It starts with a casual conversation with a very good Chinese friend in Jiangsu, in eastern China. Looking at her photos of recently visited places one in particular catches my attention. A stunning, luminous mandala of stylised lotus leaves, but with no indication of scale. I am told it's a ceiling in a Buddhist temple complex near the city of Wuxi (无锡). I have been to a lot of temples in China but am intrigued enough to visit another.
Wuxi, was originally named Youxi (有锡, literally “Have Tin”) after a mine was opened there almost 2 millennia ago. In uncompromisingly logical Chinese fashion, after the mine had been worked out the name was changed to Wuxi (“No Tin”). Its official population of a little under 6.5 million (2010), is not huge by Chinese standards but it gives every impression of being a big & prosperous city.
The temple complex is at Lingshan (灵山), which is quite a way to the west of the city center, overlooking Tai Lake (Tài Hú; 太湖). The 88 bus (only ¥2) from the main station goes conveniently straight past my hostel & takes about 45 minutes to reach the Lingshan complex. For a group of 3 or 4 people it would not be too extravagant to take a taxi at Chinese prices. I expect it to be just another Buddhist temple, interesting, historic but maybe with a hint of been-there-done-that. The entrance cost, currently ¥210 (about US$34), just to see another temple, is a temptation to not bother but after a long trip from the city center, it seems pointless not to go in. The entrance & another gate inside look somehow familiar from other temples & the gigantic Buddha statue on a hill is not so impressive at this distance. The grounds are certainly big. I notice there are several temples in various styles around with a lot of parkland in between. It turns out not to be an ancient temple at all but a huge, recently constructed Buddhist complex, only opened to the public as recently as 2008.
Nine Dragons Fountain
A huge crowd has gathered around the fountain. Not just any fountain. Nine huge dragons form a circle around a heavily ornate column, guarded by some of the most forbidding & muscular demons ever to guard a water feature & topped by a black & gold lotus flower with closed petals. After a while the recorded voices of the deep throated chanting of Buddhist monks can be heard, great columns of water gush from the fountains & the lotus flower begins to rotate. As the petals open the baby Buddha inside is revealed, bathed in the watery breath of the nine dragons. Over the top, literally, but impressive nonetheless.
Line ups, line ups, line ups...
There is a queue approximately three hundred metres long to get into the Brahma Palace, the largest building at Lingshan. It's a beautiful, clear, sunny day but not too hot. I'll see how quickly the queue moves. China hasn't perfected the art of moving large (huge) queues efficiently but considering the number of people that visit any place of interest in China, particularly at public holidays, the wait is not unreasonable. After about fifteen minutes I am at the massive front doors of the palace putting on some rough cloth overshoes from a large basket. These are to protect the polished marble floors inside. Not only the floors but the walls too are made of marble. The level of craftsmanship on the endless stone & wood carvings, painted figures & designs, doors handles, columns, picture frames etc. etc. is quite staggering. In addition to these traditional crafts there is state of the art lighting on the ornate ceilings in a main hall which has a similar layout to some western cathedrals, with a central dome, but with the dome constantly changing colour. The floors have ornate designs of polished marble.
Walking through marble corridors, past colossal meeting rooms & a gigantic vegetarian buffet restaurant (only around ¥40 for an all-you-can-eat meal), the tide of visitors is finally washed up into an auditorium with a domed ceiling around 40 m (131 ft) in diameter. The dome is constructed of hundreds of lotus petal panels which are illuminated in a stunning, constantly changing lighting display. I would like to just lie on the floor & watch it for an hour or two but there are around a million other visitors who need to move through to look up in wonder. It is the prelude to a 180 degree audio visual display after which the screen rises revealing a panoramic tableau in which actors re-enact the life story of the original Buddha, all on a breathtaking scale.
Thinking there can't be much more I reach the exit, take off the overshoes & cast them into another cavernous basket & continue to the Grand Buddha.
I walk past a fat, laughing Maitreya Buddha statue, covered with 100 cast bronze, playing children, then a huge, bronze hand, over 11 metres high, a replica of the Grand Buddha's upraised right hand. I begin to see just how big the Grand Buddha (Dà Fó; 大佛) statue is. Without the base & lotus leaves on which it stands, it is 88 m (289 ft) high. That makes it almost as tall as the Statue of Liberty (93 m or 305 ft from the ground to the top of the torch), but half of the latter is the plinth on which it stands. 750 tonnes of bronze. It's simultaneously a beautiful work of art & an awe inspiring engineering project.
The biggest palm in the world (天下第一掌) pictured on the left.
216 steps leading to Da Fo.
The base of the statue with the Chinese name “灵山大佛 (Língshān Dàfó)”, 靈山大佛 in traditional Chinese.
The big buddha greets onlookers
I'm not sure yet whether it's a mistake or not, to attempt to reach the highest accessible point of the statue, inside the lotus leaves, at the feet of the huge Buddha. At any public holiday time in China the numbers of visitors to popular venues is just overwhelming. The trip to almost any place of interest in China is not complete without having to negotiate vast flights of steps. It is no place for sufferers of vertigo or the weak-kneed. Having climbed the 216 steps I thought I'd go a little further but end up stuck in a massive queue for the lifts, apparently the only way to access the base of the Buddha.
The half hour wait is worth it. It's a clear day, a rare treat in eastern China, and the view across Tai Lake is fabulous, the view of the Buddha from here reveals that it is truly colossal. By now that's not a surprise. I make my way through the heaving crowds eager to bring themselves good luck by touching the Buddha's massive feet and go back down the steps, suitably awed.
Don't go to Lingshan unless you have a whole day to see as much as possible. I have been here for hours and still haven't seen everything and now, far from thinking the entry fee was excessive, I'm planning to visit again.