The Underground Palace in Famen Temple A Shrine for Sacred Relics
The underground palace in Famen Temple, where numerous cultural treasures had been buried for more than 1,000 years, not only provides a glimpse into the life of the Tang imperial family, but also gives a faithful picture of the ancient Buddhist holy site.
On April 9, 1987, at Famen Temple in Fufeng County, Shaanxi Province, archaeologists opened an underground palace, unearthing more than 2,000 rare treasures of the Great Tang Dynasty (AD 618–907). This discovery immediately shocked the world.
History of Famen Temple
Famen Temple is a famous Buddhist monastery at Famen Town 10 kilometres to the north of the county seat of Fufeng. It has a history of more than 1,700 years. Since the finger-bone relic of Sakyamuni was enshrined there, Famen Temple has become a well-known Buddhist holy site, popularly called “the ancestor of pagoda temples in Guanzhong” (the central Shaanxi plain). It was originally erected during the Northern Wei Dynasty (AD 386–534), and was then called Ashoka Temple. According to Buddhist sutras, after innumerable battles, King Ashoka (reign: c. 268–232 BC) unified India in the third century BC, founding the first Indian empire. Later, he began to promote Buddhism actively. He sent a large number of monks and devotees abroad to spread the religion’s doctrines. It was said that he had many Buddhist pagodas built all over the world for people to pay homage to the Buddha. In China there were 19, one of which was the earliest pagoda of Famen Temple.
According to historical records, Famen Temple began to enshrine Sakyamuni’s relic during the Northern Wei Dynasty. During the Sui Dynasty (AD 581–618), all temples became royal places for Buddhist rites. Therefore, Ashoka Temple became Chengbao Temple. At the very beginning, the relic was enshrined above the ground, either in the temple or in the imperial palace. During the Tang Dynasty, to better preserve the relic, an underground palace was built. Li Yuan, Emperor Gaozu of Tang (reign: AD 618–627), changed the name of Chengbao Temple to Famen Temple. It was during the Tang Dynasty that Famen Temple reached its zenith. However, in the reign of Emperor Taizong of Tang (reign: AD 627–650), a fire occurred there. Zhang Deliang, governor of Qi Prefecture, was in charge of repairing the damaged pagoda. He was told: “If the Buddha relic is exhibited every 30 years, there will be peace and prosperity.” To have the relic exhibited, he submitted a memorial to Emperor Taizong, who immediately approved it. From then on, the relic was exhibited every 30 years: It was taken to Chang’an (today’s Xi’an) or Luoyang for the emperor to enshrine and worship. During the Tang Dynasty, there were eight emperors who worshipped the relic with Emperor Xizong (reign: AD 873–889) being the last in AD 874. Since then, the finger-bone relic, together with thousands of rare treasures from the imperial palace, was sealed in the underground palace.
The underground palace of Famen Temple was built during the reign of Emperor Taizong, but at the time, oblivious of its size, people could only see a four-storey wooden pagoda above the ground. This original Tang pagoda collapsed early during the Longqing Period of the Ming Dynasty (1567–1573). To rebuild it, a monk from Famen Temple decided to raise funds. He begged alms by torturing himself. He had an iron chain put through his collarbone. Dragging the chain with two heavy iron locks, he toured the country. At the sight of him, people were moved and contributed money. However, the donations were far from enough, so it was not until 1579 that a 13-storey brick pagoda was built. Unfortunately, it soon collapsed. It took another 30 years to build a new pagoda.
During the Qing Dynasty (1644– 1911), Famen Temple declined, but then it was still of a considerable size. In the temple was hung a horizontal board with the characters “皇帝佛国” ( Huangdi foguo, “Buddhist Kingdom of Emperor”) written by Emperor Huizong of Song (reign: 1101–1126). During the period of Republic of China (1912–1949), General Zhu Ziqiao, president of the North China Charity Association, led his troops to Shaanxi where he collected funds to repair the pagoda in Famen Temple in 1939. One day a worker found the entrance to the underground palace by chance. Upon hearing that a man was lowering a barn lantern to take a look, Zhu Ziqiao rushed to the spot and stopped him. He had the entrance blocked and rammed firm with loess. Then he sincerely admonished the workers to guard the secret. At the time, the Japanese had occupied North China. If the secret
leaked, the treasures would fall into the hands of the invaders. That would have been a heavy loss. Thus, Famen Temple escaped widespread looting.
