Monday, September 22, 2008

Four Gates Pagoda

The Four Gates Pagoda is a Sui Dynasty stone Chinese pagoda located in central Shandong , China. It is thought to be the oldest remaining pavilion-style stone pagoda in China. The oldest extant brick-built pagoda in China is the 40 m tall Songyue Pagoda of 523 AD.

The Four Gates Pagoda is located at the foot of Qinglong Mountain, near Liubu Village, in Licheng District, under the administration of Jinan City, about 33 kilometers southeast of the city of Jinan proper. To the west of the pagoda once stood the Shentong Temple , which is now in ruins.

According to an inscription on a stone tablet which was discovered inside the pagodas ceiling in 1972, the pagoda was "built in the seventh year of the period of the Sui Dynasty". This corresponds to the year 611 AD, near the end of the dynasty. During the Sui Dynasty, stone and brick were introduced as material for building pagodas. The Four-Gates Pagoda was build from blocks quarried from a hard local rock. All extant older stone pagodas are sculptured pagodas or columns in the shape of a pagoda. The simple design of the Four Gates Pagoda is typical for one-storey, pavilion-style pagodas: It has a square cross-section delineated by plane side walls. All elements of the structure are symmetrical with four identical sides each facing one of the four cardinal directions. In the center of each wall is a door with straight sides and round arch on top . The roof of the pagoda is pyramid shaped. It consists of 23 tiers of overlapping stone slabs and is supported by 5 tiers of stone eaves. The tip of the roof is occupied by a stone steeple. The overall shape of the steeple resembles a box-shaped pagoda which is carved with scriptures and sits on its own pedestal with stone corner decorations in the shape of banana leaves. The spire of the steeple is made up of 5 stone discs. The total height of the pagoda is 10.4 meters; each side is 7.4 meters long.

The interior of the pagoda is dominated by a large central pillar with a square cross-section like the walls of the pagoda, between the surface of the central pillar and the inner side of the walls is a corridor which leads around the entire pillar. The roof of the pagoda is supported by 16 triangular beams which link the outer walls to the central pillar. On each of the four sides of the central pillar, behind the gates, a seated sculpture is located. The four sculptures are: the "Subtle-voiced" Buddha on the northern wall, the Ratnasambhava Buddha on the southern wall, the Akshobhya Buddha on the eastern wall, and the Amitayus Buddha on the western wall. On the base of the statues is a dedication inscription dated to the year 544 AD . According to the inscription, a high-ranking military and civil official named Yang Xian Zhou commissioned the Buddha statues to commemorate his ancestors on occasion of the anniversary of his father's death. This suggests that the statues are significantly older than the pagoda which houses them. The pagoda may thus have been build for the purpose of housing these sculptures.

The head of one of the four Buddha statues in the pagoda, the Akshobhya Buddha seated on the east wall, was sawed off and stolen in 1997. The head came eventually into the possession of a group of business people from Taiwan, who presented it to Dharma Drum Mountain Foundation in Peitou, Taipei, to be exhibited in the foundation's Museum of Buddhist History and Culture. After the origin of the head was determined, it was returned to its original location in 2002.

Next to the pagoda stands an ancient pine tree known as the "Nine-tip Pine" or "Thousand Year Pine" since it is believed to be more than thousand years old. Two other pagodas dating from the Tang Dynasty stand near the Four-Gates Pagoda: The Dragon-and-Tiger Pagoda and the Minor Dragon-and-Tiger Pagoda.

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