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A Buddha in Japan Is Missing Half of Its Curls

What happened to the Buddha of Nara’s famous ‘do?

How many curls can you count? (Travelasia/Asia Images/Corbis)
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Standing at nearly 50 feet, the giant Buddha statue in Nara, Japan is world-famous for a reason. So are his tightly wound bronze curls—they even have religious significance. But now, reports Hideaki Ishiyama for The Asahi Shimbun, the Buddha’s ‘do has put officials in a hairy situation when a new analysis suggested that the statue has fewer curls than expected.

The Buddha, which stands in a temple at a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Nara, has long been thought to have 966 curls, also known as “rahotsu.” Buddha was thought to have obtained his curly hairdo after he chopped off his long, troublesome hair, writes Cristina Richie. After he achieved enlightenment, his curls remained, representing his freedom from the cares of the world. The peppercorn-like curls became an important part of Asian religious iconography.

Shimbun reports that the Nara Buddha was thought to have 966 ball-like spiral curls, which weigh over 2.6 pounds each. The number came from a scroll dating from between 794 and 1185.

When they tried to count the curls, temple employees found they were unable to access the back of the statue's head. So officials enlisted Takeshi Oishi, an information studies professor at the University of Tokyo, to examine the true number.

Oishi created a 3D map of the curls using technology that measures the time for a surface to reflect light from laser beams, reports Ishiyama. This innovative system revealed that the Buddha has just 492 curls.

Does that mean that past estimates of the Buddha’s curl volume were wrong? Did curl thieves make off with his famous ‘do?

Perhaps not, according to The Japan Times. Since the statue was built over 1,200 years ago, it has sustained plenty of damage during wars. The statue’s chair and part of its knees are the only original parts that remain, so the Buddha could have been given a less curly makeover at some point during its history.

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