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The Chongsheng Monastery and The Three Pagodas

Last Updated on 2020/11/03

The Three Pagodas first built in Tang Dynasty are located 1 kilometer northwest of Dali Ancient Town at the foot of Yingle Peak, which are the most magnificent towers in the south of China.

崇圣寺与三塔 The Chongsheng Monastery and The Three Pagodas

The Chongsheng Monastery, which is magnificent and majestic, at the back of the Three Pagodas, is the largest single building scale temple among the Chinese Buddhism monasteries.

Dali Three Pagodas map

Images of The Chongsheng Monastery and The Three Pagodas

Dali Three Pagodas -
The three Dali pagodas in Dali are located along the corners of an ideal equilateral triangle.

Basic Information

Geographic location: It is 1.5 kilometers from the north of Dali Ancient City, with the Cangshan Mountain in the west and Erhai Lake in the east.

Scenic status: the first batch of national cultural relics approved by China State Council, a 4 A national tourist attraction.

Tour time: 2 ~ 3 hours

Travel Tips

  1. It is fantastic to have a birds’-eye view of the Three Pagodas of the Chongsheng Temple from the Cangshan Mountain.


  2. San Wenbi Village near Three Pagodas of Chongsheng Temple is a marble producing and purchasing place.

Recommended Tour Route

Dali Ancient Town → Chongsheng Temple →Three Pagodas → The Jianji Bell → The Hall of the Bronze Rain Statue of Goddess of Mercy

Key Points

Features and functions of the Three Pagodas, the Jianji Bell, the Bronze Rain Statue of Goddess of Mercy, history of Chongsheng Temple, “bests” of the temple.

Dali is a city with a long history and rich cultural heritage. Among many cultures remains, the Three Pagodas of Chongsheng Temple is the most famous. It is the symbol of Dali as well as one of the symbols of Yunnan. This tourist attraction is world-famous for its cultural relics.

Being one of the oldest and grandest Buddhist architectures in south China, the Three Pagodas of the Chongsheng Temple is always related to the ancient culture of Yunnan. It is a cultural relic under national protection for its historical and cultural value. It is also a 4A tourist attraction that visitors should not miss.

Chongsheng Temple

Chongsheng Temple was first built in the mid and late stages of the Nanzhao Kingdom when Buddhism began to flourish. In the Dali Kingdom period, when Buddhism reached its heyday, Chongsheng Temple “covered an area of 7 square li (about 2.5 square kilometers), had three pavilions, seven towers, and nine halls, 890 rooms and 11,400 Buddha statues”. In the same period, nine of its kings abdicated in succession and became abbots in this Temple. So, Dali was known at that time as “the Kingdom of Buddhism” or “Miao Xiang Kingdom” (the Kingdom of Buddhist Sutra), and the splendid imperial, Chongsheng Temple was renowned as “Capital of Buddhism” and became the largest Buddhist temple in Southeast Asia and a center for Buddhist cultural exchange.

Between the Tang Dynasty and the Ming Dynasty (618—1644), Chongsheng Temple had five important implements: the Three Pagodas, Big Jianji Bell, Bronze Rain Statue of the Goddess of Mercy, the Yuan Horizontal board inscribed with “Capital of Buddhism”, and the Ming Dynasty golden statue of “the Three Saints”. Xu Xiake, a well-known Ming Dynasty traveler had recorded the grandeur and magnificence of the Chongsheng Temple in his “Travelogue” when he visited Dali during the late stage of the Ming Dynasty. He wrote: “The Three Pagodas stand like a tripod; The Bronze Rain Statue of the Goddess of Mercy is as tall as three zhang (about 10 meters); The Jianji Big Bell is especially large and over one zhang in diameter and one chi (about 0.3 meters) in thickness. Its sound can be heard 80 li (40 kilometers) away.”

In the Tongzhi and Xianfeng periods of the Qing Dynasty, the temple was destroyed in wars and by the earthquake in 1925. Only the Three Towering Pagodas survived. In 1961, the State Council designated the Three Pagodas of Chongsheng Temple as one of the first national cultural relics. In 1978 when the three pagodas were renovated, more than 680 valuable cultural relics were discovered in them. The Chongsheng Temple captured worldwide attention again for its profound cultural significance. In 1997 and 1999, the Dali prefecture and Dali city recast and restored the Big Jianji Bell and the Hall of the Bronze Rain Statue of the Goddess of Mercy, and they determined to restore Chongsheng Temple so as to improve the condition of “pagodas without a temple”, as a national cultural relic. Supported by the higher-level leadership and through joint efforts of the institutions concerned, the enormous project of the reconstruction of the temple was finally completed in April 2005.

