Whether you’re religious or not, or regardless of what religion you are, there’s definitely a lot to admire in some of the greatest religious buildings in the world. Some of them are marvels of architecture, art, beauty, or incorporation to their surroundings. Their typical purpose is to support religious orthodoxy and glorify whatever deity or belief-system they work for.
But then, there are the weird ones. Churches, cathedrals, temples or shrines that are completely out there in terms of how they look or what they’re for. Some of them are beautiful in a really crazy way; some of them are just crazy. A few are kind of terrifying. Let’s take a look at some of the world’s weirdest temples!
1. The Boob Temple
The Jison-In Buddhist Temple, in Japan, was founded in the 9th century. It was always associated with women and motherhood. But in the last few decades, it’s become seriously weird.
The story goes that some years back, a doctor came to the shrine to pray for a patient of his suffering from breast cancer. He put up a pair of little model breasts in an act of what you could call ‘sympathetic magic’, to try to help her get cured. After that, other people started doing the same. Today, there are literally thousands and thousands of little breast-ornaments all over the temple. Women come there to pray for help with breast cancer, to get help with difficult pregnancies, or other breast-related problems.
I’d say the weirdness rating here is really just ‘moderate’ compared to some of the other stuff we’ll be looking at. Sure, there are little breasts everywhere, but they’re not particularly erotic or even anatomical. And aside from that, the temple is a pretty standard Japanese Buddhist affair.
2. The Dragon Tower
Wat Samphran is a Buddhist Temple in Thailand (located less than an hour’s drive from Bangkok). It’s pretty safe to say it’s not like any other temple in the world. For starters, it’s bright pink and 16 floors high. But weirder still, it features a huge Asian dragon coiling all around the tower! The dragon is actually hollow and has stairs on the inside, so in theory one can do a pilgrimage of climbing the dragon up to the top.
There’s also a ton of crazy statues (of Buddhas, animals and the like) in little maze-like paths all around the temple. Apparently, the various statues and shrines are based on or inspired by the Chinese Zodiac.
As if all that wasn’t weird enough, the whole temple complex is now severely dilapidated and fallen out of favor. Apparently, a few years ago the Abbot of the temple was caught in a sex-scandal on account of his having raped a number of underage girls from a hill tribe his temple was doing charity work with. He was sentenced to a 150-year prison sentence, and various nuns were also sentenced for procuring the girls for him. Knowing this suddenly shifts the whole place from ‘surreal’ to ‘creepy’.
3. The Cathedral Made of Salt
Poland is a notoriously Catholic country, and they take their religion very seriously. Maybe the most astounding (certainly the weirdest) product of this is the St. Kinga Chapel. It’s located 300ft underground, in the middle of a massive salt mine.
The Wieliczka salt mine is a massive complex just outside Krakow, which was a working salt mine for about 700 years, from the 13th Century until 2007. Over the centuries, the miners who worked here took to making incredible and elaborate carvings inside the mine; mostly of Catholic saints (which they’d pray to for safety, to prevent flooding, and other mining-related requests), or Polish kings, but there were also some more ordinary scenes, or even fantastical scenes (you can find the Seven Dwarves from Snow White down there, and there’s also a dragon). There are actually several chapels inside the mines, but none is as impressive as St. Kinga’s, which would be more impressive than a lot of full-blown churches even if it wasn’t for the fact it’s made entirely out of salt!
St. Kinga’s, named after a princess who became the patron saint of both Poland and miners (so, pretty obvious why she got the best chapel!), features a stunning altar, carved reliefs of religious artwork (including a replica of Da Vinci’s Last Supper), and amazing chandeliers. And yes, even the crystals of the chandeliers are made from salt. The chapel can accommodate about 400 people. And even though the salt mine no longer operates, it’s still open as a tourist attraction that brings in well over a million visitors a year. Apparently, St. Kinga’s chapel can also be rented out for special events.
