White Horse Temple in Henan province, the oldest Buddhist shrine in China, has a strong Indian connection. It is believed that Buddhism spread in the country from India during the first century of Christian era when the Eastern Han dynasty was in power. Since then, the religion has influenced art, culture, literature, philosophy and medicine in China.
Built by the Ming emperor in AD 68, White Horse Temple is referred to as the ‘Cradle of Chinese Buddhism’ and is now a major attraction among not only pilgrims but also tourists and history lovers.
The temple is located 12-13 km east of Luoyang in Henan province, outside the walls of the ancient capital of Eastern Han dynasty. It can be reached by taking bus number 56 from Luoyang railway station. The journey may take around 40 minutes. On the southern side of the temple are the Manghan Mountain and the Lucoche River.
According to legend, White Horse Temple was built based on a dream of the Ming Emperor who ruled China from AD 28-75. In the dream, the emperor saw a god having a golden glow flying around his palace. After consultations with the scholars in his kingdom, the emperor realized that the god who appeared in his dream was the Buddha, who earlier lived in India. The Chinese emperor soon sent emissaries to India to learn more about Buddhism.
When the emissaries returned from India, they brought texts on the principles of the Buddha on the back of two white horses. Two Buddhist monks from India named Dharma Ratna and Kashyapa Mathanga also accompanied the emissaries. These monks translated the Buddha’s principles to the Chinese language and the place where they stayed later became the White Horse Temple. Moreover, after their death, the monks were laid to rest beside the temple. Over a thousand other Buddhist monks lived in the temple later.
Built in Ming architectural style on an area of 32 acres, the temple has several halls and courtyards extending from the main gate to the central portion. There is a pond with several fountains which can be reached by crossing three stone bridges from the main gateway. At the gate, two horses referred to in the legend welcome visitors. However, they are coloured green.
Numerous signs and display boards guide pilgrims inside the temple, following which they can reach the various halls. The boards explain the significance of the idols installed inside the halls, which are named ‘Hall of greetings’, ‘Hall of six founders’, ‘Head of Jade Buddha’, ‘Hall of heavenly kings’, ‘Hall of Mahavira’ and ‘Hall of changing Ge’.
Visitors can also view the Qingliang balcony, where the Indian monks sat to translate the authentic Buddhist philosophy to Chinese, Qiyun pagoda, the residential area of monks and charming gardens.
Indian Prime Ministers P V Narasimha Rao and Atal Behari Vajpayee have visited the White Horse Temple, which is considered to be a symbol of the ancient cultural ties between India and China. In April 2005, both countries signed an agreement to build a Buddhist temple in Indian style on the garden at the western side of the White Horse Temple. Based on this agreement, China allotted 2,666.67 square metres of land where a temple came up in 2008. India provided the design and supplied the construction materials and Buddha idol. The country also carried out landscaping and arranged technical advice from architects and other experts. The new temple flaunts the traditional Indian architectural style and is modelled on Sanchi and Sarnath, the renowned Buddhist pilgrimage sites in the country. A two-storey building having a circular shape, the temple has walls illustrated with paintings of Jataka tales and Buddha’s life. India’s then President Pratibha Patil officially inaugurated the temple in 2010.
White Horse Temple is crowded from April 10-25 every year as several visitors arrive to take part in the Peony flower festival held every year. Started in the seventh century, the festival has maintained its significance to the present day.
Even though there are no restrictions on the public, visitors to White Horse Temple are under strict surveillance in view of national security concerns. Moreover, the chief monk constantly monitors the country’s political situation from the television in his room and identity cards are mandatory even for monks living inside the temple.