World’s largest Buddha painting unveiled in eastern Taiwan

By Duncan DeAeth, T

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) – An internationally recognized painter and calligrapher, Hong Qizhen (洪啟嵩) has completed a massive painting of the Buddha, which he began 17 years ago.

The “Great Buddha of the Century” (世紀大佛), is the largest painting of the Buddha in the world, measuring 168 meters in length and 72.5 meters in width.

It was put on display outdoors in Taiwan’s Hualien County on Friday (June 21) so that it would be bathed in the first light of the summer solstice.

The painting, which covers an area of over 12,000 square meters, was unfurled at 4:00 a.m. near the coast of Ji’an Township. It received official recognition as the largest Buddha painting in the world at 10:00 a.m., reports Liberty Times.

The painting was made with watercolors, requiring an estimated 8 tons of paint and 400 tons of water to complete over the course of 6,025 days. The artwork weighs about 2,100 kilograms.

The “Great Buddha of the Century” was previously displayed in Kaohsiung while still unfinished. Hong says he was originally inspired to begin the work after two giant 6th Buddha statues were destroyed by the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001.

Hong and his sponsors hope that unveiling of the completed work will herald an era of blessings and prosperity for Hualien, Taiwan, and the rest of the world.

2 Giant Buddhas Survived 1,500 Years. Fragments, Graffiti and a Hologram Remain.

2 Giant Buddhas Survived 1,500 Years. Fragments, Graffiti and a Hologram Remain.

A 3D light projection last month in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, of how a destroyed Buddha, known as Solsol to locals, might have looked in its prime.CreditCreditJim Huylebroek for The New York Times

By Rod Nordland

BAMIYAN, Afghanistan — Here is a reminder to someone with the initials A.B., who on March 8 climbed inside the cliff out of which Bamiyan’s two giant Buddhas were carved 1,500 years ago.

In a domed chamber — reached after a trek through a passageway that worms its way up the inside of the cliff face — A.B. inscribed initials and the date, as hundreds of others had in many scripts, then added a little heart.

It’s just one of the latest contributions to the destruction of the World Heritage Site of Bamiyan’s famous Buddhas.

The worst was the Taliban’s effort in March 2001, when the group blasted away at the two giant statues, one 181 feet and the other 125 feet tall, which at the time were thought to be the two biggest standing Buddhas on the planet.

It took the Taliban weeks, using artillery and explosive charges, to reduce the Buddhas to thousands of fragments piled in heaps at the foot of the cliffs, outraging the world.

Since then, the degradation has continued, as Afghanistan and the international community have spent 18 years debating what to do to protect or restore the site, with still no final decision and often only one guard on duty.

One recent idea came from a wealthy Chinese couple, Janson Hu and Liyan Yu. They financed the creation of a Statue of Liberty-size 3D light projection of an artist’s view of what the larger Buddha, known as Solsol to locals, might have looked like in his prime.

The image was beamed into the niche one night in 2015; later the couple donated their $120,000 projector to the culture ministry.

The local authorities bring it out on special occasions, but rarely, as Bamiyan has no city power supply, other than fields of low-capacity solar panels. The 3D-image projector is power-hungry and needs its own diesel generator.

Most of the time, the remains of the monument are so poorly guarded that anyone can buy a ticket ($4 for foreigners, 60 cents for Afghans), walk in and do pretty much whatever he wants. And many do.

Souvenir-hunters pluck pieces of painted stucco decorations from the network of chambers or take away chunks of fallen sandstone. Graffiti signatures, slogans, even solicitations for sex abound.

Anyone can, as A.B. did, crawl through the passageways surrounding the towering niches in the cliff, through winding staircases tunneled into the sandstone and up steps with risers double the height of modern ones, as if built for giants.

At the end of this journey, you arrive above the eastern niche, which housed the smaller Buddha, and stand on a ledge just behind where the statue’s head once was, taking in the splendid Buddha’s eye view of snow-capped mountains and the lush green valley far below.

The soft sandstone of the staircases crumbles underfoot, so that the very act of climbing them is at least in part a guilty pleasure — though no longer very dangerous. Twisted iron banisters set in the stone make the steep inclines and windows over the precipices more safely navigable, if not as authentically first millennium.

When the Taliban demolished the Buddhas, in an important sense they botched the job.

The Buddhas, built over perhaps a century from 550 A.D. or so, were just the most prominent parts of a complex of hundreds of caves, monasteries and shrines, many of them colorfully decorated by the thousands of monks who meditated and prayed in them.

