The Wat Phra Kaew (Thai: วัดพระแก้ว, RTGS: Wat Phra Kaeo: Temple of the Emerald Buddha; full official name Wat Phra Si Rattana Satsadaram, Thai: วัดพระศรีรัตนศาสดาราม: is regarded as the most sacred Buddhist temple (wat) in Thailand. It is a "potent religio-political symbol and the palladium of Thai society". It is located in the historic centre of Bangkok (district Phra Nakhon), within the precincts of the Grand Palace.
The main building is the central ubosoth, which houses the statue of Emerald Buddha. The legendary history of this Buddha image is traced to India, five centuries after the Lord Buddha attained Nirvana, till it was finally enshrined in Bangkok at the Wat Phra Kaew temple in 1782 during Rama I’s reign (1782–1809). This marked the beginning and raise of the Chakri Dynasty of the present Kingdom of Thailand (the present head of the dynasty is King Rama IX. The Emerald Buddha, a dark green statue, is in a standing form, about 66 centimetres (26 in) tall, carved from a single jade stone (Emerald in Thai means deep green colour and not the specific stone). It is carved in the meditating posture in the style of the Lanna school of the northern Thailand. Except for the Thai King, no other person is allowed to touch the statue. The King changes the cloak around the statue three times a year, corresponding to the summer, winter, and rainy seasons, an important ritual performed to usher good fortune to the country during each season.
While legend traces this statue to India, its rich historical records dates its finding in Cambodia in the 15th century, moved to Laos in the 16th century and then to Vientiane where it remained for 215 years, and finally to Thailand in the 18th century. Considering the long history and Nagasena's (a Brahmin who became a Buddhist sage and lived about 150 BC) prophesy that the Emerald Buddha would bring "prosperity and pre-eminence to each country in which it resides", the Emerald Buddha deified in the Wat Phra Kaew is deeply revered and venerated in Thailand as the protector of the country.
The earliest legend narrated to the ionic emerald image of the Buddha is that of Nagasena, a saint in India who with the help of Hindu god, Vishnu and demigod Indra got the Emerald Buddha image made, 500 years after Buddha attained Nirvana, from the precious stone of Emerald. Nagasena had, with his psychic powers predicted then that:
The image of the Buddha is assuredly going to give to religion the most brilliant importance in five lands, that is in Lankadvipa (Sri Lanka), Ramalakka, Dvaravati, Chieng Mai and Lan Chang (Laos).
As regards the historical legend of What Phra Kaew, it was originally known as the "Wat Pa Yia", (Bamboo Forest Monastery) in the Chiang Rai province of Northern Thailand. The What was struck by a lightning storm in 1434, when the octagonal Chedi broke up and revealed the Emerald Buddha (made of Jade), locally known as Phra Kaew Morakot. From there it was moved, initially to Vientianne and finally to Bangkok where it was deified in the temple by the original name, What Phra Kaew.
Another legend mentions that attempts made by the King of Chiang Mai to possess the statue after it was found in 1434; these failed thrice because the elephants transporting the statue refused to proceed beyond a crossroad in Lampang. The King of Chiang Mai considered the incident to be a strong divine directive and allowed the Buddha statue to remain in Lampang, where it remained for the next 32 years in an exclusively built temple.
The Emerald Buddha statue originated in India as explained in the legend, but it is also linked to first vassal Kingdom of Cambodia. The image disappeared when Burmese raiders sacked Ayuttaya also spelt "Ayudaya" and the image was feared lost.
Continuing with the legend of the saint Nagasena of India, after remaining in Pataliputra (present day Patna) for three hundred years, the Emerald Buddha image was taken to Sri Lanka to save it from a civil war. In 457, King Anuruth of Burma sent a mission to Ceylon with a request for Buddhist scriptures and the Emerald Buddha, in order to promote Buddhism in his country. These requests were granted, but the ship lost its way in a storm during the return voyage and landed in Cambodia. When the Thais captured Angkor Wat in 1432 (following the ravage of the bubonic plague), the Emerald Buddha was taken to Ayutthaya, Kamphaeng Phet, Laos and finally Chiang Rai, where the ruler of the city hid it. Cambodian historians recorded capture of the Buddha statue in their famous Preah Ko Preah Keo legend.
