Historic, leafy Baima Si (白马寺, báimă sì), 12km east of Luoyang, is attractive for its ancient buildings and devotional atmosphere. You’ll be dropped either on the side of the road or at the car park, from where it’s a dash through a stretch of souvenir shops to the ticket window.
Founded in 68 AD, the Baima Si has some claim to being the first Buddhist temple in China. Legend says that the Emperor Mingdi of the Eastern Han dreamed of a golden figure with the sun and moon behind its head. Two monks sent to search for the origin of the dream reached India and returned riding white horses with two Indian monks in tow, and a bundle of sutras. This temple was built to honour them, and its layout is in keeping with the legend: there are two stone horses, one on either side of the entrance, and the tombs of the two monks, earthen mounds ringed by round stone walls, lie in the first courtyard.
Home to a thriving community of monks, the Baima Si is primarily a place of worship, and over-inquisitive visitors are tactfully but firmly pointed in the right direction. Inside the temple, you’ll find this a placid place, its silence only pricked by the sound of gongs or the tapping of stonemasons carving out a stele. Beyond the Hall of Celestial Guardians, the Main Hall holds a statue of Sakyamuni flanked by the figures of Manjusri and Samantabhadra. Near the Great Altar is an ancient bell weighing more than a tonne; as in the days when there were over ten thousand Tang monks here, it is still struck in time with the chanting. The inscription reads: “The sound of the Bell resounds in Buddha’s temple causing the ghosts in Hell to tremble with fear”. Behind the Main Hall is the Cool Terrace where, it is said, the original sutras were translated. Offerings of fruit on the altars, multicoloured cloths hanging from the ceilings and lighted candles in bowls floating in basins of water, as well as the heady gusts of incense issuing from the burners in the courtyards, indicate that, unlike other temples in the area, this is the genuine article.