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Sanjusangendo contains one of the greatest examples of religious art in the world. It was once part of a large Buddhist complex known as the Rengeoin ["Lotus King Temple"]. The hall is dedicated to Kannon, the Buddhist divinity that is believed to assist humans in distress and lead them to enlightenment. Kannon traditionally is believed to assume any of thirty-three forms to be of aid, hence the building symbolically has thirty-three bays and is called the thirty-three ["sanju-san"] bay ["gen"] hall ["do"].
The hall was constructed in 1164 by an Emperor who retired to religious life, but was largely destroyed by fire in 1249. The rebuilding was completed in 1266. One is struck by the 390 foot length of the building's exterior, but this gives little hint of what awaits inside.
Upon entering, one encounters a mysterious golden haze. This the light reflected from 1000 human size standing images of Kannon, each with eleven heads and 40 arms which bear a religious symbol or make a gesture. The central image is a larger seated Kannon whose head was rescued from the fire along with 156 of the standing images.
In addition to these, there are figures of various attendants to Kannon that range from an austere hermit to furious guardians that seem electrified. The statues were carved of wood, lacquered, and covered with gold leaf.
The whole produces a near hypnotic effect. Indeed, there is a folk belief that if you watch carefully, one statue will momentarily assume the form of a loved one.