In the 1990s, the caves around the Buddha complex in Bamiyan were home to mujahedeen factions that burned wood for heating. As hard-line Islamists, they were against Buddhism, slapping their shoes on the cave walls out of disrespect.CreditJim Huylebroek for The New York Times

Even without the Buddhas themselves, their niches remain, impressive in their own right; the Statue of Liberty would fit comfortably in the western one.

Unesco has declared the whole valley, including the more than half-mile-long cliff and its monasteries, a World Heritage Site.

“If the Taliban come back again to destroy it, this time they would have to do the whole cliff,” Aslam Alawi, the local head of the Afghan culture ministry, said.

Unesco has also declared the Bamiyan Buddhas complex a “World Heritage Site in Danger,” one of 54 worldwide. The larger western niche is still at risk of collapsing.

Most archaeologists oppose restoration, arguing that the damage was too great and that the cost would be prohibitive. Estimates range from $30 million for one Buddha to $1.2 billion for the whole complex.

Tourists from Ghazni Province making their way through winding staircases carved from crumbly sandstone at the Buddha complex.CreditJim Huylebroek for The New York Times

Others argue that the destruction itself has become a historical monument, and that the ruins should be preserved as is, a visible reminder of Taliban iconoclasm.

A scientific conference in Tokyo in 2017 — involving Afghans, Unesco, scientists and donors — met to study the matter, and to discuss Afghanistan’s formal request for money to rebuild the eastern Buddha. A diplomatically worded final statement called for more study and an indefinite pause in restoration work.

Or, as the Unesco field officer Ghulam Reza Mohammadi in Bamiyan put it, “The Buddhas will never be rebuilt.”

The important thing is stabilization and conservation of the remains as they are, Mr. Mohammadi said.

“The government can’t even afford to pay for five guards they promised,” he said.

No work has been done on the eastern niche since 2013, when a German archaeology team began rebuilding the feet of the smaller Buddha, using new materials and raising an international archaeological hue and cry that brought the work to an abrupt end.
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A view of snow-capped mountains and the lush green valley below where a Buddha statue stood.CreditJim Huylebroek for The New York Times

Officials say money has run out to work on the western niche, where scaffolding has filled the vast space for at least five years.

Mr. Alawi, while in charge for his ministry, does not even have a key to the door blocking a passageway to the top of the western niche; he said a German archaeologist took it with him.

Elsewhere on the site, pieces of the Buddhas are in locked cabinets, along with artifacts recovered from the caves, but the Afghans do not have the keys to the locks. A French archaeologist took those, then retired, and has not responded to official requests to return them, Mr. Alawi said.

“Somebody buys your dinner, they get to tell you what to eat,” Mr. Alawi said, quoting a Persian saying.

Another problem is that no one is really sure a restored Buddha would be safe, given Afghanistan’s continuing war and its government’s declining fortunes.

Bamiyan’s governor, M. Tahir Zohair, favors rebuilding the smaller Buddha. But he admitted, “The international community is worried the Taliban might come back and destroy it again.”

So that leaves the hologram.

After sunset on a recent Monday, Mr. Alawi set up the projector for a demonstration and for 15 minutes filled the deep darkness of the western niche with the huge image of Solsol, left palm forward, visible from across the valley.

Arif Taquin, 28, an artist in town, rushed over to the site. “The first time I saw this I cried,” he said. “Every time I see it again I am so moved in new ways, and it is only 3-D. To think we had the real thing, and now it is gone.”

When the generator died and the light flickered off, what was left to see in the niche was, as Mr. Taquin put it, “all that ugly scaffolding.”

Rod Nordland

Fatima Faizi contributed reporting.

Seven-Hundred-Year-Old Secrets

Something about the statue made it unforgettable to Ellery Sedgwick, A.B. 1894, when he first encountered it on a trip to Japan in 1930—so unforgettable that when he returned to the country six years later, he looked for it in four different cities. When a Japanese art dealer asked if he would recognize the figure if he saw it again, he replied, “After eight years, would a lover know his mistress?” The dealer found it for him three days later: a life-sized wooden statue of a small boy dressed in red, his hands pressed together as if in prayer or meditation. Sedgwick—owner-editor of the Atlantic Monthly—purchased the piece and had it shipped to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. In 1937, a visiting Japanese conservator at the MFA discovered more than 70 objects—including smaller sculptures and religious texts—that had been sealed inside the sculpture’s body cavity, apparently untouched since the its creation in 1292.

Something, too, has kept scholars and researchers separated by decades and continents at work for almost a century, trying to understand the most minute details of the sculpture and the objects it once contained. Prince Shōtoku : The Secrets Within, an exhibit at the Harvard Art Museums open through August 11, displays the results of that scholarship, alongside the statue and all of its objects, reunited for the first time since 1937.

