Buddha to Regain Former Glory

Scaffolding soaring more than 40 metres almost covers the giant statue of Leshan Buddha, who sits upright among the rising cliffs that face the confluence of the Minjiang, Qingyi and Dadu rivers in Southwest China's Sichuan Province.

Several workers are using soft brushes to remove soot and other dirt from around the Buddha's left eye.

At the foot of the statues, three workers are pounding on a huge slab of cement with hammers. When a pool of cement powder gathers, they stop hammering and collect the powder.

It is then sieved and mixed with water and thin tassels from bamboo. Other workers will take the powder concoction up on the scaffolding and apply it to the crevices at the coils on the head of Buddha.

The workers, trained in repairing ancient architecture and stone statues, have an enormous task ahead of them.

The giant stone Leshan Buddha, which took 90 years to carve by ancient artisans during the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), is 71 metres tall. Its head alone stretches 10 metres in diametre with some 1,021 coils on his head.

When it was carved, a huge 7-storeyed wooden structure sheltered it from rain and sunshine for 500 years. The structure was destroyed in wars by the end of the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368). Since the 15th century, the stone statue has had to weather extensive exposure to monsoonal rains and winds in the subtropical region.

Over the years, plants have begun to grow out of the Buddha's head, while garbage has been thrown over his face, neck, shoulders, breast and feet.

Water from the three rivers that converge before the stone statue keep washing ashore, eroding the lotus foundation underneath the Buddha's giant feet. In fact, over 30 holes have been discovered in the foundations.

The current restoration project is funded with an initial investment of US$700,000 from the Italian Government and a further non-interest loan from the World Bank.

The ambitious project began in late March, according to Zhang Xudong, director of Tourism Department of the Leshan Scenic Zone Management Committee.

Lu Lin, director of the management committee, said that previous repairs were undertaken during different dynasties by monks.

"This time, we are working out a comprehensive plan so that we will take into account the ecological, natural, human and archaeological factors during the current repair job," he said.

According to the initial plan, workers will remove grass and garbage amidst the coils on the Buddha's head, and repair the "head skin" and crevices with the cement concoction. After cleaning the Buddha's face, neck and chest, the workers will repair the broken parts and apply skin-coloured putty over the surface.

Work will also be done to remove the previous cement repair job to the Buddha's shoulders and replace the cement with rammed earth that will be covered with red-coloured mortar.

All the materials used in the repair work are traditional materials so that the work will restore the giant statue's original appearance.

Actual repair work constitutes only a part of the preservation plan, Lu Lin pointed out.

An hour's ride from the populous metropolis of Chengdu, the Sichuan provincial capital, the giant Buddha has also been damaged by industrial development in the area. Industrial emissions and human activity - including 1.2 million annual visitors - have led to a deterioration of the statue's surface.

Since 1995, the year when the giant Buddha was listed as world cultural heritage, factories producing pollutants have been moved away, and emissions from restaurants and shops have been monitored.

The activities of boats on the rivers have also been supervised.

The local Leshan government has also decided to build a new highway to replace the 305 State highway which runs close to the Buddha, to remove the emissions from some 10,000 vehicles a day that pass along the highway.

Work will also be carried out to clean the rivers, which are currently polluted and add to the erosion of the giant Buddha's foundations.

The entire project will require 500 million yuan (US$60 million), Lu said.

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