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Ten Mighty Sculptures

The Leshan Buddha is carved into the Lingyun Shan Mountain, China.

From the book Sacred Places of a Lifetime
Photo by Jodi Cobb/NGS

Buy the book Sacred Places of a Lifetime.

Ten Mighty Sculptures

  • Olmec Heads, La Venta Park, Mexico
  • La Virgen Maria del Panecillo, Ecuador
  • Christ the Redeemer, Brazil
  • Buddha Vairocana, Todai-ji Temple, Japan
  • Amida Buddha, Kamakura, Japan
  • Giant Buddha, Leshan, China
  • Gomateshwara, Shravanabelagola, India
  • Aukana Buddha, Sri Lanka
  • The Great Sphinx, Egypt
  • Temple Expiatori del Sagrat Cor, Spain

Olmec Heads, La Venta Park, Mexico

Follow the lush archaeological trail through La Venta Park and you will encounter some of the oldest known monuments in Mexico. Carved by the Olmecs, an ancient civilization predating the Maya, these magnificent colossal heads are thought to portray their mighty rulers. The heads are arranged in the same order in which they were found at their original site 80 miles away at La Venta. The largest of them is 8 feet high and weighs 24 tons.

Planning: La Venta is in the state of Tabasco. Visit the park after dark for the impressive sound and light show.

La Virgen Maria del Panecillo, Ecuador

Towering over the city of Quito, the winged 148-foot tall aluminum Virgin stands at the top of Panecillo Hill, named by the Spanish for its resemblance to pan, the small bread roll. The hill, a sacred site since the days of the Inca, is 9,840 feet above sea level, and a trip to the top offers spectacular views. The majestic Virgin stands on top of a globe with her feet on a snake—the brave can climb up to a balcony in the plinth.

Planning: For the best viewing, get there early in the morning before the clouds settle. Take a taxi to the top and have the driver wait while visiting the area. A half-hour is sufficient to take in the sights.

Christ the Redeemer, Brazil

An enduring symbol of Rio, the statue of Christ the Redeemer seems to receive visitors with open arms. Located at the peak of the 3,000-foot Corcovado Mountain, the art-deco-style 125-foot statue is constructed from reinforced concrete and weighs 700 tons. The chapel, in the base of the statue, is large enough for 150 worshipers, and the site has been formally declared a Roman Catholic sanctuary.

Planning: For the ultimate experience, take the Corcovado Rack Railway on the 20-minute journey through the awe-inspiring Tijuca National Forest. This is the same train that carried the parts of the statue to the top of the mountain.,

Buddha Vairocana, Todai-ji Temple, Japan

Japan’s enormous gilded bronze Buddha is housed in what is considered to be the largest wooden building in the world, the Todai-ji Temple. Legend has it that nearly 2.6 million people helped construct the Buddha, which was finally completed in A.D. 752. Today, the temple and its peaceful surroundings serve as the headquarters of the Kegon school of Buddhism.

Planning: Nara Park is located on the eastern side of the city of Nara.

Amida Buddha, Kamakura, Japan

Originally housed inside a wooden temple, the Kamakura Buddha has been in the open air for more than 700 years. At nearly 44 feet high, and set against a breathtaking backdrop of wooded hills, it is one of the great icons of Japan.

Planning: Kamakura is located 30 miles from Tokyo; the Buddha is a short walk from the train station. For a small fee, visitors can go inside the statue, which is hollow.

Giant Buddha, Leshan, China

At 233 feet tall, this is the largest Buddha in the world. Carved into the cliff face of Lingyun Mountain, the smiling statue faces Mount Emei, where Buddhism was first established in China. The Buddha was placed at the spot where three rivers meet in the hope of helping to calm the turbulent waters. Visitors can gather at his instep or climb into one of his ears for an impressive up-close view.

Planning: The statue is east of Leshan City. Arrive at the site by ferry for an awe-inspiring first impression.

Gomateshwara, Shravanabelagola, India

This granite statue was erected to honor Lord Gomateshwara, the Jain saint who, according to legend, gave up his kingdom for meditation. Every 12 years, priests bathe the statue with milk, honey, curd, rice, sugar, almonds, saffron, dates, and bananas in a special ceremony—the next will be held in 2018.

Planning: Shravanabelagola is 8 miles from Channaravapatna, and buses run between the two locations.

Aukana Buddha, Sri Lanka

Aukana means "sun-eating," and today monks still gather flowers at dawn and offer them in front of the 50-foot tall, fifth-century-A.D. Buddha statue as the first rays of the sun inch down its form. On most days there are few visitors.

Planning: The Buddha is 31 miles southeast of Anuradhapura. Visitors are advised to dress modestly.

The Great Sphinx, Egypt

The megalithic statue of the Sphinx beside the pyramids at Giza has the head of a god and the body of a lion. At 185 feet long and 65 feet high, it is believed to be the largest stone statue ever created.

Planning: Giza is a few miles outside of Cairo and is open to the public from 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily.

Temple Expiatori del Sagrat Cor, Spain

This monumental temple, crowned by a giant bronze statue of Christ, sits at the peak of Tibidabo Mountain, 1,886 feet up. A trip to the top of the temple affords panoramic views over Barcelona and the surrounding coastline.

Planning: The Blue Tram takes visitors to the foot of the funicular railway. From there, board the Tibidabo Funicular up the mountain to the temple.