The Zhangye Grand Buddha Temple was constructed 900 years ago during the Yong'an Era of Emperor Chong of Western Hsia. The name of the Grand Buddha Temple has changed several times. Previous titles include: The Jiaye Rulai Temple, The Baojue Temple, and The Hongren Temple. China’s largest indoor reclining Buddha, the Nirvana of ?akyamuni Buddha, lies in this temple. Adding to the visual splendor of the temple is its rich history. It is reported to be the birthplace of Hu Bilie (Kublai), emperor of the Yuan Dynasty, and was the final refuge for South Song Dynasty emperor Zhao Xian after he abdicated and became a monk.
There are three different buildings that make up the Grand Buddha Temple. They include Grand Buddha Hall, the Sutra Depository and the Earth Tower. The Grand Buddha Hall is a two-storied edifice measuring 33 meters in height, 49 meters in width, and 24 meters in length, for a total area of 1770 square meters. During the 16th century, the temple was able to, and often did, accommodate up to six thousand worshippers at any given time. There are two engraved bricks on either side of the Hall gate. The left inscription reads “Reaching the Elysian Fields” and “Western Paradise” while the right reads "Three Buddhas in Nirvana" and "Respect the Elysian and Develop the Sutra".
The Nirvana of ?akyamuni Buddha lies peacefully on a 1.2-meter-high altar in the center of the hall. The Buddha has some extraordinary dimensions: its total length is 34.5 meters, while its height at the shoulder is 7.5 meters. The ears and feet alone measure 4 and 5.2 meters respectively. An average person could lie on the middle finger of the Buddha, while eight people could sit shoulder to shoulder on the Buddha’s ear.
The Buddha is a clay sculpture with wooden roughcast, covered with gold leaf and painted in various colors. Although the vivid gold and striking décor seem to portray Sakyamuni as awake, he is in fact sleeping. There are ten disciples standing behind the lying Buddha. 18 arhats, followers of Buddha that have attained Nirvana, adorn each side of the Hall exterior.
The frescos on the walls are illustrations depicting stories in a “Journey to the West” and the “Shan Hai Classic” (the latter being a book on ancient Chinese geography). There were more than six thousand Buddhist sutras granted by Emperor Yingzong of the Ming Dynasty to the Sutra Depository of Buddhist texts. These sutras are well preserved. Some of the more precious donations among the collection were written with gold or silver powder.
The Zhangye Five Elements Pagoda stands 33.4 meters-high and is situated behind the temple. There are eight small individual pagodas placed on each corner of the first and second stories. This beautiful style is unique to the Zhangye Grand Buddha Temple.