of the upkeep is performed by local Bai people attempting to collect merit. Many also visit to help out the two ancient women who tend the temple garden and open and close the main gates each morning and evening.
The Chan Buddhist temple has an entrance like many others throughout Asia — the entryway flanked by monstrous statues of the stylized twin guardians Heng (哼) and Ha (哈). A second hall houses four more figures, those of the Four Heavenly Kings (四大天王).
Haiyun Temple feels hundreds of years old, its stone carvings and walls covered in lichen and moss. Incense burns fitfully in urns and the only sounds are caused by the soughing of massive trees as they sway in the wind. Above the entryway in a dark room smelling of cut wood and dust sit three timeworn shrines.
The first of these is a small representation of Dizangwang (地藏王), the king of the Buddhist underworld, who leads people through hell after they die. Without his assistance, no one, it is believed, would make it through the pitch black labyrinth alone. Thus, it is to Dizangwang that people pray following the passing of loved ones.
Two other shrines occupy opposite shadowy corners of the room. One is of Guanyin (观音), the goddess of mercy and compassion. The third is a simple and, perhaps intentionally, rustic memorial to the couple Tiangong Dimu (田公地母), bodhisattvas whom devotees ask for bountiful harvests and peaceful homes.
Back in the temple courtyard, a string of small rooms sit shut tight with old-fashioned brass locks. These spaces are each reserved for specific villages in the Shaxi valley and are only occasionally used. The first instance occurs once a year during Temple Festival (廟會) and again during Gehui Festival (歌会节) — a celebration of Bai traditions predating their adoption of Buddhism, Taoism and Chinese culture.
Gehui Festival centers around the mythical vanquishing of a dragon. According to Bai legend, an evil dragon arrived in a Yunnan village and began devouring children. In response, terrified parents started to keep their children behind the locked doors of their homes in hopes of starving the dragon.
Angered, the dragon conjured a giant hailstorm that killed all the crops leading the people themselves to starve. A young man emerged who vowed to defend the village and fight the dragon. He picked ten boys and ten girls to accompany him on his quest to kill the beast.
After an epic battle the dragon lay dead, as did all 21 of the children. Gehui Festival memorializes that valor of the children in song and dance and is begun each year at the end of the seventh lunar month. Celebrations are initiated by burning a dragon in effigy and performing the Bamboo Dragon Dance (竹龙舞).
During Temple and Gehui festivals the languid monastery teems with people from the villages surrounding Shibao Mountain. For most of the remainder of the year the monastery, perhaps more properly referred to now as a nunnery, is visited mostly by women bearing gifts for the matriarchs keeping the place up.
Outside the gate a collection of stupas are arranged along a raised stone platform. Inside two of the massive stone earns are the remains of Pu Lian, the monk who founded Haiyun Temple, and his mentor, the abbot Ji Ding (寂定).
The cliffs of Baoxiang Temple
The legends swirling around Shibao Mountain's two oldest temples are often as mystifying as the actions of the monkeys scurrying around the grounds of Baoxiang Temple (宝相寺). Long before Ji Ding became abbot of the cliff-hanging temple, myth and reality conspired to create a charming story.
Bai legend holds that at some murky time in the past a Nanzhao king was wandering through the foothills of Shibao Mountain when he came upon a gigantic white elephant. He followed the animal through the forest, up a steep embankment and then stared in astonishment as the elephant disappeared into a sheer cliff wall.
Looking for some explanation, the king discovered a pile of silver sitting where the pachyderm had vanished. He took his vision as a sign and instructed his finest craftsmen he would give them the treasure in exchange for building a fantastic monastery directly into the cliff faces where he had lost sight of the elephant.
The facade of Baoxiang Temple looks much like many other Buddhist complexes around Yunnan. Recent renovations have seen the expansion or remodeling of existing buildings and the construction of new ones set into cliff walls above and to the left of the main gate.
Heng and Ha occupy their traditional places just inside the temple's first pavilion, staring balefully across the entryway at one another. Just past them is a third statue, that of Weituo (韦陀), the only bodhisattva who is traditionally allowed to face inside a temple and therefore look directly upon Buddha. Weituo is the quickest of all Chinese deities. Because of his speed and cunning, he is tasked with guarding holy relics, scrolls and sutras, spiriting them to safety in times of danger.
