Unearthing Xi`an`s terracotta warriors

On a trip to Xi`an, China, Vimala Nandakumar discovers the underground world of ancient China and its terracotta statues

While many tourists ensure they visit the Great Wall of China and the Forbidden City, not many know about Xi`an, which is home to the magnificent terracotta army and is one of the best attractions in China. Former French President Jacques Chirac described the Terracotta Museum as "The eighth wonder of the world". A typical stop for foreign dignitaries only confirms that it is a must-see for all tourists.

We could travel to Xi`an from Beijing by rail or air. While the train journey would be beautiful, it would take six hours. So we boarded an early morning flight to Xi`an city from Beijing to visit the breath-taking world of the life-sized terracotta warriors.A smiling petite girl received us at the airport and off we drove 35 kilometers from the city of Xi`an to the little town where the terracotta soldiers were discovered in 1974.

Wishing to have the same power and status after his death as he did during his rule, Qin Shi Huang (the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty, who ruled from 246 to 210 BC) was buried with the terracotta army and court.

He believed that his accomplishments could be replicated in the next life only with a proper army and so, sevearal artisans and labourers were employed to create the magnificent army of 8,000 clay soldiers, weapons, horses and chariots. According to the Chinese historian Sima Qian (145-90 BC), the work on the burial mound began as soon as the Emperor ascended the throne. 700,000 workers from every province of the empire are said to have toiled tirelessly until the death of the emperor in 210 B.C., to construct this mausoleum.

Emperor Qin Shihuang`s Terracotta Museum was opened to the public in 1979. Before heading to the viewing galleries, we saw a film depicting the wars. The museum consists of Pit 1, 2 and 3. Pit 1 is the largest consisting mainly the army–foot soldiers and horses. Initial excavations revealed that it contained a veritable army of 1,087 warriors, the infantry and cavalry corps standing in battle formation with archers protecting the flanks.

But today, it is estimated that there are approximately 6,000 statues of warriors and horses in this pit alone, which has floored galleries. Pit 2 is smaller and consists mainly of archers and chariots while Pit 3 is the smallest. The intricate design and massive scale of the tomb–over 8,000 soldiers with steel swords, 130 chariots led by 520 horses and 150 cavalry horses–completed in 221 BC, is proof of the advanced level of civilization that the Chinese had attained well over 2,200 years ago. The detailing amazed us–each soldier was probably individually modelled as a portrait of a real person and had distinct facial features and hairstyles. The officers appeared to be taller than the foot soldiers. The figures face east as though ready for battle. In addition to the 8,000 life-sized individual soldiers, there are life-sized versions of all kinds of courtiers, including servants which were once colourfully painted, but have now faded with time and due to exposure to weather. The site is not yet completely excavated and still remains to be fully discovered.

Overwhelmed by the spectacular place, we left for Xi`an city to visit the Wild Goose Pagoda and then took the flight back to Beijing later that same day. En route banners pitch the terracotta warriors as the eighth wonder of the world unless, of course, one of the current magnificent seven is prepared to move over!

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