During Emperor Shomu’s reign in the 8th century, Japanese central government resembled a theocracy, with the Emperor declaring himself a servant of the “Three Treasures” — the Buddha, the Buddhist law and the monastic community of priests, monks and nuns.
Emperor Shomu decreed that the state would establish a nationally sponsored temple (kokubunji) in each province (the idea originated with his great-grandfather Emperor Temmu). He also decreed that a great central temple be built in the capital to oversee the chains of temples. Todai-ji Temple was the result (dedicated in a ceremony in 752), and in 760, adjacent to it, the Lecture Hall (Kodo) and Great Buddha Hall (Daibutsuden) were completed. Two seven-story pagodas were added to either side of the building a few decades later.
The Great Buddha Hall was a mammoth building, and even though the current building is a reconstruction of the original and a third smaller (in space though not in height) than the original one built by Shomu, it is still the largest wooden building in the world.
The image took two years to cast and three more to polish and cover in gold leaves. The massive gilded bronze image of the Daibutsu has survived till today, although possibly not in its original form, having been restored following damage in various fires, natural disasters. In the 9th century, an earthquake knocked off its head. In 1180 and again in 1567, its right hand was melted in accidental fires. The body of the statue was reconstructed in 1185, and the head rebuilt in 1692. It is the largest bronze image at 14.98 m (49.1 ft) from the ancient world (there are larger bronze Buddhas the Ushiku, a 110 m modern-day bronze Buddha completed in 1995 in Ibaraki prefecture, Japan and the 128 m Spring Temple Buddha in China).
Millions of copies of sutra and wood engravings of religious images were made for distribution to the pilgrims who thronged the temple. These were the first printed documents in Japan.