National

Great Buddha of Nara has only half its reported number of hair curls

Kyodo

The Great Buddha of Nara, a 15-meter-high statue listed among Japan’s national treasures, has only 492 spiraling curls of hair on its bronze head, not the 966 locks described in ancient documents, new research indicates.

The discovery was made via a 3-D analysis of the statue’s head using a laser scanning method, conducted by Takeshi Oishi, associate professor at the University of Tokyo’s Institute of Industrial Science, the temple in Nara where the statue is housed said Thursday on its website.

Todaiji temple asked Oishi to undertake the research because it kept receiving inquiries about the number of curls, known as “rahotsu,” on the Buddha’s head, with some visitors saying it seems the statue has many fewer curls than the number described in scrolls dating back nearly 1,000 years.

A question composed by the Mathematics Certification Institute of Japan further motivated the temple in the ancient Japanese capital to shed light on the issue, which “has remained a mystery to this day,” the temple said on its website.

When 966 hair locks are placed inside a circle, the question asks, what is the area of the smallest possible circle?

One hair curl is about 22 centimeters in diameter, 21 cm in height and weighs 1.2 kilograms.

The research required a laser beam because it is physically impossible to get behind the Buddha to count the number of locks there. A huge golden decoration representing a halo is located immediately behind the Buddha’s head, blocking access.

According to Oishi, it is estimated that the Buddha has 483 rahotsu and nine are missing, for a combined number of 492 — or just about half of the 966 mentioned in the earliest scrolls from the 1100s about the temple’s history. That number was repeated in later documents on the temple history compiled in the Edo (1603-1868) and Meiji (1868-1912) periods.

However, it is still possible to assume that the statue did have 966 hair curls when it was originally built more than 1,200 years ago. The Buddha has been rebuilt each time it was damaged in war, making its seat and part of its knees the only surviving portions from the original built in 752 under the orders of Emperor Shomu to wish for peace and the stability of his nation.