Although not without its legacy -- Nanjing’s Niushou Mountain can claim a centuries-old history of Buddhist cultural association and it’s also where China’s famous explorer Zheng He is buried -- the area has hitherto been relatively unknown compared to other attractions in Nanjing. That is until just few years ago when a piece of parietal (skull) bone from Sakyamuni -- AKA the Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama himself -- was unearthed from within a stone chest beneath a Buddhist temple in Nanjing. Commemorating this find, the local government and the Buddhist Association of China have spent the last three years (and a cool 4 billion RMB) developing the Niushou mountain cultural park and Usnisa Palace. They opened to the public in 2015. As of August 2016, the area is still under the radar for most Chinese tourists, making it a unqiue location to check out if you're looking for something off the beaten path, even if your interest in Buddhism is only passing.
“Millionaires don’t use astrology, billionaires do” as the saying goes -- this is some big budget 21st century Buddhism right here. Usnisa Palace is well-planned, modern, and obviously very commercial. Here's a quick tour.
Not so far from Nanjing south railway station, the spacious Niushou mountain cultural park is surrounded by hills, small lakes, and planted with shrubs, ginkgo trees, bamboo, and assorted greenery. This newly renovated area is Nanjing’s modern approach to an ancient religion: very aesthetically soothing and very, very tidy. Subtle and serene Buddhist sutras are piped into their air from speakers in the bushes, and they're hosting better amenities than at any Chinese historical location I’ve ever seen (read: plenty of clean toilets). Facilities are painted in cool beiges and browns, and, of course, there is ready access to Starbucks and Häagen-Dazs.
The first stop our Niushou mountain tour is Usnisa Temple (佛顶寺), a Tang-style monastery comprised of seven halls. Its original form was destroyed during the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom and later renovated into a courtyard-style complex in 2015. The Temple is the starter course of a feast for the senses that comes with Usnisa Palace, so let's just get right to that.
Built with a “supporting” (供养) theme in mind, Usnia Palance abounds in murals, paintings and stone carvings on the walls, with incredible attention to detail in everything from the largest pieces to the smallest elements. Even the door pulls are ornately decorated. A simple stroll around the huge “lotus throne” can take a good 10 to 15 minutes. There is simply too much stuff to see and pour over, and every design embodies a reference to an element of Buddhist culture.
Usnisa Palace consists of nine floors, with six floors underground. Currently, there are only three main spots open to public:
Chan State Scenery (禅境大观)
Under the dome of Usnisa Palace lies a 7.5-meter-long, Sakyamuni statue, rotating slowly on a platform. It’s in the middle of a lotus-shaped pond, accompanied by a linden tree and an Ashoka tree on each side. (The leaves "fell" to the ground have the trees' names engraved on them.) Visitors are guided clockwise through the path, symbolizing the life journey of The Buddha. Small “stars” twinkle on the ceiling, and arrays of illuminated Buddha statues line the walls.
At designated slots throughout the day, believers pray to The Buddha and offer flowers.
Great Usnisa Hall (舍利大殿)
From the Chan State Scenery room, visitors are given shoe covers (proper shoe covers, not the plastic ones) and led to escalators to take underground to visit the Great Hall. Again, everything is very expensive and lavish; the marble wall is embedded with lettered, amber azure stones and "lucky cloud" patterns cover the bottom of the escalators.
The dome-shaped Thousand-Buddha Hall is utterly gorgeous -- a 360-panorama view of luxury and extravagance. It's almost like your brain can't event process all of what you're seeing. In the middle of the room sits the Great Stupa of Usnisa, gilded, covered with crystal orbs, and embossed in lucky symbols and patterns. Above you is Buddhas like Gautama Buddha, Amitābha, and four Paramitas all in different sizes and materials, all built with exquisite workmanship.
The Ten Thousand-Buddha Corridor is equally breathtaking. Colorful paintings of Indian Buddhist tales like "A Deer of Nine Colors" are represented, alongside beautiful relief sculptures of Five Wisdom Buddhas, and -- I don’t think they're exaggerating -- "thousands" of delicate Buddhas and arhat statues, made out of bronze, white porcelain, and amber azure stones. Trypophobia sufferers, you're probably going to get a bit dizzy.
Usnisa Worshiping Palace (舍利藏宫)
This is where they house the precious parietal bone from Sakyamuni. It is only opened to public during New Year's Day, Spring Festival, National Day (October 1 -- hey, look at that) and a couple of important Buddhist festivals like The Buddha's Birthday and Nirvana Day. Here are the pictures from their website:
Looks pretty swank.
Closing off, about five minutes from the Palace is the 88-meter Usnisa Pagoda. Overlooking the landscape of Niushou Mountain, it boasts nine floors in total. The elevator was closed on my visit and walking up through the steep steps felt a little lonely. Not to mention extremely tiresome. I gave up. Guess I failed the test. Apparently, on the 8th floor, “you may see a Usnisa Vajra Clock made of bronze. On the Clock is the full text of Diamond Sutra written by Master Longxiang.” Well, that sounds interesting.
Usnisa Palace: an idiosyncratic place to top up your karma and experience some truly jaw-dropping modern Buddhist architecture. Some might feel turned off at how commercial and "modern" the place feels, but every temple and shrine must have been "modern" in its own time once. Maybe this is just the way we seek the divine in this era we live in. Enlightenment, with a side Caramel Mochaccino.
How much does it cost:
You can book a day in advance online for 88rmb (online banking only, no Alipay so far), or on-site for 98rmb. Half-price discounts and one-year membership cards are available, too. Their ticketing page is currently only in Chinese.
Round-trip shuttle bus costs 20rmb, operates every 10 minutes. It cycles you through the Temple, Palace, and Pagoda locations.
If your Chinese is okay, you might want to rent an audio guide player (10rmb) or hire a tour guide (nice and soft spoken lady decked out in a traditional dress -- 160rmb for a tour). They have quite a few vegetarian / non-vegetarian eateries in the park, including one vegetarian buffet inside the Palace (50rmb/ person, starts at 11am). Prices are quite reasonable but keep your expectations low on food quality.
How to get there:
Take a high-speed train from Shanghai railway station to Nanjing South railway station (about an hour and a half). You can then take G5 to Niushoushan Jingqu station (牛首山景区站), or take subway S1 to Hehai University -- Focheng West Lu station (河海大学·佛城西路). Then take the Bus 754 to Niushoushan Jingqu station. It shouldn’t take more than 30 minutes to get there when you're in Nanjing.
The Niushou cultural park is quite large. We've only listed the main attractions inside of it -- there's also Zheng He Culture Park and Shi’ao Wonderland, and more on the way. So: ideal for a two-day trip. If you plan to stay overnight, there are many cheap budget hotels around Focheng West Lu station. Or check their website for other options.
Usnisa Palace opens every day from 9am to 5pm, hours might differ during special occasions. It takes the shuttle bus about 10 minutes to drive there, and you can spend at least two to three hours inside the Palace and around the temple, so plan your time wisely.