Monday, 31 October 2011

7. Wonder: The Bodhi Tataung Standing Buddha

(For the Mahar Bodhi Tataung Laykyun Setkyar Standing Buddha preview, please click here.)

In my preview, I admitted to a slight frustration at the lack of information available about a giant standing Buddha statue in Burma. The bare facts existed - it was 129 metres tall and the second tallest statue in the world, it was built in 2008, and it was near a town called Monywa (which may have meant "village of snacks") in central Burma. Other than that, I was clutching at straws. I couldn't even find out who built it, or what the statue's name meant. But I'm happy to say that, having been there, the mysteries have been cleared up and my questions answered: the Mahar Bodhi Tataung Laykyun Setkyar Standing Buddha Statue was built by The Most Venerable Mahabodi Tahtaung Sayadaw Bhaddanta Narada (Aggamaha Saddhamma Jotica Dhaja). Is that clear?

I'll break it down a little, because the answers really are in that single statement. The name of the statue first is a little more than just the Laykyun Setkyar - its full title is the Mahar Bodhi Tataung Laykyun Setkyar Standing Buddha statue. "Laykyun Setkyar" first of all. It should actually be pronounced "Lay-chun Set-char" - the standardised Burmese transliteration which gives the "ch" sound the letters "ky" is very misleading. It means "Four Island Universe", and refers to the belief in Buddhist cosmology that the universe that we live in - the south universe - is just one of four universes out there, that can be represented by islands. Buddha oversees them all, thus the statue is the Buddha of the four island universes. "Mahar" simply means "big" and would seem to refer to the patently large statue, but in fact refers to the next part of the name, "Bodhi Tataung". Bodhi Tataung is the name of the overall site that the giant Buddha statue stands over, and literally means "Bodhi tree thousand" and refers to the many thousands of Bodhi trees (the tree under which Buddha is said to have achieved enlightenment) that were planted here a few decades ago. (Sometimes the site is also called the "thousand Buddhas" but this is a mistranslation.)

A grand title this might be, but just as the statue called "La Liberte Eclaimant le Monde" - or "Liberty Enlightening The World" - is called "The Statue of Liberty" by everyone, the statue called "Mahar Bodhi Tataung Laykyun Setkyar Standing Buddha" is generally referred to as "the Bodhi Tataung Standing Buddha" by everyone in Monywa. At just a little over three years old, the statue is a new kid on the block, but the overall site of Bodhi Tataung has been around since 1961. Its origins are humble, with just 27 trees planted on the 5th May of that year, but boy has it grown since then.

According to inscriptions on-site - the only information I could find available - there are now something in the region of nine thousand trees and over ten thousand Buddha images. Ten thousand does not seem to be an exaggeration: there are a lot of Buddhas around. Entire fields of sitting Buddhas are scattered around the overall Bodhi Tataung site. There must be something in the region of a thousand sitting Buddhas alone surrounding the Aung Setkyar Pagoda that sits near the foot of the Standing Buddha statue. The numbers are overwhelming, and the experience of walking through an overgrown field filled with row after row of near-identical sitting Buddhas is quite a spooky one, especially as each statue has a small stone inscription at the front, giving the scene the feel of a forgotten graveyard.

So Bodhi Tataung is something of a local landmark, and are the two magic words required for any taxi driver to take you to the site - "lay-chun set-char" does not register. Burness and I arrived in the small city of Monywa early on Friday afternoon and quickly decided to pay Bodhi Tataung a visit. Our quick decision was perhaps inspired by our grim living conditions in the central Golden Arrow Hotel, with a floor thick with dirt and a bathroom coated in flies. The rest of Monywa too seemed to clog the senses rather than stimulate them, as mangy dogs and motorbikes battled it out for city supremacy. Outside the hotel we found a to-to, an odd hybrid with the front half of a motorbike and the rear half of a small covered pick-up truck. "Bodhi Tataung" we said to the driver, and we proceeded on the slowest journey I've ever taken part in.

Bodhi Tataung is something like 25 kilometres from Monywa and we managed the trip in a shade under an hour and a half. Our to-to was a splutterer, and the front half was a scooter rather than a motorbike. Anything vaguely uphill caused it the greatest of pains, and towards the end we both had to get out to give it a push. The upshot of this leisurely travel was that en route to the thousand Bodhi Trees, we were greeted with a thousand hellos from locals, and especially children, as we trundled by at low speed. Foreigners are not unknown in Monywa, but they are still a novelty. Bodhi Tataung, while famous in Monywa and pretty well known about in the rest of Burma, is unknown to the wider world. The Lonely Planet gives it a blink-and-you-miss it mention, and a Google search reveals little more than a few blogs by way of information. Of all the Wonders on my list, this is one of the most obscure.