4 The City of Ghosts
In Fengdu, deep in central China, there’s a temple complex (of shared Buddhist, Taoist, and Confucian persuasion) that consists of an entire city of the damned. It was built up gradually, possibly over the course of two thousand years (it’s origin is in the Han Dynasty, but the oldest surviving building there now is only about 300 years old), and is made to work as a visual model for us living people of what the afterlife is like.
The Fengdu Ghost City features buildings meant to reflect the different places a person’s spirit is supposed to visit on the way to the afterlife. This includes the “Bridge of Helplessness” which is the entrance to the underworld; the “Last Look Home Tower”, where ghosts can catch one last look at their surviving loved-ones before moving on; and the stone of the Hell Judges, where spirits are tested to see if they were virtuous in life or will be punished with horrible torments in hell. The site has statues of terrifying demons, shrines to deities that can be of help to the dead, and a number of statues and dioramas depicting the punishments that befall those who were guilty of wrong actions (lust, drunkenness, theft, etc).
You’d think this would all be a real downer, but apparently it’s become a very popular attraction for Chinese tourists.
5 The Cathedral of Bones
To a modern Catholic (never mind a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant), a temple made from human bones sounds like something pretty sinister, but you have to remember that in Catholic history, the “memento mori” (remembrance that you are going to die) was a pretty big deal for a long time (especially after the Black Death). The Sedlec Ossuary in the Czech Republic started off as a pretty normal 13th century monastery chapel. At one point, the abbot of the monastery brought over some dirt from Golgotha (the hill where Jesus was crucified), and he sprinkled it over the chapel cemetery. Turns out, a lot of people loved the idea of being buried in the same dirt where Jesus’ blood may have spilled, and the place quickly became the hottest funeral site in all of central Europe. Eventually, the monks had more bones than they knew what to do with. They made an ossuary chapel (a deposit for bones) when there was nowhere left to bury people. For a long time, the bones were just piled up in heaps, but in the 19th century they were reorganized in a more creative fashion.
The chapel features a number of shrines, offering niches made from skulls, a coat of arms (of the local lord) made entirely from bones, and most notably a gigantic chandelier made from skulls and featuring at least one of every bone in the human body.
Like most of the other entries in this article, the Sedlec Ossuary is a big tourist attraction. It gets more than 200000 visitors every year.
6 The White Temple
The stunning Wat Rong Khun, or White Temple, is yet another weird temple found in Thailand. Located in northern Thailand, this one is a bit of a special case, because it’s the only ‘temple’ in this article that is not and never was an active religious site. Instead, it is a modern installation, created by a famous Thai artist, Chalermchai Kositpipat. He designed it based on Buddhist iconography, but in a visually mind-blowing style. The temple features a lot of the standard imagery of a Buddhist temple: Buddha statues, obviously, as well as nagas (snake-men), bird-men spirits, depictions of various sins and their punishments, as well as suffering souls in the Buddhist hells. But it also features fish-monsters, mechas, and elaborate murals where careful observation can spot images of figures definitely not standard to Buddhist art: Superman, aliens, Harry Potter, Neo from the Matrix movies, and more.
Wat Rong Khun was badly damaged in a 2014 earthquake, to the point where it almost needed to be demolished, but fortunately a reconstruction effort took place instead, and this temple/art-installation has now re-opened to visitors.
7 The Temple of 33000 Statues
The Meenakshi Amman Temple is probably the most astounding Hindu temple in the world. Located in the city of Madurai, Tamil Nadu (Southern India), the temple consists of 14 astounding towers of variable heights, the tallest being 170ft high. It also has a golden temple, a half-dozen halls, all filled to the brim with shrines, altars and statues, as well as a hall with almost 1000 astounding carved pillars.
But the most amazing detail of the temple is that every tower wall is covered in thousands of amazing statues of different spiritual figures, in full color and ornately detailed. There’s over 33000 sculptures in all.
