At 597 Feet, New Statue of Unity in India Is a Record-Breaking Colossus

India's tribute to a beloved statesman is more than bit conspicuous. (Photo: Sam Panthaky/AFP/Getty Images)

Whether it's a president, a war hero, a religious figure, a rock star or a particularly beloved animal, there's no more fitting tribute to an exceptional life than a statue erected in one's honor.

Especially if said statue is nearly 600 feet tall.

Recently opened in the western Indian state of Gujarat, the Statue of Unity has officially nabbed tallest statue in the world status from the 420-foot Spring Temple Buddha, in China's Henan province, by a difference of about 180 feet.

By comparison, the Statue of Liberty, when measured from her pedestal to the tip of the torch, is nearly half the size of India's similarly sandal-clad behemoth. And that's not including a three-story base structure that adds an additional 190 feet. Another iconic extra-large statue, Rio de Janeiro's Christ the Redeemer, is a positively puny 125 feet tall.

Towering over a rural landscape near the mighty Narmada Dam, the statue represents the likeness of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, an ordinary sized man considered as one of India's founding fathers — a lawyer, statesmen and independence leader who served as the country's first deputy prime minister. Above all, this headstrong nationalist hero — the so-called "Iron Man of India" — is remembered as an impassioned unifier.

Flowers at India's Statue of Unity
The towering likeness of Sardar Patel is surrounding by a sprawling memorial park. (Photo: Sam Panthaky/AFP/Getty Images)

Nearly 70 years after his death, Patel's most admired quality is on most conspicuous display as part of a $420 million megaproject — partially realized in recycled scrap iron, nonetheless — that's due to boost tourism to this scenic, sleepy region in the most, um, reverent of ways.

Located on a manmade river islet, the statue isn't just a particularly photogenic landmark to ohh and aah at from afar. Like any cloud-brushing effigy worth its weight, visitors are welcomed to venture inside the Statue of Unity. And in this case, visitors can travel up Patel's legs — they're actually reinforced concrete support towers — via four high-speed, high-capacity elevators to an observation deck located in his head. The cost to do so is 350 rupees — or just under five bucks.

For those who might feel uneasy at the notion of being elevated 500 feet above the earth inside the head of an Indian politician, there's a museum and visitor's center located in the statue's base structure. But perhaps the best way to experience the Statue of Unity isn't from inside the statue at all. It's from a distance where, after the sun goes down, you can view a rather bonkers nightly laser project show illuminated onto Patel's 50-story frame.

"The Statue will stand high, not just in meters and feet, but much more in terms of academic, historical, national and spiritual values," says Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi. "My vision is to develop the place as a source of inspiration for ages to come."

Sign at India's Statue of Unity
In case you needed a reminder of what you're looking at. (Photo: Sam Panthaky/AFP/Getty Images)

A new national landmark, not too many years in the making

Construction on the dhoti-wearing giant was completed in a record-breaking 33 months (an additional 15 months were dedicated to planning) with funds coming from a mix of private and public sources including considerable input from the Gujarat state government and a whole lot of crowdfunded cash from the public. Working from a design by noted Indian sculptor Ram V. Sutar (he drew his inspiration from a 1949 photograph of Patel), the construction process was helmed by Mumbai-based Larsen & Tuobro.

Michael Graves Architecture & Design (MGA&D;), the Princeton, New Jersey-based firm founded by the late, great postmodernist architect and champion of universal design, served as project architect and is also responsible for the master plan of the "destination resort" — hotel, convention center, additional landscaped grounds and the like — that will ultimately flank the statue. (The firm's high-profile projects for Disney, including two decidedly 1980s-garish hotels at Walt Disney World Resort, similarly feature very large statuary.)

In all, the statue incorporates 7,400,000 cubic feet of cement along with thousands of tons of steel. The outmost layer of the earthquake-resilient structure is a 2,000-ton "skin" comprised of individual bronze panels. (They were fabricated in China unlike the rest of the mostly homegrown/sourced building elements.)

