Hong Kong is otherwise a great place to be awed by its skyscrapers and to experience some retail therapy. But if like me, you are not particularly enamoured by high-rises and prefer green spaces, a day trip to Lantau Island is hugely recommended. And do start early to extract the most of your day.
Lantau Island, Hong Kong’s largest island, is often called “the lungs of Hong Kong”, because of the lush green forests that surround it. Ngong Ping is a tranquil retreat in the mountains in the south west part of Lantau, and is located around 500 m above sea level. The quickest and most picturesque way to get there is by cable car.
Ngong Ping 360 Cable Car Ride
We first got on a crystal cabin by the Ngong Ping 360 cable car. The gondola we travelled on had a glass bottom, which made for a thrilling 25 minute ride. As the cable car leaves the platform you first experience gliding over the blue sea, then it gives way to thick forests below your feet. The panoramic views of Tung Chung bay, Hong Kong International airport, the South China Sea and then the dense foliage of Lantau North Country Park are spectacular.
Dark rain clouds made an appearance as we made our way up the 5.7 km cable car ride, and then it gradually began to get really windy and cold. The gondola began to sway and I still remember the eerie sound of the strong mountain winds. The experience of being enveloped in a white cloud was memorable. And the biggest whoop of delight came when between the misty clouds, we spotted the majestic Buddha seated atop the peak of Mount Muk Yue.
We then reached Ngong Ping Plateau. There are three main areas to see here: the Ngong Ping Village, the Tian Tan Buddha and the Po Lin Monastery. After you visit these three sites, do travel to Tai O village by bus.
Ngong Ping Village
Ngong Ping village seems to be a cultural zone constructed with tourists in mind. There are eateries, souvenir shops and a virtual reality zone showcasing action sequences from the Hong Kong film industry. My favourite spot was the colourful Bodhi Tree (wishing tree), where we wrote our wishes and hung them. Besides these there are multilingual shows such as Walking with the Buddha, chocolate tasting workshops, and other touristy things to do.
But we walked directly towards Pai Lau. Pai Lau is a Cantonese word which refers to the traditional Chinese architectural arch or gateway. The Buddha strangely seemed to pull me towards him with that serene expression.
Bodhi Path and the Twelve Divine Generals
We walked along the 120-metre long Bodhi Path which is lined by statues of twelve divine Generals. The Twelve Divine Generals are regarded as protectors in Buddhism, and each is responsible for guarding a two-hour section of the day. In addition, they represent the twelve Chinese zodiac signs, as denoted by the different zodiac signs designed on their crowns. Forty lotus shaped stone lanterns also adorn Bodhi Path.
Di Tan (Altar of Earth)
We walked along the Bodhi Path towards the circular structure called Di Tan. Di Tan or Altar of the Earth is situated at the foot of Mount Muk Yue. Turn towards your right to see the giant statue of Buddha seated on the mountain. In the centre of Di Tan is the Wall of Echoes where we saw scores of Buddhist tourists standing in groups and reciting prayers Di Tan (Altar of Earth) is connected with Tian Tan (Altar of Heaven) by a flight of 268 stairs which leads up to the feet of the Big Buddha.
Tian Tan Buddha (Altar of Heaven)
The Tian Tan Buddha is a large hollow bronze statue of Buddha Shakyamuni. It depicts the Buddha seated on a lotus on top of a three platform altar. The statue’s lotus flower base is said to modelled on the Altar of Heaven from the Temple of Heaven in Beijing. Tian Tan means ‘heaven’ in Chinese. The name was probably given due to the resemblance to the Temple of Heaven (Tian Tan) in Beijing. This Buddha sculpture measures 34 metres high and weighs 250 tons. It is welded together by 202 bronze flower petals, and is a perfect blend of ancient Buddhist art with modern technology. It was constructed between 1990 and 1993 and is one of the most visited tourist spots in Hong Kong today.
The Giant Buddhas of China
The Tian Tan Buddha was once the world’s largest seated outdoor bronze Buddha statue. But there are several giant Buddha statues in China. The Focan Temple Buddha with a height of 208 m is the tallest Buddha statue in the world. The Guan Yin (Avalokitesvara) of the South Sea of Sanya measures 108 m. The Lingshan Grand Buddha in Wuxi is 88 m high, while the Leshan Giant Buddha isthe tallest stone Buddha statue in the world (71 m) which was carved out of a cliff. Guan Yin of the South China Sea located on Xiqiao Mountain is the world tallest sitting Guan Yin (62 m). The Big Buddha on Nanshan mountain is 38.6 m, while the ten headed golden Sanmantabhadra statue on Mount Emei (26 m) is the world’s biggest golden Buddha statue. Unlike other great statues of the Buddha, which face south, this one in Ngong Ping faces the north.
