Architecture Cultural Etiquette Vignettes

Dragons on the rooftop

Well, I’m assuming that they are dragons. They could be nagas. But this is the eaves of the roofs of Lingyin Temple in Hangzhou, China, so I’m going to go with (albeit skinny, serpentine style) dragons.

I didn’t really give this temple enough time. I focused most of my attention on the smaller temples higher up in the mountains. Mountains being relative. The Wulin Mountains around Hangzhou may be better described as large hills if you are from someplace like Tucson, or East Tennessee, or Switzerland. Nonetheless be prepared to climb up lots of steps – nicely stone dressed steps – so no sliding along on steep dirt here. Very civilized. Many visitors wore pretty shoes and cute skirts.

In general, the higher up you climbed, the less crowded it got. And avoiding crowds is my usual goal. But Lingyin Temple is the biggest and most famous of the temples here, so I bought a ticket and wandered through it one time. (I did the smaller temples twice.) It was super easy to find by following the crowds. And of course, you could rely on the behavior of other visitors as a guide regarding what to do. When you enter the temple area, you are handed incense sticks, which I had no clue what to do with or how I was going to get them lit, etc.

I’ve tried to learn the basics of the main world religions, so I have some clue what to do or not do when I visit a religious place. A huge percentage of major architectural wonders of the world are religious places. For example, in Jewish places, never bow. Taoist or Shamanic typically ban photography. Japan you need to do the ritual hand & mouth washing and remove your shoes before entering. Here at the Buddhist temples around Hangzhou, shoes on was ok, bowing was ok, photography outdoors was ok. I never was sure about taking photos inside the temples of the actual Buddha statues, so I only did so if I was alone inside. And nobody seemed to worry about turning their back towards a Buddha statue.

Much to my surprise, the temples in the Hangzhou West lake scenic area are functioning temples – they have resident monks. And visitors were being permitted to engage in Buddhist practices. Incense sticks were readily available and smokers filled with sand to plant them in after lighting them and saying your prayers. There were also tables in front of Buddha statues were people were leaving gifts (of fresh fruits mainly). Some visitors were even bowing to the Buddhas.

My attention was primarily captivated by the dragons. Up high on the roofs. Tails and serpentine bodies looked to be plunging into the top ridge of the roof, and dragon faces protruding along roof edges, fascias, and under the eaves. Dragons (or nagas) providing protection for the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. The Buddhism in China was imported from India and Tibet, where scary looking demons, nagas, and other protectors are the norm.

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