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The Temple of Heaven Beijing

JANUARY, 2020/ LIFESTYLE

The subway leading to the Temple of Heaven was packed. I took exit A2 from Tiantan Dongmen station and it was a short walk to the entrance gate. I queued up to buy my ticket to find out that they only accepted cash, WTF, everywhere usually accepts mobile payment and some places don't even accept cash. Annoyed, I headed off to find an ATM. Then made my way back to the ticket office. I bought the through ticket which covers entry to the park and the three main attractions: the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, The Imperial Vault of Heaven and the Circular Mound Altar. The ticket cost 28 RMB, as it is off season so cheaper, I don't know how much it would be in the high season, but probably not too much more.

The Temple of Heaven was built in 1420. The emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties worshipped Heaven here and offered sacrifices to pray for bumper harvests and enough rainfall. Most of the structures were built during the Qing Dynasty, but followed the plans for the layout devised during Jiajing's reign in the Ming Dynasty. The complex covers 273 hectares and includes many buildings and monuments. I headed along the path, making my way to the Animal-sacrifice Pavilion. This was closed off to the public, so I took a walk around the park area at the north of the complex before heading to the Long Corridor. The corridor is 293 metres in length and is made up of 72 rooms, which all share the same back wall, roof ridge and eaves. On the eve of the sacrificial ceremony, the corridor was lit up with lanterns and all the offerings were transported to the altars along the corridor. There were quite a lot of people about, tourists like myself, who had come to look around this famous site, but also rather a lot of locals, who were here to meet up with their pals and enjoy the park. Quite a few mahjong games were going on and money was being bet on who the winners of those games would be. As I made my way further along the Long Corridor, I came to the North Divine Kitchen. The east hall in this courtyard is known as the Left Divine Kitchen and the west hall as the Right Divine Kitchen. These kitchens specialised preparing offerings such as cereals, wine, objects made of jade and silk, and the sacrificial cattle for the ceremony of praying for the grains. More than 90 cooks and kitchen servants were employed there. I wish I could have went inside for a look around, but it was closed.

I continued along to the end of the Long Corridor and came to the entrance to the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests. Tickets need to be scanned again to enter here. This is the iconic building shown when advertising the Temple of Heaven. There were a couple of smaller buildings in front of the main building, so I went to take a look around those first. I headed into the East Annex Hall, which was constructed in 1420. The internal design of the room has changed over time as in 1751 Emperor Qianlong removed the original rear hall due to its disorderly arrangement. The front hall was used to house and worship the divine tablets of the attendant gods. As soon as I walked into the hall, I was hit by a rather ripe smell. I took a quick look at the displays, but the smell made me move quickly. I don't know how the attendant s working there coped with it. I went to the West Annex Hall, which smelt slightly better than its eastern partner. It served the same purpose as the Eastern Annex Hall and had undergone the same renovations. I headed over to the main hall, the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, stopping to read the information board first. I was surprised to find out that this building is not the original structure. It had, in fact, been a rectangular building and was originally called the Great Hall for Sacrificial Rituals and was used to worship both heaven and earth. It was rebuilt in 1545 into the round hall with a triple eaved roof, each covered with blue, yellow and green glazed tiles respectively, which symbolized heaven, earth and the mortal world. It was also renamed the Great Hall for Offering Sacrifices during that time. In 1751, the hall was reconstructed and the roof tiles were replaced azure glazed tiles only and it was designated as the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests. It was used exclusively to pray for the good harvests in spring. I headed up the steps to the hall and took.a closer look. I think it looks better from further away and also it was pretty busy with people. Even on a random weekday afternoon, Beijing is still busy. I had a quick look inside the hall, but I felt that there wasn't much to see inside. These buildings are all about their beautiful exteriors. I watched the magpies flying and hopping about. I can't recall seeing magpies before in China and it reminded me of Korea. It was a pretty smoggy day and I was worried that my pictures would look quite dull, but the brightly painted buildings proved a nice contrast to the sky. Around the back of the hall, there was another hall, the Imperial Hall of Heaven. This is where tablets were displayed and worshiped during the ceremony in the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests were held. The emperor would come to this hall the day before the ceremony to burn incense sticks and perform the divine greetings for the transference, and then the officials from the Ministry of Rituals would transfer the tablets to their appropriate places in the main hall. I preferred the interior of this building to that of the main hall. To one side of the hall there was a small doorway with an information board next to it, so I went to read up about it. The Seventy-Year-Old-Door was in 1781, when Hong Li, Emperor Qianlong, was 70 years old. He felt that his health was failing him and so officials from the Ministry of Rituals suggested opening a small door in the west wall of the Imperial Hall of Heaven to shorten his walk. He gladly accepted, but feared that other would use it as a shortcut. So he issued a decree stating that his offspring could only use the door when they reached the age of seventy. Personally, I think it's a bit harsh, why not let them take the easier route. Also none of his offspring ever made it to 70, so no one apart from Qianlong used the door.