On the evening of August 24, 1981, a cleft appeared in the middle of the pagoda because of age-related decay and rainwater. This was serious damage. The northeast part utterly collapsed, but the southwest part still stood, though slanting slightly. How to deal with what remained puzzled the Administration of Culture Heritage. After in-depth discussions, two plans were developed: One was to preserve the remainder, and the other was to dismantle it and build a new one. At first, the archaeologists resolved to repair the seriously-damaged pagoda. After obtaining abundant first-hand data, they found the plan was not feasible, for it would be too hard and too expensive to preserve the adobe bricks. At last, they decided on the other plan, to dismantle the remainder and build a new one. It never occurred to them that this would lead to the discovery of a mysterious palace that had been buried underground for more than 1,000 years.
Discovery of the Underground Palace
On April 3, 1987, when an archaeologist pushed aside a broken stone slab next to a white jade slab, a narrow cave in pitch darkness appeared. They inferred that not far into the cave must have been the entrance to the underground palace. Soon they found a path ahead right behind the great hall. The path should lead to the entrance.
The next day, experts from the Provincial Institute of Archaeology came to the spot. Indeed, they found the gate to the underground palace on the south side. At first, they thought that it might be a palace of the Ming Dynasty (1368– 1644). It was not until they saw the two Vermilion-bird patterns carved on the lintel over the first stone gate that they realised it was a Tang Dynasty palace that had never been opened. When reaching the second stone gate, they found that it was blocked by two gigantic stone tablets. One bore the title “The Accounts of Clothes and Objects.” On it were recorded the names, numbers and weights of 2,499 rare treasures, as well as the names of the contributors. The other bore the title “The Inscription of Sending the Buddha’s Relic in Xiantong Era of the Great Tang,” which depicted the scenes of the Buddha’s relic being enshrined in China since the second year of Yuanwei (AD 472).
The archaeological site, including the pagoda foundation from the Ming Dynasty, the pagoda foundation from the Tang Dynasty and the underground palace from the Tang Dynasty, occupies a total area of 1,300 square metres (sq. m). The pagoda foundation from the Ming Dynasty, which was built on top of that from the Tang Dynasty, was nearly round and built with rammed earth. The pagoda foundation from the Tang Dynasty consists of an outside base and a central square base. The outside base is also square, built with five layers of rammed earth, in which 19 base stones which were once under wooden Tang Dynasty pillars have been found. The central square base is a terrace of rammed earth. Under it is the foundation trench of the rear chamber of the underground palace.
A relic of Buddha was found in the Ashoka Pagoda in the antechamber, the White-marble Tent in the middle chamber and in an eight-layer box in the rear chamber. The three relics proved to be the “duplicate relics,” that is, finger-bone relics carved out of jade marble during the Tang Dynasty. They were used to protect the “true relic,” which was preserved in the secret niche in the rear chamber. The relationship between the “duplicate relics” and the “true relic” was described by Zhao Puchu—former president of the Buddhist Association of China—as: “The duplicate relics, neither single nor different, are like three rivers under a shining moon.” To a Buddhist, seeing the relic is tantamount to seeing the Buddha. As a supreme sacred object, the Buddha’s relic discovered in Famen Temple attracted the attention of all the Buddhists in the world. The true relic is the middle finger of Sakyamuni’s left hand, 40 millimetres (mm) tall and 17 mm wide. It weighs 12.6 grammes, takes on a tinge of yellow, and teems with cracks and spots. The true relic has proved to be the real and only finger-bone relic in the world. It tallies with its description on the stone tablet: “There are cracks in it, but the cracks are not deep.”
The rare treasures excavated from the underground palace are large in number, diverse in kind, high in grade and well-preserved. Among them there are more than 120 silver or gold objects including articles for everyday use, vessels for a shrine and implements used in Buddhist services. They are of high value in archaeological terms. The majority of these silver or gold objects were made exclusively for the emperor to welcome and send the Buddha’s relic. Therefore, they are of elaborate craftsmanship. Inscriptions on them make identifying the owners and periodisation quite easy. For example, many objects are also carved with mottos. On the Gold-gilded Statue of Pearls-dressed Pengzhenshen Bodhisattva donated by Emperor Yizong of Tang (reign: AD 859–873) is engraved with the characters “圣寿万春” (“Long Live the Emperor”), and the vessels donated by Emperor Xizong of Tang bear the inscription “五哥” (“Fifth Brother”).
