The Temple of Heaven is an enormous complex in the world built in the 15th Century during the Ming Dynasty and expanded during the Qing Dynasty . Set in a tranquil park, the temple complex covers 273 hectares. In 1998, it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. Its most famous building is the triple-roofed Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest, which is often mistakenly called the Temple of Heaven, a name which actually applies to the whole park complex, including the main altar, which was the most important structure in the temple.
Located in the southern part of the city, the temple was used by Emperors from the Ming and Qing dynasties as an altar of worship. During those times, it was believed that the emperor had a direct relationship with heaven. The layout of the grounds and its buildings symbolize the relationship between heaven and earth, humans and the gods�- in accord with Chinese cosmological laws. Granite walls enclose the Temple of Heaven with the outer wall a taller, semi-circular wall in the northern part, representing the heaven, and the shorter, rectangular southern wall represents the earth. This reflects the ancient Chinese belief that ''The heaven is round and the earth is square.''
Two enclosed walls divide the Temple into an inner and outer court. All Main buildings lie along a north-south axis. The most magnificent buildings are The Earthly Mound Altar (Yuanqiutan), which is the main altar, The Imperial Vault of Heaven (Huangqiongyu), which is a single-gabled circular building, and the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest (Qiniandian), which was used by the emperor to pray for a good harvest. These three structures, which are aligned on a north-south axis, are connected by a raised marble causeway 360 meters long known as the Bridge of Vermilion Steps, or the Sacred Way.
The Hall for Good Harvest has three layered terraces of white marble. During the Ming and Qing dynasties, emperors would come here to offer sacrifice to Heaven (the spiritual father of the emperor) and to deceased emperors of the dynasty, to obtain their blessing for the coming year. The building is a superbly-proportioned example of Ming dynasty architecture, its cobalt roof tiles symbolizing heaven, and its mathematical proportions offering obeisance to the sun, moon and stars. The Hall has four inner, twelve middle and twelve outer columns, representing the four seasons, twelve months and twelve traditional Chinese hours respectively. The 28 columns match the 28 Chinese constellations, while the circumference of the uppermost roof is 30 zhang, the number of days in the lunar month.
The Hall sits at the northernmost end of a long north-south axis. The next building on the axis is the Imperial Vault of Heaven, a beautifully-proportioned little building which was a storehouse for ancestor tablets. Surrounding it is the Echo Wall, which attracts a lot of interest because it is said that if you stand at any point around the and speak, and you can be clearly heard, even at the far side of the circle. Because of the crowds putting this story to the test, it's impossible to verify.
The southernmost structure in the temple complex was the most spititually important in the days of the emperor: the Main Altar. It consists of three marble terraces, surrounded by two walls, one square, symbolizing earth, and the inner one round, representing heaven. The altar was rebuilt in the 18th century on the orders of the Emperor Qianlong. The structure was built to careful numerological principles around the heavenly numbers 1, 3, 5, 7 and 9.
It was here that the Emperor communicated with Heaven at the winter solstice in an intricate ritual divided into nine passages, each with its assigned choreography and music. It began at midnight with the lighting of the lamps, and culminated a day later at dawn with the emperor's prayers to Heaven at the Round Altar, and the burnt offering of a whole bullock.
Other features of interest in the Temple of Heaven complex include the Hall of Abstinence, where the emperor would spend the night before the winter solstice, and the Divine Music Administration, once an imperial sacred music academy and now a museum of traditional music.
Note too that the Temple of Heaven is one of Beijing's nicest parks, and is well worth a visit just for the color and tranquillity it provides.
Admission: April 1-October 31: through ticket: RMB 35, entry fee: RMB10
November1-March 31: through ticket: RMB30; entry fee: RMB 10
Opening hrs: March 1- June 30: 08:00-17:30
July 1- October 31: 08:00-18:00
November1-Feburary 28: 08:00-17:00
Getting There: On subway line 2 get out at Qianmen station. Take bus: 17, 120, 729, 803.
From subway line 2: get out at Chongwenmen station and take bus 729, 744 heading south.