Rachel Saunders, Rockefeller associate curator of Asian art at the Harvard Art Museums, thinks that the statue’s “dual identity” might explain the enduring fascination—it is intimately human and distantly divine at the same time. It depicts the prince Shōtoku Taishi, considered the founder of Buddhism in Japan. The prince is captured at the moment when, according to legend, as a two-year-old (a year old, by Western count) he took several steps forward, put his hands together, praised the Buddha, and manifested a relic—the eyeball of the Buddha—between his hands. The statue of Shōtoku is anatomically realistic, standing just below the average height of a one-year-old today, with baby fat around his belly, wrists, and neck. But his knit brows and solemn expression emanate the charismatic power and authority of a religious icon. His eyes, made of rock crystal and purposely designed to catch the light—Saunders shines her cell-phone flashlight into them to demonstrate—are downcast and look beyond the viewer. “You get the sense that there’s an interiority, like you would with another person, something inside him that you can’t see—but he’s also looking beyond where we can see,” Saunders says.

“This dual identity, I think, is one of the sources of his ability to draw people to him,” she continues. “And that was what he was designed to do. He was intended to be at the center of a community who worshipped him and put their hope in him. And Ellery Sedgwick felt that when he first saw the sculpture. He didn’t know who he was, he didn’t know anything about him, but he felt this connection.”

The statue sits in a display case in the center of the exhibit. “He’s in a vitrine right now, so there’s a layer between you and him,” Saunders concedes, “but you can still sense it—he’s got this incredible lifelike presence.” It is the first thing that wandering visitors see upon entering the room—perhaps the perfect setup for a chance encounter like the one that so mesmerized Sedgwick in 1930 Tokyo. Along the walls and in glass cases are the objects the statue once contained. Like the “dual identity” of the statue itself, the stories these objects tell are both grand and minute, societal and individual.

The donation of objects to a statue is a ritual practice that stores up karmic merit for donors, which means the artifacts inside Shōtoku were among people’s most precious possessions, items they decided to give up as a sign of devotion. Many of the inscribed documents even have names written on them—donors “didn’t want any mix-up,” Saunders says. Someone, for example, decided to give a copy of chapter 25 of the Lotus Sutra, one of the most influential Buddhist texts in East Asia, which now sits in a display beside two other Buddhist texts. The Lotus Sutra chapter is “perfectly written out, no mistakes, no changes to the text.” Yet even this faithful reproduction of a canonical text reveals personal traces of whoever owned it: the bottom of the first page is worn away, perhaps the result of someone rubbing a thumb along the text while chanting.

The statue and its objects also tell scholars about the cults and religious practices that existed in Japan at the time of its making. The pieces were most likely commissioned and organized by aristocratic nuns associated with Eison, a monk who led a revival movement of Japanese Buddhism during the late thirteenth century. At the time, it was less socially acceptable for women to join a nunnery than for men to join a monastery, but Eison “believed very strongly that, for the Buddhist community to be complete, you needed women; you needed nuns,” Saunders says, explaining the importance of women in the creation of the collection. Eison’s movement was closely associated with the Esoteric Wisdom King Aizen Myōō—a six-armed deity depicted with red skin, flaming hair, and sharp fangs—of whom two sculptures were found inside Shōtoku, both now on display.

Another clue about contemporary events unsettling an exclusive version of Buddhism can be found in tiny slips of paper, inscribed with religious writings, that hang framed on a wall of the exhibit. They were distributed by an itinerant monk named Ippen, and they guaranteed recipients entrance to the Buddha’s Western Paradise when they died. Buddhism before this time “tended to be very scholastic; you needed a lot of money; you needed to study; you needed to have the leisure to really be an adherent,” Saunders explains. Monks like Ippen “decided they weren’t going to have any of that, they basically democratized it, made it very simple—even as simple as saying one particular praise to the Buddha, or receiving this piece of paper. It was a very disruptive time.”

On display in the next room is a complete twelfth-century Chinese woodblock-copy of the Lotus Sutra that was found inside the statue. The piece has been housed at the Library of Congress since the 1940s, when Sedgwick gave it to the library in return for its analysis. It is the only object that has been separated from the statue since 1937. (The statue and its contents were privately owned by the Sedgwick family until Walter Sedgwick ’69—Ellery’s grandson—donated the collection to the Harvard Art Museums earlier this year.) The Library of Congress loaned the Lotus Sutra woodblock to Harvard for the exhibit—a big deal, Saunders explains, because only three such sutras are known to exist. So Shōtoku is reunited with all of his objects for the first time in more than 70 years.

