Sunday, 7 August 2011

Preview: The Spring Temple Buddha

In March 2001, the Taliban of Afghanistan were generally behaving very badly. No, the planes hadn't flown into the World Trade Centre yet and they weren't being hammered for harbouring a terrorist organisation, but after five years in power they were getting pretty heavy-handed with the whole extreme Islam thing. They had banned chess, TV, lobsters, music, dancing, just about any kind of freedom or worthwhile existence for women, as well as performing public executions in sports stadiums, and turned an already troubled nation into a weird, medieval, extremist backwater. And although they usually weren't in favour of any sort of recording equipment, they made an exception that month as they had a little stunt they wanted the decadent West to notice. Their ideology not permitting the representation of man, a decree had been passed to destroy all statues in Afghanistan. One particularly took their attention - twin 1500-year-old, 55 and 37-metre tall statues of Buddha in the Bamiyan valley in central Afghanistan. They were among the tallest standing Buddha statues on earth. The Taliban weren't having any of this and, despite there being no Buddhists in Afghanistan to idolise these giant Buddhas, they put a load of dynamite down and blew them to pieces.

It's strange how the destruction of large inanimate objects can grab the public's attention more than the widespread killing of people. The Taliban's publicity stunt worked a treat, and the world was suitably outraged by the destruction of these colossal twin monuments - little realising that just six months later the destruction of an entirely different pair of monuments would cause even greater shock, and change the face of the world.

Arguably, the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas was mission successful for the Taliban, but over in China someone wasn't accepting this. As the dust of the two Buddhas settled, another even bigger giant Buddha was conceived as a direct reaction to the destruction - the Spring Temple Buddha. It's now the biggest statue in the world.

Before I get into the figures, let's imagine a block of flats. As I write this, I'm sitting in the second floor of a four-storey block (i.e. on the third level given that the first level is the ground floor). If I jumped out the window - I'm looking out of it right now - I am pretty sure I'd break my legs at the very least. It's probably only about 10 metres up, but it's high enough. Across the road are similar four-storey blocks of flats, and it's not a stretch to imagine them built a little higher, at six storeys.

Imagine now that on top of this six-storey block of flats is a similarly-sized platform, doubling the height, and then imagine, if you can, on top of this virtually twelve-storey structure is a colossal, a simply gigantic golden statue stretching up into the clouds. Oh yeah, and all of this is on top of a big hill which is itself being sculpted away to form two further pedestals for the statue.

So to put some numbers on this, we have a 128 metre tall golden statue of Buddha, standing on a 20-metre "lotus throne" pedestal, on top of a 25-metre building, on top of two more pedestals sculpted from a 53-metre high hill. The total height therefore of the entire structure is 208 metres. For a skyscraper in a city, that would be regarded as tall, but for a statue in the middle of the countryside, that's simply astonishing.

The Spring Temple Buddha statue is a depiction of the Vairocana Buddha, a heavenly Buddha that in Chinese Buddhism represents the concept of emptiness or lack of "self", the full realisation of which is a key step to inner peace. Not coincidentally, the Vairocana Buddha was also the Buddha depicted on the taller of the two destroyed Bamiyan statues. The Spring Temple name comes from less celestial sources, and relates to the nearby hot springs with supposed curative properties, and to the nearby Foquan temple which is over 1000 years old and claims to have the world's largest working bell at a remarkable 116 tonnes (the bell is only ten years old). By comparison, Big Ben the bell weighs about 14 tonnes. This claim of 116 tonnes is so amazing that I feel I need to see it to believe it.

Indeed, the whole site may need to be seen to be believed - the world's biggest statue and the world's biggest bell, but pretty much unheralded and in the middle of rural China. What's going on? Internet sources all claim the Spring Temple Buddha was built in 2002, but an actual plaque featured as part of a tourist video on Youtube clearly states it was unveiled on September 29th 2008. Thus I suspect construction only started in 2002. Mind you, the same plaque - the English translation not exactly being fluent - claims the statue is made with 15,000 tonnes of steel, which would make it 50% heavier than the Eiffel Tower. Wikipedia claims the total weight is 1000 tonnes, but its source seems to be a BBC article which is talking about an entirely different statue. So perhaps, as the plaque says, 108kg of gold was used, and perhaps, as Wikipedia says the statue cost £11 million with the overall site around £40 million. I think the whole thing might be a government-sponsored construct, as from the Google translation of a page in Chinese, it seems the project was inspired by someone called Zhao Puchu, who was the leader of the Communist Party approved Buddhist Association of China and died in 2000.

So there's certainly much to find out about this colossus of China, that hopefully will be answered by visiting the site. But although English language information seems hard to find, the basic dimensions and photos are impressive by themselves. And some promising signs come in the form of the Readers' Digest, which recently created a Seven Wonders of the World list for 21st Century structures (and natural discoveries, as two of the list were recently uncovered natural Wonders). Top of the list? The Spring Temple Buddha, with Delhi's Akshardham temple also coming in fifth.

I'll be visiting the Spring Temple Buddha in February or March, and will give a fuller account of who and why it was made, plus my own impressions, then.


  1. Seems unlikely that the govt paid, but I can't find any other answer...this is the only place on the web I've found that even raises the question


  2. the taliban eventually paid with their lives and Osama himself shot dead.
    God gives time for evil to change but if no change......he will eventually END Them!


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