Nara, the Southern Capital – Buddhist Monasteries in the Medieval Times

In 784, the capital was moved from Heijô-Kyô (Nara) to Nagaoka-Kyô. But after only 10 years, Heian-Kyô (Kyoto) became the new capital in 794. One of the reasons for this move was to reduce the influence of Buddhist priests on the government. Therefore, Buddhist monasteries were prohibited from establishing themselves in the new capital. Nara was desolate for some time, but the monasteries gradually recovered their power and continued to be influential during the medieval times. As a result, Nara developed itself into a religious center. In those days, Nara was also called "Nanto," which means Southern Capital, while Kyoto was the capital in the north.

Kôfuku-ji: A Buddhist monastery originally established in Yamashina (eastern suburbs of Kyoto), and re-established in Nara in the 8th century.
(Right) Kôfuku-ji on a woodblock-printed map of the 19th century.
Among the seven major Buddhist monasteries in Nara, Kôfuku-ji (tutelary monastery of the powerful Fujiwara family) and Tôdai-ji (built as the guardian of the country and famous for its Great Statue of Buddha) increased their shôens (estates or manors) and gained economic power. Moreover, from the 12th century on, many powerful nobles entered the Buddhist priesthood, and so the centers of Buddhism in Nara acquired political power to influence the government in Kyoto. The major monasteries had their own troops of sôhei (armed monks), which took part in military operations. The bakufu (shogunate or warrior government) in Kamakura (1185-1333) ruled the entire country through appointing shugo (constable) for each province, but Kôfuku-ji successfully prevented the bakufu from appointing shugo for Yamato Province (modern Nara Prefecture) by insisting that it was "the Divine Province." Accordingly, Kôfuku-ji substantially ruled over the province as the feudal lord taking charge of military and police affairs. In the course of these developments, people within the province were organized into groups of warriors. From the viewpoint of economic development, as the monasteries became more and more wealthy, people in the trades and crafts gathered around the monasteries to form urban settlements. These settlements compose today's old town of Nara (Nara-machi). Buddhist monasteries, especially Kôfuku-ji, played the leading role in forming the medieval landscape of the Nara region.

By Yuko Hiroshige, graduate student at the Graduate University for Advanced Studies

Last updated: 15/May/2001

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