Despite the charm of this temporary reunion, and the presentation of all the research done to date, the exhibit is not intended to be a finish line: scholarship on the statue will continue. “What we found during the investigation was that…we did get some answers—but in fact what we really got was more questions,” Saunders says. How were the objects originally arranged inside the statue? Was the 1937 MFA opening really the first time the statue had been unsealed since 1292, or might it have been opened before? What does that mean for the conclusions that researchers can draw? “It’s taken a long time and a lot of people to get even to here, and we’ve still got a ways to go.” But there is forward momentum, spurred by a confluence of events that sparked a burst of scholarship in recent years.

On a wall of the exhibit is a large interactive touch screen that allows museum-goers to learn more about the objects on display. One of the options is a chanting of the Lotus Sutra, accompanied by a description and relevant images from the Library of Congress copy of the scripture. Saunders starts the recording of the chanting—a woman’s voice, steady, stately, almost otherworldly, yet warmly human—and we listen for a moment in silence.

“I had been thinking, ‘We need a monk to chant it’—and then I thought, ‘No, we don’t need a monk; we need a nun,’” she says and laughs. “And then I thought, ‘Where are we going to find a nun?’” She did find one: the abbess-in-waiting at a temple in Japan, whom she had heard chant earlier this year at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, during the opening for an exhibit on The Tale of Genji. “I heard her and it was just so stunning. And she just recorded this on an iPhone for us.”

Saunders pauses, then continues. “One of the most incredible things about working on this project is that there’s been a lot of serendipity—just surprising coincidences, things working out, chance discoveries, this kind of thing,” she says, referencing the recording. “You know, you work with him”—she gestures to the statue—“for a while and you start to think: there is a power there. There have just been too many serendipitous occurrences for me to feel like it’s chance anymore.”

Click on arrow at right to see full statue and additional images
Prince Shōtoku at Age Two, a thirteenth-century Japanese icon made of wood with inlaid quartz eyes

Image courtesy of the Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Partial and promised gift of Walter C. Sedgwick in memory of Ellery Sedgwick Sr. and Ellery Sedgwick Jr., 2019.122.

Massive Buddha statue carved into granite in East County

By: Travis Rice

DESCANSO, Calif. (KGTV) — A Descanso man has finished carving a Buddha statue into a granite boulder in his backyard.

“Buddha is in every tree just looking at you like every rock,” said artist Duncan McFetridge. “It’s connected to our saving our environment — all life is sacred.”

Duncan McFetridge says it took six months to carve the 6-foot tall Buddha into the granite.

“It occurred to me that this was a perfect time and place to carve a representation of Buddha,” added McFetridge, who was heavily involved in the preservation of the Cleveland National Forest.

He estimates he chipped away more than 750 pounds using a combination of hand tools and power tools on the stone carving while working in 4-hour increments every day.

“These are incredibly difficult,” said McFetridge pointing to cinnamon roll-sized circles adorning the carving’s head, “each one takes about a day.”

The 78-year-old says someone recently visited and figured out the Buddha carving faces due east, sticking with an ancient tradition of Buddha statues facing east to represent the moment of the enlightenment.

“I didn’t know, I was totally unconscious of this,” said McFetridge, who adds he just picked the rock face because of its accessibility.

McFetridge says hundreds have already inquired about visiting the statue to which he says he encourages it.

“The Buddha wants to be known,” said McFetridge.
Copyright 2019 Scripps Media, Inc.

Two Buddha era statues recovered from Mardan’s graveyard

PAKISTAN MARDAN: Historical Buddha era statues have been recovered from the Yousuf Kuli Graveyard in Mardan, ARY News reported on Wednesday.

During an excavation activity for a burial, Buddha era statues were recovered by the undertakers which have now been handed over to the concerned department.

The discovery was reported to the local police and the statues handed over to the department of Archaeology, Khyber Pakhtun Khwa (KPK).

The two statues are approximately 2 millennia old. One Buddha is 2 feet 8 inches and the other is 3 feet 7 inches.

The recent discovery comes in the midst of an ongoing inquiry against Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s former Archaeology and Museums Director, Dr. Abdul Samad.

Dr. Abdul Samad has allegedly been found involved in illegal appointments and antiques’ theft, cases pertaining to the allegations are currently under process.

After a common citizen of Pakistan reached out to the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan on his twitter about the arrest a few months back, the PM had replied with a tweet expecting the chairman National Accountability Bureau to take up the issue against the ‘disgraceful act.’

The NAB Chairman should take action against those in his institution who are responsible for this disgraceful act.

