Buddhist monasteries are usually located in remote places far from the hub-bub of cities and towns. It takes more than a mild determination to reach them, but some of these are decidedly inaccessible. The idea is to keep all but only the most dedicated followers from reaching these holy places, while they also make the monks feel like they were closer to God in a place of peace and solitude. Today, however, most of these monasteries are tourist attractions and in favor of the tourists, several accessible methods like ropeways and stairs have been added. They still look formidable and requires hundreds of meters of vertical trekking. You better have a good pair of legs if you plan on visiting one of these.
1. Monasteries of Meteora, Greece
The Metéora (Greek for “suspended in the air” or “in the heavens above”) is a group of six monasteries and one of the largest and most important complexes of Eastern Orthodox monasteries in Greece. The six monasteries, built on natural sandstone rock pillars, are one of the most powerful examples of the architectural transformation of a site into a place of retreat, meditation and prayer.
The monasteries are built on rock pinnacles of deltaic origin, known as Meteora, which rise starkly over 400 m above the Peneas valley and the small town of Kalambaka on the Thessalian plain. During the fearsome time of political instability in 14th century the monasteries were systematically built on top of the inaccessible peaks so that by the end of the 15th century there were 24 of them. They continued to flourish until the 17th century. Today, only four monasteries – Aghios Stephanos, Aghia Trias, Varlaam and Meteoron – still house religious communities.
Access to the monasteries was originally and deliberately difficult, requiring either long ladders lashed together or large nets used to haul up both goods and people. This required quite a leap of faith – the ropes were replaced, so the story goes, only “when the Lord let them break”. In the 1920s there was an improvement in the arrangements. Steps were cut into the rock, making the complex accessible via a bridge from the nearby plateau.
2. Taung Kalat Monastery, Burma
The monastery of Taung Kalat is located on a top of a volcanic plug that rises 737 meters from the surrounding in central Burma (Myanmar) about 50 km southeast of Bagan, and near the extinct volcano Mount Popa. The monastery can be accessed by exactly 777 steps and those who reach the top are rewarded by a spectacular view.
To the north-west opens a view to distant temples of Bagan, and to the east is towering the forested Taung Ma-gyi summit. There is a big caldera, 610 metres wide and 914 metres in depth so that from different directions the mountain takes different forms with more than one peak. Many Macaque monkeys live here that have become a tourist attraction on Taung Kalat
3. Taktsang Palphug Monastery, Bhutan
Taktshang monastery, also known as The Tiger’s Nest, is located on a precipitous cliff about 900 metres above the Paro valley, in Bhutan. The rock slopes are very steep – almost vertical – and the monastery buildings are built into the rock face. Though it looks formidable, the monastery complex has access from several directions, such as the northwest path through the forest, from the south along the path used by devotees, and from the north. A mule track leading to it passes through pine forest that is colourfully festooned with moss and prayer flags. On many days, clouds shroud the monastery and give an eerie feeling of remoteness.
4. Sümela Monastery
The Sumela Monastery is built into the rock cliffs of the Altmdere Valley in Turkey. At an altitude of about 1,200 metres it is a major tourist attraction of Altındere National Park.
The monastery was founded in 386 AD during the reign of the Emperor Theodosius I (375 – 395). Legend has it that two priests undertook its creation after discovering a miraculous icon of the Virgin Mary in a cave on the mountain. During its long history, the monastery fell into ruin several times and was restored by various emperors. It reached its present form in the 13th century after gaining prominence during the reign of Alexios III.
The monastery was abandoned after World War I and the start of the population exchanges between Greece and Turkey that forced some 2 million ethnic Greeks and Turks to leave their long-established communities in Turkey or Greece and return to their ethnic homelands. It lay empty for decades before being partially restored and returned to life as a museum.
5. Hanging Monastery, China
The Hanging Monastery or Hanging Temple is located in a canyon at the foot of the Mountain Heng in the province of Shanxi, China. The temple is built into the cliff side about 75 meter above the ground, and stands propped up by hidden rocks corridor and wooden beams inserted into the mountain. Over 40 halls, cabinets and pavilions within an area of 152.5 square meters are connected each other by corridors, bridges and boardwalks. They are evenly distributed and well balanced in height. Inside the temple are more than 80 bronze cast statues, iron cast statues, and clay sculptured statues and stone carvings banded down from different dynasties.
The temple was build to avoid the terrible flood, and use the mountain as protection from rain, snow and sunshine. Today, it is one of the main tourist attractions and historical sites in the Datong area.
This feature originally appeared in Amusing Planet.