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New Delhi, India
September 5, 2007
Dazhong Si was built in 1733 and acquired its first bell ten years later, when Emperor Qianlong had a giant bell brought here from another temple, Wanshousi. Today, Dazhong Si devotes itself to bells, from thumbnail-sized midgets to leviathans that fill a building. Dazhong Si is a bell museum, which spreads across a series of quiet pavilions, all stone, painted wood and eaves of glazed tiles. Pine-shaded courtyards play host to sparrows, and you’ll find yourself mostly on your own.
Our saunter through the museum was a tour of discovery. I didn’t know, for instance, that Chinese bells are of two types: the ling (with a clapper on the inside) and the zhong (beaten with a hammer or similar device from the outside). I also didn’t know that many Chinese bells are surmounted by a carved mythical creature called a pulao, which is supposed to shriek when attacked by a whale (though I suppose lots of creatures – including me – would shriek when attacked by a whale). The pulao’s connection to the bell sounded obscure, until I discovered that the hammer used to strike the bell was often carved in the shape of a whale. Enlightenment dawns!
Dazhong Si has a small and none-too-engrossing collection of Japanese, Korean and Occidental bells, but it’s the homegrown lot that’s impressive. Musical bells, chime bells (hung in graded ranks outside noblemen’s homes) and Aeolian bells (hung from the eaves of temples and other buildings) are there by the dozen, but so are hundreds of other bronze and iron bells. They’re decorated in interesting patterns: dragons, clouds, Chinese characters (including names of donors – in some cases, wealthy eunuchs), phoenixes, cranes, flying apsaras, and the Buddha.
The museum’s pride and joy, however, is the Yongle Big Bell, which hangs in solitary splendour in the last pavilion. This behemoth is a two-storey high Ming bell which weighs 46,500 kg (50 tonnes) and when struck, could be heard at least 40 kilometres away. The museum bills it as China’s largest bell, but that seemed erroneous to me, since the bell at Beijing’s Bell Tower actually weighs 63 tonnes. Whatever – the Yongle Big Bell is worth it. Dazhong Si is worth it!
To get to Dazhong Si, take Line 13 from Xizhimen, and get off at the Dazhong Si station. Opposite the station exit is a pedestrian overbridge; cross it and turn left – Dazhong Si is about five minutes’ walk. An entry ticket costs 10 RMB per person, with nominal extras if you want to photograph the Yongle Big Bell, or climb its tower.
From journal A Week in the 'Northern Capital'
November 15, 2004
Big Bell Museum, as its name implies, houses the largest and oldest bronze bell in the world. At fifty tons, it is deservedly called the King of Bells. It reputedly can be heard 40 kilometers away, though we did not witness it in action. It’s incredibly huge. Words cannot describe it. You will have to see for yourself below how dwarfed my companion was, compared to the bell. And, incredibly, it has these tiny relief texts -- 250,000 of them, cast all over the bell. There is not an empty space in this incredibly large thing. I can’t imagine how much preparatory work went into getting this bell ready for firing.
Luckily for us, this bell is not the only attraction in this place. On exhibit are several hundred large bronze bells from temples all around the country. Some bells are plain, while others have elaborate texts and abstract patterns and images, and they all have these legendary creatures sitting on the top of the bells. My favorite was a set of chime bells from the 400s BC that was unearthed in 1978. There are about 65 bronze bells suspended in three levels on a stand, also cast of bronze, weighing a total of almost 10,000 lbs. As chime bells, they are actually used to play music. Because we visited the museum during the off hour, we were allowed to approach the bell, touch it, and hear it played. We could not have timed the visit better. The staff told us that at about lunch time, from 11:30am to about 1:30pm, the place is deserted of visitors. As it is far from any place, the museum is mostly visited by tour groups. They all come at about the same time, take lots of photographs, and leave. As the approach to the bells is restricted, most don’t get the chance to see the bells up close and personal. So skipping lunch is sometimes very rewarding.
From journal Return to Beijing