World’s largest Buddha statue has close call with Chinese floodwaters

Keeping Conservationists on Their Toes

World’s largest Buddha statue has close call with Chinese floodwaters

Carved into Lingyun Mountain in China’s Sichuan province, the Leshan Giant Buddha dates back to the eighth century. (xiquinhosilva/Flickr)

A monumental Buddha statue carved from a red sandstone cliff face at the confluence of the Min and Dadu rivers in China’s southern Sichuan province was recently impacted by catastrophic, monsoon season flooding. This marks the first time in at least seventy years that water has inundated the 233-foot-tall benevolent giant’s base and lapped at its colossal toes. The seated Maitreya, appeared placid and unflappable as ever throughout the ordeal, as a small army of workers scrambled to safeguard him from rising floodwaters with sandbags.

As of mid-last week, the water started to recede from the statue as communities situated along the Yangtze River and its tributaries—the Min River being one of them—devastated by a historic bout of drawn-out flooding begin the slow process of drying out. As reported by The Guardian, over 100,000 people have been evacuated from vulnerable areas across Sichuan’s Yangtze River basin in recent weeks.

Constructed during the eighth century AD, the Leshan Giant Buddha was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1996 and can claim bragging rights as both the largest and tallest stone representation of Buddha as well as the tallest pre-modern statue of any kind in the world. (The only part of the Buddha not carved from stone are the 23-foot-tall ears, which are made from wood and covered with clay.) Naturally, the Tang Dynasty-era statue, constructed over a 90-year span and considered a work of architectural ingenuity, is a major tourist attraction. However, a vast majority of visitors were evacuated from the area before the mighty appendages attached to the statue’s 28-foot instep were treated to a rare soaking. As the BBC reported, state media claimed that 180 tourists had to be rescued from the site due to perilously rising waters.

According to local lore, if floodwaters manage to reach the statue’s toes, the city of Leshan will also experience flooding. (“Giant Buddha wants to wash his feet, Leshan city can’t fall asleep,” the saying goes.) While thousands were evacuated from the city of over 3 million, areas in and around the sprawling megacity of Chongqing were hit the hardest, experiencing its worst flooding since 1981.

During the flooding event, the water inflow levels at the Three Gorges Dam, a massive hydroelectric facility spanning the Yangtze River, reached a record 2.5 million cubic feet per second and was expected to peak late last week at 2.7 million cubic feet per second according to state media reports shared by the Guardian.

“The Three Gorges Dam has been doing a great job. We should understand that fully taming the flow of any river, the Yangtze River included, is simply beyond the realm of engineering,” Zhang Boting, deputy secretary-general at the China Society for Hydropower Engineering, told CBS News.

As for the roughly 1,200-year-old Leshan Giant Buddha, it’s unclear when it will reopen and the normal deluge of visitors, including millions of run-of-the-mill tourists and a significant number of Buddhist pilgrims, will return to the statue’s base and the network of narrow plank pathways that enable them to get up close and personal with the massive work of art.

Considering its advanced age and somewhat perilous locale, the statue is in relatively decent shape all considering thanks in part to a complex drainage system built into the statue that protects it from erosion as well as an extensive restoration undertaking that kicked off in 2001 with a price tag, partially covered by World Bank, hovering around $33 million. Another round of repairs and preservation work was carried out in 2007. The Buddha is also occasionally closed to tourists for comprehensive full-body “exams;” a recent one, spanning six months, took place in 2019. Yet despite continual preservation efforts and a positive conservation outlook, continued degradation from air pollution, acid rain, overtourism (and now likely flooding, as such 100-year-events become more common) continue to pose a threat, and as such, the statue sometimes appears on lists of endangered World Heritage Sites.