The Jewel of the Chao Phraya

17 Mar
View of Wat Phra Keo temple complex - Bangkok, Thailand (2006)

View of Wat Phra Keo temple complex – Bangkok, Thailand (2006)


It’s rare to be able to identify the spiritual heart and soul of a nation within 1 religious work of art.  Yet, that’s what the Emerald Buddha represents to Thailand. While this Buddha image is not actually made of emerald (likely chiseled from a jadeite, nephrite or jasper stone) and is small in height (the statue itself is about 48cm or less than 2ft tall ), it has played a significant role in the legitimacy of the current Chakri dynasty and as an augur for the prosperity of the Thai people. Its origins are shrouded in mystery. Legend holds that it was cast first in India about 500 years after the Buddha died under the direction of a prominent Brahmin turned Buddhist sage known as Nagasena who lived in Patna — not from Kushinagar where the Buddha had died. Due to invasions and battles in the area, the Emerald Buddha was transported further and further south and ultimately came to Sri Lanka.  It stayed there for centuries until one of the Burmese Kings of Bagan struck a deal with a Sinhalese King to have the Emerald Buddha shipped to Bagan which was at the time the center for Buddhist religious teaching and study.

Guardian Deity - outside Wat Phra Keow - Bangkok, Thailand (2006)

Guardian Demon – Wat Phra Keo

The Emerald Buddha never made it to Burma. Instead, a storm hit the ship carrying the statue out of Sri Lanka and the ship was blown off course. Somehow, the Emerald Buddha found its way to Cambodia where it was taken to Angkor. Then, when the Thai Kingdom of Ayutthaya sacked Angkor in 1431AD, one of the spoils looted from the great Khmer capital was the Emerald Buddha. However, other evidence has been discovered by Thai historians suggesting that the Emerald Buddha first appeared in Chiang Rai in the 1430s. At that time, Chiang Rai was part of the Lanna Kingdom which occupied a big chunk of what is today northern Thailand and in the 15th century was a rival to the Thai Kingdom of Ayutthaya in the south.  These historians point to records which speak of a large stupa in Chiang Rai toppling after being struck by lighting in 1434.  A monk who then combed through the debris of this stupa found a small stone figure of the Buddha. He placed this figure in the prayer hall of his monastery. Some time later, another monk happened to notice a small chip in the torso of this Buddha statue and upon further examination realized that the statue was actually coated by some kind of plaster or lacquer. He removed the coating and there beneath was the beautiful dark green crystal of the Emerald Buddha. So, the Angkor and Chiang Rai origination stories are problematic because how could the Emerald Buddha be in 2 places at the same time? Regardless of how the Emerald Buddha made its way to Thailand, the timeline as to what happened after the Emerald Buddha arrived/appeared is much better documented.

Ha Phreo - Vientiane, Laos (2013)

Ha Phreow – Vientiane, Laos (2013)

At some point around 1450AD, the Emerald Buddha was moved from Chiang Rai (or taken from Ayutthaya depending on which origination story one follows) to Chiang Mai where it stayed until 1551. Chiang Mai was the most important region of the Lanna Kingdom and it was governed by Chao Chaiyasetthathirat who was the son of the Lanna King, Phra Chao Phothisan. King Phothisan resided in Luang Prabang — a city farther north from Chiang Mai in what is today Laos. When King Photisan died, Chaiyasetthathirat had to leave Chiang Mai in order to make the arduous journey to attend his father’s funeral in Luang Prabang. Because he feared a coup or foreign invasion in Chiang Mai while he was gone, he decided to take the Emerald Buddha with him to Luang Prabang. Sure enough, within some days after he left, Burmese forces invaded north Thailand and pushed Chaiyasetthathirat’s armies across the Mekong River where they became cut off from Thailand. Chaiyasetthathirat had to stay in Luang Prabang which became his new capital and many spectacular Buddhist temples with exteriors and interiors painted with unique stencil-like design and patterns were built. However, Chaiyasetthathirat worried about being stuck in Luang Prabang and isolated from the rest of his kingdom, so he decided to move his capital south to Vientiane in the 1560s. Again, he took the Emerald Buddha with him. A gorgeous temple was built in Vientiane for the Emerald Buddha called Ha Phreow. The Emerald Buddha would reside in Ha Phreow for the next two hundred and fifteen years until 1778. Ha Phreow would ultimately be destroyed by Thai forces and rebuilt by the French in 1920s based on old descriptions and sketches of what the temple looked like in the 1560s. In 1778, a Thai general by the name of Chao Phra Chakri stormed across the Mekong River with his army and captured Vientiane. The Emerald Buddha was carried out of Ha Phreow and taken south to Thonburi which was where the Thai King, Taksin, resided. Taksin first placed the Emerald Buddha in a building near the site of Wat Arun. After Taksin’s death, Chao Phra Chakri ascended to the throne and crowned himself Rama I. He moved the site of the Thai capital across the Chao Phraya river to its present location in Bangkok. More importantly, Rama I constructed a temple for the specific purpose of housing the Emerald Buddha. In 1789, this temple which was called Wat Phra Keo (or the “Residence of the Holy Jewel Buddha”) was constructed within the Grand Palace complex where Rama I himself lived. The Emerald Buddha has sat atop a gold and diamond-studded pedestal inside Wat Phra Keo ever since.

