Maitreya Bodhisattva statue: from impossible to masterpiece

By Thy An   March 27, 2024 | 01:21 am PT
Vietnam's Maitreya Bodhisattva Statue, located on Ba Den Mountain, showcases the method of stone assembly for the first time, a technique similar to Egyptian pyramids.

Tourists can visit Sichuan Province in China to admire the world's largest Buddha statue carved on the cliff of a mountain, or the Golden Buddha Temple in Bangkok 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 way to become an architectural masterpiece is not something encountered often in life.

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

Photo courtesy of Sun Group

Photo courtesy of Sun Group

300 days for seemingly impossible mission

The rainy season in Tay Ninh seemed endless to Tran Duc Hoa, head of the Tay 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 Ba Den Mountain.

In July and August 2023, Tay Ninh was soaked in rain, and the Maitreya Bodhisattva Statue was gradually taking shape. The peak of Ba Den Mountain was crowded with visitors hunting rare cloud phenomena.

Rainbow clouds, phoenix clouds, and most notably, a phenomenon of lenticular clouds formed 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 Hoa.

The most beautiful cloudy days were also the days of heavy rain, thunderstorms and strong winds. The mountain experienced harsh weather conditions, including cold temperatures, wet landslides, mist, 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 centimeter could sweep away all efforts and cause landslides on existing structures.

According to the construction unit's calculations, a large-scale Buddhist project atop a mountain over 900 meters high would require at least 2 years to complete.

Among 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 9 months, so that in the early days of the new year, visitors could admire the Maitreya Bodhisattva Statue upon reaching the sacred peak of Ba Den.

"There were times when we had to mobilize 600–700 people on the construction site. All stages had to be carried out on top of each other to keep up with progress. We also continuously worked overtime, 24/7, to keep up with the work schedule," Hoa said.

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

Workers at the construction site of Maitreya Bodhisattva Statue on Ba Den Mountain in Tay Ninh Province. Photo courtesy of Sun Group

Workers at the construction site of Maitreya Bodhisattva Statue on Ba Den Mountain in Tay Ninh Province. Photo courtesy of Sun Group

The project is located on the top of a watershed with steeply sloping terrain on Ba Den 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," Hoa said.

The pile options were selected, a pile drilling machine with a capacity of over 100 tons was used, stepped structure measures were applied, and 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 was not the most difficult problem. Positioning the statue's shell and the new stone installation were the most daunting challenges.

According to architect Pham Thanh Quang of Sun Group's Design Management Board, the team considered many materials.

Ultimately, green sandstone was 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 Da Viet Trung, the contractor supplying stones for the project, said this was the first time in Vietnam that such sandstones were used to build a Buddha statue.

Sandstones are formed from sand grains, including silica, a part of limestone. Carving sandstone 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 meters, a maximum width of 45 meters, a surface area of 4.651 square meters, and a weight of 5.112 tons.

The construction team 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 color and marble, then carved according to the design template with a length of 100–120 centimeters, an average height of 70 centimeters, and a thickness of 50 centimeters.

To shape the statue, each stone was also 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 them as if creating a sculptural masterpiece," Chung shared.

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

Architect Pham Thanh Quang said that the team's architects and engineers had to learn and apply BIM design technology to implement the construction plan.

"All structural items and stone slabs were 3D modeled, then carefully marked in order before being precisely crafted and assembled into a complete block."

The construction team put the last stone in place. Photo courtesy of Sun Group

The construction team put the last stone in place. Photo courtesy of Sun Group

From ancient Egypt to the roof of southern Vietnam

Many statues around the world are 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 Vietnam 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 perfectly geometrically.

To this day, the methods of transporting millions of tons of stone and constructing this wonder remain a mystery.

As the direct coordinator of design and construction, Bui Nhat Thi, Head of the Design Coordination Department of the project, revealed that each stone had its own 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.

Visitors admire the Maitreya Bodhisattva Statue on Ba Den Mountain in Tay Ninh Province. Photo courtesy of Sun Group

Visitors admire the Maitreya Bodhisattva Statue on Ba Den Mountain in Tay Ninh Province. Photo courtesy of Sun Group

"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 by one centimeter," 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 said.

According to Thich Le Trang, Head of the Vietnam Buddhist Sangha (VBS) Executive Board in Ho Chi Minh City, it can be said that this is a masterpiece not only of Vietnam but also of the world, as there has never been such an exquisite work.

Maitreya Bodhisattva statue in figures

Height: 36 meters

Weight: 5,112 tons

Surface area: 4,651 square meters

Altitude: over 900m

Completion time: 270 days

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