Temple monks saved by Buddha's birthday

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 May, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 May, 2008, 12:00am

Two monks sit beside a mountain road contemplating all the temple property that rolled down the hill in Monday's earthquake.

One of them picks up a slab that used to bear the name of their religious centre. Only two words, ji xiang, meaning lucky, remain. The rest were smashed by falling debris.

The temple clings to a mountainside in the village of Sifang, and is the biggest in the city of Deyang. Towns and villages west of the city were hit hard by the 7.8-magnitude quake. Twenty thousand people are feared to have died in the district.

Eight people in the temple were killed - five monks and three visitors. Most of the temple's 70-plus monks were attending celebrations for Buddha's birthday across the city - which probably saved their lives.

'It could have been worse, because we usually have many monks gathered under the big roof in the afternoon,' said Sik Shi Chongyong, supervisor of the complex.

Nearly all its buildings were flattened. The main structure had its roof torn apart and its walls are barely standing. The building, which has sacred Buddhist figures, cost the temple 20 million yuan (HK$22.4 million) to build 10 years ago and was considered the grandest Buddhist structure in southwestern Sichuan .

The statues inside still look fine, but two dragon-shaped roof decorations have been dislodged and hang precariously, a reminder that much of the building could fall down in even a mild aftershock.

The monks went without food and water in the first few days as villagers grabbed whatever aid was trucked into Sifang.

'We told our monks to stay away from fighting for food and water with our neighbouring villages because we have to do something to calm the situation, not aggravate it,' Sik Shi said.

Followers and friends of the complex finally sent food, vegetables and water up the mountain on Thursday.

Sik Shi said it was imperative the complex was rebuilt, because people needed to practise their religion.

He hopes followers and the local government will fund rebuilding.

With families shattered and the casualties huge, none of the centre's monks have been invited to perform funeral ceremonies since Monday.

Sik Shi said: 'When the initial impact is absorbed, we will do our best to reach out to people and help heal the pain of losing family members.'