The Leshan Giant Buddha in the province of Sichuan — the largest Buddha statue in the world — was partly submerged by ongoing floods in Southern China last week, reports Smithsonian Magazine. A pilgrimage destination for Buddhists and part of the Mount Emei Scenic Area, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the 233-feet-tall, 1,300-year-old monument had not been endangered by rising waters for at least seven decades.
The Leshan Buddha was carved in the 8th century CE on the hillside of Xijuo Peak, overlooking the junction of the Minjiang, Qingyi and Dadu Rivers. It depicts Maitreya, a bodhisattva (an individual on the path to becoming a buddha) and disciple of Siddhārtha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism.
This year has brought unusually heavy flooding in central and southwestern China, killing hundreds and displacing millions more. The Mount Emei site was closed to tourists last week and officials surrounded the statue with sandbags in an attempt to protect it, but water managed to rise high enough to cover the Buddha’s enormous toes. (If it were to stand upright, the Buddha would be almost eye-to-eye with the Statue of Liberty, and 100 monks are said to be able to sit on one foot at once.)
Although the Chinese government has spent millions in its preservation and restoration, the statue is at risk of erosion by rainwater and air pollution, especially as the climate emergency worsens. In December 2018, one large-scale study found that 49 UNESCO World Heritage Sites are threatened by rising sea levels.
According to the media outlet Xinhua, the authorities in Sichuan, where the Leshan’s Buddha is located, activated the highest level of emergency flood control response on Tuesday for the first time on record. Incessant rainfall has caused 22 major rivers in Sichuan to exceed their flood warning levels, and water reached the toes of the Buddha for the first time since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the outlet reported.