Temple ideas

Researchers Discover Remains of Ancient Incense Burners in Famen Temple Palace

Researchers have discovered an exotic incense – elemi – used in China over a thousand years ago.

The incense was discovered in vessels buried in the underground palace of Famen Temple in the northwest province of Shaanxi.

The find provided the first evidence of elemi being used as incense associated with Buddhist rituals from the Tang dynasty, which ruled from the 7th to 10th centuries, the researchers say.

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The study was published in the peer-reviewed journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Monday.

The researchers also found two other incenses, agarwood and a mixture of agarwood and frankincense. These incense samples were in containers in the main area of ​​the Underground Palace.

“The incense samples were mainly sourced from overseas and transported to China via the land or sea Silk Road. [The findings] reflect the incense trade and its functions in Buddhist activities in the Tang Dynasty,” said Yang Yimin, corresponding author of the study and professor at the University of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Incense played an essential role in people’s daily lives, as well as in ancient Chinese ceremonies, religions and medicines.

Since the opening of the Silk Road linking China to Asian, European and African countries around the 2nd century BC. J.-C., the incense became one of the invaluable products of exchange between China and the other nations.

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Despite numerous historical publications recording the use of exotic incense in China, there was little archaeological evidence and limited understanding of the composition, origin and function of incense, according to the study.

The samples from the Temple of Famen provide archaeologists with a rare opportunity to analyze the components of incense and understand their use and functions.

Famen is one of the most important Buddhist temples in the world as it houses the precious finger bone sarira of Sakyamuni, one of the names of Buddha.

Buddha's sarira, believed to be a bony section of the Buddha's finger, at Famen Temple, is believed to be the only part of Buddha's body left in the world.  Photo: AP

During the Tang Dynasty, eight emperors maintained the temple’s underground palace and brought the sarira to the then capital, Changan – present-day Xian – and the then eastern capital of Luoyang for salvation and worship.

However, in 1981 about half of the tower collapsed after heavy rains. The local authorities decided to dismantle the rest and dig the foundations and the surrounding area.

During an excavation in 1987, archaeologists discovered the underground palace and the bone sarira of Buddha’s finger.

Thousands of exquisite artifacts – including goldsmithery, silverware, glass, porcelain, silk cloth and incense containers – have also been found in the palace.

Agarwood – chenxiang in Chinese – which was prominent in the incense trade during the Tang dynasty, grows mainly in South and Southeast Asia.

Artificial agarwood incense, oud sticks and shavings.  Photo: Shutterstock

“Many agarwoods from Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Myanmar, Cambodia, India and other foreign countries have been continuously exported to China through a trade and tributary system,” the report said. study.

The study also provided the first archaeological evidence that incense – ruxiang in Chinese – was used in the Tang dynasty.

“Our findings offer insight into incense offering in royal rituals associated with ninth-century sarira worship and reflect the impact of the incense trade along the Silk Road in historic China” , concluded the study.

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