Asia’s ancient civilizations and vivid religions have bequeathed the modern traveller a panoply of beautiful temples and archaeological sites. Here we’ve gathered together five of the most spectacular, from monasteries wrapped around vertiginous cliffs to temples guiding visitors on a symbolic journey to nirvana.
The Harmandir Sahib, or Golden Temple in English, is one of the great symbols of the Sikh religion, and the most famous Gurdwara in the world. Located in the Punjab city of Amritsar, its upper storey is encased in gleaming gold, reflected in the still water of the surrounding lake. The interior is equally exquisite, laced with gold and marble, although the most important artifact found in the heart of the temple is made not of precious metal but of paper. This is a sacred version of Sikhism’s central text, the Guru Granth Sahib, handwritten by Guru Arjan in 1604. Another seemingly small detail is the number of entrances to the temple - there are four doors, representing the fact that the Gurdwara is open to anyone, regardless of religion, sex, color or creed, a central tenet of the tolerant Sikh belief system.
The secretive nation of Bhutan is home to an ancient Buddhist culture, with attains its most beautiful expression in the Taktsang or Tiger’s Nest Monastery. This intricately constructed, white-walled temple wraps itself around a cliff edge overlooking a rolling forest of pines and rhododendrons. It was first built in 1692, encompassing the entrance to a cave where a Buddhist Guru is said to have meditated for three years, three months, three weeks, three days and three hours in the eighth century. No roads lead to the temple, and visitors have to trek for hours through woodland before beginning the steep ascent up to the temple itself.
This huge and densely detailed Buddhist monument is located on a mountaintop on the Indonesian island of Java. Built in the 9th century, it is a deeply symbolic structure, blending indigenous ancestor worship with an intricate Buddhist cosmology. Buddhist pilgrims trace out the journey to Nirvana on the temple, circling the base of the monument before ascending through three levels, each an allegory for a different state of being: the world of desire, the world of forms, and finally the world of formlessness. This journey moves through a complex network of corridors and stairways, decorated with etchings and statues that tell different aspects of the Buddhist story.
Rising out of the forest canopy in eastern Kyoto, this ingeniously built series of structures - not a single nail is used in the entire complex - is named after the waterfall that flows through its grounds. This water is sacred, and visitors drinking from it are believed to gain good health and longevity. The sacred site as a whole consists of several separate halls and shrines, most of which serve their own individual purpose, and have their own accompanying rituals. At the Jishu-jinja shrine, for example, visitors can prime themselves for love by closing their eyes and, walking in darkness for 18 meters, trying to pass between a pair of stones. If you miss, then you’ll miss your true love; you can ask for assistance but, of course, this means you’ll be reliant on someone else to guide you to your lover.
Covering over 400 square kilometers, Angkor Archaeological Park contains some of the most spectacular ancient ruins on earth. These are the remains of the Khmer Empire, a civilization which lasted from the 9th century to the 15th century, and they encompass the ruins of the world’s largest pre-industrial city. Within this is the biggest single religious monument on the planet, Angkor Wat, which stands on a raised terrace above the rest of the city. Three rectangular galleries rise to a central tower, each ascending in height, with two more towers standing behind the beautiful facade. The sight is particularly spectacular at sunrise and sunset, when the sky’s fiery colors irradiate the jagged outlines of the five towers.