India in billion-dollar scramble to build world's tallest statues

Workers are toiling to finish the 182m-high "Statue of Unity", a tribute to India's independence icon Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, at the Sardar Sarovar Dam in Gujarat, so it can be ready for inauguration by PM Narendra Modi on Oct 31.
Workers are toiling to finish the 182m-high "Statue of Unity", a tribute to India's independence icon Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, at the Sardar Sarovar Dam in Gujarat, so it can be ready for inauguration by PM Narendra Modi on Oct 31.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

SARDAR SAROVAR DAM (India) • The world's biggest statue is rising in a remote corner of India to honour an independence hero but it could quickly be outdone by a monument to a Hindu warrior king in the sea off Mumbai.

In a burst of nationalist fervour, around one billion dollars is being spent on the two giant effigies, each more than twice as tall as the Statue of Liberty.

A 182m-high tribute to independence icon Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel in Gujarat state will be the first to dwarf the Spring Temple Buddha in China, currently the world's biggest statue at 128m in height.

Pick-axes are also swinging for a 212m-high likeness of 17th-century king Chhatrapati Shivaji, resplendent on a horse and brandishing a sword, which should dominate the Mumbai shoreline from 2021.

An army of 2,500 workers - including several hundred Chinese labourers - is toiling around the clock to put 5,000 squares of bronze cladding on the figure of Patel so that it can be ready for inauguration on Oct 31 by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The 29.9 billion rupee (S$576 million) "Statue of Unity" overlooking the isolated Sardar Sarovar Dam is a pet project of Mr Modi. Visitors will be able to access a viewing gallery 153m up on the huge standing figure. But they will have to travel 250km from the state's main city of Allahabad to get there.

There is also a political motive to the megaproject, with India heading into a campaign for a national election early next year.

  • 182m

    Height of statue of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel in Gujarat.

    212m

    Height of statue of 17th-century king Chhatrapati Shivaji in Mumbai.

    128m

    Height of Spring Temple Buddha in China, world's tallest statue today.

Patel was deputy to India's first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru after independence in 1947, and Mr Modi's nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party says his name has been unfairly overshadowed by the dominant Nehru dynasty.

Patel became known as the "Iron Man of India" by persuading some 550 princely states to become part of India after independence from Britain in 1947. He died three years later.

Many Hindu nationalists feel it was a slight when Patel was asked to step aside to let the secular Nehru become the country's first leader. "Every Indian regrets Sardar Patel did not become the first prime minister," Mr Modi said while campaigning in 2013.

"Modi has used Patel's legacy a lot in his election campaigns," said Dr Ghanshyam Shah, a former professor of class politics at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. "He is very likely to use the Statue of Unity during the upcoming campaign but I am worried about how it will influence voters."

In 2016, Mr Modi laid the foundation stone in Maharashtra state for the statue of Shivaji, a hero of the 80 million-strong Marathi community based in the state.

Hindu nationalists have also adopted Shivaji, who made his name battling the Muslim Mughal empire. Critics say the 36 billion rupee-statue is a way of winning Marathi votes in next year's polls.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 04, 2018, with the headline 'India in billion-dollar scramble to build world's tallest statues'. Print Edition | Subscribe