Phibun Songkran, a World War II hero of Thailand, the Prime Minister, Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces in 1941 had signed a formal treaty of alliance between the two Buddhist countries of Thailand and Japan in the divine presence of the Emerald Buddha in the wat. He had royal ambitions of shifting the capital from Bangkok to his home town Petchaboon along with the Emerald Buddha. He later gave up his plan under public pressure and also fear of bombing during the war.
However, there are also claims that the statue was originally in Sri Lanka. Art historians of Thailand claim that it was cast in the 14th century in Thailand only. All these theories are discounted on the grounds that none of the historians could get a close look at the statue.
Wat Phra Kaeo has a plethora of buildings within the precincts of the Grand Palace, which covers a total area of over 94.5 hectares (234 acres). It has over 100 buildings with “200 years royal history and architectural experimentation” linked to it. The architectural style is named as Rattanakosin style (old Bangkok style). The main temple of the Emerald Buddha is very elegantly decorated and similar to the temple in ancient capital of Ayudhya. The roof is embellished with polished orange and green tiles, the pillars are inlaid in mosaic and the pediments are made of rich marble. The Emerald Buddha is deified over an elevated altar surrounded by large gilded decorations. While the upper part of this altar was part of the original construction, the base was added by King Rama III. Two images of the Buddha, which represent the first two kings of the Chakri dynasty, flank the main image. Over the years, the temple has retained its original design. However, minor improvements have been effected after its first erection during Rama I's reign; wood-work of the temple was replaced by King Rama III and King Chulalongkorn; during King Mongkut's reign, the elegant doors and windows and the copper plates on the floor were additions, Rama III refurbished the wall painting (indicative of the universe according to Buddhist cosmology) and several frescoes that display the various stages of the Buddha's life; three chambers were added on the western side by King Mongkut; in the chamber known as 'Phra Kromanusorn' at the northern end, images of Buddha have been installed in honour of the kings of Ayudya; and in the 19th century, In Khong, a famous painter executed the wall murals. The entry to the temple is from the third gate from the river pier.
The entrance is guarded by a pair of yakshis (mythical giants – 5 metres (16 ft) high statues). The eponymous image Buddha in brilliant green colour is 66 centimetres (26 in) in height with a lap width of 48.3 centimetres (19.0 in). It is carved in a yogic position, known as Virasana (a meditation pose commonly seen in images in Thailand and also in South India, Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia). The pedestal on which the Emerald Buddha deified is decorated with Garuda (the mythical half-man half-bird form, a steed of Rama, who holds his mortal enemy Naga the serpent in his legs) motifs It is central to Thai Buddhism. The image made with a circular base has a smooth top-knot that is finished with a "dulled point marking at the top of the image". A third eye made in gold is inset over the elevated eyebrows of the image. The image appears divine and composed, with the eyes cast downward. The image has a small nose and mouth (mouth closed) and elongated ears. The hands are seen on the lap with palms facing upwards.
The entire complex, including the temples, is bounded by a compound wall which is one of the most prominent part of the wat is about 2 kilometres (6,600 ft) length. The compound walls are decorated with typically Thai murals, based on the Indian epic Ramayana. In Thai language these murals are known to form the Ramakian, the Thai national epic, which was written during the reign of Rama I. The epic stories formed the basic information to draw the paintings during the reign of King Rama I (1782–1809). These paintings are refurbished regularly. The murals, in 178 scenes, starting with the north gate of the temple illustrates the complete epic story of Ramayana sequentially, in a clockwise direction covering the entire compound wall. The murals serve to emphasise human values of honesty, faith, and devotion.