The newly built Chongsheng Temple is 1,136 meters from east to west and 352 meters from south to north. Based on the architectural designs of famous temples elsewhere and traditional Chinese architecture, this temple embodies the grandness and vastness of the northern architectural style and the refinement and delicacy of the southern style. It is arranged along the main axis and two auxiliary axes with 8 terraces, 9 sections, and 11 levels. Lying in proper order along the main axis are the Square of Golden-ringed Roc (with a golden-ringed roc statue in its middle), the Gate of the Temple (with a two-storied base 4.5 meters high), the Hall of Heavenly Kings (with Mahakala enshrined in the middle flanked by the Four Heavenly Kings), the Hall of Maitreya (with the big-bellied Maitreya and Skanda facing each other in the middle flanked by Eight Heavenly Kings), the Hall of Eleven-faced Goddess of Mercy (a 9-meter statue), the Hall of Great Hero (golden statues of the Three Saints), the Pavilion of Achuoye Goddess of Mercy (a 12-meter statue), Mountain-Lake Grand View Stone Archway, and the Lake Viewing Tower. Along with the two auxiliary axes are the Arhat Hall, the Hall of Eminent Monks (the nine kings who became monks), and Hall of the Founders (six founders of the Zen sect), Hall of Heavenly Kings, the Institute of Buddhism, and bedrooms for monks, Abbot Hall, guest rooms and dining rooms.

The restored Chongsheng Temple has many “bests” amongst the temples in modern China. First, it has the longest of any temple axis in China. Its axis starts from the Dali-Lijiang Road and extends 4 kilometers up the Cangshan Mountain to the Lake-Viewing Tower, 2,199 meters above sea level, including the original Three-Pagoda Park. Second, the Hall of the Great Hero of the temple, 51.7 meters wide and 26 meters high, is the largest Buddhist hall of its kind in China. Third, it has the largest number of gilded Buddha images, based on “Zhang Shengwen Scroll Painting” and the Five-Hundred Statues of the Bamboo Temple in Kunming, the 599 Buddha images of this temple are all gilded bronze. Fourth, the woodcarving on the walls of its Hall of the Great Hero, the “Zhang Shengwen Scroll Painting”, 117 meters long and 18 meters high, is the largest one of its kind in the world. Fifth, the pestle of Buddha’s warrior attendant in this temple is 6 meters long and 1 meter in diameter, which is the largest pestle in the world. Finally, the drum of this temple is 3.1 meters in diameter, being the largest drum in Chinese Buddhist temples.

Three Pagodas

Three Pagodas, including the Qianxun Pagoda, the North Pagoda, and the South Pagoda, are an architectural complex built in the Chongsheng Temple which sits at the foot of Yingle Peak of the Cangshan Mountain, one kilometer away from the west of Dali City. The actual three pagodas were the only remains of the old times until the reconstruction of the Chongsheng Temple.

Qianxun Pagoda

The major pagoda named Qianxun Pagoda was built in the Tang Dynasty. It is a brick tower, hollow, 16 stories with dense eaves, and 69.13 meters in height. It boasts the highest extant pagodas with even-numbered stories. At each side of the pagoda, there are niches for Buddha statues. In front of the pagoda, there is a screen wall facing east, on which four Chinese Characters “yong zheng shan chuan” was engraved. The calligraphy style is bold and vigorous, and each character is 1.7 meters high. It is the handwriting of the grandson of Muying, the King of Qian State, of the Ming Dynasty.

As for the meaning of these four characters, there are two interpretations. Some say that the pagoda, with the Power of Big Birds on its top, controls the Dragon, so it reduces floods. Others believe that it expresses the Ming court’s determination to control Dali because pagodas stand firm forever.

There are stairs inside the pagodas leading to the top. From there, one can have a wonderful overview of the Cangshan Mountain and Erhai Lake.

Small Pagodas in the South and North

The other two smaller pagodas, each has a distance of 70 meters from the major one, stand in the southwest and the northwest facing each other, forming a tripod together with the Qianxun Pagoda. Built-in the Five Dynasties (907~960 A.D.), they are 42.19 meters high, 10 storied, octagonal brick tower with dense eaves. The bodies of these two pagodas are decorated with the relief of Buddha images, lotus, and vases, with different designs at different levels. Each pagoda is topped with a glazed roof. Built on two-storied octagonal bases, these two small pagodas look splendidly beautiful.

The Three Pagodas, standing like three legs of a tripod withstood more than 30 earthquakes and weathered to thousand years of wind and rain, can be called a wonder of architecture. Being the most spectacular pagoda complex in south China, the Three Pagodas are the symbol of Dali Culture.

