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Famen Temple


Dating way back to the 2nd century AD, this temple was built to house parts of a sacred finger bone of the Buddha, presented to China by India’s King Asoka who undertook the distribution of Sakyamuni's relics. The older section is worth a visit and you can join the queue of pilgrims who shuffle past the finger bone. The real reason to make the trip out here is the superb museum and its collection of Tang-dynasty treasures.

There are elaborate gold and silver boxes (stacked on top of one another to form pagodas) and tiny crystal and jade coffins that originally contained the four separated sections of the holy finger.

In 1981, after torrential rains had weakened the temple’s ancient brick structure, the entire western side of its 12-storey pagoda collapsed. The subsequent restoration of the temple produced a sensational discovery. Below the pagoda in a sealed crypt were more than 1000 sacrificial objects and royal offerings – all forgotten for over a millennium.

Sensing a cash cow, local authorities began enlarging the temple complex and it now includes a sprawling modern section featuring a 1.6km-long walkway lined with 10 golden Buddhas, eccentric modern sculptures and outsized gates. Shuttle buses (¥20) whisk the pious to the main temple, topped with an enormous replica of the box in which the finger bone was kept. Despite the overblown enlargements, for Buddhists this is a very sacred place. If you want to see the actual finger bone, visit on the weekends.

Other notable exhibits are ornate incense burners, glass cups and vases from the Roman Empire, statues, gold and silver offerings, and an excellent reproduced cross-section of the four-chamber crypt, which symbolised a tantric mandala (a geometric representation of the universe).

Reaching Famen Temple is quite an expedition, but direct buses head to the sacred site 115km northwest of town. Tour bus 2 (¥25, 8am) from Xi'an train station runs to the temple and returns to Xi'an at 5pm. The temple is also generally included on Western Tours.

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