Another advantage of this slow means of travel was the slow reveal given to the Standing Buddha. Being 129 metres tall, and on a hill, you will not be surprised to hear that the Standing Buddha stands out a little over the surrounding countryside. Our first viewing, in fact, had been on the bus from Mandalay to Monywa; in the distance, between gap in the roadside trees, the enormous upright figure of Buddha could be seen, calmly overseeing all around him. It was impressively dominant. On our to-to ride, edging ever closer, the Standing Buddha kept appearing, peeking over trees or momentarily visible between gaps in trees. Suddenly, going round a slight bend in the road, he was directly ahead, still a little away, like a giant watching us arrive, arms passively by his side. Clad in golden robes with a white-painted face and red lips, from afar he reminded me of a gigantic porcelain doll: unlike most of the world's monochromatic statues, the Bodhi Tataung Standing Buddha goes for full technicolor.

And this is where I'd expected the Standing Buddha to trip up. When it comes to Buddha statues, the Buddhist world seems to go for quantity over quality. There are certainly a lot of statues out there, but often they are pretty simplistic. Sometimes they are painted quite garishly. Usually they are done to a standard template. They aren't very subtle.

A fully-painted 129 metre Buddha statue then, I had not expected to be subtle. And yet somehow, it is. Of course, its dominant feature is its sheer ginormassivity and nothing that size is going to discreetly blend it in with its surroundings. But contradicting my impression from photos seen prior to visiting, the Standing Buddha wasn't just another slightly gaudy Buddha statue writ large. Its subtlety was in its simplicity - not the crude simplicity of generic Buddhas, but a restrained simplicity so that despite its size, it is a Buddha rather than a monster. Somehow, it conveys a sense of tranquility - it's a very serene statue. Perhaps it's the eyes, which are cast down, so appear to keep an eye on you as you stand below it. It may be the stance, an upright position with hands by its side - much easier to build, of course, but also a straightforward, confident but passive poise. Lady Liberty holds her torch aloft and Rio's Christ spreads his arms to embrace, but the Bodhi Tataung Standing Buddha is happy just to stand there. And the facial expression - relaxed, at peace, and with a hint of a smile forming.

So the Four Island Universe Standing Buddha, or whatever you want to call him, took me by surprise. I expected big and ugly, I got big and peaceful. I expected crass simplicity, I got refined simplicity. The effect, upon climbing the many steps of the covered walkway leading to the base, is something approaching awe, which is all the best Wonders hope to achieve.

It was late afternoon by the time we'd arrived, and helping the tranquil mood created was the absolute lack of crowds. Hardly anybody was around. Disappointingly, the entrance to the Standing Buddha was closed, but the good news was - it had an entrance! Each of my Wonder candidates I visit at least twice anyway, so there would be an opportunity to climb inside the 129-metre Buddha the following day. For now, we enjoyed the magnificent views of the area given by the Buddha's vantage point on one of the few hills around. The light was dimming as the sun descended, giving the Buddha's gold-painted cloak a pleasing, muted glow.

After the sun set, the lights came on, and as we drove away in our coughing to-to, the vast glowing statue was the only thing visible in the distance, a beacon of light in the darkness. Which is more than I can say for our to-to - its lights didn't work, so Burness and I took turns holding a small torch so that the driver could see where he was going, and more worryingly so the oncoming trucks and buses could see us before it was too late.

We found a healthier to-to the following morning, and paid a longer visit to the Bodhi Tataung area, exploring the fields of long grass and sitting Buddhas, climbing a decrepit tower for a view then a fresher, less decayed tower for a similar view. But the highlight was climbing inside the Standing Buddha... and entering hell...

It seems that the inside of our 129-metre friend is dedicated to showing you exactly what hell is like, a veritable museum of torture and pain in the afterlife. Hell, or Naraka, in Buddhism is a world of great suffering that you can be born into if your karma has been especially bad, and is as unpleasant as you might imagine. The inside of the Standing Buddha is not yet complete, and to date you can only go about half way up until you reach levels still being constructed and find the stairway locked, but the majority of levels before this stage depict imaginative ways to die in hell. They must have been fun to paint.


And there were many, many more. For the Buddhist believer, the meaning is pertinent I'm sure; for a heathen like myself, the effect is startling and a little amusing. I enjoyed it a great deal more than if the levels had been decorated in the usual thing, like stories from Buddha's life or past lives. As I say, the inside is still a work-in-progress, so possibly the higher levels will start depicting much nicer things like nirvana, so making the Standing Buddha a metaphor for climbing from the lowest state to the highest. Or perhaps they will just fill it with 32 storeys of hell. I kind of hope the latter.

