The Statue of Maitreya Bodhisattva on Bà Đen Mountain – from an "impossible" mission to a masterpiece

2024-03-25 18:12:27
Using stone as a material for the first time in Việt Nam. Each stone, weighing tons, is carved with precision to every centimetre. The method of stone assembly used to create the wonders of the Egyptian pyramids. These are just a few of many "behind-the-scenes" stories surrounding the miracle named Maitreya Bodhisattva Statue atop Bà Đen Mountain, Tây Ninh.

You can visit the Sichuan province of China to admire the largest Buddha statue in the world carved on the cliff of a mountain. You can also visit the Golden Buddha Temple in Bangkok (Thailand) to admire the largest solid gold Buddha statue in the world. Buddhist structures that evoke awe with their colossal and magnificent presence are not uncommon around the world.

However, a Buddhist structure crafted in an elaborate, even unimaginable way to become an architectural masterpiece, a miracle of architecture and construction - is not something encountered often in life.

Such a rare masterpiece is now located in Việt Nam, atop Ba Den Mountain - the roof of the Southern region - a sacred mountain steeped in legend and miracles.

300 days for a seemingly "impossible" task

The rainy season in Tây Ninh seemed endless to Trần Đức Hòa, head of the Tây Ninh Project Management Board of Sun Group, along with the team constructing the Maitreya Bodhisattva Statue. The constant threat of landslides on the 60-degree sloped terrain added to the challenge of transforming over 5.000 tons of sandstone into a timeless masterpiece atop Bà Đen Mountain.

It was during July and August 2023, Tây Ninh was soaked in rain, and the Maitreya Bodhisattva Statue was gradually taking shape. The peak of Bà Đen Mountain was crowded with visitors hunting rare cloud phenomena.

Rainbow clouds, phoenix clouds, a sea of clouds, and most notably, a phenomenon of lenticular clouds forming a gigantic white cone covering the mountain peak, resembling a flying saucer landing on the roof of the Southern region.

"The more fantastic the clouds, the greater our worries," recalls Trần Đức Hòa.

The most beautiful cloud days were also the days of heavy rain, even thunderstorms and strong winds. The mountain experienced harsh weather conditions, including cold temperatures, wet, foggy, landslides and slippery surfaces.

The harsh weather and terrain failed to meet safety conditions for construction and also demanded meticulous precision in sculpting the statue. Even a small mistake of one centimetre could "sweep away" all efforts and even cause landslides on existing structures.

According to the construction unit's calculations, a large-scale Buddhist project atop a mountain over 900 metres high would require at least 2 years to complete. Amongst the various stages of construction, the stone carving and finishing would take 400 days alone.

However, this grand project was required to be completed urgently in only... 9 months, so that in the early days of the new year 2024, visitors could admire the Maitreya Bodhisattva Statue upon reaching the sacred peak of Bà Đen. It represents the future, joy and happiness.

"There were times when we had to mobilise 600-700 people on the construction site. All stages had to be done on top of each other to keep up with progress. We also continuously work overtime, 24/24 to keep up with the work schedule," said Trần Đức Hòa.

In mid-2022, it seemed beyond the imagination of the Tây Ninh project management team members of Sun Group when tasked with supervising and constructing the Maitreya Bodhisattva Statue. This statue was assembled from 6,688 sandstones, each with its unique size and shape.

The project is located on the top of a watershed with steeply sloping terrain of Bà Đen Mountain. The stream flows through the terrain, creating division and changing the geological state.

"When surveying the geological terrain, I could not imagine how to create a gigantic statue weighing over 5,000 tons on such challenging terrain with many boulders. We had less than 300 days to solve this problem. It was almost an... impossible mission," recalls Trần Đức Hòa about the initial scepticism of the project.

The pile options were selected, a pile drilling machine with a capacity of over 100 tons was used, stepped structure measures were applied, machinery and equipment were moved in the direction of the wind to ensure safety... The problem of positioning the structural parts of the foundation, beams, and braces has been solved one by one by many solutions that require creativity and feats to turn what seemed impossible into possible.

Challenges on each stone

But making the project's foundation, beaming and bracing structure is not the most difficult problem. Positioning the statue's shell and the new stone installation were the most daunting challenges.

