The Buddhist island of Putuo Shan (普陀山, pŭtuó shān) is undoubtedly one of the most charming places in eastern China. A combination of religious reverence and relative inaccessibility means that it has no honking cars or department stores, only endless vistas of blue sea, sandy beaches and lush green hills dotted with ancient monasteries. As such, it’s an ideal place to escape the noise, traffic and dirt of the big cities, but only midweek – Putuo Shan is just twelve square kilometres in area, and can get swamped with tourists on weekends. Indeed, the best times to come are April, May, September and October, when the weather is warm and the island not especially busy. Bring walking shoes, too; you’ll get much more out of the place if you walk between the attractions rather than taking the bus. If it’s crowded, remember that there are over eighty temples here, and the vast majority of tourists will only be at the big ones – grab a map and just walk off, and you’ll soon be on your own. Be warned, thanks to the “Buddhist Buck” and the fact everything has to be shipped in, prices are relatively high here for both food and accommodation.
Over the years more than a hundred monasteries and shrines were built at Putuo Shan, with magnificent halls and gardens to match. At one time there were four thousand monks squeezed onto the island, and even as late as 1949 the religous community numbered around two thousand. Indeed, until that date secular structures were not permitted on the island, and nobody lived here who was not a monk. Although there was a great deal of destruction on Putuo Shan during the Cultural Revolution, many treasures survived, some of which are in the Zhejiang Provincial Museum in Hangzhou. Restoration continues steadily, and the number of monks has grown from only 29 in the late 1960s to several hundred. Three principal monasteries survive – Puji, the oldest and most central; Fayu, on the southern slopes; and Huiji, at the summit.
The three main monasteries on the island are in extremely good condition, recently renovated, with yellow-ochre walls offsetting the deep green of the mature trees in their forecourts. This is particularly true of Puji Temple (普济寺, pŭjì sì), right in the centre of the island, built in 1080 and enlarged by successive dynasties. Standing among magnificent camphor trees, it boasts a bridge lined with statues and an elegantly tall pagoda with an enormous iron bell.
South of the temple and just to the east of the square ponds is the five-storey Duobao Pagoda (多宝塔, duōbăo tă). Built in 1334 using stones brought over from Tai Hu in Jiangsu province, it has Buddhist inscriptions on all four sides.
Down on the southeastern corner of the island, Zizhu Temple (紫竹寺, zĭzhú sì) is slightly less touristed than most and, for that reason alone, is a good spot to observe the monks’ daily rituals. Just down from the temple is a cave, Chaoyin Dong (潮音洞, cháoyīn dòng); the din of crashing waves here is remarkable, and thought to resemble the call of Buddha (and hence this was a popular spot for monks to commit suicide in earlier days).
On the island’s southern tip is Putuo’s most prominent sight, the Guanyin Leap (观音跳, guānyīn tiào), a headland from which rises a spectacular 33m-high bronze-plated statue of the Boddhisatva, visible from much of the island. In her left hand, Guanyin holds a steering wheel, symbolically protecting fishermen from violent sea storms. The pavilion at the base of the statue holds a small exhibit of wooden murals recounting how Guanyin aided Putuo villagers and fishermen over the years, while in a small room directly underneath the statue sit four hundred statues representing the various spiritual incarnations of Guanyin. The view from the statue’s base over the surrounding islands and fishing boats is sublime, especially on a clear day.
The northern temples
The two temples in the northern half of the island, Huiji and Fayu, make for a pleasant day-trip from town and tend to be less busy than those in the south. A paved marked path, called the Xiangyun Road, connects them, the whole walk taking under an hour. About halfway along is the Xiangyun Pavilion, where you can rest and drink tea with the friendly monks, who have sofas outside.
Huiji Temple (慧济寺, huìjì sì) stands near the top of Foding Shan (佛顶山, fódĭng shān), whose summit provides spectacular views of the sea and the surrounding islands. You can hike up or use the cable car from the minibus stand. The temple itself, built mainly between 1793 and 1851, occupies a beautiful site just to the northwest of the summit, surrounded by green tea plantations. The halls stand in a flattened area between hoary trees and bamboo groves, the greens, reds, blues and gold of their enamelled tiles gleaming magnificently in the sunshine. There’s also a vegetarian restaurant here.
Approaching Fayu Temple (法雨寺, făyŭ sì), listen out for cheesy Buddhist muzak wafting in from the forest – see if you can spot the speakers disguised as rocks. The temple itself forms a superb collection of more than two hundred halls amid huge green trees, built up in levels against the slope. With the mountain behind and the sea just in front, it’s a delightful place to sit in peaceful contemplation. The Daxiong Hall has been brilliantly restored, and the Dayuan Hall has a unique beamless arched roof and a dome, around the inside of which squirm nine carved wooden dragons. This hall is said to have been moved here from Nanjing by Emperor Kangxi in 1689. Its statue of Guanyin, flanked by monks and nuns, is the focal point of the goddess’s birthday celebrations in early April, when thousands of pilgrims and sightseers crowd onto the island for chanting and ceremonies that last all evening.
Occasional minibuses head out along the promontory immediately east of Fayu Temple to Fanyin Dong (梵音洞, fányīn dòng), a cave whose name derives from the resemblance of the sound of crashing waves to Buddhist chants. The cave is set in the rocky cliff, with a small shrine actually straddling a ravine. Walking around on the promontory is a pleasure given the absence of crowds and the difficulty of getting lost.