Amidst a splash of saffron and ochre and Buddhist spiritual chanting, President Pratibha Patil dedicated an Indian-style temple in the town of Luoyang to the “friendship between the people of India and the people of China.” Later she said it was an Indian gift to the people of China.
India's External Affairs Ministry described the temple, covering 3,450 square metres of built-up area, as one of India's biggest diplomatic initiatives, and read much symbolism in its launch on the 60th anniversary of India-China diplomatic relations, when bilateral ties are acknowledged by some yardstick to be the best in recent times.
Luoyang, which falls in the province of Henan, and where the famous White Horse temple is located, is widely regarded as the cradle of Chinese civilisation. The idea of an Indian-style temple in China first came up when Prime Minister Narasimha Rao, on a tour of the country in 1993, visited the White Horse temple, and marvelled at the civilisational links between the ancient lands of India and China. A decade later, the idea assumed concrete shape when Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee paid a visit to the same complex.
In April 2005, when Premier Wen Jiabo visited India, a bilateral MoU on constructing the temple was signed. It was decided that the Indian government would assist with the funding besides providing the architectural design and construction material. The Chinese leadership, which had decided in principle to erect a series of multi-national Buddhist temples in the White Horse temple complex, agreed to allot the largest slice of land to India.
The Indian government set up an advisory committee under the chairperson of Dr. Kapila Vatsyayan, who recommended a blend of ancient and modern design, encompassing traditional Buddhist architectural symbols and meta geometry. The advisory committee recommended a structure patterned on the Sanchi stupa, with the Buddha statue in Chunar sandstone designed as a replica of the one in Sarnath.
The White Horse temple (Baima Si in Chinese), believed to be the first Buddhist temple in China, traces its antiquity to 68 AD. Legend has it that the Eastern Han Emperor, Mingdi, had a vision of a golden figure flying over his palace with the sun and moon behind its head. The emperor's Ministers told him that the vision might have been the Buddha (then unknown to China).
The Emperor despatched a delegation to India to acquire knowledge about Buddhism. After three years, the delegation returned with two eminent Indian Buddhist monks, She Moteng and Zhu Falan (known better as Kasyapamatanga and Dharmavanya). The monks brought with them a white horse carrying a bundle of Buddhist sutras and figures.
Overwhelmed, the emperor ordered the construction of the White Horse temple, and with that Buddhism formally arrived in China, growing over the years to a point where it would leave its impact on religion as well as on Chinese morals, philosophy and ethics. According to an Indian External Affairs Ministry booklet, the temple, which was burned down during the cultural revolution in China, has seen many renovations, and was rebuilt to perfection during the 1973 visit of Prince Norodom Sihanouk of Cambodia.