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Underground Palace

An Introduction to Underground Palace

Most ancient buildings in China were built on solid ground. Usually nothing was built underground. The pagoda, however, was unique in having an underground palace, called the dragon palace or the dragon cave. This special structure is not found in other buildings, such as palaces, temples or multistoreyed buildings. It was added to a Buddhist pagoda to preserve Buddhist relics. According to a survey, Buddhist relics were not buried underground in India, but kept inside the pagodas. When the pagoda was introduced to China, it was combined with China's traditional burial system.

Whenever a pagoda was built, an underground palace was constructed first to preserve the relics and other objects to be buried with the dead. This underground palace was similar to the underground palaces of the mausoleums of emperors and kings in ancient China, but it was usually much smaller and contained fewer funerary objects. The most important thing in an underground palace of a pagoda is a stone container with layer upon layer of cases made of stone, gold, silver, jade and other materials. The innermost case contains the Buddhist relics. The funerary objects in the palace may include copies of Buddhist scriptures and statues of Buddha. Underground palaces were usually built of brick and stone in square, hexagonal, octagonal or round shapes. Occasionally such a structure was built inside the pagoda or semiunderground.

In olden times some superstitious people believed that certain pagodas had been built on "sea holes" to prevent sea water from surging out. If the pagoda fell, the place would be submerged by the sea. The myth came from ignorance of the structure of underground palaces. Sometimes when an underground palace became damaged over the years, underground water would seep into it, and people would mistake it for a "sea hole." Since Liberation in 1949, thorough investigations have been made in the underground palaces in many important pagodas in Beijing, Hebei, Jiangsu, Hubei and other parts of the country.

For a general understanding of underground pagoda palaces in China let's look at the underground palace of the sarira pagoda at Jingzhi Temple in Dingzhou, Hebei Province. The name of this particular underground palace was the sarira cabinet, which was inscribed on the wall of the palace, located in the middle of the pagoda's foundation. A stone shaped like a roof, 60 centimeters deep in the ground, was placed on top of a square hole leading down to the underground palace. The palace room is not an exact square, its east wall being 2.2 meters, west wall 2.1 meters, north wall 2.17 meters and south wall 2.2 meters wide. An arched door is on the south wall. The walls, 2.34 meters high, are joined to the ceiling interlocking brackets. All four walls have murals depicting heavenly kings, Indra, Brahma, boys and maidservants. On the north wall characters read "True Relics of Sakyamuni", and on both sides are paintings of his ten great disciples. The most incredible thing is that the colors of the columns, brackets, beams and murals are as fresh and bright as if new. Such completely fresh mural paintings of the Song Dynasty cannot be found in buildings aboveground.

A great number of cultural relics were also excavated from this underground palace, including gold and silver ware, porcelain, glassware and wood carvings. Since this pagoda was reconstructed during the Song Dynasty and many funerary objects from deteriorated sites of the Sui and Tang dynasties were also buried in the palace, a few gilded bronze cases of the Sui Dynasty and two stone coffins containing relics of the Tang Dynasty were also unearthed. The large stone case in the middle of the underground palace had been in the basement of the Sui Dynasty pagoda and was replaced after the pagoda was reconstructed. The inscriptions on the stone case indicated its contents and date of burial. Inside were three carved gold coffins, four silver pagodas and a lot of gold and silver ware, porcelain, glazed objects, pearls and other relics.

The underground pagoda palaces resulted from combining the Indian system of burying Buddhist relics in pagodas with the traditional Chinese system of tomb burial.

In cleaning out and repairing old pagodas, many underground palaces and Buddhist and cultural relics buried in them were discovered. Objects found in the Iron Pagoda at Ganlu Temple in Zhenjiang and Huqiu Pagoda in Suzhou, Jiangsu Province, Qianshengxiang Pagoda at Yellow Crane Tower in Wuchang, Hubei Province, the Twin Pagodas at Qingshou Temple in Beijing, Wanjin Pagoda in Nong'an, Jilin Province, and Qianxun Pagoda at Chongsheng Temple in Dali, Yunnan Province, have all provided valuable data for the study of underground pagoda palaces.

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