His statue serves a second, subtle purpose. If Weituo's weapon is drawn, held in his right hand with the blade resting on his shoulder, visiting monks are not allowed to stay overnight at a temple. If his sword is resting on the floor or nestled in the crook of his arm, then monks can expect a bed to be provided for them.
At Baoxiang Temple, Weituo's blade lies harmlessly on the ground and the monastery has long been considered the last way point for those wishing to travel to the grottos higher up in the mountains.
Beyond the entrance and newly refurbished outbuildings lie the shrines and statues originally built into the bluff 20 meters above the temple square. They are reached by climbing a series of steep stone stairways which in turn open onto walkways and bridges. Across the largest of these spans is a three-story wooden pagoda in faded vermillion and ocher.
Accompanying the building are two large and strikingly different statues. One is golden, a squat representation of the Laughing Buddha (笑佛). His bald head, shabby clothes, enormous belly and permanent smile are said to be emblematic of contentment no matter the circumstances.
In direct contrast to the shiny, rounded deity is an austere and slightly peculiar statue of Guanyin. Standing nearly twice as tall as her corpulent companion, the Goddess of Mercy is immediately recognizable by devotees. However, her statue at Baoxiang Temple has some incongruous artistic flourishes, including bumpy, plaited hair usually reserved for effigies of the Buddha. Guanyin's face is also a departure from more traditional depictions, leading locals to say she has a decidedly Bai appearance.
Set as it is against a high cliff wall amidst kilometers of undisturbed forest, Baoxiang Temple is a sanctuary of calm. One constant source of complimentary noise is a waterfall spilling down the rock walls. After raining down on the roof of a rock portico, the stream is ingeniously funneled into a series of pools around which the central courtyard is built before spilling out of gutters into the woods.
The forest encircling Baoxiang temple has been adopted by a large group of monkeys, who, after arriving in the area 20 years ago, have made the parking area and shops half a kilometer from the temple their permanent home.
From the monkey-controlled rest area the road heads south, eventually abutting Shilong Reservoir (石龙水库). The lake's azure blue waters at some point inspired people to build a cluster of wooden huts suspended on poles overlooking the lake. Although the area is gorgeous and the fishing reportedly splendid, it has failed to develop into anything more than a stopping point for quick tourist snapshots.
Beyond the lake the road leads high up into the hills. A dusty turnoff area, sporadically monitored by a bored park employee, marks an otherwise anonymous trailhead. The path leads to Lion Pass (狮子关), which is many visitors' first glimpse of Shizhong — or Stone Bell — Temple.
Lion Pass affords sightseers sweeping views of both Shizhong Temple and rolling forested hills that seemingly recede to the horizon. Facing the pass across a yawning vally is the temple — a compact and orderly square of structures constructed around a gigantic sandstone boulder. Above the complex are a series of shallow caves housing dozens of sculptures and relief carvings, now overhung by protective eaves.
The entrance to Shizhong Temple is reached by walking roughly 500 meters into the forest, past bamboo groves and a spring dammed hundreds of years ago. The temple facade is unremarkable but it does offer terrific views of Lion Pass on the other side of the valley.
Entering the temple brings sightseers and pilgrims to the foot of a towering rock edifice known as the Stone Camel (石骆驼). According to local legend, the camel was part of a caravan carrying sutras and holy texts to China from India. Upon reaching Shibao Mountain, the camel was so overcome with fatigue that it sat down and turned to stone.
The rock outcropping is the centerpiece of a large courtyard, replete with concrete ping-pong table and gift shop. Here tourists must surrender their cameras and purchase a 50 yuan ticket before ascending a stairway to the hollow lava dome from which the temple takes its name.
Although Shibao Mountain's friezes and rock carvings are now adorned with multi-lingual plaques explaining their significance, much remains unknown. Scholars of the Nanzhao Kingdom tend to agree that many of the sculptures are roughly 1,200 years old with a few slightly more recent additions.
Beginning at the cave's original entrance — the end farthest from the modern day gate — is perhaps the most unique of all of Shibao Mountain's grottos. Referred to as ayangbai (阿央白) in Chinese, the shrine is very clearly a detailed depiction of a vagina.
