Mount Emei – China’s Sacred Mountain
A mountain, dotted with hundreds of Buddhist temples and crested with a giant, golden statue, Mount Emei has been a place of pilgrimage as long as the trees that cover its slopes have been standing. When we reach its lower paths it is wreathed in shifting swirls of mist. It hangs above the ground, weaving between the close set tree trunks, engulfing then revealing temples at every turn.
The Baguo temple greets visitors at the foot of the mountain, a vast and colourful complex of halls, statues and incense burners. Many people visit here with it being so easily accessible, but its size prevents it feeling too overcrowded. Instead the devotion of the Buddhist visitors is touching. They bow several times in front of numerous statues as they work their way from one magnificent hall to the next. Great clouds of perfumed smoke dance up from lighted cones of incense, creeping upwards past red, gold and green paintwork, the clustered white swirls contrasting with the primary coloured carvings. The temples here are my favourite in China. They seem to hold the devotion of their visitors more tightly than in other places. The ever present scent of incense mingles with the striking of bells to bring devotees back to the wonder of the present moment. Perhaps because they are hidden away slightly, and perhaps in part because of the haunting mists, they feel sacred and special – places of safety, comfort and devotion.
Fubo temple, just a kilometre away, is now a nunnery. Slightly less obvious than Baguo, it is reached by a long, pine needle strewn path and a majestic flight of broad stone steps. More out of the way, it has a quieter, very peaceful atmosphere. The lighted deity seated in the first hall can be seen before you even cross under the first elaborate gate and begin your ascent. From there the halls continue backwards up the hill, each growing in grandeur until the rewarding final hall filled with several giant golden buddhas. They are seated side by side, their benevolent faces smiling down kindly on all who enter. Off to one side is another hall, elevated above the rest and reached through prettily landscaped gardens. A classical wooden structure, it is filled with statue after statue of gaudily painted gods. The figures are larger than life, the colours as sickly sweet as a box of macaroons. Their expressions are exaggerated, each grin almost a grimace, each frown a terrifying warning. In the centre stands a bronzed statue, a woman with a four sided face and many arms in many poses. Her outstretched limbs seem to hold back the gargoyles around her, to almost support the roof itself. The rain drums down on the wooden roof, heavy and insistent, encasing us with these frozen figures. It makes this hall almost a haven, eerily separated from the world outside where the weather lashes the trees. Inside, all is hushed apart from the beating of the rain drops like a pulse on the roof.
The next morning we aim for the summit. Blessed with a clear day, the crowds are off-putting but the view is breath taking. After taking a massive group cable car, we reach the top. It is crowned with a huge golden statue of Puxian seated in a lotus flower. The gold shines against the azure sky as the fluffy white clouds streak behind Puxian’s proud head. There are several temples up here at the summit, but the most amazing thing of all is the view. Up here, we are above the clouds. You can look down and see the world beneath you, so distant and un-real. And then suddenly it is gone, obscured by a mass of white, a cloud passing through you and up into the heavens, blurring and shifting the view in front of you. The clouds are never still – they shift and rise like smoke, cloaking the landscape and then evaporating upwards out of all recognition. You can see the view for miles and then suddenly all you can see is an untouchable wall of fog. Where the world was one second ago is now no more than mist. Nature transforms before your eyes as clouds form and gather beneath you, rise up over everything and then vanish overhead, floating upwards to some long forgotten place where no human can ever go. The curtain rises and it falls. Sun shines down from above, fighting the insistent wind and battling to illuminate something as insubstantial as a whisper – the creeping, intangible sea of clouds.
Words copyright of Bonnie Radcliffe.
Photographs copyright of Bonnie Radcliffe and Liam McCarthy.