The are four entrances to Tiāntán Gōngyuán, south of Tiānānmén Square, on the points of the compass, and when first built, in the 15th century, its prime function was provide a solemn place for praying to the gods for a decent harvest. The emperor was a key player in this process, and so several of the buildings were functional for the emperor: the building in which he changed robes, and another as a resting place (more, I suspect, for his weary servants who would have carried him for miles). We entered from the north entrance, but it would have been better if we’d have used the south gate, as this way you get the vision of the rise up to heaven. The architects had built in a steady incline from the entrance to the temple, hardly noticeable as we walked from the temple, but quite significant as we looked back.
The design of the park is highly symbolic. The north wall is semicircular (heaven) and the southern perimeter is square (earth). There are two altars; in the north there would have been prayers for a bumper crop, and this group of buildings is spectacularly extravagant. The large round building (you’ll often see it in photos of Beijing) is encircled by three ornately carved marble terraces evocatively named "two dragons over mountains and seas," "two phoenixes over mountains and seas," and "auspicious clouds over mountains and seas." Inside the temple, not an inch has been left unadorned - there’s a plethora of colour and design, and bright-red columns sport a gold design of exotic flowers creeping from terra firma heavenward.
We were amused by the Seventy Year Old Gate created as a shortcut for the emperor Hong Li when he became increasingly frail. This wily fellow decreed that none of his successors could use the gate unless they reached the age of 70 (hence its name), and none of them ever did! At the time of our visit, the area was blocked off for renovation.
We stumbled upon a group of tourists clustered around the Nine-Dragon Juniper Tree, so named because the tree’s trunk mimicked the shape of dragons slithering up the gnarled bark of the tree. Just let your imagination run wild!
Make sure you go to the Echo Wall (we nearly missed it) and try to whisper you’re your partner on the opposite side of the circular courtyard. The sound does reverberate along the wall, but to fully appreciate it, you’d need to ask other tourists to vacate the plot. I was tempted, but I guessed that they wouldn’t have complied.
Finally, we tried to imagine the scene with the ritual fires being lit, the solemn sacrifice being made to heaven, and the joyous celebration that would follow the preceding period of fasting.
This is a great and vast site, and I reckon it’s a must-see when you’re in Beijing.