A light drizzle was on as we began the ascent up the stairs. There are 16 sets of 16 steps. And then a couple of more steps lead up to the idol. It is a comfortable climb. I managed to climb up easily despite my painful knees with a few short breaks. That it was not a hot day and the sky was overcast also helped. It was magical as the face of the Buddha appeared and disappeared with the mist. As we got closer and closer to his serene visage, it reminded us of our insignificance in this huge world.
The design of the statue was based on the 32 lakshanas, or “physical marks” of the Buddha as described in the sutras. The face was modeled after the Buddha Vairocana of the Longmen Caves for its fullness and serene beauty. The clothes and headgear had their inspiration from the soft and smooth flowing lines of the Buddha Sakyamuni image in Cave 360 of the Dunhuang Grottoes. The statue is therefore a culmination of the characteristics of sculptural art of the Sui and Tang Dynasties when Buddhism was at its prime, skillfully mastered and conceptualised by the artist to shape the perfect design of the Buddha statue that we see today.
The religious symbolism
Every feature of the Buddha statue has a symbolic meaning of religious significance. With face like a full moon, a broad forehead, and elongated ears reaching almost to the shoulders, the Buddha is shown to be in full possession of both virtue and wisdom and the embodiment of perfection. His kindly smile fills the hearts of the onlookers with joy. The usnisa pearl and conch hair on the head represent the full wisdom of the Buddha. His green lotus eyes, and his new moon eyebrows, are depicted in soft lines, symbolizing the eyes of compassion with which the Buddha looks on all sentient beings. Between the eyebrows, there is a curl white as snow and soft as cotton which twirls right, signifying that the Buddha is preaching the truth to all beings.
The hands of the Buddha are slender and supple, pliable yet firm. The left hand rests on the lap, with the palm turning up and fingers pointing slightly downward. This is called the mudra of “fulfilling wishes”, implying the vow to grant blessing and happiness to all. The right hand is in the mudra of “imparting fearlessness”, indicating the compassion of the Buddha to save all sentient beings from their sufferings. On each of the palms is a Dharmachakra (wheel of the law) signifying that the Buddha truth is eternal and will spread to the ten directions of the universe. The swastika sign on the chest represents that the Buddha possesses all virtues.
The Buddha sits cross-legged on the lotus throne, like a lotus which grows out of sludge, symbolizing that the Buddha is pure and without any defilement. He can live in this world of turbidity and save all recalcitrant and unyielding beings. The statue is full bodied and peaceful. The statue is majestic and refined, conveying the Buddha’s spirit of compassion, loving kindness and impartiality.
The Offering of the Six Devas
Once we climbed up the base of the statue, we noticed six smaller bronze statues. These are the Bodhisattvas. These statues are called “The Offering of the Six Devas”. They kneel in threes on both sides of the Buddha statue, offering gifts in their hands, ranging from flowers, fruit, incense, ointment, music and a lamp. These statues symbolise the Six Perfections, namely generosity, morality, patience, zeal, meditation and wisdom. These are all said to be essential to attain enlightenment.
The inner halls
There are three levels at the base of the idol where exhibits are displayed. These halls are called the Hall of the Universe, the Hall of Benevolent Merit and the Hall of Remembrance. You can enter the hollow statue and see sacred relics of the Buddha, only if you pay for a vegetarian lunch at the Po Lin Monastery. We looked at the menu and didn’t find anything remotely familiar, and so we skipped the chance to go inside.
As we descended, there was a huge downpour. So we decided against walking up to the Wisdom Path. It is a colonade of 38 timber columns calligraphically carved with the Heart Sutra, which is a work by the Chinese scholar, Professor Jao Tsung’I. Instead we took refuge from the rain in the Po Lin Monastery.
How to get there
In Hong Kong, first you need to get to the Tung Chung MTR. Walk a few metres away from the station to the Ngong Ping 360 where you can get tickets to the cable car to Ngong Ping Village on Lantau Island.
Ticket counters open at 9 a.m. Booking tickets online gets you discounts. There are two kinds of cabins: standard and crystal. The crystal cabins, which are more expensive, have glass bottoms and offer a unique experience. You also have the the option of booking crystal cabins one way and standard cabins the other way.
I would recommend going to Ngong Ping one way using the cable car, then travelling by bus no. 23 to Tai O village, and then taking Bus no.11 to Tung Chung from Tai O. It is cheaper and saves time as well. Check the weather before you leave. It was very windy and cold the day I went and I needed to buy a jacket. Timings of entrance to the pilgrimage steps of the Big Buddha and Po Lin Monastery are between 10.00 am and 5.30 p.m.
(Details of religious symbolism of the features of the Big Buddha were obtained from the website of the Po Lin Monastery. The interesting story of how the statue was built can be read here.)