There are twelve salas that were built by Rama I, around the temple. They house interesting artefacts of regions such as Cambodia and Java. One of these salas had an inscription of Ramkamhaeng, which was shifted, in 1924, to the National Library. During the reign of King Mongkut, the Phra Gandharara – small chapel on the southwest corner – and a tall belfry were new additions.
Worship and ceremonies
Early in the Bangkok period, the Emerald Buddha used to be taken out of its temple and paraded in the streets to relieve the city and countryside of various calamities (such as plague and cholera). However, this practice was discontinued during Rama IV's reign as it was feared that the image could get damaged during the procession and also a practical line of thinking that Rama IV held "that diseases are caused by germs, not by evil spirits or the displeasure of the Buddha". The image also marks the changing of the seasons in Thailand, with the king presiding over the seasonal ceremonies.
Like many other Buddha statues in Thailand, the Emerald Buddha is dressed in a seasonal costume. It is a significant ritual held at this temple. In this ritual, dress of the deity is changed three times a year to correspond to the seasons. In summer it is a pointed crown of gold and jewels, and a set of jewelled ornaments that adorns the image from the shoulders to the ankles. In winter, a meshed dressing gown or drapery made of gold beads, which covered from the neck down like a poncho is used. During the rainy months, a top-knot headdress studded with gold, enamel and sapphires; the gold attire in the rainy season is draped over the left shoulder of the deity, only with the right shoulder left bare while gold ornaments embellish the image up to the ankles. The astrological dates for the ritual ceremonies, at the changing of the seasons, followed are in the 1st Waning Moon of Lunar Months 4, 8 and 12 (around March, July and November). The costume change ritual is performed by the Thai king who is the highest master of ceremonies for all Buddhist rites. On each occasion, the king himself "cleans the image by wiping away any dust that has collected and changing the headdress of the image". Then a king's royal attendant climbs up and performs the elaborate ritual of changing garments of the image as the king is chanting prayers to the deity. On this occasion, the king sprinkles water over the monks and the faithful who have assembled to witness the unique ritual and seeks blessings of the deity for good fortune during the upcoming season. The two sets of clothing not in use at any given time are kept on display in the nearby "Pavilion of Regalia, Royal Decorations and Thai Coins" in the precincts of the Grand Palace. While Rama I initiated this ritual for the hot season and the rainy season, Rama III introduced the ritual for the winter season.The robes, which the image adorns, represents that of monks and King's depending on the season, a clear indication of highlighting its symbolic role "as Buddha and the King", which role is also enjoined on the Thai King who formally dresses the Emerald Buddha image.
A ceremony that is observed in the wat is the Chakri Day (begun on April 6, 1782), a national holiday to honour founding of the Chakri dynasty. On this day, the king attends the ceremony. The present king Rama IX, with his Queen, and entourage of the royal family, the Prime Minister, officials in the Ministry of Defence, and other government departments, first offer prayers at the Emerald Buddha temple. This is followed by visit to the pantheon to pay homage to the images of past Chakri rulers that are installed there.
The coronation ceremony, which marks the crowning of the king, is an important event of the Chakri dynasty. One such recent event took place when the present Rama IX was crowned the King. On this occasion, the King came to the Chapel Royal- the Wat Phra Keo – in a procession wearing a 'Great Crown'. After entering the chapel, the king made offerings of gold and silver flowers to the deity and also lighted candles. He also paid homage to the images of Buddha that represented the past kings of the dynasty. In the presence of assembled elite clergy of the kingdom, he took a formal vow of his religion and his steadfastness to 'Defend the Faith'.
Rules of entry and conduct
The sacred temples in Thailand follow a dress code, which is strictly followed. Men must wear long pants and long-sleeved shirts and shoes; women must wear long skirts. Visitors who arrive dressed otherwise may rent appropriate clothing items at the entry area of the temple. It is compulsory to remove the shoes before entering the temple, as a sign of respect of the Buddha, as is the practice in all other temples in Thailand. While offering prayers before the Buddha image, the sitting posture should avoid any offensive stretching of feet towards the deity; the feet should be tucked in towards the back.
