Mati Si – Zhangye Shi, China - Atlas Obscura

Zhangye Shi, China

Mati Si

Monks turned this mountain into a temple by digging grottoes, tunnels, and a huge pagoda-like hall.  

Mati Si (which translates to Horse’s Hoof Temple) is a group of Buddha grottoes located in the Linsong Mountain in the Gansu Province. Thousands of grottoes are grouped together in seven clusters, and each group of grottoes is no more than a mile or so from another. Human-made tunnels link the various grottoes.

The history of Mati Si is so ancient that it is shrouded in mystery and legends. Legend has it that Long Ma (a winged horse with dragon scales in Chinese mythology) descended from the heavens and left a hoof print on the place where the temple was established.

The site is mentioned in a travelogue from the Eastern Jin Dynasty (265-420), and it is described as a chiseled-out cave in the process of being enlarged and decorated with Buddha statues. However, analysis of the existing grottoes and statues suggests that they are from the fifth and sixth centuries.

There’s no building that could be classified as a temple in the strict sense of the term; instead, this is a whole mountain carved into a temple. Arguably, the section of the cliff carved out as a pagoda is the most impressive part of Mati Si. It’s nearly 200 feet (about 60 meters) in height. It’s divided into seven floors and houses seven grottoes, an intricate set of tunnels, and 200 Buddha statues. Reaching the top of the temple requires climbing uneven steps through narrow passages in the dark, but the view is worth the effort.

A much venerated but less impressive section of the Mati Si complex is the Thousand Buddha Temple. This part of the cliff is pockmarked with openings that let some light into the grottoes. Its two floors are also packed with Buddha statues.

Know Before You Go

Mati Si is easily reached using public transport or hiring a taxi from the city of Zhanggye. Although they belong to the same grotto complex, for administrative purposes, the temple is divided into two: Mati Si and the Thousand Buddha Temple, and two separate tickets are required.

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