The original temple is said to be 1400 years old (legend holds it was founded by the god Indra himself), but the current temple dates back to the 17th century (being rebuilt after being plundered by Muslim invaders). It is dedicated to the goddess Meenakshi (also known as Parvati), the lover of the god Shiva.
This temple is well-known as one of the wonders of the modern world. It gets about 115000 visitors a week, and on the annual festival of Meenakshi it gets about a million visitors.
8 Hell’s Amusement Park
Once more we go back to Thailand (which has more ‘weird temples’ than anywhere on Earth), to the old capital of Ayutthaya. Here you’ll find the Wat Gai temple, which has an incredibly elaborate, incredibly gruesome theme park.
Wat Gai is another Buddhist depiction of the afterlife, but specifically of Naroka, the lowest realm in existence, the Buddhist equivalent of Hell. This is where the greatest of sinners are cast down for an incredibly long time, to pay for their wrongdoings with terrible punishments, until they start the long slow process of reincarnating back up the food chain.
The visuals of sinners being horribly punished in Wat Gai is truly macabre, showing images of people being sawed in half, chopped to pieces, boiled, devoured by monsters, all with lots of blood and gore.
On the other hand, the temple is also full of friendly monkeys, which you can feed for a small fee! You’ll need the monkey-therapy after walking through the terrifying depiction of hell.
9 The Penis Shrine
We’re back to Japan for the Kanayama Shrine, located in Kawasaki. This is a Shinto temple dedicated to the penis. The shrine is mainly dedicated to the Shinto god of blacksmiths, but it is related to a bizarre story that generated its claim to fame.
According to legend, an evil demon fell in love with a fair maiden, so it did what comes naturally: it snuck into the girl’s vagina to live there. The maiden eventually got married, but on her wedding night, when her new husband was about to ‘seal the deal’, the demon bit off the unfortunate groom’s penis! She got married again, and once again the second husband (who really should have thought twice about marrying someone whose first husband came to be known as ‘Bill No-Penis’) lost his penis in the same way.
By now desperate (and probably very frustrated), the maiden tried to get help; she finally ran into a kindly blacksmith that came up with a great idea. He forged an iron penis, and when the woman used this extremely weird sex-toy, the demon bit into and shattered every last tooth; thus saving the girl and presumably her next husband’s manhood.
The ‘blacksmith’ part of the story is why the Kanayama shrine features the Iron Penis, and for a long time the shrine was a frequent prayer-site for prostitutes, making offerings to avoid STDs. It also came to be popular for married couples having boudoir troubles. But that’s not all! Every year the people of Kawasaki celebrate the Iron Penis Festival! Held in the spring, the festival involves a parade of giant penises carried on platforms. There’s also penis-shaped decorations and – no joking – penis-shaped candies for the kids. The festival has been steadily growing in popularity, and in the last few years it’s been used to raise funds for HIV research.
10 And Then There’s This Crazy Place
I’ve written about the Cao Dai religion before. It’s a belief system unique to Vietnam, though now adherents are found anywhere that has a significant Vietnamese community throughout the world. Caodaism isn’t Buddhist, Taoist, Confucian or Christian, but has a mix of parts of all of these, plus European Theosophist spiritualism, and some unique weirdness too. It originated in the 1920s, when various Vietnamese psychics claimed to receive messages from God, which included a vision of the Left Eye of God. They have a very elaborate and complex belief system that includes a number of ‘saints’ that followers can contact through seances; these include various Buddhist or Taoist figures, but also historical people like Joan of Arc, Victor Hugo, Louis Pasteur, Lenin or Shakespeare.
The main Cao Dai temple (in Tay Ninh, southern Vietnam) is a weird and wonderful thing to behold. It features incredible trippy colors, elaborate columns and decorations, dragon statues, amazing altars, and a central shine with a huge stone sphere with God’s left eye on it. During worship, the Cao Dai followers themselves are part of the weird and amazing decoration, as they line up in perfect rows in costumes with white, yellow, blue or red robes depending on their rank in the religion.