Three Pagodas

Chongsheng Si, Dali

Dali's celebrated Three Pagodas (San Ta) are located near the city, on the grounds of the Chongsheng Si temple between lake Er Hai to the east and the Cang Shan mountain range to the west. The complex is oriented east-west, to take advantage of good fengshui (in this case, overcoming the more usual preference in China for a north-south orientation). The view on this page faces west towards the mountains; the tall, Tang-dynasty (Nanzhao Kingdom) Qianxun Pagoda stands in the center, flanked by two smaller pagodas (north, right and south, left) that were erected during the Song era (Dali Kingdom). The purpose of these pagodas, as so often in China, is to magically guard against natural disasters, particularly earthquakes and floods, as per the four-character inscription on the tall pagoda: "forever control mountains and rivers."

Qianxun Pagoda: brick, c. 840 AD; 17 levels (counting the bottom level as double); 226' (69m) high; square plan. Its curved outline derives from the Indian shikhara (temple tower), while its square plan comes from the Han-dynasty watchtowers.

North and South pagodas: brick, 11th century; 11 levels (again counting the bottom levels as double); 138' (42m) high; octagonal plan. Their visible lean is the result of earthquake damage to the foundations; an irony, since their purpose was actually to prevent earthquakes. The foundation of the large Qianxun Pagoda is deeper; it has survived at least thirty earthquakes and is still standing upright.

Buddhist relics, including sutras, statues, mirrors, and other precious objects, were found during a 1979 restoration. Replicas of these objects are displayed in a small museum on site; the originals have been transferred to various museums. Probably the best-known of these recovered objects is a 24 cm (9") gilt statue of Acuoye Guanyin, that is currently (2007) on display in the Yunnan Provincial Museum in Kunming.