— Imran Khan (@ImranKhanPTI) February 15, 2019

The chairman National Accountability Bureau (NAB) on Feb 16 took notice of the arrest of Dr. Abdul Samad, soon after the PM’s tweet.

On Feb 15, NAB Khyber Pakhtunkhwa had arrested provincial director of archaeology and museums, Abdul Samad for misusing his authority.

Angkor Wat archaeological digs yield new clues to its civilization’s decline

Cambodia’s famous temple of Angkor Wat is one of the world’s largest religious monuments, visited by over 2 million tourists each year.

It was built in the early 12th century by King Suryavarman II, one of the most famous kings of the Angkorian civilization that lasted from approximately the ninth to 15th centuries. The structure is so strongly associated with Cambodian identity even today that it appears on the nation’s flag.

Image of Angkor Wat in 1880 by Louis Delaporte. Louis Delaporte/Wikimedia Commons

For many years, historians placed the collapse of the Angkor civilization in 1431, when Angkor’s capital city was sacked by the Thai Kingdom of Ayutthaya and abandoned. The idea that the Angkorian capital was abandoned also played a part in the 19th-century colonial interpretation of Angkor as a civilization forgotten by the Cambodians and left to decay in the jungle. Many tourists still come to Angkor Wat with an outdated romanticized notion of a deserted ruin emerging from the mysterious jungle.

But scholars have long argued against this interpretation, and archaeological evidence is shedding even more light on the decline of the Angkorian civilization. The process was much longer and more complex than previously imagined; Angkor’s collapse may be better described as a transformation.

By looking at the events associated with this one particular temple, archaeologists like me are able to see a microcosm of some of the broader regional transformations that took place across Angkor.

What happened to the Angkor civilization?

Researchers believe the Angkor civilization was established in A.D. 802. Its heartland and capital city was on the banks of the Tonle Sap Lake in northwest Cambodia. The Angkorian state was founded and grew during a period of favorable climate with abundant rainfall. At its height, Angkorian rulers might have controlled a large portion of mainland Southeast Asia.

The Angkor civilization was booming in the early 1100s when construction began on the Angkor Wat temple site. Built as a re-creation of the Hindu universe, its most striking features are the five sandstone towers that rise above the four temple enclosures, representing the peaks of Mount Meru, the center of the universe. The temple is surrounded by a large moat symbolizing the Sea of Milk from which “amrita,” an elixir of immortality, was created.

But by the end of the 13th century, numerous changes were taking place. The last major stone temple at Angkor was constructed in 1295, and the latest Sanskrit inscription dates to the same year. The last inscription in Khmer, the language of Cambodia, appears a few decades later in 1327. Constructing stone temples and writing inscriptions are elite activities – these last instances at the Angkorian capital happened during the region-wide adoption of Theravada Buddhism that replaced Hinduism.

This religious shift disrupted the pre-existing Hindu-based power structures. Emphasis moved from state-sponsored stone temples and royal bureaucracy to community-based Buddhist pagodas, built from wood. At the same time, maritime trade with China was increasing. The relocation of the capital further south, near the modern capital of Phnom Penh, allowed rulers to take advantage of these economic opportunities.

Paleoclimate research has highlighted region-wide environmental changes that were taking place at the time, too. A series of decades-long droughts, interspersed with heavy monsoons, disrupted Angkor’s water management network meant to capture and disburse water.

One study of the moats around the walled urban precinct of Angkor Thom suggest the city’s elite were already departing by 14th century, almost 100 years before the supposed sack of the capital by Ayutthaya.

The author’s team, excavating occupation mounds surrounding the Angkor Wat temple. Although this area is covered with dense trees now, in the past there would have been houses on these mounds. Alison Carter, CC BY-ND

Excavations in the Angkor Wat temple enclosure

My colleagues and I, in collaboration with the government’s APSARA Authority that oversees Angkor Archaeological Park, began excavating within Angkor Wat’s temple enclosure in 2010.

Instead of focusing on the temple itself, we looked at the occupation mounds surrounding the temple. In the past, people would have constructed houses and lived on top of these mounds. LiDAR surveys in the region clarified that Angkor Wat, and many other temples including nearby Ta Prohm, were surrounded by a grid-system of mounds within their enclosures.

Over three field seasons, my colleagues and I excavated these mounds, uncovering remains of dumps of ceramics, hearths and burnt food remains, post holes and flat-lying stones that might have been part of a floor surface or path.