It is now dyed almost black due to the centuries-old custom of newly married couples visiting the holy place three days after their wedding and rubbing oil on the statue. The practice, no longer allowed today, was thought to guarantee an easy childbirth. A kneeling stone at the foot of the alter attests to the shrine's popularity and is deeply grooved where countless knees have rested.
Next is a sanctuary for Guanyin, who is seated on a lotus throne and attended by two subordinates. A hole in her chest represents the story in which the goddess reached inside her chest and plucked out her heart in order to show her devotion and commitment to Buddha. Local legend maintains the hole was originally filled with a solid silver heart that was eventually pried free and stolen by looters.
The largest grotto is centered around the Buddha and two of his disciples. They are surrounded by angry bodhisattvas, each with three heads and six arms. Many of the deities stand on the heads of people cowering in terrified poses. Some archeologists believe the statues are a depiction of the arrival of Buddhism in traditionally animist Bai culture.
In this interpretation, the Buddha represents kindness and benevolence, welcoming people to be free from suffering. Juxtaposed are the enraged deities, who symbolize the punishment awaiting those who are confused by, or non-receptive of, the newly arrived religion.
The grottos wind their way through the cave in a curious interweaving of different cultures. Some carvings lean heavily on Indian iconography but are often topped by Tibetan writing. This is attributed to at least some of the original artisans coming from Tibet via the Tea Horse Road. Statues of lions and elephants flank a carving of Weimojie (维摩诘), a man believed to be a contemporary of Gautama Buddha who represents the ideal of a Buddhist lay practitioner.
Among all of the intricately carved representations, smaller figures are often missing their heads and key fragments of some statues look as though they have been violently wrenched away. Such vandalism, although surprisingly limited, is a testament to the damage wrought to cultural sites around China during the Cultural Revolution.
No one has yet identified who commissioned the grottos of Shibao Mountain or which specific artisans chiseled them into the sandstone caves. Although scholars have attempted to solve these riddles much of what is understood comes from folktales about two Nanzhao kings memorialized at the grottos.
The older of these two is a large carving of Ge Luofeng (阁罗凤), the fifth king of the Nanzhao Kingdom, who reigned from 748 to 778. His statue is now blackened with the soot of centuries of campfire and incense smoke. Several stories have been handed down regarding King Ge, the most locally revered being the tales of his military twice defeating the armies of the invading Tang Dynasty, once in 751 and again in 754.
Traditional Bai accounts maintain Ge Luofeng refused to hand his kingdom over to his son, considering him unfit for rule. Instead he bestowed the responsibility on his grandson, Yi Mouxun (异牟寻). According to an apocryphal legend, when the grandson expressed his fears of defending his newly bequeathed kingdom, Ge replied: "To the east there is Erhai, to the west Cangshan, what are you afraid of?" (东有洱海西有苍山, 你怕什么?).
Once ensconced upon the throne, King Yi is thought to have been the first Nanzhao king to embrace Chinese culture. It is believed he sent his children east to study the Chinese language and then ordered them to return home with scholarly books. His shrine at Shibao Mountain is set aside from all the others and lacks any Tibetan script.
From many vantage points on Shibao Mountain, the imposing twin massifs of Jade Dragon (玉龙雪山) and Haba (哈巴雪山) snow mountains can be seen. It is little wonder that those who commissioned such magnificent sculptures and monasteries would choose Shibao Mountain as the setting.
Alternately you can first travel to Xiaguan (下关) by bus, car, plane or train. From there, tickets to Jianchuan are 35 yuan and buses depart every 15 minutes between 6:30am and 6pm. Curiously, return travel along these same lines is significantly cheaper.
From Jianchuan, the 45-minute minibus ride to Shaxi should cost ten yuan per person. Shibao Mountain is accessible by the main road described in the article and comes with a 50 yuan entry fee. Some guesthouses in Shaxi can also arrange guided day hikes through the mountains to Shizhong Temple. These often bypass the other two temples as well as the monkeys and can run upwards of 400 yuan. Bargain hard.
Grotto images: courtesy of the Jianchaun Tourist Bureau
All other images: Yereth Jansen