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