Famen Temple: History, Architecture & Relics

Instructor: David Juliao

David has a bachelor's degree in architecture, has done research in architecture, arts and design and has worked in the field for several years.

In this lesson, we will explore the Famen Temple located outside of Xi'an in China. Learn about the history and main buildings of this beautiful Buddhist compound. Also, discover its most relevant architectural characteristics and the relics in it.

The Famen Temple

China is often known for its ancient traditions and temples. One of them stands outside the city of Xi'an, a huge complex that has been a place of worship for more than 1,500 years; the Famen Temple. It has been rebuilt many times and with China's rapid growth in recent years, it was expanded with the construction of new areas, which make the large millenary complex now look tiny.

The Famen Temple is a Buddhist compound located in the town of Famen, about 80 miles west from Xi'an, the Chinese city famous for the Terracotta Army. The shrine is considered one of the largest Buddhist complexes in China and is well-known for housing a relic supposed to be a finger bone from Gautama Buddha, the main figure of that religion.

The Foguang Avenue of the Famen Temple
The Foguang Avenue of the Famen Temple

History of the Famen Temple

The exact date on which the area became a place of worship is unknown, although it is considered that the first structures were built by the end of the 5th century CE. The temple was an important royal complex during the Tang dynasty (7th to 10th century) and it was greatly expanded, becoming one of the largest monasteries at the time, with over 5,000 monks. In the course of wars in the 9th century, the temple was closed. A basement hall, housing many relics, was probably sealed during those days. The temple was later restored and continued to be a place of worship.

In the 16th century, the Pagoda was destroyed by an earthquake and was later rebuilt, acquiring its current design. The temple was renovated again during the following centuries and in the 19th century, it started to be used as a military facility so it became severely damaged. It was restored once more in the late 1930's.

In 1981, part of the Pagoda collapsed and during the latest restoration in 1987, the long-forgotten underground hall was discovered. It contained plenty of valuable objects, including the finger bone of Buddha, found on the very day of his birthday. Such findings drew a lot of attention to the temple and further encouraged its expansion, which took place in recent years.

The Famen Temple Complex

Nowadays, the Famen Temple covers a huge area and is formed by two main sectors: the old traditional compound and a large new zone built in 2009.

The old complex is a large monastery consisting of about 24 courtyards and it was built along an axis running from south to north, common in early Buddhist temples. Along the axis, we find the entrance gate, the True Relic Pagoda, which is the most important structure of the complex, and several halls located behind and on the sides of the pagoda.

The True Relic Pagoda was given its name because the finger relic is believed to be real. It was originally a brick structure but during the last reconstruction it was reinforced using concrete, then covered in brick. The building keeps its traditional design consisting of an octagonal layout and 13 levels, each one has a small roof with the outer end curved upward.

The True Relic Pagoda
The True Relic Pagoda

The underground hall found underneath the pagoda is made almost entirely out of marble and limestone. This room was expanded and renovated after being found in 1987 and is now open as a museum, showing some of the art pieces found there.

The new complex consists of a huge avenue, known as Foguang Avenue, which runs from south to north for almost a mile, connecting the entrance with the main structure, the Namaste Dagoba. Large statues of Buddha are located on each side of the avenue, representing important moments of his life and enlighten. The old area is located on the northeastern side of the avenue.

A Buddha Statue along Foguang Avenue
A Buddha Statue along Foguang Avenue

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