Although there are no recorded historical documents relating to the exact age of Shuanglin temple, an inscription on the oldest stone stele at the temple referred to as the “Aunts Tablet” was erected during the Song Dynasty in 1011, in the fourth year of Zhongda Xiangfu. The writings on the stele mention that the temple was rebuilt and renovated in the second year of Wuping in 571 AD, during the Northern Qi Dynasty, thus, indicating that the temple was older than this, possibly existing during the Northern Wei Dynasty between 386-534 AD when it was known as Zhongdu temple.
The renaming of Shuanglin Temple from its original name Zhongdu to Shuanglin Temple is said to commemorate Shakyamuni’s entry into nirvana between the two Sala trees. The temple was again rebuilt and renovated during the Ming and Qing dynasties. Most of the 2,052 statues within the temple are dated to the Ming, Qing and Yuan Dynasty.
Lokapala or Guardian protectors of the earths directions were the first Indian gods accepted by the Buddhists four main schools of Buddhism, Mahayana, Vajrayana (esoteric and Tantric Buddhism), Theravada and Zen. Each with their own particular adaptation of the Lokapala Warrior Guardians.
In the Buddhist tradition these four Lokapala’s are referred to as Vaisravana, guardian of the North, Dhritarastra, guardian of the East, Virudhaka, guardian of the South and Virapaksa, guardian of the West direction.
In Nancy S. Steinhardt’s wonderful dissertation on these deities, she mentions two distinctive styles of iconography depicting the Lokapala’s or four guardians, those that have a King like appearance found in India, and those with a warrior like appearance commonly seen in East and Central Asian countries such as China, Korea, Japan and Tibet.
During the Yuan dynasty Kublai Khan established his Mongol Empire in China (1215-1368), becoming the first emperor of the Yuan Dynasty to embrace Buddhism over Taoism.
Khan Möngke the eldest brother of Kublia Khan was the fifth Khan of the Mongol Empire reigning from 1260-1294 AD. During Mongke’s reign he repeatedly demanded of his brother Kublai to quell the Taoists denigration of Buddhist temples and ordered him to end the clerical strife between the Taoists and Buddhists in his territory. Kublai called a conference of Daoist and Buddhist leaders in early 1258, at the conference, the Taoist claiming to be the main belief system was officially refuted, whereupon Kublai forcibly converted 237 Taoist temples to Buddhism and destroyed all copies of the Taoist texts.
We acquired this set of Lokapala in Louang Prabang many years ago, we have assumed that they are of Chinese origin and they have intrigued us and sparked our curiosity regards their existence in this small Northern Lao town.
Were they made there or brought there from China?
OUR THEORIES (our assumptions and theories, which are just that)
It is possible that during the cultural revolution when young Red Guards invaded homes and shattered family altars that showed a strong Confucius following, these Lokapala were saved and taken from Shuanglin Temple by a local person whilst fleeing persecution, ending up in Luang Prabang.
During the Cultural revolution temples, mosques and churches that were used for religious gatherings were closed and put to secular use, Shuanglin temple did not escape this fate. Many cultural artifacts, libraries, cemeteries and artworks during this period were destroyed, some saved by local villagers.
Even those temples that had been left open for sightseeing purposes, such as the great Buddhist Lama and Taoist temples of Peking, were barred from worship and their statues, altars and other furnishings were removed.
- That they were booty and brought there when a massive number of troops from the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA), set up a vast road construction project in northern Laos.
- Saved by a local person after or during a fire event at the temple and later migrated to Laos, settling in Luang Prabang long before the cultural revolution. Luang Prabang has a long history of Chinese immigration dating back many centuries.
- That they are close copies of the four lokapala at Shuanglin Temple made during the Ming Dynasty, although the resemblance to those guardians or lokapala crafted during the Ming and Qing dynasty is minimal. Most Ming Lokapala guardians are seen wearing full armour, with boots and ornate head adornments.
We also find it strange that in this age of information, there is very little data accessible on these three metre tall Lokapala Terracotta guardians outside the Deva Hall at Shuanglin temple, other than sketchy information, some saying that they are Tang and others say Yuan dynasty, could they have been made between these two periods, or during the Mongol occupation and the beginnings of the Yuan Dynasty? We also wonder why we have been unable to find other Chinese guardians in this particular style from China.
Today the large Lokapala Guardians at Shuanglin temple stand fully enclosed behind bars, and although impressive, barely get a mention with respect to their history.