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Published: Verve Magazine, January 2007

Sitanshi Talati-Parikh watches an eighth wonder of the world unfold before her eyes


They were like worker bees or ants, methodical, diligent and hard working. They are all lined up before me, steadfast and eager to rise in the ranks or in the world. Commanding attention, whilst also at attention, ready to take off at a moment’s shot. I could be talking as much about the Chinese army as the recently discovered – and generally considered – eighth wonder of the world, the life-size terra-cotta warriors of Xi’an. On October 1, 1979 Emperor QinShihuang’s Terracotta Museum was opened to the public. Over 1,000 restored terracotta warriors and horses were displayed and the formerly sleepy XiYang village is now world-renowned.

At first dig, a hand came up along with the mud. Soon after, a weapon, followed by a broken face smeared with burn marks. The call of alert given by a local farmer, quickly brought in the archaeological team, which began their explorations and excavations. Famous for his discovery, the wisened old man is alive to this date, signing many autographs and pictures in the archaic museum.

The history of the Qin Dynasty has now unfolded before the people. Emperor Qin spent nearly 40 years (247 BC to 208 BC) constructing his underground mausoleum, around which the life-size terra-cotta warriors stood guard, like faithful soldiers. The emperor believed that life under the ground was a continuation of life on earth. Even when it appeared as if they had reached rock bottom, these workers, under the order of the emperor, kept going. Despite the aggressive and extensive efforts, Emperor Qin died at the age of 50, unable to see the completion of his tomb. Many of the tomb builders were also buried alive, along with thousands of officials, in order to keep the tomb secret.

Emperor Qin Shihuang’s search for immortality lives to this day in his mausoleum, which was actually an underground treasure trove. The tomb was a subterranean palace with a protective outer wall 6,210 metres in perimeter on the ground level. Within this area was an inner wall that surrounded the burial mound. Both the walls had watchtowers and gates. The burial mound was 115 metres high over 2,000 years ago. With the passage of time, it has been reduced to two-third of its original size. It was later learnt (since the original discovery in 1974) that three underground pits, traversing an area of 22,000 square metres, contain an estimated 8,000 life-size ceramic warriors and horses.

As I tour the factory that describes the restoration process, I learn that all the terracotta figures were fashioned from local clay, weighing anything from 110 to 300 kilos each, with an average height of 1.8 metres. In the pits, the terracotta warriors and horses are arrayed in a practical battle formation, with different ranks of the army, ready to protect and serve. Their distinctive dress, demeanour, size and weapons display their ranking, ranging from generals, officers, soldiers, charioteers, cavalrymen, kneeling and standing archers, with bronze birds and implements accompanying them.

The interactive movie brought the period alive, where according to reports, XiangYu, a rebel in the Qin Dynasty, burnt Emperor Qin’s palace and mausoleum in 206 BC. The fire damaged the pits and the buckled roof pressed the terracotta warriors and horses into ruin. When uncovered, fragments and broken remains were all that remained, which created a mammoth task of restoration for the archaeologists, with each statue often taking months to be mended and restored. The story of this world wonder parallels that of the People’s Republic of China, reminding one that history does repeat itself, often in strange ways. The country is being pushed by its current president for a different kind of immortality – that of a nation’s supremacy over the world, where the ability of the common man to join together and work in cohesion for something greater, will serve as a landmark reminder of a wonder yet to come. One only hopes that nothing gets burnt along the way.