The pagoda, traditionally a tiered tower built of stone, brick or wood, originated in historic eastern Asia. Usually associated with Buddhism and used for the storing of relics and sacred writings, the pagoda’s architectural form has since been adopted by other religions and modified for secular use throughout the world.
The Sakyamuni Pagoda of Fogong Temple forms the central element in a complex of buildings erected by the Chinese Emperor Daozong in 1056. Said to have been built on the site of his family home, the emperor was a devout Buddhist and demonstrated this through the erection of this remarkable wooden, nine-storey structure. Covered with a profusion of carved and painted decoration, the pagoda is supported by 24 exterior and eight interior pillars, and roofed with highly ornate and glazed ceramic tiles.
The pagoda has needed occasional minor repairs over its lifetime and, despite surviving numerous natural disasters, the only serious threat it has faced came during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) when Japanese soldiers raked the structure with small-arms fire. Today, the Fogong Temple Pagoda is a popular tourist attraction rather than a religious site, but its cultural significance is recognized in both China and beyond.
Built to last
During the first 50 years of its existence, the Fogong Pagoda survived seven earthquakes. The reason for the building’s resilience is both its design and building material. The key to its wooden construction is found in its slanting pillars, which act as both external and internal buttresses, and the 54 kinds of bracket arms used to create it. These interlocking sets of brackets, called ‘dougong’ in Chinese (literally ‘cap and block’), provide increased support for the weight of the horizontal beams that span the pagoda’s pillars by transferring the weight over a larger area. In this way a building consisting of many storeys may be constructed. Most importantly the use of multiple bracket arms allows structures to be elastic, which is how the Sakyamuni Pagoda has repeatedly withstood earthquakes that have flattened many of its neighbours.
Fogong Temple Facts
Mezzanine – Inside there are four mezzanines (intermediate floors) between the pagoda’s main five levels.
Statue of the Buddha – This statue, surrounded by images of other Buddhist deities, is the pagoda’s principal devotional focus.
Floor – The pagoda has five full floors, each of which houses Buddhist icons and images.
Foundation – The stone platform which supports the pagoda is 4m (13ft) high and provides a stable foundation.
Pillar – The pillars on each floor slant slightly inwards and give the building its remarkable stability.