The world’s largest Buddha has been inspiring awe and protecting sailors here for 1,300 years
The Giant Buddha of Leshan is the largest stone Buddha in the world and the largest man-made sculpture of the pre-modern world. The giant sitting Buddha reaches up to an incredible 71 metres tall, carved deep into the red sandstone rock.
The building of the Giant Buddha started during the Tang Dynasty in 713 AD by the Buddhist Monk Hai Tong who hoped the offering would calm the treacherous waters below. The Buddha sits at the junction where three major rivers – the Min, Qingyi and Dadu – meet.
The fast flowing waters caused havoc for sailors and the monk hoped by building the Maitreya Buddha the gods would be appeased and fewer sailors would die trying to navigate the waters. And it seems it worked. The story goes that the waste rock from the carving that was dumped into the water, changed the flow of the river, finally making it safe for ships to navigate.
Sadly Hai Tong didn’t live to see his work complete and after his death the project was put on hold. However the wealthy Military Governor Wei Gao who was stationed in the region decided to fund the completion of the Buddha, which finally happened in 803.
For the first five hundred years of its life, the Buddha was sheltered by a vast wooden frame that would keep it safe from the elements. Like so much of pre-modern China, the wooden shelter was destroyed by the invading Mongols of the Yuan Dynasty in the 13th century.
But the skilled designers had cleverly incorporated drainage systems into the sculpture, with water channels in the Buddha's hair, collar, chest, and back of the ears. This stopped erosion from the weather damaging the Buddha. Ironically though, although the Buddha has survived over a thousand years of rain, earthquakes and floods it has been recent man-made pollution that has caused the most damaged to the fragile rock.
The huge Buddha sits with his hands on his knees looking out towards the holy Emei Mountain on the other side of the rivers. As tall as a ten-story building the Buddha is so large that a family could have a picnic on its big toe – if they were allowed. Instead, the millions of tourists and pilgrims who come from each corner of the earth to visit this modern wonder of the world, are able to walk down one side of the statue and up the other. A pair of vast staircases have been carved into the rock allowing visitors to get an up-close and personal view of the grand carving. The long queues can sometimes be slow-moving along the stairways, but an excellent park at the top of the Buddha provides stunning views from above and across the rivers.
However, there is no better way to view it than from the water. Take a boat ride from one of the many quays nearby and watch in awe as the Giant Buddha gradually comes into view and greets you with a beaming smile – in the same way he has greeted sailors since the Tang Dynasty, 1,300 years ago.