Toe path

25th September 1998 at 01:00
There's a saying in China: "The mountain is Buddha, Buddha is the mountain. " Nowhere is it more true than here, at Leshan, 100 miles south of Chengdu in the province of Sichuan, home to the world's biggest Buddha.

Carved out of red sandstone cliffs at the confluence of the Min river and two of its tributaries, the Great Buddha rises 80 metres above the water, a towering homage to Gautama Siddhartha, founder of the Buddhist faith.

For a religion that believes in the insubstantial nature of all things physical, it is a monument of Brobdingnagian proportions and proof that some things are indeed built to last.

Its rudimentary form boasts neither the grace nor the religious signifiers of lesser statues - making it less a site of pilgrimage and more a tourist attraction - but its scale alone is impressive enough.

The Buddha's head is 15 metres from chin to crown, with six-metre tall ears and a big toe that's eight metres long. Visitors can climb the "stairs of nine turnings" to gain a Buddha's-eye view from the gallery beside his head.

Its builders were monks who hoped the awesome presence of their creation would calm the turbulent waters at its feet and guarantee safe passage for fishermen.

One of them, called Haitong, even gouged out one of his eyes in an attempt to convince potential financiers of his devotion to the project.

Haitong died before his dream was realised. The statue, which incorporates an internal drainage system, was completed in 913 AD, 90 years after work began. Some feat.

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