Just in front of the Standing Buddha is a similarly sized reclining Buddha, 95 metres long, and lost in the long-grassed fields of Buddhas is another gigantic Buddha, sitting on four elephants. In the early stages of construction, near what could vaguely be called the site's car park, is a massive statue of a Buddha lying on his back. Construction of stupas up the hill from the Standing Buddha is ongoing, and numerous stupas and pagodas built in the last couple of decades sit alongside the thousands of Buddha statues. The Bodhi Tataung is a massive, sprawling site dedicated to the large scale - in sheer numbers as well as size - reproduction of Buddha. What's going on? Who's behind this mania?

The answer is in my opening paragraph: The Most Venerable Mahabodi Tahtaung Sayadaw Bhaddanta Narada (Aggamaha Saddhamma Jotica Dhaja). The baffling series of words is less intimidating that it first looks. "Mahabodi Tataung" simply refers to the "Big Thousand Bodhi Tree" area and "Sayadaw" is a Burmese Buddhist term meaning "Head Monk". The head monk's ordained name is Bhaddanta Narada (he was born Mg Toe Kywe, but this name was shed upon becoming a monk) and the four words in brackets are in the Pali language and refer to his university studies, kind of like a slightly more descriptive version of M.Eng, B.Sc or whatever. So the Bodhi Tataung was founded by its head monk, who for the sake of brevity we'll call by his title, Sayadaw.

Sayadaw was born in 1931 in a village near Mandalay and Monywa, and by age 29 had founded his own monastery. An inscription by the Standing Buddha statue enigmatically refers to him excavating two large Buddha statues from the jungle, giving little else in the way of detail, leaving the reader to interpret the meaning of this. Perhaps it inspired what was to come, or perhaps is just indicative of Sayadaw's interest in statues of Buddha. Because Sayadaw had plans for his monastery.

As with Shwedagon Pagoda and the temples of Bagan, Bodhi Tataung very much depends on the existence of donors. Buddhists donate money to the pagoda or monastery for merit, to help them progress to a better next life. It can safely be assumed that Sayadaw was pretty good at rustling up the donations. Originally, his plan was to plant a thousand trees and place a Buddha under each one. He got a bit carried away. Each of the sitting Buddhas in the fields have the donor's name inscribed below it, but upon reaching a thousand he just kept on going - the numbers are now well into the thousands. Then in 1991, Bodhi Tataung hit the big time, in relative terms at least. That was when the huge 95-metre long reclining Buddha statue was complete. It was then longest Buddha statue in the world. With a site filled with thousands of statues, and now a world record under his belt, Sayadaw had become more than just a head monk of a local monastery.

And so he started to travel. An inscription lists some of the countries he visited, which includes most of Asia, America, the UK and even New Zealand, in order to continue his fund-raising. He met with success - all the statues around the Aung Setkyar Pagoda, and there are over a thousand of them, have a single Korean donor's name below them. With one world record under his belt, he evidently reckoned it was time for another - tallest statue in the world. On the 8th May 1995, he ceremoniously commenced the construction of the Mahar Bodhi Tataung Laykyun Setkyar Standing Buddha statue.

Why? Why did Sayadaw do all of this? I'm sure the official reasons are all tied up with merit and the glorification of Buddhism. But the real reasons have gone to Sayadaw's grave. Age 76, he died in late 2006, just fifteen months short of seeing his huge statue complete. Possibly, merit was his only motive, but I personally suspect that although a devout monk, Sayadaw was still human. He liked the publicity, he liked the spotlight being shone on his monastery and the attention it was attracting, and at the heart of it all, he just really liked building lots and lots of statues, some of them really big.

In the end, because of China's Spring Temple Buddha, the Bodhi Tataung Standing Buddha only measured as the second tallest statue in the world, though that's no great shame. What is a greater shame is the general disuse the entire Bodhi Tataung site seems to be falling into. Donations are still coming in thick and fast - for the Standing Buddha, at least, the Myanmar government made some generous contributions - but they seem to be focussed on the ongoing construction of new monuments rather than the upkeep of old. Overgrown fields of crumbling Buddhas slowly allow the elements to take over. Only a decade or so old, wandering through these fields is not unlike wandering through ruins of a much more distant era. Even the giant reclining statue looks to be ageing quickly. It looks fine from the outside, but the interior (which also contains dioramas from Buddha's life story) is dirty, has pools of water, and doesn't look like it has been maintained since the day it was finished. An adjoining construction at the back of the statue looks like it's falling down. Bodhi Tataung, just a few decades old, seems already to have its eye on being an archaeological site.

