During all my travels throughout ancient China, one of the more peculiar beliefs I came across was the notion that jade holds mystical powers, capable of preventing the body from decaying. I am currently in Chang'an, the capital of the dynasty, which is known in the present day as Xi'an. The year is 192 CE. The people of the Western Han Dynasty universally agree that this supposedly magical material is the essence of mountains, and because it prevents the decomposition of the physical form, it may in fact ensure rebirth. Now, as of the present day, very few of these jade burial suits still actually exist, and it may seem ambiguous as to whether or not they were a passing fad or a momentary excess amongst emperors. However, upon my investigation of the long-forgotten past, I have found that this practice of burying the dead with or wearing jade is a rather common occurrence, and fits the beliefs of the inhabitants of this vast land.
The practice and creation of jade burial objects seems to date back before the Han Dynasty that I am currently visiting. Jade objects, in the present day, have been unearthed in tombs and dated to the New Stone Age. This is around the time that jade was first known to have been used to craft objects, which insinuates that the Chinese superstition of the material has existed since its origins amongst civilization. One funerary object I have been fortunate enough to examine is a small jade cylinder attributed to the Liangzhu Culture of the New Stone age, making this piece several thousand years old. Today, amongst the backdrop of the Han Dynasty, jade is prevalent in many aspects of society, and items such as jade dragons have become much more common.
The use of jade in burial clothing has roots much further back than this current fad of the Han Dynasty. Many of the locals claim this practice has existed since the Eastern Zhou Dynasty, which preceded the Qin Dynasty, the precursor to the Han Dynasty. Jade-studded facial covers and jade-studded clothing were crafted during that time. In the Han Dynasty, jade burial suits are commonly prepared for emperors and empresses, as well as certain members of the nobility. The suits prepared for the emperors and empresses are woven with gold thread. The suits prepared for first generation nobility, such as princes, are woven with silver thread. The suits for other such nobility, perhaps the son of a prince, are woven with copper thread. For subordinate ranks, silk thread is used. Unfortunately, ordinary officials and commoners are forbidden from having jade burial clothing, as their lives are of far less significant value.
Today, the process has become quite a bit more time consuming, and requires significant skill and a fairly rigid procedure. First, jade materials are found in distant parts of the land and transported to the suit's creator, at which point he fashions, polishes, and drills this jade into thousands of hand-crafted pieces. The shapes and sizes of each hole drilled within the jade pieces undergo detailed inspection. Along with the thousands of jade pieces, a hefty amount of gold, silver, or copper threads are fashioned, and then used to sew the jade together into a full-body suit. This process can take several years in its entirety. The locals, despite their prevention from possessing such a suit, still have a rather accurate idea of the suits cost. They claim that it is roughly equal in value to the entire assets of 100 or so middle class families, making it similar in value to about a half dozen present-day Lear jets. This is indeed a practice reserved for the most elite in society.
Chapter 2: The Japanese H-ry?-ji
I am fortunate enough in my travels to have been able to visit Japan during the final stage of the construction of the S-honzan H-ry?-ji. The H-ry?-ji (Horyu Temple) is a complex with the primary purpose of housing the statue of the Medicine Buddha. The year is 607 CE, and I am in Ikaruga, south of present-day Kyoto. Approximately 50 years ago, a new philosophy and form of spiritual thought began to permeate the borders of this land, known as Buddhism. The well-regarded Prince Shotoku has recently commissioned this building in hopes of spreading his Buddhist beliefs, and has dedicated the temple to Yakushi Nyorai, the Buddha of healing. With my knowledge that this complex will flourish into the oldest existing wooden structure of the present-day, it is quite a treat to be able to witness its completion.
The temple was first envisioned by the emperor Yomei. Ill at the time, Yomei desired a place for prayer and somewhere to house an image of a Buddha. Unfortunately, shortly after he conceived this idea, he died. On his deathbed, he asked Empress Suiko and Crown Prince Shotoku to fulfill his wish and oversee the construction of the Horyu Temple. H-ry?-ji can be more accurately translated to mean "Temple of the Flourishing Law [of Buddhism]," and under Prince Shotoku's guidance, this land has seen quite a rise in its practicing Buddhists. Currently, the complex is an awe-inspiring structure, showcasing the superior wood-working skills of the Japanese. The building housing the statue of Buddha is a large, beautiful crafted and quite detailed edifice that seems to flow in an architectural sense, similarly to the universal flow of life imagined by these Buddhist followers.
Modern-day historians now refer to this initial temple as Wakakusa-garan. Unfortunately, for reasons I cannot yet foresee, this fantastic structure will no longer exist in less than seven decades. Many historians I consulted with prior to my time-travels agreed that the building was burned down. Given the relative lack of animosity between Buddhists and followers of Shinto, it is hard to imagine a violent backlash in the future, but of course, it is never out of the question when taking into account religious beliefs. Currently, these two different schools of thought seem to share many similar aspects, and both sets of followers are rather peaceful in their practice and daily lives.
In modern-day Japan, the surviving structures on the complex grounds still hold a great deal of value amongst Buddhists and architectural aficionados. Being the oldest existing wooden building in the world attracts a large deal of structural enthusiasts to visit each year, and they can certainly testify to its exquisite craftsmanship. For Buddhists, this building is an extremely spiritual site, and they can feel connected to the beginnings of their beliefs in Japan. The complex contains thousands upon thousands of sacred and valued structures and articles, and many have been designated as National Treasures or Important Cultural Properties in the present day.
Chapter 3: The Ellora Caves of India
The Ellora Caves of India are an astonishing example of Indian rock-cut architecture. The year is 998 CE, and I am witnessing the completion of their construction in this ancient village of Ellora. According to the nearby residents, the local rulers recently switched allegiance from Shaivism (Hinduism devoted to Shiva) to the Digambara sect of Jainism. The final stage of this work represents the culmination of years of labor -- the structure was begun long ago, around 550 CE, so anyone involved today will be the first to see it in its completed form and represents a fraction of the total workforce involved on the project. The caves are carved into the face of the Charanandri hills, and they now number 34 in all.
Currently, I am astounded by the amount of religious tolerance amongst the people of India. The site is spread out over the course of two kilometers, dug into the side of a large basalt cliff. There are now 34 existing caves, 12 devoted to Buddhism and constructed between 500 and 750 CE, 17 are Hindu caves constructed between 600 and 870, and the remaining 5 are Jain caves, which were began 200 years ago when religious allegiance shifted amongst the rulers. This side-by-side construction of religious sites provides a fantastic visual illustration of the widespread religious acceptance in this enormous land. Overall, it is a stunning representation of the Middle Age art in India.
I was graced with the opportunity to get a first-hand tour of the caves, beginning at the southernmost cave and working my way north. The first 12 caves that I explored belonged to the Buddhists of the region, and are comprised of 11 monasteries and a magnificent large temple. This temple, which the people claim was completed in the early 700's, will ultimately be dubbed "Carpenter's Cave" by my future colleagues. This is due to the imitation in stone of wooden beams on the ceiling. At the far end of the cave, there is a superbly detailed stone carving of the Buddha, enthroned in front of a large stone stupa. People travel from all corners of the region to come and worship before this unique specimen, and it will undoubtedly see countless Buddhists come through…