'Golden Buddha' from India adds sheen to China town

by Anahita Mukherji, TNN Aug 15, 2012

NANGCHEN, CHINA -- A glittering golden statue of the Buddha, 35-metre tall, bang in the middle of the hillside bordering Tibet, promises to change the landscape of the region in more ways than one.

The statue is a gift from Gyalwang Drukpa - spiritual head of an 800-year-old Tibetan Buddhist called the Drukpa - to the people of Nangchen, a hilly, remote part of China with a large Buddhist following.

"The Golden Buddha gives people something solid which symbolizes their faith and makes it stronger," says Satrul Rimpoche, a Buddhist monk and spiritual leader in the province. He says land prices in the area have gone up ten-fold, thanks to the golden Buddha, with much construction coming up around the area. "There was nothing here before the statue arrived. It was just barren land," he says.

Gyalwang Drukpa inaugurated the statue in July, as locals, monks and pilgrims from across the world thronged the monastery nestled below the statue. That Gyalwang Drukpa is from India, his gift lies in China and the man who sponsored the $6 million statue - Felix Lim, is a businessman from Singapore, may well be a metaphor for Buddhism's belief in a borderless world.

Lim, the son-in-law of the entrepreneur behind Tiger Balm, says it was during a chance meeting with His Holiness a decade ago that the Gyalwang Drukpa expressed his desire to create a statue of the Buddha, a wish that Lim and his wife promised to sponsor. The statue, built in China's Nanjing province in 2002, was supposed to be a gift for a monastery in Nepal.

But the statue was not given clearance from the government of Nepal, due to objections from the country's aviation authority. And so it lay in a warehouse in Nanjing for nearly a decade. "I decided to gift the statue to Nangchen because of the large Drukpa Buddhist following in the region," says Gyalwang Drukpa, a smiling monk with a twinkle in his eye.

Just beside the golden Buddha, amidst the ruins of what was once an Ashokan stupa, a brand new stupa is taking shape, thanks to funds raised by a charity begun by local monks, with support from the Drukpa.

"People here are very poor. his region is so remote that nobody knows about it. Both the Buddha statue and the Ashokan stupa are very auspicious for us and will attract tourists who will take photos of the area and share them on the internet. People will then get to know about our land," says Ang Wang Shi Rab, a schoolteacher from Nangchen.

Tourism, he believes, will help the economy of the region, giving rise to restaurants, a new service sector and better transport.

"If you make a wish to the statue, all your dreams will be fulfilled. The statue will help you to be reborn in the 'Pure Land'," he adds. Gau Yuan Twe, an attractive young nurse from Nangchen, feels the Buddha will bring happiness and good-fortune to the region. The locals aren't the only ones looking to tourism. Researchers from John Hopkins University (USA) are working on a model for sustainable eco-tourism to uplift the area, for which they, too, are looking to the monasteries of Nangchen. While Nangchen may now be a forgotten land tucked away in the hills of China, it was once a bustling centre for trade and politics in eastern Tibet. The people of this region hope the Buddha statue will help Nangchen return to its glory days.