Among the gold and silver vessels, there is an elaborate imperial tea set, which is the earliest, most complete and best of its kind ever found in the world. It is composed of a container, roller, boiler, teaspoon, bowl, teacups, saucers and a canister, satisfying the needs of tea storing, baking, grinding, sieving, boiling and drinking. This tea set is dedicated to the Buddha in the temple. According to “The Accounts of Clothes and Objects,” it was donated by Emperor Xizong. As it is from the imperial palace, it must have been of the highest grade at that time. Today, the tea set is housed in the Treasure Hall of Famen Temple.
Cultural Relics Unearthed
Among the numerous objects unearthed from the underground palace, there are 20 pieces of glazed ware from eastern Roman Empire or
Islamic countries. They were brought into China by merchants travelling along the Silk Road.
Mise porcelain (olive green porcelain) was specially made in the famous Yuezhou Kiln during the Tang Dynasty. As the finest tribute to the imperial palace, it is extremely rare. During the Song Dynasty (AD 960–1279), the craft of making mise porcelain was gradually lost. Since then, the exquisite porcelain— described by Lu Guimeng (died in AD 881), poet of the Tang Dynasty, as “glittering like the dew in autumn is the porcelain, which takes on the green hue of the mountain”—had fallen into oblivion. As a consequence, people often read of the porcelain in ancient books of Tang and Song dynasties, but did not know what it was. Some people said it referred to the mysterious formula of a glaze; others said it was only the name of a colour. The puzzle could not be solved for more than 1,000 years until archaeologists saw the record of mise porcelain in “The Accounts of Clothes and Objects” in the underground palace: “There are seven mise porcelain bowls, each with two silver lines; there are six mise porcelain plates and saucers.” “Mise” turns out to be a secret formula of a glaze. Exactly 13 precious vessels have been found in the underground palace, together with an octagonal vase also identified as mise porcelain. Thus, more than 1,000 years later, people were able to see the mise porcelain with their own eyes.
During the Tang Dynasty, the making of silk in China had reached a peak. The silk fabrics in the underground palace can be taken as high testimony. Most of them were donated by empresses. A case in point is Wu Zetian’s embroidered skirt, which is extremely precious. According to
“The Accounts of Clothes and Objects,” there are more than 700 pieces of silk fabric in the temple. Of them, the bestpreserved are damask, satin, gauze, silk floss and embroidery as well as other silks printed, painted, mounted or embroidered with gold threads. This was the first time that the diamondpatterned brocade and the twirled gold threads have been found. The twirled gold thread on the diamondpatterned brocade is only about 0.1 mm in diameter. There is the remnants of the damaged Pengzhenshen Bodhisattva Silk Wrapper. One square centimetre of the wrapper consists of 72 warp and 14 weft threads. This embroidery was done with a variety of stitches, such as flat stitch, back stitch and couching stitch. Its craftsmanship is exceedingly exquisite.
In the underground palace, there are 14 carved stones, including the table reading “The Inscription of Sending the Buddha’s Relic in Xiantong Era of the Great Tang,” the tablet reading “The Accounts of the Clothes, Silver and Gold Objects Bestowed by the Emperor and of the Sacrifices Offered to the Buddha’s Relic,” and ones reading “White-marble Tent,” “Ashoka Pagoda,” “Stone Box” and “Heavenly King’s Statue.”
In Famen Temple, the oldest sutra was Nirvana Sutra on the “ThousandBuddha Tablet” engraved during the period of Empress Wu Zetian (reign: AD 690–705), but it has long been lost. During the reign of Emperor Wuzong of Tang (AD 841–847), a movement against Buddha developed, resulting in the destruction of many sutras in the temple. Since then, the monks had been collecting and repairing sutras. After half of the pagoda collapsed, the Buddhist scriptures were retrieved. They were Pilu Canon, all the prefaces to Puning Canon, and the catalogue of the Tantra. In the temple there are also many precious Buddhist statues. During the Ming Dynasty, on the 13-storey pagoda there were 88 niches, each of which contained a Buddhist statue. In 1939 when repairing the pagoda, people only found 68 statues. Later, the number rose to 98. In some statues, they discovered sutras concealed during the Ming Dynasty and in the period of Republic of China.
Nowadays a new pagoda in the shape of “putting the palms together” has been erected. In its underground palace, the Buddha’s relic is enshrined. This underground palace, 100 times larger than the old one, can hold 2,000 people. Its great hall with an area of 24,000 sq.m can hold 20,000 people.
The underground palace in Famen Temple, where the cultural treasures were buried for more than 1,000 years, not only provides a glimpse into the life of the Tang imperial family, but also gives a faithful picture of the ancient Buddhist holy site.