Diary : 27 - 28 October 1996
Mini Pilgrimage : Visiting Leshan, Emei Shan and MeishanAfter a week of hard work, our hosts decided to bring us on a weekend holiday to Leshan city, where the holy giant statue of Buddha was located, and nearby Emei Shan, one of the holiest Buddhist mountains of China. The drive to Leshan took more than 4 hours passing through the flat Chengdu Plains, which in autumn, was covered with fog. Driving in this climate is a tricky matter. The driver could hardly see more than 3m ahead, and vehicles are therefore reluctant to lead. Thus, informal convoys emerged, with a string of cars following each other closely. If the first vehicle meets an accident, the rest are likely to get involved through a chain reaction as well. And indeed, we came across a mass accident in which a whole sting of cars crashed into each other, with at least one dead - I saw the squashed body lying in the middle of the road. Looks like a poor peasant with lots of vegetables on his bicycle... The sight of death created a strange silence on our car, one that will only be overcome when we reached holy Leshan and Emei Shan, and offered our prayers.
LESHAN & THE GREAT BUDDHAThe city of Leshan, known as Jiazhou in the ancient days, used to be a major cross-roads and trading centre in southern Sichuan. Silk and textile from Chengdu and the rich agricultural produce of the Chuanxi Plains were transported down the Minjiang (“Min River”) to Leshan where the river meets the Qingyi Jiang and Dadu River, which happens to be the name of Changjiang in that stretch. And from here the goods were shipped down the Changjiang to the rest of China. This convergence of the three great rivers here in Leshan thus brought the city much prosperity. However, the turbulent currents created by this convergence also meant great dangers to the passing vessels. And in the A.D. 731, a Tang Dynasty Buddhist monk, Haitong, set out to build a giant Buddha (Dafo in Chinese) statue to protect passing travellers and boats. The statue stands 71m high and 28m broad, carved into a cliff overlooking the confluence of the rivers, and is the largest carved Buddha in the world. This project was only completed in A.D. 803, after the death of Haitong. UNESCO gave it due credit in 1996 by declaring it a site of human cultural and natural heritage.
Like most tourists, we skipped the city of Leshan, and went straight to the Dafo. At a pier east of Minjiang, we boarded a tourist ferry to see Dafo from the river. As we approached the Dafo, the boat guide highlighted the sleeping Buddha “discovered” a few years ago by a tourist who claimed that the southern tip of Lingyun Hill looks like Buddha’s head, the middle hump Buddha’s belly, and the northern peak his feet. I had earlier thought that it was an actual archaeological discovery. Now I realised it’s just another modern tourist hoax. Perhaps I should create a new myth about the silhouette looking like a dragon, and thus Leshan has Taoist rather than Buddhist significance.
Despite the slight erosion and the growing foliage on the Dafo’s body, the statue is surprisingly intact - thanks to its ancient internal and hidden water drainage system. However, as the statue come under assault from acid rain and tourists, it is not known how long it will last. Let’s hope that the Sichuanese will do something about it lest this heritage is lost forever.