I love this temple. It’s one of the most attractive temples I’ve come across in China, and whilst it was quite a close tie between this one and the Temple of Heaven – which I also love but for different reasons – for favourite in Beijing, the Yonghe Temple (also known as Yonghegong or simply the Lama Temple) won out because it is just so lovely. This temple is very well proportioned given the smaller size of the site, cozy (if I’m allowed to use that word for a temple) yet still very impressive with it’s brightly decorated red, gold and blue facades. And did I mention that it’s beautiful?
When you arrive at the main entrance there’s the usual ticket booth and hawkers trying to sell you stuff, but once you are inside the complex there’s an immediate sense of calm as you leave the outside noise behind and walk along the tree-lined path to get to the main gate. As you approach the Hall of the Heavenly Kings with it’s vivd colours vying for your attention, incense smoke drifts towards you, preparing you for the onslaught to the senses that awaits at the first altar.
What I really like about this temple is the entirely different world you step into once you pass it’s gates. Because it is so compact it literally surrounds you. Yes sure, it’s a popular tourist attraction, but visit during the week early in the morning or towards the evening and there’s hardly anyone around, giving you a sense of privacy and serenity which is hard to come by in Beijing. It’s also very touching and humbling to see people praying to the Buddhas, offering incense and other small gifts.
The architecture is an amalgamation of Tibetan and Han Chinese styles. It is one of the most important best preserved Lama monasteries in the country, partly thanks to Premier Zhou Enlai who placed it under protection during the Cultural Revolution.
Yonghe Temple started life as the quarters for the imperial eunuchs in 1694 and was later converted into the court for the price Yong (Yin Zhen) who became Yongzheng Emperor. During the emperor’s reign half of the buildings were turned into a lamasery with the other half remaining part of the imperial palace. After Yongzheng’s death in 1735 the new emperor (Qianlong) in 1744 granted the temple imperial status and had it’s blue tiles (used to signify temples) replaced with the same yellow ones that adorn the royal buildings in the Forbidden City. Since then the monastery has become a residence for Tibetan Buddhist monks as well as the national centre for Lama administration.