Saturday, 31 March 2012

21. Wonder: The Leshan Giant Buddha

(For the Leshan Giant Buddha preview, please click here.)

Take a boat from Leshan's small tourist harbour and swing by the Leshan Giant Buddha, and you get a feel for how things once were. The river is fast, the current strong. The waters by the feet of the Buddha - Dafo to his friends - are especially turbulent. Not as turbulent as they once were, but you nonetheless wouldn't want to fall in (saying nothing of the overall pollution - we saw a dead pig float by). In a modern, albeit ageing, tourist boat, the fast waters - a result of the confluence of three rivers - are not a big problem. The engines of the boat are easily the master of the water, and the boat can linger by the feet of Dafo as long as it wants. But in the past, around 1300 years ago, it was more of an issue. The waters were faster then, and more turbulent, and boats relied on manpower. It was a particularly dangerous stretch of water for the river traders and travellers.

And so, Dafo to the rescue.

Dafo was built to calm the waters and he did so. He may not have done so by his calming, protective powers as intended by his original designer, a monk called Haitong who had him started in 713AD, but by the time he was completed in 803AD (Dafo is a ripe old 1209 years old) the waters were indeed calmer. Dafo is a huge sculpture from the rock, a massive statue excavated from riverside cliffs, and the large amount of rock removed for this fell into the river and changed the currents. It's still pretty speedy, but not the turbulent danger it apparently was all those years ago.

As a kind of river guardian, Dafo is best viewed from the river, and this is what Burness and I did soon after arriving in Leshan. Most tourists, foreign at least, visit Leshan as a day trip, and explore the Giant Buddha on foot through a winding series of paths that also explore some pleasant but uninspiring temples and gardens, but they miss out on the view from the river. Understandably, since it's over-priced - 70 RMB (£7) - and brief, at a mere twenty minute ride, and ten minutes in front of Dafo, but it's also the most compelling way to visit. Sailing by a wall of rock, a sudden chunk missing from the cliffs becomes visible. The boat is going quite fast, and suddenly Dafo is visible, a true giant sitting comfortably in a colossal man-made niche - and suddenly he's gone. Our boat went right past him - for just a few seconds, a monster in rock watched us, then he was gone. This must have been how the traders hundreds of years ago would have experienced the Giant Buddha; in their boat, steering it while drifting speedily down a fast-flowing section of river, all of a sudden a vast rock statue would have appeared nestled in the cliff. "What the hell?" they must have exclaimed, before the statue quickly disappeared as the boat went on by. I can only imagine quite a few truly astonished river traders telling tales far down river that nobody would believe.

Fortunately, our boat quickly turned around and got into position for a more lingering look. A short distance from the rock face, Dafo is in the best position to be beheld. From here, it's clear also that he has a pair of little friends.

Some more recent friends are contained in the curiously named Oriental Buddhist Theme Park, adjoining the Great Buddha site. The name conjures up images of Ferris wheels and merry-go-rounds, with spinning Buddha heads with lasers shooting from the eyes, but the reality is more sober. It's a fairly modern park packed full of Buddhist statues, many modelled from famous Buddha statues from around China and the world, including some recognisable ones from Angkor. Although a fairly steep 70 RMB (£7) to get in - no tourist attractions in Leshan were cheap, the Giant Buddha cost 90 RMB - the overall area was developed well and relaxing to wander through. After Buddha overkill in south-east Asia, especially Burma, we've had a couple of months light on Buddhism, and the statues in the park were varied enough to remain interesting. One, in fact, is purported to be the longest in the world, a 170 metre reclining Buddha carved into the hillside. It doesn't take a very good photo though.

The park is a mere build up to the main event of the Giant Buddha, but is an effective one. On a day less grey and drizzly than that which Burness and I visited on, you could sit and relax with a tea - no coffee, we tried - and enjoy the surroundings, but otherwise we spent a decent hour or so walking through caves and along paths, looking at a greatest hits of Buddhism statues.

Of course, it's all about Dafo. After finishing with the Oriental Buddhist Theme Park and crossing into the general area where Dafo resided, we quickly became impatient to see the main event. I would recommend the Theme Park as a warm up, and because a sense of anticipation is usually healthy before seeing a Wonder. Otherwise, if arriving by the main entrance for the Giant Buddha - there you are, enter the main gates and you're standing right by his head, with about fifty Chinese people in a tour group. A little too sudden, and lacking a little mystique, if you ask me.

Instead, the approach Burness and I took happened to be perfect. We wandered a little in the general area, visiting a few underwhelming (and mostly ramshackle and closed) temples, before finding ourselves in a paved patch of ground, with cliffs up to one side and down to the river on the other. And there he was, just beyond some railings - Dafo.

Observe the masses of people on the other side, where the entrance is. My side was considerably thinner on numbers, so I could gaze on the Leshan Giant Buddha in peace. He's an amiable looking fellow, a gentle giant with a sleepy, docile expression. 71 metres tall with, so the stats go, a 15 metre high head and fingernails bigger than a human, he was the biggest statue in the world for over a thousand years. Despite being around so long, it's only in recent times he's developed some of his dirt. Hundreds of years of water and general erosion have, of course, had their effects, but it is acid rain to blame for his black nose and speckled complexion. This was addressed during a face-lift a decade ago, as part of a £20 million maintenance job. His nose is still pretty dark, but he was cleaned considerably, cracks filled in, with drainage installed to channel water.

