Hu­man ke­babs: in­side the world’s sec­ond-largest statue

The Myanmar Times - - World - NICK BAKER n.baker@mm­

IT’S hard not to dou­ble-take when driv­ing into the Sa­gaing town of Monywa.

All the usual road­side sights blur past: jack­fruit stalls, bul­lock carts, shirt­less men play­ing chin­lone.

But then, tow­er­ing high over the farm­land, stands a colos­sal 116-me­tre (380-foot) statue of the Bud­dha. The Laykyun Setk­yar Bud­dha is big. It’s hard not to over­state this. Re­ceiv­ing sur­pris­ingly lit­tle at­ten­tion out­side the re­gion, the gold and white fig­ure is ac­tu­ally the sec­ond-largest statue in the world (piped by China’s Spring Tem­ple Bud­dha, at 128 me­tres).

For con­text, it dwarfs the 46 me­tre Statue of Lib­erty in New York and the mere 30-me­tre Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro. Re­port­edly, it took 12 years to com­plete and was of­fi­cially opened in 2008. The statue is just out­side Monywa, a three-hour drive west from Man­dalay, in the Maha Bodhi Ta Htaung com­plex (roughly trans­lat­ing to “a thou­sand great bodhi trees”).

Not only are there thou­sands of these trees but also thou­sands of other Bud­dhas, in­clud­ing an equally-im­pres­sive 100 me­tre re­clin­ing Bud­dha. But the sheer size of the Laykyun Setk­yar Bud­dha isn’t the only at­trac­tion. Vis­i­tors are in­vited in­side the statue, where they can walk up some of the 31 floors (which al­legedly re­fer to the 31 planes of ex­is­tence in Ther­avada the­ol­ogy).

The first few lev­els are cov­ered with some of the most grue­some re­li­gious art this re­porter has seen any­where in Myan­mar.

A naked blonde de­monic fig­ure eats ba­bies off a ba­nana leaf. Scores of horned crea­tures mash hu­mans with ham­mers be­fore throw­ing them into pits of fire. Psy­che­delic wild an­i­mals chew on limbs. Think a co-pro­duc­tion be­tween Hierony­mus Bosch and Quentin Tarantino. Fur­ther up, pan­els be­gin to show a clear di­dac­tic suc­ces­sion: if you do sin­ful pur­suit X, you will end up with hor­ri­ble fate Y.

Drunk­enly ac­cost a woman and you will be boiled in a gi­ant cook­ing pot (along with your friends). Hit a monk and a pointy-eared, fanged be­ing will beat then burn you. Fire an arrow at an an­i­mal and you will share the same fate. The list goes on. Myan­mar ex­pert at the Univer­sity of Ox­ford Matthew Wal­ton told The Myan­mar Times that these floors likely de­pict the “hell realms” of Bud­dhism. “It often sur­prises peo­ple to learn that some Bud­dhists be­lieve not only in heaven and hell but in mul­ti­ple heav­ens and hells,” he said.

“[De­pic­tions like these] are in­tended to serve ex­actly the same pur­pose as de­pic­tions of hell and suf­fer­ing in the Chris­tian tra­di­tion, namely en­cour­ag­ing peo­ple to be­have well and to avoid ac­tions that would bring de­merit or sins.”

Other Ther­avada ex­perts be­lieve the scenes in the Laykyun Setk­yar Bud­dha show a layer of hell called a “hot naraka” where all sorts of tor­ments are in­flicted, such as burn­ing, crush­ing and cut­ting. They be­lieve it is here where one reaps the con­se­quence of past bad deeds.

The ef­fect of wit­ness­ing such warn­ings ap­peared mixed. Some vis­i­tors seemed gen­uinely shocked by the na­ture of the art, while oth­ers were more pre­oc­cu­pied tak­ing self­ies with a hu­man ke­bab.

Pho­tos: Nick Baker.

The Laykyun Setk­yar Bud­dha tow­ers above Monywa.

Be­fore, left, and af­ter, right.

Im­ages “en­cour­age peo­ple to be­have well”.

Sin­ners do hard time in one of the “hell realms”.

Vis­i­tors ex­plore in­side the Laykyun Setk­yar Bud­dha.

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