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The Shaolin Temple (a.k.a. Shaolin Monastery) is a Buddhist temple where Chinese Chan Buddhism (better known as Zen Buddhism in the West) is practiced. It stands in a forested area at the foot of the Songshan Mountain and close to the city of Dengfeng (Henan province). Since 2010, the temple is inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List along with a number of other historic monuments in and around Dengfeng. In addition to its religious purpose, people throughout the world know the Shaolin Temple as the birthplace of the Chinese martial art of Kung Fu. The monks at the temple still practice Kung Fu every day and have even performed in martial arts shows and competitions. Being able to see such stunning Kung Fu demonstrations live is perhaps the main reason why up to 40,000 tourists visit the temple each day. Breathtaking Kung Fu shows are performed daily at the Shaolin Temple Wushu Training Center which stands near the temple complex. Kung Fu lovers that want to practice their hand at some of the shown skills themselves will find plenty of martial arts schools in Dengfeng (for example the Shaolin Tagou Martial Arts School) that offer lessons.
Visitors that want to avoid the crowds and enjoy the temple's sights and sounds in peace should arrive outside holiday periods and preferably as soon as the temple opens in the morning. The large site of the Shaolin Temple consists of the main temple and a number of auxiliary sights in its vicinity. Most tourists will probably start their visit with the main temple complex. It is also known as the Changzhu Temple and the first of its famous sights is the Shanmen Hall ("Mountain Gate Hall") that stands at the entrance. The golden Chinese characters 少林寺 (shao lin si = Shaolin Temple) that you will see on a tablet above the entrance were written by the Kangxi Emperor of the Qing dynasty in 1704! Behind the Shanmen Hall you will find six additional main halls lined up on a straight axis. Among them, the Hall of Heavenly Kings and the Mahavira Hall are the most important. The Hall of Heavenly Kings (a.k.a. Devaraja Hall) with its four guardian gods stands right behind the Mountain Gate Hall. In fact, it was the original Mountain Gate until 1735 (the Shanmen Hall was built that year during a renovation of the temple)! The Mahavira Hall then follows as the third main hall of the complex. It is the principal hall where Buddhist activities are conducted in the temple. There are four more large halls behind the Mahavira Hall as well as several buildings along the sides of the main axis of the temple. Altogether, the rectangular surface area of the kernel compound of the temple measures only 57,600 square meters (160 x 360 meters) so it is only about a fourth of the size of the Confucius Temple in Qufu.
However, the stellar importance of the Shaolin Temple is much better demonstrated through its history. It was established all the way back in 495 AD at the behest of the Xiaowen Emperor of the Northern Wei dynasty in order to accomodate the Indian master Batuo (Buddhabhadra) who became the Shaolin Temple's first abbot. Batuo dedicated his life to the translation of Buddhist scriptures and the preaching of Buddhist doctrines. The martial arts involvement of the Shaolin Temple was kicked off with the arrival of Bodhidharma in 527 AD. Besides being the first to preach the doctrines of Chan Buddhism at the temple, he is believed to have introduced a martial arts training program for the monks. It didn't take long for the newly acquired fighting skills of the Shaolin monks to get noticed. Already at the beginning of the seventh century, a group of 13 Shaolin monks found fame by fighting heroically to save the life of the later Tang dynasty emperor Li Shimin. At the heyday of the Shaolin Temple during the Ming dynasty, it housed more than 3,000 monks. However, the history of the Shaolin Temple is not without its darker periods. It was destroyed multiple times during its history, most recently in 1928. About 90% of the temple was destroyed by a fire that burned for more than 40 days back then. What was left of the temple then faded into obscurity for several decades. Renewed interest in the temple was elicited by the amazing success of the 1982 movie "The Shaolin Temple". The financial donations of martial arts groups from all over the world subsequently contributed significantly to the gradual rebuilding of the temple.
There are a number of sights in the vicinity of the main temple that should not be missed. The perhaps most important of them is the Ancestor's Monastery that lies about 1.3 km away. It is also known as the First Patriarch Temple and stands on a small earth hill to the northwest. It was built during the Song dynasty to commemorate the founder of Chan Buddhism Bodhidharma. Art lovers shouldn't miss this small temple at any cost as it contains priceless cultural relics such as amazing sculptures and murals (especially at this temple's Main Hall). On top of a peak to the south of the Ancestor's Monastery stands the Second Ancestor's Monastery (a.k.a. Second Patriarch Temple). It commemorates the second patriarch of Chan Buddhism Dazu Huike who cut off his left arm in order to prove the sincerity of his desire to learn from Bodhidharma. Not averse to extreme measures himself, Bodhidharma meditated in front of a wall inside a cave for 9 years straight. This cave that is now named Bodhidharma Cave or just Dharma Cave is located on top of a peak to the northwest of the main temple as well.
About 300 meters to the west of the main Shaolin Temple lies another world-famous sight, the Pagoda Forest. This largest pagoda forest in all of China is made up of more than 240 pagodas of various sizes (from 1 to 7 stories) and from various historical periods. The oldest pagodas are from the time of the Tang dynasty and the most recent ones were built during the Qing dynasty. They all serve as tomb pagodas for the temple's Buddhist dignitaries of the past. Carvings and calligraphic inscriptions on the stone and brick pagodas provide valuable insights into the history of Buddhism in China. Further noteworthy sights throughout the Shaolin Temple complex include the temple's Ancestral Hall (30 meters west of the main temple), Guanghui Temple, Chuzu Temple, South Garden, the Sweet Dew Terrace and the Buddhist Living Quarters for transient monks.