Pleasingly, the effect really does seem to have been to give him a good clean, rather than overkill on the cosmetic surgery. The Leshan Buddha was put on UNESCO's heritage list in 1996, meaning that restoration attempts would always be taken more seriously, but China can be known to go a little far with historic restoration - observe some sections of the Great Wall. Fortunately, Dafo doesn't seem like a geriatric dressed as a teenager, he just looks like he's had a good wash.

A narrow, winding stairway has been cut into the rock to the side of the Giant Buddha, and it is down this that you descend, travelling from the head to the toes. As you descend, you realise that Dafo isn't the only feature of interest carved into the cliff, though he is certainly the chief one. Loads of niches and smaller and pretty-eroded Buddhas have been carved in, and the walls to the side of Dafo are riddled with square-cut holes. If Dafo was anything like the other rock-cut excavation I've seen to date, that of Kailash Temple in Ellora, then the workers would have started from the top down. Unlike Kailash Temple though, where the cliff sides are fairly smooth, the workers on Dafo obviously enjoyed adding some extras along the way.

As I've said, Dafo is best viewed from a bit of a distance, which is only possible on a boat. This would be the case with any very tall building or statue - standing right by the base and looking vertically up isn't really the best way appreciate it. Unfortunately, on land it is the only way, given that Dafo is situated right by the riverside. As a result, the bulk of visitors don't really see the Leshan Giant Buddha as intended. From the boat, the impression that Dafo has been cut from the cliffside is very apparent, and the sudden giant niche carved out is very evident upon sailing by. This is less appreciated from the land approach. Standing at his feet, Dafo seems like a giant statue, viewed from the boat, he is an excavation. Like Kailash Temple, it could be argued he was always there, it's just his immediate surroundings that have been removed.

The Leshan Buddha is eminently likeable. The peaceful, slyly smiling expression on his face, his obvious age, and his seated position give the idea of a grandfather sitting on his favourite chair, watching the world go by. As a spectacle, he is impressive in an unassuming way. It's hard not to think of this huge section of rock as a real person, hence the third person masculine pronoun I have mostly referred to him by here. As a Wonder though, his likeability and unassuming manner nestled in the cliffs perhaps get in the way. He's less "wow" and more "oh, there he is!". And once you've seen him, really, like most statues, there's no hidden depth. View him from a boat, or view him from above or by his feet, it's just one statue and not much else save for some carvings in the rock beside him. There's not much sense of exploration - visit him once and you've got the idea.

Criteria then.

Size: 71 metres tall, in a seated position, and for over a thousand years the biggest statue in the world. This is big in historical statue terms, but not giant in terms of what we often expect from a Wonder.
Engineering: An impressive large-scale rock-cut excavation, taking considerably foresight and skill, similar to Kailash Temple in Ellora, if not as intricate.
Artistry: Stylistically, it's just another Buddha, albeit one with a slightly more friendly and docile expression than usual. The weathered look suits it well though.
Age/Durability: 1209 years and counting. The Leshan Buddha is the oldest massive statue in existence.
Fame/Iconicity: It's famous around Leshan and neighbouring Chengdu, and well known in China, but not at all worldwide. Considering its age and size, it underachieves in this aspect.
Context: The nearby Buddhist park is a nice build up, and there are other (mostly battered) temples in the vicinity, but they aren't compelling. The real context is the river, for which the Buddha was built to tame, and drifting by in a boat and glimpsing the seated giant is the proper way to experience the statue.
Back Story: An interesting tale of a monk's attempts to control the river using the Buddha's calming powers, and inadvertently succeeding. The stories seem to fade after his construction though.
Originality: On the one hand, it is a huge statue excavated from the rock 1200 years ago without nay precedent; on the other, it's another Buddha statue. Nonetheless, I can' think of anything else quite like the Leshan Giant Buddha in the world.

Charming rather than spectacular would be how I would ultimately sum up the Leshan Buddha. It's a difficult statue to dislike. But at the same time, although a statue it's not exactly a freestanding statue: the Leshan Buddha is still part of the cliff. Perhaps it is this that reduces, just a little, the overall impact. The Leshan Buddha was a late addition to the list, and happily I feel it was a justified one, as it is ancient, massive and a unique piece of world heritage. But on my second visit especially, I felt the Buddha lacked one of my additional criteria - je ne sais quoi. For a huge piece of three-dimensional carving, it felt a little two-dimensional. A big statue in the rock... and that's it. A worthwhile thing to see, but you wouldn't travel across the world especially to see it, as with Angkor Wat or Borobudur. So although a big boy in form, it's certainly not a big boy in Wonder terms, and I'd put it near the base of the central pack of Wonders I've seen so far, just behind the Banaue Rice Terraces but ahead of the much more hyped Terracotta Warriors.

The Seven Wonders of the World So Far
1. Taj Mahal
2. Great Wall of China
3. Angkor Wat
4. Sydney Opera House
5. Borobudur
6. Kailash Temple in Ellora
7. Akshardham

Petronas Towers

Notable Landmarks (or National Wonders)
The Golden Temple
Forbidden City
Temple of the Emerald Buddha
Shwedagon Pagoda
Bodhi Tataung Standing Buddha
Banaue Rice Terraces

Interesting Places
Leshan Giant Buddha
Terracotta Army
Ananda Temple in Bagan
Marina Bay Sands

Agra Fort
Ayutthaya Historic Park
Lotus Temple

1 comment:

  1. Great tips and photos! When I walked down the steep stairs, it is little accident that i nearly roll down the remaining steps by a sudden hit; but Buddha bless at the moment. A boy accidentally caught me and i so impressed and released when reaching the feet of Buddha! So do take care if you walked down such steps


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