Famen Temple Reveals its Secrets at Asian Civilisations Museum

Located about 120 kilometers west of Xi’an, China, the Famen Temple Pagoda is believed to have been first built not long after Buddhism was introduced to China by the Emperor Ashoka (3rd century BC). It is believed to have been one of only four pagodas in China to have received a true relic of Buddha (a finger bone). Originally made out of wood, it gained importance during the Tang dynasty (618-907) because of the relic it held and its location near the royal capital of Xi’an, with many emperors coming over the years to venerate the relic and leave behind important offerings. The temple remained an important place of worship for centuries, and the pagoda was rebuilt as a 13-storey brick octagon in 1579. Yet, over time its glory faded like that of Xi’an, and by 1981, when half of the pagoda collapsed because of torrential rains and subsequent flooding, its glorious past had been largely forgotten.

It was only during excavation work at the site in 1987 that an underground seven-chamber crypt was revealed. Inside was a true archeological treasure. According to records found by the crypt, the crypt had been regularly opened by Tang emperors to deposit offerings, but had finally been sealed in 874 during the reign of Emperor Xizong.

Some of these treasures are now on loan to the Asian Civilisations Museum, as part of the exhibition, “Secrets of the Fallen Pagoda: Treasures from Famen Temple and the Tang Court.” They attest to an era of great economic prosperity, international trade, and exchanges between the cultures of East and West during the Tang Dynasty, as China was actively engaged with the wider world through the Silk Route.

“Famen Temple is a very important site, not only for its religious significance, as it is believed to have held a finger bone relic of the Buddha, but also because the objects discovered (there) attest to the high levels of artistry that was achieved at the time,” Kan Shuyi, curator (East Asia) at the Asian Civilisations Museum said.

Most of these objects were made in the later part of the Tang dynasty (9th Century), but the museum also selected some from earlier periods (7th and 8th Century) to complement the display and put the later works in context, Kan said.

The exhibition opens with beautiful Tang funerary objects in sancai glaze, from tomb guardians and military officials to camels and horses that would have been left to accompany the departed in their new life. Other sections are devoted to Buddhism, foreigners in China, and women in Tang China, but the pièce de résistance is the section devoted to the Famen temple and crypt. Here you will get the opportunity to see items like a beautiful gilded silver basket with a lattice structure decorated with flying geese (circa 874) that showcases the melding of aesthetics and function (lattice work to let the air circulate) in Tang metalwork. It is one of the many tea utensils that were found at the temple and Kan explained the basket probably stored cakes of roasted tea.

A basin in partly gilded silver entirely decorated with pairs of ducks surrounded by sprays of pomegranate and cloud scrolls is another of the treasures of the crypt, one of the largest Tang works in metal to have been found to date, weighting 6.2kg. The basin would have been made in the south of China and is particularly interesting as between the outer wall and inner wall are mirror images of each others.

“These are wonderful examples of Tang metal works; delicately made objects. There is real artistry here,” Kan added.

The exhibition also presents some of the five nested reliquaries in gold and silver, which like nested dolls, were used to host the innermost coffin-shaped reliquary in white jade that had held the finger bone (the bone is not part of the exhibition).

“Secrets of the Fallen Pagoda: Treasures from Famen Temple and the Tang Court” runs until May 4.

As first published on BlouinArtinfo.com