Wat Phra Keow

Wat Phra Keo – exterior

Today, the Grand Palace is a big tourist draw and anyone can enter Wat Phra Keo in order to glimpse the Emerald Buddha — although no photos are allowed.  No monks live inside Wat Phra Keo either. At the start of each season (winter, monsoon, and summer) of the Thai year, the current Thai King (King Bhumibol or King Rama IX) performs a ritual that dates back to Rama I. The King will climb up a ladder positioned behind the Emerald Buddha and clean the statue with a cloth. Then, the King will change the attire of the Emerald Buddha based on which season is starting. The Emerald Buddha has 3 different golden garments that reflect each of the 3 seasons. For the winter season, the Emerald Buddha wears a golden frock that covers its entire torso.

Phra Si Ratana

Phra Si Ratana Chedi

There are many things to see in the Grand Palace complex.  The palace itself is a bold, ambitious building – a testament to King Rama I and his vision of a unified Thailand led by a new dynasty sanctioned by the presence of the Emerald Buddha. Within its inner compound where Wat Phra Keo is found, there are a number of stupas, statues, platforms, and other buildings. One interesting structure of note is the Phra Si Ratana Chedi which is a gold stupa built in the 19th century. It is thought to enshrine ashes of the Buddha that were transported to Thailand from Sri Lanka.  Another structure called Phra Mondop has ornate doors and columns. It is referred to as “the library” because it contains old texts of the Tripitaka – one of the earliest canons of the Buddha’s teachings translated from the Pali language. As one passes through this densely packed area, Wat Phra Keo suddenly appears. It is a standalone building and is the clear focal point of the complex. For most Thais, it is the most important and beautiful temple in Thailand. The outside of the building is meticulously bejeweled and glittering. Each side of the temple has its own “gate” of entry that is designated by a special statue or other unique element.

The Laughing Hermit - outside Wat Phra Keow

The Laughing Hermit

On the Western side of the temple, I was startled to see what looked like some jester or clown statue. This bronze statue was almost black in color and was unlike any other statue I had seen in any Buddhist temple grounds before. I was at the entry point of Wat Phra Keo called the “hermit gate” and this strange figure before me was the “laughing hermit” — a Thai saint believed to have healing powers.  I saw a few people stop by this image in order to make offerings in the form of flowers, fruit, and candles.  From here, I walked up a some steps and I entered Wat Phra Keo. Since it was early July, the King had just changed the Emerald Buddha’s garments to reflect the start of the start of the rainy season, so a gold sash covered the statue’s torso.

The ethereal glow of the Emerald Buddha

The ethereal glow of the Emerald Buddha

The Emerald Buddha is illuminated ever so slightly in an otherwise dark room. The effect is that the image appears to float.  Although the image looks like other seated images of the Buddha, many Thai believe the Emerald Buddha is  endowed with special powers such as the ability to perform miracles.  For the first century or so after it was housed in Wat Phra Keo, the Emerald Buddha was actually held aloft and walked by monks through the streets of Bangkok after the outbreaks of diseases, natural disasters, or other bad fortune had hit the people.  The effect of this magical looking green Buddha being carried through Bangkok neighborhoods cannot be overstated. People were cured of ailments and sickness, the waters of the Chao Phraya River quickly receded after large storms had brought floods and destroyed crops, and there was a reinforcement of the harmony between the Chakri King, the Sangha, and the citizenry. The most practical importance of the Emerald Buddha is its connection with the Chakri dynasty — which is nearly 250 years old and is the longest reign of any dynasty in Thailand’s history. This dynasty began with Chao Phra Chakri’s capture of the Emerald Buddha from Vientiane — although he did not become King Rama I until a year later. He built Wat Phra Keo and used the Emerald Buddha as a religio-political tool in order to sanction his rule and that of his heirs.  Even though King Rama IX is a “king only in title” today, he is highly esteemed by the people– almost on par as a religious leader. He is beseeched by his subjects to intervene from time to time in the many deadlocks, coups, and corruption that have plagued the Thai government through the years. He appears to have scaled back such interventions as of late, but it is highly doubtful that he will ever abdicate or give up his role as the primary caretaker of the Emerald Buddha. One of the most widely held beliefs in Thailand is that on the day the Emerald Buddha is taken out of Bangkok, the Chakri dynasty will end. Given the roving nature of the Emerald Buddha over the last millennia, I can’t help but think that there may not be a King Rama X.

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One Response to “The Jewel of the Chao Phraya”

  1. Bgbk May 10, 2017 at 12:15 am #

    MmMm

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