While the surrounding portico of the shrine is an example of Thai craftsmanship, the perimeter of the temple complex has 12 open pavilions. These were built during the reign of Rama I.There is plethora of monuments in the temple complex. These are:
The former residence of the King, the Grand Palace, adjoins the temple. The King makes use of this Grand Palace for ceremonial functions such as the Coronation Day. The King’s present residence is to the north of this Grand Palace and is known as the Chitlada Palace. The four structures surrounding the temple have history of their own. At the eastern end is the Borombhiman Hall (built in French architectural design), which was the residence of King Rama VI, now used as guest house for visiting foreign dignitaries. It has the dubious distinction of having been used as the operational headquarters and residence of General Chitpatima who attempted a coup, in 1981. The building to the west is the Amarindra hall, earlier a hall of Justice, now used for formal ceremonies. The Chakri Mahaprasat is the largest hall in the Grand Palace, built in 1882 by British architects, the architecture of which is fusion of Italian renaissance and Traditional Thai architecture. This style is called farang sai chadaa, (meaning: "Western in a Thai crown") as each wing has a shrine (mandap) crowned by a spire. Ashes of the Chakri kings (five ancestors) are enshrined in the largest of these shrines, also known as the pantheons, that were rebuilt after a fire in 1903 during Rama IV's reign. Ashes of the Chakri princess who could not become kings are enshrined in an adjoining hall. The throne room and the reception hall are on the first floor, while the ground floor houses a collection of weapons. The inner palace had the King’s harem (the practice was discontinued during King Rama VI's time who decreed the one wife rule), which was guarded by well trained female guards. Another hall in the palace is the 'Duist hall' in Ratanokosin-style, which runs from east to west, which was initially an audience hall but now converted into a funerary hall for the Royal family. Royal family corpses are kept here for one year before they are cremated in a nearby field. There is also a garden which was laid during rama IV's reign. The garden depicts a "Thai mountain-and-woods-fable" mountain scenes where the coming of age ritual of shaving the topknot of the Prince is performed.
The temple grounds also depict three pagodas to its immediate north, which represent the changing centres of Buddhist influence. One such shrine to the west of the temple is the Phra Si Ratana Chedi, a 19th-century stupa built in Sri Lankan style enshrining ashes of the Buddha.
Rama I also built a library in Thai style, in the middle of the complex, known as the "Phra Mondop". The library houses an elegantly carved Ayutthaya-style mother-of-pearl doors, bookcases with the Tripitaka (sacred Buddhist manuscripts), human-and dragon-headed nagas (snakes), and images of Chakri kings.
During the 19th century, the Royal Pantheon was built in Khmer style to the east of the temple, which is kept open for only one day in year, in the month of October to commemorate the founding of the Chakri dynasty.
Model of Angkor Wat
The temple complex also contains a model of Angkor Wat (the most sacred of all Cambodian shrines), that was started by King Mongkut and completed by King Nangklao (Rama III), as the memorial of Angkor Wat and Kingdom of Cambodia that have been occupied by Siam for many hundred years until the colonization of Kingdom of Cambodia by France .
A hermit's bronze image, which is believed to have healing powers, is installed in a sala on the western side of the temple. It is near the entry gate. It is a black stone statue, considered a patron of medicine, before which relatives of the sick and infirm pay respects and make offerings of joss sticks, fruit, flowers, and candles.
On the eastern side of the temple premises there are nine towers. They were erected during the reign of Rama I. Each tower is affixed with glazed tiles, with different colours for each tower, supposed to denote colours of the nine planets.
Statues of elephants, which symbolize independence and power, are seen all around the complex. As Thai kings fought wars mounted on elephants, it has become customary for parents to make their children circumambulate the elephant three times with the belief that that it would bring them strength. The head of an elephant statue is also rubbed for good luck; this act of the people is reflected in the smoothness of the surface of elephant statues here.