A Song Dynasty Ashoka Tower

The tallest Ashoka Tower found so far in China from the basement of the ruined Buddhist temple in Nanjing. Collection of Nanjing Museum

In the year of 1011 during the Northern Song, a brand new 9-storey Buddhist pagoda was complete in Nanjing, in today’s Jiangsu Province.

Under the pagoda, there is a basement where this Ashoka Tower along with Shakyamuni Buddha’s bone fragments, a crystal bowl, and a number of priceless Buddhist treasures was stored after a public ceremony hosted by grand Buddhist masters and attended by a huge crowd of Buddhist followers.

The basement was sealed thereafter.

But the pagoda was destroyed late in wars, although the basement kept intact as by then no one knew its existence.

Four hundred years later, the third Ming emperor Yongle ascended the throne. While he sent Admiral Zheng He to tour the half of the world, built the Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven and city of Beijing as China’s new capital, he reconstructed a Buddhist pagoda on the old ruin site in Nanjing as a tribute to his birth mother, a low ranking royal consort.

The pagoda also had nine storeys with a total height reaching 78 metres (as tall as a 28 storey high-rise apartment block), making it the tallest structure in China at the time.

Yet after another four hundred years, the new pagoda was also destroyed in wars.

Another 150 years past. In 2007, the Nanjing government decided to build a ruins park on the site. When conducting a pre-construction archaeological investigation, the concealed basement was discovered, along with the Ashoka Tower and all those priceless Buddhist relics.

The 1.2m tall Ashoka Tower has a wooden inner structure clad with gilded silver sheet, decorated with beads made of crystal, agate and glazed tile.

On the inner surface of the tower, there are four relief sculptures of Buddha, two of them in a standing posture and another two in a sitting position.

On the outer surface, there are also four relieves, illustrating Shakyamuni’s path from mortal to Buddhahood: to be born as a man, to cultivate alone, to guide his followers and to bow out this elusive world that was just a tiny tiny portion of his true self through nirvana.

At the four corners, there standing four great birds with golden wings (suparna), each being 1.68 million km wide when spreading the wings and residing on a giant metal tree north to Sumeru Hill, the central pillar of the universe.

On the base, the names, the positions, the amounts of donation of each donor who financially supported the Ashoka Tower project are recorded

Ashoka Tower houses a double-layer cinerary casket: A silver outer layer (19×18.3×10.5cm ) and a gold inner layer (7.1x 13.2x 6.1cm), decorated with images of lotus flowers, phoenixes, kalavinka, and four celestial kings.

It is within this casket, Shakyamuni Buddha’s head bone was discovered. And that is his only skull bone found in the world, validating the allegations recorded on the various ancient Buddhist documents. 

The golden casket in a silver container

The golden casket that holds the head bones believed to belong to Shikamoni

A gilt copper incense burner of the Song Dynasty found from the basement storage

A copper oil pot of the Song Dynasty found from the underground storage

A copper hand-warmer with silver handle in the shape of lotuses found from the Song Dynasty underground storage

Crystal balls found from the Song Dynasty underground storage

A copper carving set illustrating Buddha and his followers, found along with Buddha’s head bone fragments in Nanjing

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