Archaeologists excavating a house mound in the Angkor Wat enclosure in 2015. Alison Carter, CC BY-ND

It is not clear yet who lived on these mounds, as we have not yet found artifacts that give clues as to the inhabitants’ occupations. Inscriptions describe the thousands of people needed to keep the temples functioning, so we suspect that many of those who lived on the mounds worked in some capacity in the Angkor Wat temple, perhaps as religious specialists, temple dancers, musicians or other laborers.

During our excavations, we collected burnt organic remains, primarily pieces of wood charcoal that were associated with different layers or features like hearths. Using radiocarbon dating, we identified dates for 16 charcoal pieces. We used these dates to build a more fine-grained chronology of when people were using the temple enclosure space – providing a more nuanced idea of the timing of occupation at Angkor Wat.

A dump of ceramics and food remains in an occupation mound. Archaeologists take burnt pieces of organic remains from features like this to date when particular activities took place. Alison Carter, CC BY-ND

Radiocarbon dates tell a different story

Our dates show that the landscape around Angkor Wat might have initially been inhabited in the 11th century, prior to the temple’s construction in the early 12th century. Then the Angkor Wat temple enclosure’s landscape, including the mound-pond grid system, was laid out. People subsequently inhabited the mounds.

Then we have a gap, or break, in our radiocarbon dates. It’s difficult to line it up with calendar years, but we think it likely ranges from the late 12th or early 13th century to the late 14th or early 15th century. This gap coincides with many of the changes taking place across Angkor. Based on our excavations, it seems that the occupation mounds were abandoned or their use was transformed during this period.

However, the temple of Angkor Wat itself was never abandoned. And the landscape surrounding the temple appears to be reoccupied by the late 14th or early 15th centuries, during the period Angkor was supposedly sacked and abandoned by Ayutthaya, and used until the 17th or 18th centuries.

Angkor Wat as a microcosm of the civilization

As one of the most important Angkorian temples, Angkor Wat can be seen as a kind of bellwether for broader developments of the civilization.

It seems to have undergone transformations at the same time that the broader Angkorian society was also reorganizing. Significantly, though, Angkor Wat was never abandoned. What can be abandoned is the tired cliche of foreign explorers “discovering” lost cities in the jungle.

While it seems clear that the city experienced a demographic shift, certain key parts of the landscape were not deserted. People returned to Angkor Wat and its surrounding enclosure during the period that historical chronicles say the city was being attacked and abandoned.

To describe Angkor’s decline as a collapse is a misnomer. Ongoing archaeological studies are showing that the Angkorian people were reorganizing and adapting to a variety of turbulent, changing conditions.

Alison Kyra Carter

Assistant Professor of Anthropology, University of Oregon

Hindu statues, Buddhist temples: How and why Indian gods feature in Thai culture

By Sirinya Pakditawan

You may certainly have noticed that Hindu gods are very prominent in Thai culture. Thus, there are often images of these gods in Thai temples and at Thai shrines. In fact, Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva are the three most important Hindu gods representing the recurring and continual cycles of birth, life, death and rebirth.

This trinity, along with the god Indra, Ganesha and some enlightened divinities and demons, have been converted to the Buddhist doctrine according to Buddhist belief. Hence, these gods often occur as guardians of temples and monasteries. In addition, they may also be seen attending the Buddha on im­portant events in his life.

First there is Brahma (in Thai: Phra Phrom) who is the creator in the Hindu trinity. He is com­monly depicted having four heads and the book of Vedas in his hand. His female aspect is the goddess of learning, Sarasvadi, and his mount is the mythi­cal celestial swan called Hong or Hamsa. Brahma is considered a guard of doors and pediments in tem­ples. Furthermore, he is also popular as a protector of Thai hotels. Thus, in Thai culture, he is a deity of good fortune and protection.

In Thai art, Brahma is depicted in attendance to Buddhism, along with Indra, at the crucial events in Buddha’s life. Hence, he is also considered to be con­verted to Buddhism. By the way, Hindu gods might also be the subject of Thai songs here and there. For instance, Noi (Krissada Sukosol), singer of the band Pru, featured a song called ‘Brahma Brahma’.

Another important god is Vishnu who is the pre­server deity of the Hindu triad. In his hand, he often holds a disk and a conch shell. His mount is Garuda, the mythical bird that is half-human and half-eagle and the natural enemy of the Nagas. In other words, Garuda can be seen as the vehicle of Vishnu.

What is more, Vishnu’s avatar is Rama, the hero of the Ramakien tale. In addition, this god is also associated with Thai royalty since the kings of the Chakri dynasty have ‘Rama’ as part of their names. Similar to Brahma, Vishnu often functions as a (door) temple guardian.