I headed out a different way to the one I had come in. I exited via the main gate to the hall. The main entrance has three entrances; the middle one was exclusively for the God of Heaven, while the east one was for the emperor and the west one for officials. To the left of the entrance, there was a huge round green glazed firewood stove. It was used in rituals. A washed and shaven calf would be put in the stove and burnt along with pine twigs and reeds to welcome the God of Heaven before the main ceremony. After the main ceremony was completed, all the offerings, placards and scrolls would be respectfully transferred to the stove and the emperor would watch over them being burnt in a ritual known as the Observation of the Burning. There were also eight iron pots on display. These were used to burn the offerings placed in front of the tablets of the first eight generations of the Qing Emperors.

I then walked down the long walkway, which lead to the other places included in my ticket. However, I decided to explore other parts of the park before visiting them. It was a glorious day apart from the smog, so I had an ice cream for my lunch, not the healthiest of choices, but definitely the tastiest. Away from the main sights the park was more peaceful. My strolling took me to the Fasting Palace also known as The Palace of Abstinence. It was the place where the emperor could exercise abstinence from meat, drink, women and dealing with state affairs for the three days before sacrificial rites at the temple. Within the palace there are different buildings for different purposes. It is surrounded by a double wall and a double moat. I wasn't sure if you had to pay to get into the Fasting Palace as there was a ticket booth and another woman guarding the entrance. Since there was zero information in English, not even a price, I decided to skip it and took a walk around the perimeter instead. The moat was empty and I tried to imagine what it would have looked like if it was filled with water. I came to the entrance to another building, it was the Divine Music Office, since I would have needed to buy another ticket to enter it, I decided to skip it. I headed back towards the two other places, that were included in my ticket. However, before I got there I decided to chill on one of the many benches for a bit reading my book and watching all the workmen, whose job it was to maintain the gardens.

I came across a pile of stones, which had once been part of a sacrificial hall in the outer enclosure of the Temple of Heaven. This was where cattle was raised that was to be used in sacrificial rituals in the altars. The building no longer exists and the parts on display were found when work was being done in the area. I entered the ticket gate for the two other attractions that were included in my ticket: the Imperial Vault of Heaven and the Circular Mound Altar. I headed over to the Imperial Vault of Heaven first. It was heaving. I went to to the West Annex Hall before checking out the East Annex Hall, they were pretty similar. The two halls were built in 1530 during the reign of Emperor Jiajing of the Ming Dynasty. The divine tablets were kept in these halls and were mounted on Xumeru pedestals. The West Annex Hall used to house the divine tablets of Gods such as the Nocturnal Brightness (the moon), and the gods of Cloud, Rain, Wind, and Thunder. The East Annex Hall housed the divine tablets for Gods of Great Brightness (the sun) and Polar Stars, Venus, Mercury, Jupiter, Mars, Saturn and other celestial stars. Yu couldn't enter these halls, but you could have a look inside and I liked seeing what was on display. Definitely better and less smelly than the other halls. I really liked the Imperial Vault of Heaven, while it may not be as large or as grand as the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, to me it just looked cuter. I lined up and followed the procession around so that I could get a look inside. The inside was nicer than the other palace, too. The original name of this building was the Hall for Appeasing Gods and was the main hall of the Celestial Treasure House of the Circular Mound Altar. It housed the gods' tablets that were used at the ceremony of worshiping Heaven. In 1538, it was renamed the Imperial Vault of Heaven. In 1752, the current building was built.

I headed back out through the gate and across the way to the Circular Mound Altar. I have to say I was rather unimpressed with it. Maybe it was due to the hordes of tourists, that were on it. I made my way up the steps to the Heavenly Centre Stone. This lies on the upper most terrace of the Circular Mound and it is paved with nine concentric rings of stone slabs with the Heavenly Centre Stone in the centre. Each ring grows bigger by nine stones. Since everyone wanted a selfie with the Heavenly Centre Stone, it was never quiet enough for me to get a photo of it alone. The Circular Mound was a later addition to the temple and was constructed in 1530. The altar was the place where the ceremony for worshiping Heaven was held during the winter solstice. I exited the area through a different Gate and passed the Dressing Terrace. Before the Heaven worshiping ceremony commenced a yellow brocade canopy housing a throne would be erected on the terrace. This is where the Emperor would clean himself and get ready for the ceremony. He would also change back into his normal attire here.

I came out near the South Gate, but since the subway station was nearer to the East Gate, I decided to walk back through the park and exit there as it would be nicer than walking along the busy main roads. I really like the Temple of Heaven and felt like it was easy to spend a good amount of time there. I thought that there might be more spring flowers in bloom, but I guess this isn't the place to see them in Beijing.

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