Three Pagodas

Written by Vivian Updated Jun. 10, 2021

The Three Towers at Dali City are located between the Cangshan Mountain and theErhai Lake. They stand towering into the sky, and they are one of the most well-known sceneries in the area.

The Three Towers had been standing for more than a thousand years since they were built. They stood against many strong earthquakes in history. In the 9th year of Emperor Zhengde of the Ming Dynasty (1514AD), there was a fierce earthquake, after which the Qianxun Tower had a crack of two rulers wide that looked very much like a broken bamboo. It was repaired only after ten years. In 1925, another earthquake struck, the top of the Qianxun Tower fell off and the state of the tower deteriorated since then.

After the People’s Republic of China was founded, the government recognized its great historical value and importance. In 1961, the Three Towers were brought into the list of National Protection Units of Cultural Relics as pivot culture relics under preservation. In 1977, supported by the National Bureau of Cultural Relics, the Three Towers were under thorough maintenance.

There were more than 600 cultural relics of the periods of Nanzhao and Dali were unearthed unexpectedly during the reconstruction. There were Buddha figures, written sutras and so on. They are rich in color and are extremely valuable among the cultural relics in the periods of Nanzhao Kingdom and the Dali Kingdom found so far. There is a gold statue that has a weight of 1.135 kilograms and a height of 0.24 meters.

There are copper sheets carved with characters, sutras, various copper mirrors and all kinds of Chinese traditional medicines such as vermilion, sandalwood, pilose antler, coral, isinglass etcetera. They are precious resources for studying the history, religion and culture of the Nanzhao Kingdom and the Dali Kingdom.

Qianxun Tower

The main tower is the Qianxun Tower. The square-shaped tower is 16-stories and has a height of 69.13 meters. Like the very famous Small Yan Tower and the Big Yan Tower in Xian City, the Qianxun Tower is with a typical architectural style of the Tang Dynasty.

The tower is surrounded by a 3.3-meter thick wall with two gates. The Eastern Gate is 2 meters away from the tower, and the Western Gate is 6 meters away. The foundation of the Tower is also square-shaped and is multilayered. The lower layer has a perimeter of 33.5 meters. It is surrounded by stone balusters decorated with lion sculptures. The higher layer has a perimeter of 21 meters.

On the stone wall standing east of the layer, there carved “Forever Govern the Mountains and Rivers”. The Qianxun Tower is empty inside thus it is easy to construct stairways reaching the top. They were left behind by Mu Shijie, a descendant of Muying who was the Emperor of the Qian Kingdom. The carved characters look vigorous, strong and full of verve. There is a stele behind the stone wall built to commemorate the reconstruction of the Three Towers by the provincial government.

The Construction of the Qianxun Tower

The first floor of the tower body is the highest among all with a height of 13.45 meters. The formation and building area of the second floor is almost the same as those of the 15th floor. It has a height of 2 meters and a width of 10 meters. It has cascading eaves. The body is made of 17 layers of bricks. Each layer reaches out of the body 0.05 to 0.07 meters than the layer below.

The east and west corner of the eaves were decorated with Buddha Niche and Buddha Figures with two pavilion niches on each side. Inside the pavilion niche, there is a sculpted lotus flower seat and a carved Sanskrit lection. On the north and south corner, there is a window leading straight to the center of the tower.

These constructs alternate from floor to floor, and for example, on the third floor, the Buddha Niches are on the south and north corner of the eaves, while the windows are on the east and west corner. The higher the tower is the smaller the floor area and the sculptures.

The crest of the tower is 8 meters high accounting for about 1/7 of the tower body. Standing on the top floor of the tower, one may have a feeling of getting away from earthliness. The crest is decorated with a calabash-shaped copper bottle that extremely precious and delicate. There is an octagonal lid under the bottle with steel and copper wheels underneath. They are sitting on an upside-down earthen bowl riding on a lotus flower.

There used to be a golden roc at each of the four corners of the tower. The tale goes like this: Dali City was the hometown for dragons and dragons were said to be in awe of rocs and towers; thus this tower was built to guard the people in town from the dragons. Now there only remain the feet of the golden rocs.

Other Two Towers

About 70 meters west of the Qianxun Tower, there are two smaller octagonal-shaped brick towers. They have 10 dense eaves. Both are 42.19 meters high. The bodies of the two towers are decorated with basso-relievo of Buddha figures, lotus flowers, and vases that were carved differently on each floor.

They are empty too from the first floor to the eighth with crossing beams holding up the structures. The foundations are octagonal. They are 97 meters away from each other. The three towers have comparative powers with unified overall arrangement and harmonious sculptures making a perfect architectural and spiritual construction as a whole.

Chongsheng Temple

Beside them there used to be the grand Chongsheng Temple. According to the historical records: the Unofficial History of Nanzhao Kingdom (Hu’s edition and Wang’s edition) and the General History of Baigu, the holy monk Li Chengmei built the three towers with 890 rooms and 11,400 Buddha figures.

The project lasted from the tenth year of Baohe of Fenggu in the reign of the tenth emperor of Nanzhao Kingdom to the first year of Tianqi (from 834AD to 840AD). It had involved 708,000 laborers and had consumed 20,285 kilograms of copper and countless gold, silver, cloth, silk and brocade which has an estimated worth of 21,757 kilograms of gold.

The fanes of the towers have been well preserved throughout the years. Under the reign of Yuanwu Emperor, a decree was issued to make Shijue the abbot of the Temple and the towers. Thus these buildings were under the protection of the empire and taxes on grains were waived.

In the Yuan Dynasty, the Temple went under major maintenance with all halls and towers retreaded, after which the towers regained their magnificence and beauty. In the Ming Dynasty, Li Yuanyang rebuilt the dated Temple and built additional three cabinets, a seven-storied building, and nine halls with hundreds of rooms.

There were five guarding treasures in the Temple: the Three Towers, the Giant Bell, the Raining Copper Kwan-yin, the Zhengdao Song Stele and the Buddha Du Plaque. At the time of Xu Xiake’s visit to Dali, the Three Towers and the Chongsheng Temple remain standing erect. According to his notes, there were tall pine trees surrounding the Three Towers; through the stone gate from the west, there was a magnificent bell tower facing the Three Towers; Behind the bell tower, there was the main hall and Raining Kwan-yin’s hall within it the Raining Kwan-yin’s statue. It was made from copper and was 3 Zhangs (a measurement unit back then) high.

Grand Bell

It is said that the Grand Bell in the Temple was built in the 12th year of Jianji (871AD). It has a diameter of more than one Zhang and is several rulers (a length measurement unit back then) thick. When the bell rings, it can be heard amazingly from 40 kilometers away. Since ancient times, there have been many sayings, legends and tales about the Three Towers and the Bell Tower. The Statue of Raining Copper Kwan-yin was elegantly built and stood with grandeur and peacefulness.

Unfortunately during the period of warfare in the Qing Dynasty, the Giant Bell and the Statue of Raining Copper Kwan-yin were both destroyed. The Zhengdao Song Stele, the Buddha Du Plaque, and the fane did not escape the catastrophe either.

How to Get There?

The transportation is very convenient from Dali station to the Three Pagodas because they are not far. 10 minutes walking is enough from the north gate of Dali Ancient Town to Erhai. It takes 40 minutes to take the No.4 or No.8 bus in Xiaguan to Dali Ancient Town. The bus fare is 1.5 yuan.

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