One of the amazing sights in Nara (known as Heijo-kyo or the citadel of peace), a UNESCO World Heritage Site which served as the capital of Japan from 710 to 784, must be the Great Buddha (Daibutsu) and the Great Buddha Hall (大仏殿) or Daibutsuden that houses it. The hall, measuring some 57 metres long, 50 metres wide and 48 metres high, is reputedly the world’s largest wooden building. The giant Buddha statue, measuring some 15 metres tall in the seated position, the hall houses is also said to be the world’s largest bronze Buddha image – which weighing some 500 tonnes, is thought that it consumed a substantial part of the country’s bronze production over the years it took to build it, leaving the country almost bankrupt.
The hall and the Buddha – an image of Vairocana, revered by the Kegon sect of Buddhism, serves as the main focal point of the Todaiji Temple complex, which dates back to 752. The wooden structure of the current hall, dates back to a fire induced rebuilding effort in 1688 to 1709, which saw it built to a scale of two-thirds of the 87 metre wide orginal hall (which had already been rebuilt twice previously). The current hall features a seven-bay wooden structure which encloses the 15 metre giant bronze 500 tonne statue, as well as two large images of bosatsu or bodhisattva flanking it – an addition made during the last rebuilding. The giant statue has itself been reconstructed several times – its head has been recast following fires and earthquakes. Its current head dates back to 1692.
The design of the hall, the scale of which will have any visitor in awe, features a wooden beam and bracketing structure which is thought to have been done by craftsmen from China. It is also possible to pass around the Great Buddha, in turn thought to be the work of craftsmen from Korea. To the rear of the hall, a wooden model provides a glimpse of the original Daibutsuden. There are also two statues of heavenly guardians from the Edo Period, Koumokuten and Tamoten. Another interesting find is a pillar with a hole at the bottom of it – popular belief has it that anyone who can squeeze through the hole will attain Enlightenment or Nirvana.
The hall, during my visit, did see a steady flow of visitors, both young and old, most stopping to ritually purify themselves with fresh water outside the hall. By the entrance to the hall on the outside, is a rather interesting wooden statue – that of Pindola Bharadvaja or Binzuru, a disciple of Buddha. In Japan, it is a belief that anyone ill rubbing the part of an image of Binzuru corresponding to the part of the body where the ailment is, followed by rubbing the same part on their own body after, will be cured of the ailment.
More information on the Todaiji and the Daibutsuden, as well as on the UNESCO World Heritage listing can be found at the following sites:
- UNESCO: Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara
- Go Japan Go: Todaiji
- Japanese Buddhist Society: Birushana Buddha
- Atlas Obscura: Tōdai-ji and the Daibutsuden
- Lonely Planet: Daibutsu-den in Nara