Shiva is the destroyer and regenerator aspect of the Hindu trinity. He usually has a third eye that is centred vertically on his forehead. Fur­ther characteristics are a brahmanical cord across his torso and sometimes a crescent moon which is caught in his tangled hair. Pravati is his consort and his mount is the bull Nandi.

The image of Ganesha (in Thai: Phra Pikanet) is also very prominent in Thai culture. For example, there is the Ganesha Park in Nakhon Nayok which is considered a tribute to the elephant-headed god who is Shiva’s son. In Thailand, he is commonly seated at temple portals. What is more, he is also the patron of the arts and a protector of business.

Finally, we have the god Indra who is the god of Tavatimsa heaven. Hence, he is also the god of weather and war, wielding a lightning bolt and riding Erawan, the multi-headed elephant. Indra is a temple guardian of portals and pediments. He is also prominent in the Vessantara story which is the last life of the Buddha-to-be.

In addition, Indra occurs on mural paintings where he can be identified by his green colour. Along with Brahma, he is kneeling when attending Buddha during particular life events. Thus, it is indicated that the Hindu gods are subservient to Buddhism.

Summing up, we may claim that Hindu gods play a significant role in Thai culture. As a matter of fact, they not only show that Buddhism and Hinduism are intertwined but also rep­resent a subservience of Hinduism to Buddhism.

Sirinya Pakditawan is a ‘luk kreung’, or half-Thai, born and raised in Hamburg, Germany. She enjoys writing about Thailand, with a focus is on culture, art, history, tradition and on the people, as well as a mix of topics concerning Thai popular culture, travelogues and articles about Thai food.

Sirinya’s aim is not only to entertain you but to provide you with information and facts about Thailand, its culture and history that may not be generally known, in particular to the Western world. She has a PhD in American Studies from the University of Hamburg.

To read the original story, and many more, be sure to check out Sirinya’s blog:

Professing Faith: Why are images of Buddha so different from one another?

Cultural influences in India and China helped shape images of the teacher whose lessons are at the heart of Buddhism

By Gregory Elder |

Q: Why is it that pictures of the Buddha look so different from one another? In most pictures or statues, he is quite a plump guy and in others he is absolutely emaciated.

A: Today’s question comes from a local graduate student, and it calls to mind the proverb among scholars that, “If the Buddha of Japan were to meet the Buddha of India, the two men would not recognize each other.” Of course, part of the reason why depictions are different is that they come from different national artistic traditions. This author has seen African crucifixes with a black Christ and European crucifixes with white Christs, depending on who made them. However, with Buddhism, there is a little more to the matter than this.

Siddhartha Gautama was an Indian nobleman living in the fifth century B.C., in the north of that country. Sometime in the sixth century B.C., after deep inner searching which involved severe fasting, he achieved enlightenment, an escape from the endless cycle of birth and rebirth of reincarnation. When other monks asked him what had happened to him, he replied, “I am awake.” The word for “awakened” was something like “Buddha” and the name stuck. It was after this enlightenment that the Buddha began his lifetime of preaching and teaching the path he had discerned. What he actually experienced is another subject which would require more pages, but to answer this question it is important to locate the origins of Buddhism in the traditions of Hindu asceticism.

Hinduism is an extremely diverse religion, or perhaps a set of religions, in that it honors a great many gods, has an abundance of rituals, and several distinct paths to holiness, such as study, married sensuality, labor for the good of all and, of course, asceticism. Pictures of Indian mystics can show extremely emaciated men, shriveled up from years of intense fasting. It is said that the Buddha at the time of his enlightenment was so skinny that one could see all the vertebrae of his spine from looking at the front of his stomach alone. We are not surprised therefore to see Indian pictures of the Buddha as a slender man. We note that the Buddha gave up these extremes of asceticism, but he was still depicted as thinner than what many of us today are.

After the Buddha passed from this world, a number of schools of Buddhism developed, many of which are lost in the sands of time. Islamic invasions in the later centuries also reduced the number of Buddhist monks, whom the invaders called “bald idolaters,” and many temples were lost. The surviving Indian Buddhists came to be known as Theravada Buddhists. This tradition, in Sanskrit, “the way of the elders,” is perhaps the oldest and it emphasized the need for individual enlightenment. This required prayer, fasting and above all meditation. In this tradition the monks are seen as spiritually superior to others because they are further down the path to their own enlightenment. Indian Buddhism therefore emphasizes the image of the slender Buddha to show the importance of renunciation.

