I can never get enough of the peaceful atmosphere that prevails in the temples of Chiang Rai. Unlike those market-oriented temples in Bangkok which have turned into car parks, temples in Chiang Rai still have a quiet charm of their own.
Now that recreational or public parks are not safe and peaceful anymore, and big department stores with their annoying commercials played at full volume, attempt to influence people’s minds in materialistic directions, temples have become an alternative option for people who are pursuing peace and quiet.
I recently came across an intriguing temple whose beauty was stunning, and the green leafy garden was neatly kept. But most importantly, it was free of any commercial advertising. Just looking at it from the front gate, the pleasant, clean compound, the green, neatly kept gardens, and the traditional, stylistic structure of the buildings combine to draw you into experiencing the atmosphere inside.
It is Wat Pra Kaew , otherwise known as The Temple of the Emerald Buddha Image in Chiang Rai, located on Trirat Street, Wiang Sub-District, just opposite the Overbrook hospital.
No one knows exactly when this temple was founded. It was named after Pra Kaew Morakot. The sacred Buddha image residing here was discovered in 1434 when a bolt of lightning struck the pagoda. Inside lay the Buddha image. When the lightning bolt hit the image and removed some of the substance which covered it, a hint of what lay beneath was revealed – green jade. The abbot arranged for the covering to be removed and the entire body was gradually exposed.
The green jade figure slowly revealed its beauty and charm from head to toe. The corpulent figure is in a sitting meditation pose with its eyes closed. It presents a peaceful, serene image. At sixty cm. in height and fifty cm. in width, it’s considered to be one of the most superb pieces of sculpture in the country. It can be classified into the Chiang Sean School of art. The controversial debate about its history does not seem to be of any interest to devout Buddhists.
However to the eyes of artists, the image clearly features signs of being created by local craftsmen and it is widely respected among Buddhists from all countries. It is considered to be the holiest object in Thailand, an image which is not owned by Thais, but by all Buddhists alike.
As I pass through the temple gate, my eyes follow the line of yellow bamboo trees leading to the Pavilion of Phrakaew Morakot – The Emerald Buddha. These trees thrive in this region and the local villagers originally named this temple “Wat Pa Yia” or Temple of Yellow Bamboo. With the green garden on my left, and the yellow bamboo on the right, I walk straight to the Chamber of the emerald Buddha. The blowing of the long, slender bamboo and the fluttering of the leaves gives me a sense of peace and gentleness. The movement of the bamboo and the sounds as the stems move against one another, provide a natural, serene atmosphere. The temple has devoted most of its empty land to the creation of a garden with various types of plants around the ordination hall. This calms your mind and settles your soul.
Walking along this area, you will notice many trees planted by high profile people. They include the Michelia Champaca, planted by the Swedish King on the 28 February, 2003. And the Saraca Thaipingensis Cantly Ex Prain, planted by Magrather II of Denmark on the 2nd of February, 2001).Khunying Boonrurn Choonhawan also planted the Chan Tree in this garden on July 7, 1996. Kru Ba Boon Choom planted the Ton Mai Prachao Haa Pra Ong. According to the abbot who designed the garden, he originally tried to feature the trees which appeared in traditional Thai literature. However, he changed his mind and planted any trees that were donated by temple supporters. Hence the variety of trees in the temple‘s garden.
As you approach the Chamber of the Emerald Buddha, you will be struck by the beauty of the Lanna architecture. Its red wooden square structure is elevated high over the ground and covered by a two tiered roof with Naga tops. Erected in 1991, the chamber of Wat Phra Kaew remains one of the most stylistic modern pieces of Lanna architecture in the country. The golden wood work above the front door softens the door’s somewhat masculine appearance. No one knows exactly who carved this Buddha image but it is believed to be the Indra, God of thirty two gods who resided in the Taawatimsa and that it was to pay tribute to Buddha.
The image’s history is turbulent with each nation in the region trying to lay claim to legitimate ownership of Prakaew Morakot. It is not certain when the image was created but it is believed to have been discovered in Chiang Rai in the 14th century and that it was brought to Lampang and Chiang Mai when a powerful king ruled in those areas.
In the middle of the 16th century, the King of Chiang Mai, Chayachethathiraj, brought the image to Vientiane to escape the occupation of the Burmese. A good move. There it stayed, in Vientianne and Luang Prabang for over 200 years. The image was there long enough to give the Laos people a full sense of ownership. However, King Rama I, brought it back to Thailand after a battle over ownership resulting in a victory over Laos.
The beautiful mural paintings in the chambers of Wat Pra Kaew provide you with stories of the Buddha image and how this temple was built.
On the way out from the Chamber of Prakaew Morakot, you may stop to feed the turtles at the pond in front of the chamber before proceeding to visit other buildings in the temple compound. The turtles’ favorite food is meatballs and, if you want to feed them, you have to bring your own.
As you walk out of the chamber of Wat Prakaew, turn right and then left and you will see a huge square modern building which houses master pieces of northern Lanna art. The entire building was made of steel and concrete but covered with teak wood. It is decorated with mythical Lanna animals, such as Moms, Nagas, Elephants, and Swans. The museum is open Saturday and Sunday between 0900—1700.
Inside the museum, several antiques as well as old looking new items are displayed. Although the items look relatively old , most of the items are newly made but painted to look old.
While sitting and pondering how lucky I am to be born in this Buddhist country and being able to practice Buddhism, I see endless waves of tourists coming to visit this temple. It is unfortunate that they will have only a short time at the temple. Wat Prakaew is successful in drawing people to appreciate its beauty and peace. I just sat there watching people passing by and wishing that other temples would learn to do a bit of marketing to draw people to them and be part of preserving religion and culture without all the commercialism of a Bangkok temple.
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