According to architect Phạm Thanh Quang of Sun Group's Design Management Board, the unit considered many materials. Ultimately, green sandstones were chosen with the desire to create a lasting work of art, despite higher costs and much more difficult construction compared to conventional materials.

Nguyen Van Chung from Đa Viet Trung - contractor supplying stones for the project - said this was the first time in Việt Nam that sandstones were used to build a Buddha statue.

Sandstones are formed from sand grains, including silica, a part of limestone. Carving sandstones requires craftsmen with highly skilled techniques and sharp eyes to use hammers and chisels to cut away unnecessary parts, retain the most beautiful lines and infuse soul into each stone.

The Maitreya Bodhisattva Statue has a height of 36 metres, a maximum width of 45 metres, a surface area of 4.651 square metres, and a weight of 5.112 tons. Just ensuring the supply of sandstones for the statue was an unprecedented challenge.

The construction unit spent months scouring the country, in all large and small quarries, to find stones that guaranteed quality for a lasting project.

Each stone was carefully selected, checked for colour and marble, then carved according to the design template with a length of 100-120 centimetres, an average height of 70 centimetres, and a thickness of 50 centimetres.

To shape the statue, each stone also was stacked on top of each other to create winding curves resembling terraced fields in highland areas. This required every flat surface and edge to be meticulously aligned and precise during the fabrication process.

"With each stone, we meticulously hand-carved as if creating a sculptural masterpiece," Chung shared.

Finding stones, and carving stones were painstaking tasks, but the stone assembly process was truly the challenge.

Architect Pham Thanh Quang said: "Our architects and engineers had to learn and apply BIM design technology, the leading modern construction modelling technology, to implement the construction plan. All structural items and stone slabs were 3D modelled, then carefully marked in order before being precisely crafted and assembled into a complete block."

From ancient Egypt to the roof of the Southern region

You may see many statues around the world cast in concrete, sculpted on rocky mountainsides, or even cast in solid gold. However, a giant statue assembled from thousands of sandstones of various sizes is a first in Việt Nam, and indeed extremely rare globally.

This easily evokes thoughts of how the ancient Egyptians built the pyramids with limestone and granite blocks stacked symmetrically, nearly perfect geometrically. To this day, the methods of transporting millions of tons of stone and constructing this wonder remain a mystery.

With the Maitreya Bodhisattva Statue, assembling 6,688 sandstones precisely to every centimetre in a pyramid-like manner is not the most challenging task. As the direct coordinator of design and construction, Bùi Nhất Thi - Head of the Design Coordination Department of the project - revealed that each stone had its unique installation method, including being stacked in a pyramid style.

Three tower columns and five robots were used to transport and install each stone, each weighing nearly one ton. The stones were sequentially numbered by layer to ensure accurate positioning during construction.

"In addition to controlling through drawings, we also had to position each stone according to the format to ensure that each stone's margin of error was not exceeded one centimetre," Thi said.

According to Thi, the most complex stone assembly is in locations such as the nose, lips, and two hands of the statue. Engineers had to employ an extremely sophisticated method, namely hanging the stones upside down.

"I have never seen anything like it because not only does each stone weigh up to a ton, but it also requires absolute precision to ensure the peaceful and joyful aura of the Maitreya Bodhisattva statue. For each stone hung upside down in difficult positions, sometimes it took us 3-4 days to complete," Thi shared.

What is more astonishing about this project is that from the lifeless sandstones, the giant Maitreya Bodhisattva Statue has appeared vividly with a joyful smile, compassionate eyes, serene sitting posture, beautiful and lively like a sculptural masterpiece.

According to Most Venerable Thích Lệ Trang, Head of the Việt Nam Buddhist Sangha (VBS) Executive Board in Hồ Chí Minh City: "It can be said that this is a masterpiece not only of Việt Nam but also of the world, as there has never been such an exquisite work."

Impressive figures of the Maitreya Bodhisattva statue

Height: 36 metres

Weight: 5.112 tons

Surface area of the statue: 4.651 square metres

Location: at an altitude of over 900m

Completion time: 270 days

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