Theravada is probably the older of the two main traditions, but the largest is Mahayana Buddhism, which means “the Great Vehicle.” Mahayana taught that enlightenment was possible for ordinary people, and while it was hard to achieve, enlightenment was no longer the domain of the monks. Monasticism was very important, and the monks became the teachers of many. They lived in a Sanga, or monastery, and their life was often near the ordinary people. Mahayana Buddhism would develop into a number of sects, and it was able to absorb a great many gods and goddesses into its universe by identifying them as Bodhisattva, or enlightened souls who chose to return to earth to help us poor suffering rascals along the right path.

Around the time of Christ, Mahayana Buddhist monks made their way across the Himalaya mountains into Tibet and then into China. Here they faced a very different culture and set of religions. Traditional Chinese Taoism saw wealth as a blessing from heaven. Traditional Chinese Confucianism defined the best society as one which was ordered, prosperous and well fed. On the surface, this does not appear to be a fertile ground for Buddhism, but in fact it is a very adaptable religion.

With the Taoist tradition there a great many gods and spirits, who come in a variety of shapes and sizes. For example, there is Tsai Shen, the god of wealth, who is a stout gentleman riding on a tiger, and one should put his image on the east side of the house to attract honest wealth. There is also Cai Shen, the god of prosperity, who is a plump god with a happy face and is often depicted laughing. There are many other such examples, but if you are a Buddhist missionary in China and want to convert the locals, a scrawny Buddha is not going to get many believers. Under Chinese Mahayana we are not surprised to see that the enlightened one is shown a bit chubbier.

Gregory Elder, a Redlands resident, is a professor of history and humanities at Moreno Valley College and a Roman Catholic priest. This photo is from about 2017.

Nepal pavilion with Buddha statue main attraction at Beijing Expo 2019

KATHMANDU: The Nepal pavilion set up in ‘Beijing Expo-2019’ has been the attraction of the visitors.  The pavilion with a 15 feet tall statue of Gutam Buddha in meditation  posture in the middle, was inaugurated by President Bidya Devi Bhandari  on April 28 during her state visit to China has been visited by around  100,000 visitors in 15 days alone, said Binayak Shah, national  coordinator of the Implementing Expert Group, the organizer of the  pavilion.
 A Lumbini Peace Garden has also been created. The pavilion installation  aims to attract Chinese investors and technology and big Chinese  projects related to agriculture, forest and medicinal herbs of Nepal, he  said.
 Likewise, it helps to spread an awareness that Buddha was born in Nepal,  expose natural environment and human lifestyle of Nepal and promote  ‘Visit Nepal Year, 2020’ read a statement issued today by the Hotel  Association of Nepal. The Expo 2019 with the slogan ‘green life: best  life’ aims to create a new horizon for world horticulture and new model  of ecological civilisation.
 A formal programme to be attended by high level Nepali and Chinese  delegations is scheduled to take place in the Expo on September 19 on  the occasion of Nepal Day.
 On the occasion, musical programmes showing Nepal’s art and culture and a  good fair featuring Nepal’s local food items would be held, said Shah.  Held in a huge park of over 500 hectares of land, at the foot of the  world famous Great Wall of China, the Expo is the world’s largest  horticultural show. The Expo that lasts six months is expected to  attract approximately 16 million visitors from all over the world. Over  110 countries have exhibited floricultural and horticultural products,  cultural heritage and are promoting tourism.

Gump’s Buddha to be auctioned; the price of enlightenment

The Gump’s Buddha, reported to be homeless in a December story in The Chronicle, will soon have a new home. The statue is going to be on the Christie’s auction block on May 29 in Hong Kong. Chris Jehle did the math of converting Hong Kong dollars to U.S. dollars and says the estimate of what it will fetch is $3.9 million to $6.4 million.

“The Gump’s Buddha, property of an American family” is described by Christie’s as a “highly important and monumental imperial gilt-lacquered wood figure of the Medicine Buddha.” Medicine Buddha is a healing and serenity-making practice of Buddhism, personified by a Buddha said to have taken 12 great vows after having attained enlightenment.

The statue, including its pedestal, is 95 inches tall, made of wood painted bronze. It was bought in Kyoto in 1957 by Martin Rosenblatt, an executive and buyer for the store. A previous Buddha had been donated to the Japanese Tea Garden.

The Chronicle reported that when Gump’s was sold (for $8.5 million in 2005), New Yorker John Chachas, one of the investors who bought it, paid extra for the sculpture. By the time Gump’s announced its bankruptcy, last summer, the Buddha had been removed from the store, replaced by a photograph of it. Store personnel were mystified about where the statue had been taken, which is why The Chronicle described it as having vanished. According to Christie’s, “Works acquired at Gump’s not only enhanced — and still enhance — wealthy homes throughout the nation,” but also have wound up “in numerous public galleries.”