Hanging on a prayer

It only gets 3 hours of sunlight a day. That’s one reason why the Hanging Monastery of Hengshan or in Chinese, Xuankong Si (悬空寺) is still in relatively good shape today despite its 1,500-year history. The faded paintwork aside, one marvels at how the place has defied time and gravity to cling so tenaciously to its place on the side of a mountain for so many years.

Over the centuries, despite the thousands of pilgrims, worshippers and tourists tramping through its corridors and walkways, the structure remains intact in its aerie. And don’t be fooled. It’s not held in place by the thin flimsy pillars either. Those, according to the guide, were just placed to give some reassurance of structural stability to those who look with scepticism, disbelief and awe at the architecture. In reality, it’s really the cross-beams driven deep into the mountain that still supports the weight of the temple. 

A visit to the Hanging Monastery is usually combined with a visit to the Yungang Grottoes in most packaged tours out of Datong. The two-hour drive out of Datong first cuts through endless brown plains and then winds up and down the foothills of Mt Heng before arriving at the monastery. Along the way, you pass cave dwellings, the occasional tractor, frozen streams, long concrete walls with slogans on them and some villages made out of short concrete blocks. Being in early winter, the fields are dusted with snow. Other than that, the colour of the season is brown in all its dull shades, made flatter than usual by a weak wintry sun.

At first you don’t see the monastery. It blends into the rocky contours. But as you near the carpark, the heart starts to beat a bit faster as you see the familiar roofs and balconies from all the pictures in magazines, books and websites loom large above you. I suppose the reaction of those who see it for the first time would be the same – whether a 21st century traveler or a poet from the Tang dynasty. There is the same slack-jawed wonder and a frisson of thrill to know that you’ll be walking those narrow corridors soon, the closest you get to walking in midair sans the skydiving parachute. The great Tang poet Li Bai was said to be so gobsmacked at the sight that he wrote the words “壮观” (fantastic sight) on a rock (below). I’m not sure if it is really true that he wrote the words but I think the reaction is real enough.

The monastery is sited in a canyon where a river used to rush through. This was one reason why it was built so high up – to avoid the seasonal floods. Today, a dam upriver has tamed the rushing waters. With the ice and the snow, the sight of the dam towering above a short way off is still a dramatic sight (below). I was tempted to walk the riverbed – now dried up and frozen, but time was limited.

The Hanging Monastery lies across the river from a big carpark lot and the ticket booths (entry at RMB130 per adult). We crossed the ice-crusted river by a new suspension bridge (below) happy to be passing visitors who were leaving for the day.

We had read that in other seasons, it would not be unusual to either queue for hours before being let in thanks to the crowds of tourists, or to be jostling with a crowd up there – dicey considering you don’t know if the load-bearing capacity of a 1,500 year-old building would stand the weight of several hundred people or more (there is such a thing as material degeneration after all). On top of that, the walkways are narrow, the landings jut out into nothingness and the short balustrades are all that stands between you and a 55m drop into the rocks.

But we were lucky. Arriving late in the afternoon in early winter had its advantages. We had the whole place to ourselves. All we had was the stillness, the snow, the wind, the evening light; all of which lent a pensive otherworldly air to the ancient monastery. We were seeing it as it was and probably – barring a collapse – and always will be.

Rooms and pavilions rise out of the rock, connected to the building by narrow stairs, usually sans railings. There seemed to be no plan to the overall design but this added to the higgledy-piggledy charm. Imagine fresh from construction, what a brightly painted wondrous sight it must have been – with the eaves, rafters, walls and doors painted in bright yellows, reds, greens and periwinkle blues. Today the colours have faded but still remarkably preserved enough to give you a good idea of what it must have been like.

The views are of course, fantastic.

The children were thrilled to be walking around the temple – lots of oohs and ahhs at the view which proves that culture can give as good a thrill as a roller coaster ride! We kept an eagle eye on them of course. The balustrades were really low and once or twice I had to yank someone back from leaning too far out.

The thrill, the view and the stupendous architecture aside, the Monastery is an interesting place of worship which houses the gods of Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism in one place. Religious harmony could be one reason why this was never destroyed through the change in dynasties. In fact over the years different dynasties and governments did their share of maintenance and preservation, which is probably another reason why the monastery has survived till today.

Like its 2000-year-old counterpart in Rome, the Pantheon, I marvel at the mathematics and the engineering that got this constructed in a time when sophisticated measuring and building tools were non-existent. And like the Pantheon which once hosted a galaxy of gods, so too does the Hanging Monastery.

The Chinese name of the Hanging Monastery is Xuan Kong Si (悬空寺) which roughly translates to mean “suspended in air/space”. On so many levels, that is so apt for this timeless place. Suspend your disbelief and scepticism, take a deep breath and go walk on air here.

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