Monday, 7 February 2011

Travels with Li Dongni – Giant Buddha, Leshan, China (November 2008)

That’s one big Buddha...

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts my wife is Chinese and her whole family still live in China, in the stunningly beautiful province of Sichuan.  This has meant that as well as seeing the major sights of China such as Beijing, Xi’an and the like, I have been fortunate to have my own personal tour guides to show me some of the lesser known tourist delights of the Middle Kingdom – in fact my wife sometimes gets asked if she is my interpreter, which she understandably hates!

The place I’d like to highlight here is the fairly well known, certainly within China, giant Buddha (‘Dafo’ 大佛) at Leshan in Sichuan – a UNESCO World Heritage site and part of the Mount Emei scenic area.

You’ve probably guessed from the name and the photo that this is indeed one big Buddha.  His stats are nothing if not impressive – he is 233 feet (71 metres) high, his shoulders are 92 feet (28 metres) across, and just one of his eyebrows is 18 feet long!  Unsurprisingly, it is the tallest Buddha statue in the world.

His history is also rather interesting.  Construction began in AD713 (Tang dynasty), the brainchild of a monk called Haitong, who thought that the Buddha would help calm the waters of the three rivers which join at his feet.  When funding for the project became threatened (see – not just a modern occurrence), the monk is said to have gouged out his own eyes in protest – that’s dedication for you.  The funding was restored and the monk’s disciples continued the project, the statue being finally finished in AD803.

The Buddha himself, seated with his hands on his knees, is a depiction of Maitreya Buddha – a popular figure in art of the 4th to 7th Centuries.

To get to the Buddha, you wind your way up the hillside beside him, past various carvings and calligraphy, some on an impressive scale, left there by previous pilgrims (we call them 'vandals' today).

This means that you can’t see the Buddha until the very top, when you arrive at the Buddha’s head - your first view of him being a giant ear and one serene, heavy-lidded eye.  Once you’ve looked around the top of the mountain, which also features a few pagodas, modern eateries and the cave Haitong allegedly lived in, you can begin to descend the quite amazing stone staircase down the side of the Buddha.

It is during this descent that the scale of the Buddha really does become apparent, and there are plenty of stopping points to look back up at the benignly smiling face.  Eventually you arrive at his oversized feet.

When you’ve had your fill at the bottom, you can begin to go back up the other side of the Buddha, this time through a series of winding cave paths.  However, this actually turned into one of the most memorable moments of my time in China.  We had visited fairly late in the day, so when we were at the bottom of the Buddha it was already after 4.30.  We started to move back up the cliff at the same time as a group of other tourists, but held back to get some photos while they moved ahead – we didn’t want to be fighting with them all the way back up.  However, when we got back to the top we were faced with a locked gate, even though we were only mere minutes behind the others.  Shouting didn’t result in anyone coming, so we went back to the bottom of the Buddha with the intention of going back up the stone staircase.  Only to find a locked gate there too…

This situation caused a reaction in me that falls somewhere between fury and panic.  Panic at the sheer shock of being locked in, and fury that the staff could lock up such a big site without actually walking through and checking that all the visitors were out – there is only one path and we weren’t exactly playing hide-and seek in the shadows.

Thank goodness for mobile phones, as we were able to get the number for the site and phone the office.  No answer.  So we phoned the police.  About 30 minutes later, by which time it was virtually pitch black, we saw torches coming down the steep stone staircase.  We were taken back up the way we had come and given a ride to the edge of the park.  One thing we didn’t get, though, was an apology.  In fact, the guards (for it was the site staff rather than the police that eventually turned up) seemed to be slightly angry with us – I expect out of embarrassment rather than a real belief that we had done wrong, though in China you do sometimes feel that those in authority have very little sense of personal responsibility for their failings.  Perhaps the thought of being shouted at for imprisoning a western tourist was worrying them?

Despite the bizarre incident, my willingness to recommend the Buddha remains undiminished.  If you find yourself in Sichuan, make your own pilgrimage to the giant Buddha.  Just try not to visit too late in the day…

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