A Buddha over troubled waters
At the junction of Minjiang River, Dadu River and Qingyi River in Sichuan Province sits a 71-meter-high Buddha who has been watching over the rivers for about 1,300 years.
It is the Leshan Giant Buddha, directly carved from the cliff rock of Mount Lingyun. The Buddha faces the sacred Mount E’mei, with the rivers flowing below his feet. He sits there calmly, resting his hands upon his knees, overlooking the river with a merciful smile. The statue is believed to be Maitreya, a Buddha and disciple of Sakyamuni, symbolizing brightness and happiness.
A local saying goes: “The mountain is a Buddha, and the Buddha is a mountain.” Construction took almost a century, starting in 713 and finishing in 803, during the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907).
Thousands of workers toiled on the project. As the biggest carved stone Buddha in the world, the Giant Buddha is featured in poetry, song and story. It was listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1996.
The whole project was initiated by a monk called Hai Tong, hoping that the Buddha would calm the turbulent waters that plagued passing boats, killing many people every year. It is said that Hai Tong begged for 20 years to finally acquire enough money.
When some local officials tried to take money from the fund, Hai Tong gouged out his own eyes to show his sincerity and devotion to the cause.
He said that they could have his eyeballs but not the money raised for the Buddha statue, which scared the greedy officials away.
But Hai Tong passed away when the statue was only completed to the shoulders. The project was stuck due to insufficient funding.
Years later, Hai Tong’s disciples resumed the project with financial support from a local official, Zhangchou Jianxiong.
But work stopped again when the official moved to work for the royal court in Chang’an. At that time, the Buddha was completed only to the knees.
It was not until 40 years later, with a donation of another local government official, Wei Gao, that the Statue was finally completed in 803 — the result of work by three generations of craftsmen.
The Leshan Giant Buddha was carved directly into the mountain cliff, with its head reaching the mountain top and its feet standing next to the river.
There are 1,021 buns in the Buddha’s coiled hair, which were skillfully carved into the 10-meter-wide head. He has 7-meter-long ears which can hold two people.
And his 9-meter-wide instep is big enough for 100 people to sit on, and its 24-meter-wide shoulders are large enough for a basketball court.
Even his smallest toenail can accommodate a seated person.
The entire statue is made of stone, except for the ears. The large pair of ears are made of wood, finished with clay.
For craftsmen of thousands of years ago, it was not easy to fix these to the stone head. Although there used to be a 13-story wooden pavilion which sheltered the statue from rain and sunshine, it was destroyed in wars at the end of Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), leaving the Buddha exposed. Yet, the Buddha was preserved quite well thanks to the artfully designed draining system.
Among the 18-layer spiral coils on the Buddha’s head, the 4th, 9th and 18th layers have one cross drainage invisible from the distance; the drainage from the left side in front of the chest is connected to the back drainage of the right arm; there are caves on the back side (the side near the mountain) connecting the two ears.
These caves and drain works create a scientific drainage, moisture-proofing and ventilation system that protect the Buddha from erosion and weathering.
Protection and maintenance
The protection and maintenance of the Leshan Giant Buddha have been a concern down the ages. According to records, the statue was repaired once in the Tang Dynasty, three times in Ming and Qing dynasties (1368-1911), three times during Republic of China (1912-1949) and nine times after 1949. The project in 1936 not only carried out a thorough repair for the whole body of the statue, but also made detailed changes to the chin, lips and hair line, which laid the foundation of how the Buddha looks today.
Since 1949, there have been four major repairs — in 1962, 1990, 2001 and 2011. The 2001 project was the first since the Buddha had been added to the World Heritage List.
The project was conducted to clean the body, cement rock structure, mend cracks and install drainage pipes. In 2007, the statue received another facelift to repair damage caused by weathering and acid rain.
The Buddha statue is undergoing a “physical examination” for repair and preservation which started in October, aiming to tackle problems like the big crack in the chest and massive micro mosses on the body surface.
The examination is overseen by dozens of cultural relic experts, involving the use of cutting-edge technology such as 3D laser scanning, infrared thermal imagining and a drone aerial survey.