The Mysterious Little Swallow Pagoda

Zhou Tong, Ed

PureInsight | January 13, 2003

[] About one kilometer south of Xi'an City lies Jianfu Temple. Inside of it is a typical Buddhist pagoda with multi-layer dense eaves. It is called Little Swallow Pagoda. It is given that name because it is three kilometers away from the Big Swallow Pagoda and is also shorter in height.

The Little Swallow Pagoda was constructed during the reign of Emperor Tang Jinglong (707 – 709 A.D.). The pagoda is 45 meters tall and has 15 levels. Its design is one of the most commonly seen styles of construction during the Tang Dynasty. Legend has it that the pagoda was built after Buddhist Master Yijing applied in writing to the throne for funds to build a pagoda in order to store the treasured Buddhist scriptures brought back from India.

The exquisite elegant Little Swallow Pagoda stood in contrast with the magnificent and solemn Big Swallow Pagoda. This dense-eaves brick pagoda is almost like a spindle in shape, 43.38 meters in height, it originally had 15 levels with 13 remaining today. Horizontally, it is square in structure with each lateral 11.56 meters in length. Each of the higher levels is progressively shorter than the level below. The overall contour profile forms a naturally circular curve. Many eaves were constructed for each level. Under each eaves two layers of water-caltrop shaped beaks were built to form the multiple eaves and sectioned terraces, valiant and beautiful. On the ground level, there is an entrance on both the south and the north side. On each of the high levels, there are windows on both the south and north sides. The entrance is framed with dark stones decorated with the delicate refined carving of the Tang Dynasty. The pictures above the entrance showed people offering provisions to heavenly beings, which reflect the respect and worship of ancient people to Buddha.

Weathered by rains and storms over hundreds of years, the legend has it that Little Swallow Pagoda was once fused back together by gods. In the 23rd year of Emperor Ming Chenghua's reign (1487 A.D.), an earthquake took place in Shaanxi Province. The carved records on top of the entrance state, "In Ming Chenghua's 23rd year, Changan (today's Xi'an) had an earthquake. The pagoda cracked from the top to the bottom, a foot wide, and open like a window. Passers-by could clearly see it. At the end of Ming Zhengde's reign, the earth shook again. The huge crack completely disappeared as if gods had fused the cracked parts back together." In the later years to come, two more similar phenomena happened. That a brick pagoda can sustain earthquakes without collapsing and can even resume its original status is definitely something miraculous.

Today's people have discovered that ancient builders observed the geological conditions in Xi'an, and constructed the pagoda's foundation by tamping it into a hemisphere, which enabled the pressure from the quake to evenly disperse. The Little Swallow Pagoda is like a "tumbler" (a toy figure with its lower body resembling a hemisphere that wobbles but never falls), surviving more than 70 earthquakes and still standing as firm as a rock.

Edited from a website on the "Architect and Gardening of the Great Tang."

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