In 1978, 689 pieces of cultural relics had been excavated from this site. Among them, the most precious ones are the statues of Buddha, Pusa (Bodhisattva), heavenly king, Hercules and scriptures, model pagodas, and the pestle of Buddha’s warrior attendant. The golden statue of Achuoyie Goddess of Mercy, 1,135 grams in weight and 28 centimeters in height, is a rarity. The Three Pagodas is an important place of interest in the Dali National Tourist Area.

Functions of the Three Pagodas

Pagodas originate in India. Early scholars translated it as “Futu”. At first, pagodas were built to keep Buddhist relics and scriptures. In the first century, the pagoda was introduced to China together with Buddhism. It is worshiped as Buddha’s remains. People built temples around it later to do Buddhist services. Since then, the pagoda has become an important religious architecture in Buddhist temples.

Generally speaking, pagodas have three functions: to pay reverence for Buddhism and spread Buddhism, to guard against disasters and ward off evils, and to add beauty to the nearby landscapes. The three Pagodas of Dali possesses all these three functions. Besides, it has high artistic and cultural value.

The Jianji Bell

In 1997, The Bell of the Nanzhao Kingdom named Jianji was recast and stroke on July 1st when Hong Kong was reunified. The newly cast bell is 3.86 meters in height and 16 tons in weight. Xu Xiake, in his travel notes, recorded the original bell like this: “This bell is extremely large, about one zhang (about 10 meters) in diameter, nearly one chi (0.33 meters) thick, and its sound reaches 18 li (about 9 kilometers).” This big bell is seen as one of the five important Buddhist implements of the Chongsheng Temple. “The Bell Shakes the Kingdom of Buddhism”, one of the 16 old attractions of Dali, referred to this bell. It ranks No. One in Yunnan and No. Four in China in terms of size.

The Hall of the Bronze Rain Statue of Goddess of Mercy

The Bronze Rain Statue of the Goddess of Mercy was recast and the Hall of the Goddess of Mercy was rebuilt to store the statue on the occasion of Macao’s reunification in 1999. The Bronze Statue of the Goddess of Mercy is on a lotus seat in the middle of the hall on a 2.2 meters high marble base. It is very special because it has a man’s body and a woman’s face, which is a reflection of the transitional image of Goddess of Mercy in the Dali area during the Nanzhao Kingdom period. The statue is 8.6 meters in height and 11 tons in weight. On each side of it stand four Bronze statues of other Goddesses of Mercy (Water and Moon Goddess, Achuoyie Goddess, Goddess of Man-body Monk, and Goddess of Mercy holding gold thread and carrying rocks); all of them are lifelike and vivid.

Inside the Hall of the Goddess of Mercy on the second floor, the eye-catching imitations of the two treasured scroll paintings named “Picture Record of Nanzhao Kingdom” and “Buddhist Picture Scroll Painting by Zhang Shengwen” are painted on each side of the wall reflecting the historical and religious culture of the mysterious Kingdom of Dali.

The Picture Record of Nanzhao Kingdom was drawn in 899 by Zhang Shun and Wang Fengzhong as a gift to the last King of Nanzhao. The original work is colored, 580.2 centimeters long, and 31.5 centimeters wide, bearing the style of the Tang Dynasty. It is kept in the museum of Japan at present. The painting exhibited here is an enlarged imitation. The picture has three sections: the origin of Weishan, worshiping the Iron Poles, and the history of Xier Lake. It is valuable for the study of history, religion, and folklores of the Nanzhao Kingdom.

The Picture Scroll Painting by Zhang Shengwen, also known as Scrolls of Buddhist Figures was drawn by Zhang Shengwen, an artist of the Dali Kingdom in 1180. The scrolls are 1 635.5 centimeters long and 30.4 centimeters wide. There are altogether 134 single and group figures, which mainly narrate Buddhist stories and touch upon foreign affairs of Dali Kingdom. The Scrolls give expression to the great popularity of Buddhism in Nanzhao and Dali kingdoms and provide valuable material for the study of Tantrism in the Dali kingdom.

To sum up, the new temple and the Three Pagodas each are solemnly magnificent and gracefully beautiful. With the splendor of imperial temples and the characteristics of local ethnic groups, this temple represents the history and culture of this place and satisfies the demand of the developing modern tourism for splendor and magnificence. Being the largest of its kind in Yunnan, the first class in China and known to the world over, the temple is the most characteristic Buddhist Temple complex in Southeast Asia.

Original photo: Oliver Huang

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