Perhaps that's its perverse intention. Two blogs, one written in 2005 (before the Standing Buddha's completion) and another in 2009, give interestingly different perceptions of the site. The first, in fairness, years before the headline act was complete and thus saying of it "right behind it [the reclining Buddha] another huge structure of grey concrete was towering", describes the scene as extremely tacky and concludes: "For this visit we did not need much time, the four of us were equivocal in our dislike and were happy to return to Mandalay". I personally disagree, but understand the sentiment: Bodhi Tataung will never be to universal acclaim. The second, which I stress is in no way a direct response to the first (which I strongly doubt the writer had seen) makes the interesting point: "True, they’re relatively new constructions, but they’re impressive all the same. If it makes snobby monument connoisseurs feel better, the towering figures are already starting to crumble and should look like ruins within a decade. Give the site time to mature." Would dereliction help Bodhi Tataung? That would be a cruel assessment. With the level of donations that are coming in, some upkeep of the older areas would be a good idea, because even if not to everyone's taste, the scale of it is nonetheless impressive. And give it some time and a little bit of antiquity can do wonders for your sense of taste.

But my Wonder here is not the overall area, it is simply the giant Standing Buddha. And as you may have noticed, I've been very impressed with it. It might have a pretty straightforward story behind it - a monk wanted to build a really tall statue - but it has been implemented well, and to good effect. There are still some questions I've not been able to answer, mostly technical details such as its overall cost, the materials used (likely steel, concrete and plaster, I reckon) and who the actually designer was, if not the Sayadaw, and maybe with further investigation I'll be able to find these out, but for now I'm content I've answered the basic questions of why there is a gigantic statue of Buddha standing outside an obscure city in Burma.

Criteria then.

Size: The second biggest statue in the world, at 129 metres (including podium), the Standing Buddha is massive, and looks even bigger being near the top of a hill overlooking a lot of flat countryside.
Engineering: Nothing spectacular - the hands-by-side design of the Buddha means construction of the statue would have been not much more challenging that that of a 129-metre tall building.
Artistry: It won't be to everyone's taste, but I find the style of Buddha refreshingly clean and simple.
Age/Durability: Already, the rest of the surrounding site seems to be going downhill. Will the Standing Buddha suffer the same fate? As it's the main tourist draw, I think it will be better maintained, but whether the quality of construction is good enough to stand the test of time awaits to be seen.
Fame/Iconicity: Obscure. This is a modern statue near an unknown city in Burma. While Monywa may put it on its posters, the rest of the world hasn't really noticed.
Context: Dominating the surrounding countryside, and part of a much larger complex of many thousands of Buddha statues, the Standing Buddha is the primary attraction and can be seen for miles around.
Back Story: Conceived by the monastery's head monk, who wanted to add a really big statue to his already-sprawling complex of Buddhas. The Standing Buddha doesn't quite have the age to have a great story behind it, but I'm sure a good television scriptwriter could fashion a dastardly tale around it.
Originality: A statue of Buddha? Original? Only in its size.
Photogenicity: It's well positioned to take a nice photo, especially from the nearby Aung Setkyar Pagoda or one of the observation towers. I've not seen any overhead shots yet, but there is potential for a good one that incorporates the statue and the overall site.

World Wonders are only ever a snapshot of time - the 30-metre tall Colossus of Rhodes from the original Classic Seven only stood for 70 years. Perhaps in 70 years time the Bodhi Tataung Standing Buddha will have fallen; I doubt it, but I don't doubt its title of second tallest in the world will have. Nonetheless, at the current time, the sheer size of the Standing Buddha impresses, as does its overall aesthetic impact, much more than I'd anticipated. It's a gentle giant watching over the Burmese countryside, and makes a change from the plethora of gold pagodas that the Burmese seem to otherwise prefer. Is it a Wonder? No, certainly not one of the Seven. Although I think it's been done remarkably well, at the heart of it the Standing Buddha is just a large statue, and isn't hugely original or iconic. Greater fame, if it was able to achieve it, would likely elevate its worth, just as the sheer fame and recognisability of the Statue of Liberty raises it. I'm not sure if this fame will come. Nonetheless, for a candidate Wonder I felt would come near the bottom of my list, I think the statue may be aiming for a respectable mid-table finish. And here then is the controversy. In Yangon, Shwedagon Pagoda sits, gleaming gold, and a massive icon for the city and country. It appears in pictures all across the nation. Well, don't tell the Burmese, and it's a close call, but I think the Standing Buddha is better. Strip away the Shwedagon's fame and history, and it's simply a slightly larger gold pagoda than the others. The Standing Buddha, currently, is much bigger than most other statues. Size isn't everything (so I'm gently told), but it does matter - and the Bodhi Tataung Standing Buddha is the surprise hit of Burma.

The List So Far

1. Sydney Opera House
2. Borobudur
3. Petronas Towers
4. Bodhi Tataung Standing Buddha
5. Shwedagon Pagoda
6. Ananda Temple in Bagan
7. Marina Bay Sands


  1. The reason we Buddhists build big statues of the Buddha is that we enjoy it.

  2. Speaking of meditation, the art of meditation practice is one that everyone should learn. It is a way to clear the mind and rid the body of stress.
    where is buddhism practiced


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