Circular Mound Altar

Circular Mound AltarSouth of the Echo Wall stands the Circular Mound Altar which is wholly built of white marble. The altar is enclosed by two walls, a square wall outside and a round one inside. Its layout forms a geometrical pattern but the structure itself is so designed as to make the most ingenious use of geometry. The altar is 5 metres high. The upper terrace is 30 metres in diameter, the middle terrace 50 metres and the bottom terrace 70 metres. Each terrace has four entrances and a flight of nine steps leading down in every direction. At the centre of the upper terrace lies a round stone surrounded by nine concentric rings of stones. The number of stones in the first ring is 9, in the second 18, and so on, up to 81 in the 9th ring. The middle and bottom terraces also have 9 rings each. The total number of the marble slabs paved on the altar’s surface is 3,402.

Even the numbers of the carved balustrades on these terraces are also the multiples of 9. The number of the balustrades is 360, which stands for the 360 degrees of the circumference of heaven. When you stand in the centre of the upper terrace and speak in a low voice, your echo will sound much louder to yourself than to others, as the sound waves are sent back by the marble balustrades to focus at the centre.

The altar was built in 1530, and rebuilt in 1740 in the Qing Dynasty. Although it is over 200 years old, the structure still stands perfectly erect without sagging or cracking.

Every year on Winter Solstice, the Emperor would come here to make solumn sacrifice. The Emperor was escorted by soldiers and officials, by musicians and by princes of the royal blood. From the Front Gate to the entrance of the Temple, each gate and every window over-looking his route had to be closed tight. No foreigners were allowed to watch the procession and foreign diplomats were officially advised to stay in their quarters that day. It even happened that the train from Tianjin was forced to stop so as not to disturb the silence of the ceremony. The Emperor spent a night of fasting and praying in the Temple. The King of Zhou, claiming to be the son of Heaven, made the first offer to Heaven 3,000 years ago. The last sacrifice to Heaven was made in 1914 by Yuan Shikai, a warlord.

Southeast of the Circular Mound Altar stands an oven built of glazed-tiles. It was used as a sacrificial vessel for roasting ox and sheep, etc.   .

Southwest of the Altar is a viewing lantern platform, on which a big pole was fixed for hanging big lanterns during ceremonies.

How to Offer Sacrifice to the God of Heaven

The official in charge of religious affairs worked out a programme of sacrificial ceremony and put it on the table in the Hall of Supreme Harmony for approval by the Emperor. Then the prayers were taken to the Hall of Complete Harmony for the Emperor to practise. Before the ceremony, the Emperor had to wear uniform and ritual hat and fast for two days in the Hall of Abstinence. The day before the ceremony, officials put up a tent near the altar for the Emperor to change his clothes and shoes before service. When the Emperor left the Hall of Abstinence the bell started beating until he arrived at the altar. Ovens were lit and the sacrificial ox was roasted. The emperor then led the military and civil officials mounted the altar and offered sacrifices.  They looked up to the Heaven to see the God off, and music and dance followed. After the ceremony, the emperor went back to the Hall of Abstinence in the chiming of the bell.

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