Wednesday, May 15, 2013

In Search Of Heaven At Tian Tan (天坛)

As our short trip to Beijing comes to end, we debated a lot on where to go. Among the places considered were the Beijing Zoo to see the apt symbol of China, the great Panda, or to the Zhongguancun Electronic Market to check out new and trendy products coming out of the world's manufacturing powerhouse....
After a long debate that lasted over an hour last night, we ruled out the zoo because the panda was kind of "greying" as we were emphatically told, the electronics market was ruled out as it was far and too huge - would eat away the whole day. We chose something as unique as the panda - Tian Tan or the Temple of Heaven!
Tian Tan is a complex of religious buildings situated in the southeastern part of central Beijing. Covering an area of 273 hectares, Tian Tan was constructed from 1406 to 1420 during the reign of the Emperor Yongle, who was also responsible for the construction of the Forbidden City in Beijing. The complex was extended and renamed Temple of Heaven during the reign of the Emperor Jiajing in the 1500s. Incidentally, Emperor  Jiajing also constructed three other prominent temples in Beijing, the Temple of Sun in the east, the Temple of Earth in the north, and the Temple of Moon in the west. The complex was visited by the imperial families  of the Ming and Qing dynasties for annual ceremonies of prayer to "Heaven" for good harvest. Some also regard Tian Tan as a Taoist temple.
The complex has three main structures - Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, Imperial Vault of Heaven and the  Circular Mound Altar. These main structures are well-spread out with gardens in between - invariably most of these gardens have impressive and magnificent cypress trees.

I fell in love with the trees here!

One of the interesting features at Tian Tan were the Seven-Star Stones. While the stones, which have mountainous features engraved on them, represent the seven peaks of Mount Tai, an 8th stone was added to signify the integration of Manchuria into China!
Another legend says that Emperor Yongle had a dream one night - he dreamt that the heavenly gate opened, through the Big Dipper. These stones were placed here to  commemorate the dream that Yongle had!

Leafy, green and inviting!

Tian Tan seemed to be another popular spot for couple posing for their wedding photos! Perhaps, they still believe in heavenly bliss of marriage! J

The Circular Mound Altar also known as Yuán Qiū Tán (圜丘坛) ) is an outdoor empty circular platform on three levels of marble stones. It's a Ming Dynasty relic - constructed in 1530, during the Emperor Jiajing's reign and was enlarged in 1749 during the reign of Qing Dynasty's Emperor Qianlong. 
This altar was also build for religious purposes, especially for ceremonies to pray for rain by the emperor in times of drought. During the Ming and Qing Dynasties (1368 - 1911 AD), the emperors would offer sacrifices to the heavens on Winter Solstice every year.
Sacrificial animals and other offerings were burned here to ensure good harvests. A common animal slaughtered here was the bull, which the people would set on fire as a sacrifice of prosperity. This ceremony was to thank the Gods and pray for prosperity.

The Firewood Stove is a huge green glazed brick stove. Before the ceremony of worshiping heaven began, a clearly washed and shaved calf was put on the stove and with great respect and to be burnt while the emperor stood by watching the process- a ritual called " Observation of the Burning". 

Burning Stove is an iron stove for burning the offerings. 8 stoves placed here were used to burn the offerings placed in front of the tablets of the first 8 generations of the Qing Emperors worshiped as the accessory deities. 

The Imperial Vault of Heaven sits to the south of the Altar of Prayer for Good Harvests connected by the Danbi Bridge, and sits to the north of the Circular Mound Altar. Facing south, it has a circular wall with three colored glazed gates. The vault was constructed in 1530, during reign of Emperor Jiajing of the Ming Dynasty. The vault housed Gods’ tablets to be used at the Ceremony of Worshiping Heaven.  

The Hall of prayer for Good Harvests, or Qiniandian, is a circular wooden structure in a unique architectural style. It is the place where emperors came to pray for good harvests on the 15th day of the first lunar month every year. 
When the Hall was first constructed in 1420, it had a rectangular shape. In 1530 the original structure in Beijing was demolished and rebuilt into a circular hall. 

The magnificent cypress trees at Tian Tan, some over 800 years old, still stand tall and sturdy!

And truly, I needed that peace, I needed to discover my heaven within me - I could achieve a bit of all that at Tian Tan!

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