California's Bowers Museum opens tombs of China

Two Chinese terracotta warriors are shown on display at the Bower Museum in Santa Ana, California, in this publicity photo released to Reuters September 30, 2011. The warriors are part of an exhibition called "Warriors, Tombs and Temples: China's Enduring Legacy". REUTERS/Bowers Museum/Handout

By Jordan Riefe

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The closest one may ever come to being touched by a deity may be at southern California's Bowers Museum when "Warriors, Tombs and Temples: China's Enduring Legacy" opens this week showing off an ornate case that holds a bone from the Buddha's finger.

The treasure trove, residing at the Bowers from October 1 through March 4, was excavated from a key area near Xian in Shansi Province, the end point of the Silk Road and capital of the three great unification dynasties, Chin, Han and Tang.

"It is actually the cream of the crop," grins guest curator Suzanne Cahill at the Bowers, which is located in Santa Ana, about an hour south of Los Angeles and near the Disneyland theme park and other tourist attractions.

Sadly, the Buddha's bone itself didn't make the trip to the Bowers as it rarely travels. But the new show is enough to bring out a parade of Buddhist priests to bless the case that holds the holy relic.

"Buddha was cremated and they harvested whatever was left," explains Bowers President Peter Keller. The bone was found in the Famen Temple built in the Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.), an era of opulence and greater exposure to the outside world.

"When they build a temple, they have what's called a founding deposit, which is a holy object they bury under the temple," explains Cahill. "And in this case, it's probably the holiest relic in all of Asia, which was supposedly the Buddha's finger bone."

The finger was associated with miracles and drew many pilgrims. Occasionally Tang emperors went to the temple, dug up the finger and marched it around villages in elaborate processions. Upon returning, an emperor would deposit treasures with the finger -- priceless items of gold and silver he had especially made including the case bejeweled with a Sri Lankan sapphire.


Famen Temple was sealed in 874 A.D., and the treasure sat until 1987 after a Ming Dynasty pagoda collapsed and restorers discovered what they always suspected might be underneath: a treasure trove including a delicately sculpted golden dragon, a bejeweled headdress and a silver box and glassworks bearing Persian influence, items never before seen outside of China.

Many of those items make their world debut in the Bowers exhibit, along with a green-faced terra cotta soldier from the Chin Dynasty (221 BC - 207 BC). While each of the 8000 soldiers like this one is known to have individualized expressions, none is known to be colored. Tests show the green coloring is not the result of oxidation but appears to be paint, meant to intimidate a battlefield adversary.

The soldier and his comrades stand guard over the tomb of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China. In only 14 years he unified the country, standardized the language and connected the scattered fragments of what is The Great Wall.

Despite his accomplishments, Qin Shi Huang was regarded as a ruthless conqueror who betrayed allies and ruled with an iron fist. Cahill recalls a story deriding the emperor after he died on the battlefield.

"They brought him back, they put a wick in his belly button and it burned for two weeks because he was so fat living off the sufferings of the people," Cahill said.

Qin Shi Huang ordered the construction of his tomb in 215 BC, employing some 700,000 laborers working 38 years to build a complex larger than most cities. It's been called "the eighth wonder of the world."

While the Bowers' exhibit many highlights of treasures unearthed at Xian, it leaves people hungry for even greater riches yet to be discovered.

"Landing at the airport, you see a valley containing 78 burial mounds," Keller said about his many trips to Xian. "It's China's answer to Egypt's Valley of the Kings!" And for the next six months, parts of it are at the Bowers.

(Editing by Bob Tourtellotte)

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