Famous people are by definition usually well known in their time, actively doing something that draws attention. After they’re gone, their memory can fade if not for efforts to maintain the story of their deeds in books, music, paintings, photographs, or by word of mouth. These are all a little fragile, and some of these forms must be sought out to be experienced. One other way to display a lasting, easily visible tribute to a fallen statesman, soldier, or other exceptional citizen is to make a statue of them. Granite or bronze last a lot longer than paper and can persist well after everyone who ever heard of the person and might recount their story has passed from existence. So to really “immortalize” a hero, create a statue.
Statues are everywhere. Parks, public squares, national monuments—the honorifics are so numerous that we tend to stop seeing them for their individual honoree. Oh, look, another guy on a horse, or standing proudly with his arm outstretched in proclamation. Ho hum. While most statues are not as small as actual human scale, one way to make a statue that will turn a head is to make it big. Devotees of the Buddha have taken this to heart, and in addition to thousands of fairly large physical images of their spiritual leader, various nations have vied for the very biggest. In fact, seven of the ten tallest statues worldwide are of Bhudda, or other highly revered Buddhist characters. The Grand Buddha in Lingshan, China, measures almost 290 feet high, and Japan’s Sendai Daikannon tops 328 feet. Buddha is also frequently depicted at rest in statues known as reclining Buddhas, but these of course don’t rank high in the height category. Mixed with these world’s-largest statues are some secular examples, including Russia’s monument to Peter the Great. Peter himself does not contribute to of the height, as he stands upon a ship which is supported by a large pedestal of other ships, and the mast and rigging of Peter’s ship create the overall height of 315 feet. Neither its size and grandiosity nor its quirky design have much charmed the Muscovites who have been witness to it since its unveiling in the late 1990s.
More pleasing to the eye is our own Statue of Liberty, honoring a concept rather than an actual person. At 305 feet including a substantial pedestal, she contributes to only about half the total height herself, and that includes her upstretched arm and torch. Still, she gets your attention, standing on a small island in New York Harbor, her copper coating turned to a light green with oxidation. Another mega-salute to political personality is China’s massive monument to its early emperors Yan and Huang, carved from rock a la Mount Rushmore in a hillside along the Yellow River. The two huge heads and surrounding structure are nearly 350 feet in height, and were twenty years in the making. Mt. Rushmore itself took 14 years to carve, and is massive in its own right, but really neither it nor the Chinese emperors are statues in the classical free-standing form.
Two more of those skyscraping Buddhas can be found in the countries of Myanmar and China. Myanmar’s Laykyun Setkyar reaches 380 feet, and stands close by the world’s largest reclining Buddha, at 295 feet in length. China’s Spring Temple Buddha is the record holder for biggest figures of the spiritual leader, at just over 500 feet, pedestal included. It might seem that Buddha takes the prize not only for sheer number of top-tier statues, but for overall height as well. Late last year, however, India unveiled a work that at 597 feet throws a huge shadow on even the Spring Temple Buddha, and for comparison’s sake, is nearly twice the height of the Statue of Liberty. Rather than a religious tribute, India’s new statue continues the tradition of the political monument. Named the Statue of Unity, this magnum opus in the western Indian state of Gujarat is simply the human figure of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, a leader in India’s move to independence, which was won in 1947. He later became the first deputy premier of India and served also as minister of home affairs.
Known as the Iron Man of India for his political will, he now has an actual iron framework—over 6,000 tons of it—helping to support the 1,800-plus-ton cast bronze exterior. Part of the metal for the frame was collected as scrap from citizen farmers, but the government paid some serious cash for the rest of the project. The bill ran to $430 million in a country struggling to implement programs to aid its many poor inhabitants. Its cost dwarfed some education and health projects, shunting money away from those worthy efforts. In addition, some 75,000 individuals in 72 villages were forced to move to accommodate the statue’s construction. Besides raising the ire of budget watchers and displaced citizenry, the whole enterprise is very politically controversial as it involves a lot of convoluted tussling between India’s two top parties about who “owns” Patel’s heritage. Outside of the discord it has caused, the spectacle of it is undeniably astonishing. Standing on a small pedestal upon a slight rise above the Narmada River, the scale of the figure dwarfs its surroundings, making the Narmada look like a creek by comparison. But the Indians are not done. In Maharashtra state, there are plans in the works for a yet bigger statue, this one of Shivaji, a 17th century king. The urge to create enduring tributes to larger-than-life dignitaries would seem to know no bounds.
Plan a trip to see the biggest of the big! India has both the Statue of Unity and the proposed Shivaji statue, and this Cartographia map of the country can show you the way. It’s available from Maps.com.
caption: The Grand Buddha at Lingshan, China is a figure of imposing stature.
source: Wikimedia Commons: Cabby329 at English Wikipedia (Public domain)
caption: Japan’s Sendai Daikannon rather towers over its surroundings.
source: Wikimedia Commons: contri from Yonezawa, Yamagata, Japan (CC by SA 2.0 Generic)
caption: The Peter the Great statue in Moscow is a little bizarre design-wise, but you can’t miss it!
source: Flickr: Clay Gilliland (CC by SA 2.0 Generic)
caption: Myanmar’s Laykyun Setkyar, the second-tallest Buddha, keeps company with the largest reclining Buddha—the trees provide some scale. They reside in Monywa, northwest of Mandalay.
source: Wikimedia Commons: Tetsuya Kitahata (CC by SA 4.0 International)
caption: The Spring Temple Buddha, biggest of its kind. Once again, the ant-sized people on the stairs at left hint at the Buddha’s size.
source: Wikimedia Commons: Zgpdszz (CC by SA 3.0 Unported)
caption: Over the top. The size of the Statue of Unity is hard to comprehend—the construction cranes look like Tinkertoys.
source: Wikimedia Commons: Rahul 71144 (CC by SA 4.0 International)
caption: How they stack up. Statue of Unity at left, then Spring Buddha, Statue of Liberty, The Motherland Calls (Russia), Cristo Redentor (Brazil), and Michelangelo’s David (which is considerably bigger than life-sized)
source: Wikimedia Commons: Anna Frodesiak (CC by SA 3.0 Unported)