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Thursday, 2 May, 2002, 13:35 GMT 14:35 UK
Shedding light on the Buddhas
Seated Buddha, Northern Qi dynasty 550-577
Flecks of gold denote Buddha's fabled glow
In 1996, workmen at a primary school in eastern China's Qingzhou region made an incredible discovery.

As they dug beneath the playing field, they found a burial pit containing more than 400 Buddhist sculptures dating back to the sixth century.

After more than 800 years underground, some of these statues are on display at London's Royal Academy, in the Return of the Buddha exhibition.

They offer viewers a rare chance to experience their surprisingly genteel beauty, and their startling tranquillity, before the sculptures are returned indefinitely to China.

Mystery

The sculptures may have met with a violent end before their internment, but finely carved details and even remnants of paint have survived.

Standing image of a Bodhisattva (rear view), Northern Qi dynasty (550-577)
Many were sculpted in the round, though the backs would not have been seen

Why the sculptures were buried in the first place remains a mystery, although the way they were broken provides a clue.

There are records of Buddhist persecution in the Qingzhou region between the sixth and twelfth centuries, but if these statues had been smashed for religious reasons one would expect the faces to have been damaged - which they are not.

Instead many just have one clean break, suggesting they could have fallen backwards in an earthquake - the region also suffered several natural disasters.

We do know that in the twelfth century they were carefully interred - the heads were found ringed around the edge and the bodies were layered in the middle - probably by monks, as they were found at the site of a former monastery at Longxing.

Each of the 35 statues seems to have its own personality, especially those of the bodhisattvas - Buddhas' attendants that put off their own entry into nirvana to help others achieve enlightenment.

These are carved with lavish robes and jewellery to symbolise their attachment to the earthly life and have a wide range of expressions - some with eyes cast downwards in an apparent state of religious devotion, others shown alert and smiling.

Magnetic

The statues would probably have been used, not just as an aid to prayer, but in the belief that their religious energy actively helped the faithful on their own path to enlightenment.

Standing Buddha, Northern Qi dynasty (550-577)
Squares of colour represent Buddha's patched clothes

During News Online's visit to the exhibition, the statues' power to inspire devotion was still clear. The gallery was filled with the sound of chanting, as two visiting Buddhist nuns knelt before the sculptures in prayer.

"I feel the energy is still there even though they have been buried underground for so many years," one of the nun's said, although she added that their loss of limbs saddened her.

Ironically, if the statues were buried because they had been damaged, then that violence may also have allowed them to ultimately survive. Just a few hundred years after their burial, Longxing Temple was destroyed.

Return of the Buddha is at the Royal Academy, Piccadilly, London W1, until 14 July. The Buddhas will then be on display in Qingzhou Municipal Museum, Shandong, China

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