Located at the foot of Cangshan Mountain facing Erhai Lake, the Three Pagodas is about 1 kilometer (0.6 miles) northwest of Dali Ancient City. Traced back to over 1,800 years, it symbolizes the long history of Dali City and witnesses the development of Buddhism in the area. It has become one of the highlights of Dali tour, for its unique style, antiquity and rich culture.
As its name implies, the Three Pagodas are composed of three ancient independent pagodas standing like the legs of a huge tripod between Cangshan Mountain and Erhai Lake. The main pagoda called Qianxun Pagoda. It is said that it was completed about the year 840 AD by a Nanzhao King named Quan Fengyou. Built in a typical architectural style of the Tang Dynasty, the square-shaped pagoda with closed eaves looks like the Small Wild Goose Pagoda in Xi’an. It has 16 tiers with a total height of 69.13 meters and is one of the tallest pagodas ever built in China. At the basement of the pagoda are engraved four Chinese Characters ‘YONG ZHEN SHAN CHUAN’, meaning ‘everlasting sovereignty and peace’. It was written by Mu Shijie, grandson of Mu Ying, the Senior Duke of Qian of the Ming Dynasty. There are four shrines on each story, which was used to store Buddhist sculpture. Long time ago, one can climb up the pagoda along the ladder inside. But now, the ladder is broken.
The other smaller two pagodas stand to the north and south sides of the main one. Constructed about 100 years later, they have an architectural style similar to that of the Song Dynasty pagodas. They are octagonal-shaped. Each one has 10 tiers with a height of 43 meters. The pagodas are empty from the first floor to the eighth floor and have supporting girders inside. On the top of each pagoda, there are three copper-made calabashes, each connected with an umbrella-shaped bronze bell.
During the renovation in 1979, more than 600 pieces of cultural relics were discovered in Qianxun Pagoda, including hand-written Buddhist scriptures, books, engraved bronze plates, bronze mirrors, statues of Buddha made of gold, silver, bronze, iron, porcelain, jade, and quartz, and medicinal herbs. Up to now, they constitute the largest store of relics of Nanzhao and Dali Kingdoms ever found, providing sure proofs of the influence of the Han culture upon minority nationalities in the border areas. They also have a great significance in studying the history, religion and art of Dali City.
Since the Three Pagodas were built one thousand years ago, they have gone through war and earthquakes. Few ancient buildings in Dali survived, but the Three Pagodas still elegantly stand here. They are the symbols of outstanding architectural technology, the wisdom of the ancient laboring people and the brilliant culture of Dali. The Three Pagodas are famed as one of the three curiosities of Chinese ancient architecture, along with the Zhaozhou Bridge of Hebei Province, and Big Wild Goose Pagoda in Xian, Shaanxi Province.