The biggest Buddha statue on the planet has been partially submerged by floods in a southwestern Chinese province. Rising water levels covered the toes of the Leshan Giant Buddha in Sichuan province south west China. The last time the iconic sculpture got its feet wet was back in 1949. Smithsonian Magazine says the Leshan landmark is “considered to be the largest stone Buddha in the world”, adding it’s “by far the tallest surviving pre-modern statue.”
Concerns are two fold. For starters there’s the grave matter of water touching the 233 ft high Buddha in the first place. As The Independent reports, “A local legend says that if the feet of the eighth-century statue carved into a mountainside get wet, Sichuan’s capital city Chengdu will flood too.”
Religious reckonings aside, the flood may also affect the Buddha’s overall stability. Sandbags were placed to hold back the tide, but to little avail. A drainage system was installed inside the sculpture itself to handle such natural events, though Mother Nature is proving a harsh mistress.
2 people can apparently stand inside the Buddha’s mighty ears, which unlike the rest of the statue are made of clay-coated wood. The head alone is 48 feet high and 33 feet wide. No less than 100 holy men took a seat on those sacred tootsies at one point. In previous centuries a pavilion made of wood and reaching 13 storeys encased the Leshan Buddha. Smithsonian Magazine writes the “structure was destroyed at the end of the Ming Dynasty.” The location, popular with pilgrims, is a Unesco World Heritage site. Plus the statue is carved into a cliff face, making it a true part of the landscape.
The Buddha is believed to represent Maitreya, an ancient Buddhist disciple who was reportedly worshipped between the 4th and 7th century. “By tradition, Maitreya is considered the ‘future Buddha,’,” says the Magazine, “who will one day descend to Earth to preach new dharma, or law.”
3 rivers meet where Maitreya sits. The man behind the statue’s elaborate creation was monk Hai Tong, who sought to calm the raging waters and make things safer for people plying their trades by boat. His motives were supernatural as well as practical. Boat accidents in Leshan were more than simple tragedies to locals.
Website Travel China Guide writes, “people put the disaster down to the presence of a water spirit. So Hai Tong decided to carve a statue beside the river thinking that the Buddha would bring the water spirit under control.”
Things didn’t end that well for Hai Tong, though his legacy lives on. He spent a couple of decades trying to raise funds for the ambitious project. Then government corruption led to him removing his own eye in order to frighten off money hungry officials. He only lived to see half the Buddha completed. Construction took 90 years overall. The statue is either 1,200 or 1,300 + years old, depending on the source.
Citizens of Leshan and – as mentioned in the prophecy – Chengdu have had to be rescued from the floods surging through central and south west China. Heavy rains are behind the current crisis.
The New York Times writes that according to Sec Gen Zhou Xuewen of flood control HQ “at least 63 million people have been affected and 54,000 homes destroyed.” Over 200 people are either missing or confirmed deceased.
The Times mentions that the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers have experienced record high levels. The latter has “reached the highest level since 1997” in Shaanxi Province. Meanwhile the Three Gorges Dam power plant in Hubei province “reached its highest level since it began holding water in 2003.”
Giant Buddhas, residents and animals are at risk, but so are cars. The Independent reports that “21 vehicles parked in a square fell into a hole after the road beneath them collapsed in the night” in the city of Yibin, Sichuan province. The Chinese economy has taken a hit of approx $26 billion.
The Leshan Buddha is a formidable presence in the province, but continued downpours may put the statue at risk. Smithsonian Magazine notes, “without a decrease in corrosive rainwater and air pollution, the statue may continue to erode.”
Whether stories of unearthly consequences arising from water touching the Buddha are believed or not, this has been a potent reminder of nature’s power. Hopefully the incredible sculpture and what it represents has a lot more resilience in it yet, floods or no floods.
Steve is a writer and comedian from the UK. He’s a contributor to both The Vintage News and The Hollywood News and has created content for many other websites. His short fiction has been published by Obverse Books.