Construction of India's Statue of Unity
Just a few months ago, the statue was still clad in scaffolding. (Photo: Sam Panthaky/AFP/Getty Images)

As for the aforementioned scrap iron, it was used to build out the sculpture's foundation and was collected during a campaign that encouraged farmers to donate their old iron agricultural equipment so that it could be melted down and turned into rebar. Per MGA&D;, over 175 tons of scrap iron were collected from rural farmers who were more than happy to be part of the cause. It's also been reported, however, by outlets including The Wire that the donated iron wasn't up to snuff quality-wise and and was used "elsewhere in the project."

"Part of the innovations of this project included the dynamic design and installation process which in essence celebrated the unity of India," James Wisniewski, a principal at MGA&D; and project leader on the Statue of Unity tells Dezeen, also speaking of the unique challenges involved with executing a project "of this scale and level of complexity."

As Kajri Jain writes for The Wire, the Statue of Unity is a beyond-conspicuous example of India joining other Asian countries — China, Japan and Taiwan, in particular — in the not entirely new trend of memorizing important religious and political figures with statues that don't just stand tell but loom hundreds of feet in the sky. In fact, the Statue of Unity won't hold on to its world's tallest status for long as work is already underway on a nearly 700-foot-tall sword-wielding statue of 17th century warrior king Shivaji in the Arabic Sea just off the coast of Mumbai. (That project, however, may be truncated due to budget concerns.)

Base/museum at India's Statue of Unity
Among other things, a museum located in the base of the statue features a very large sculpture of Patel's head. (Photo: Sam Panthaky/AFP/Getty Images)

Explains Jain: "While statues and large monuments are ancient and almost universal forms, their current resurgence in India links up with specific recent developments: the politics of caste, a post-liberalisation revival of religious patronage and the reconfiguration of the nation as an economic unit by the forces of neoliberal 'free trade.'"

In addition to the statue itself, the ultra-patriotic sentiment of the project is perhaps most evident in the promotional videos and literature released in conjunction with the Statue of Unity's public opening. This includes a 3-minute clip that's essentially a music video complete with rousing vocals from famed Bollywood "playback" singer Sukhwinder Singh. The video, which you can view below, features beautiful natural landscapes, Indian flags fluttering gently in the wind and historic photos of Patel intercut with footage of various Indian citizens of all backgrounds gazing, eyes filled with awe and respect, upwards into the sky.

An XL-sized object of contention

Despite the unwavering reverence on full display in the project's promotional materials, the Statue of Unity has been plagued by significant controversy.

The statue's made-in-China bronze cladding raised considerable ire considering it goes directly against Prime Minister Modi's much-touted "Make In India" initiatives. Covered primarily by the state government, the staggering high price tag of the project, which involves building a new highway for better access to the site, is also a point of contention because it impacts local indigenous tribes, many of which have already been displaced and detrimentally impacted by the construction of the nearby dam.

But above all, there's the somewhat complicated political implications of the project.

Writes Time:

Critics say that the sculpture is a crude attempt by Modi's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to rewrite political history. Its completion ahead of the highly anticipated 2019 general election is also likely to score big points with the right-wing Hindu voters who make up the BJP's power base.
But there's just one snag: Patel had nothing to do with the BJP. He was actually a member of the BJP's great political rival, the center-left Indian National Congress (commonly called the Congress or the Congress Party). Critics say that the BJP, which was founded in 1951, is trying to appropriate Patel's legacy and aura because it cannot number any preeminent independence leaders among its past members.

And as Ruth Gamble and Alexander E. Davis write in a critique published by Public Radio International, claims from the government that the project is sustainable simply because increased tourism is a form of sustainable development don't exactly ring true: "The United Nations says that sustainable tourism increases environmental outcomes and promotes local cultures. But given the statue's lack of environmental checks and its displacement of local populations, it is hard to see how this project fulfills these goals."

All these very valid concerns aside, it's hard not to be in awe of the Statue of Unity from an engineering and construction standpoint. When the controversy dies down, it will be curious to see how many tourists from both India and further afield make the trek to Gujarat to pay respects to this very large, historically important dude.