Tuesday, April 11, 2017

The Last Restorations of Classic Chiang Mai

                                                     by Jim Goodman

Sriphum Corner, 1989

Sriphum Corner today
       In 1996 Chiang Mai celebrated its 700th anniversary.  In preparation for this event the city renovated the five gates around its old town, added sections of the former walls that were demolished, along with the city gates, during the Japanese occupation in World War II, and improved the condition of the four original bastions, which had not been torn down, that stood at each corner of the city.  It also renovated a few of its most famous temples for the occasion.
       However, this process did not extend to all of Old Chiang Mai’s notable temples.  Chiang Mai became the new capital of the independent Kingdom of Lanna in 1296 and retained that role until conquered by Burma in 1558.  While Burmese governors did sometimes sponsor temple construction in the city, thereby ingratiating themselves with the natives, the temples most important religiously and politically to the former regime were ignored and even abandoned. 
       In 1774 King Kawila of Lampang, allied with King Taksin of Siam, expelled the Burmese occupiers, but then removed the remaining population and abandoned the city.  After campaigns to drive the Burmese out of northern Thailand entirely and raids on northeast Burma to kidnap people and resettle them in Lanna, Kawila began reconstructing Chiang Mai and officially re-established the city in 1796, five hundred years after its original foundation. 
       Kawila oversaw the restoration of the most important Lanna temples, like Phra Singh, Chedi Luang and Wat Chiang Man, today’s most popular tourist attractions, but others were left in dilapidated condition or, except for the original chedi, left in ruins, their other buildings pilfered for construction elsewhere.  In some cases this situation remained even until after the 700th anniversary.
Wat Inthakin
       In the 21st century, in response to both the spurt in tourism, foreign and domestic, and increasing awareness and pride in its cultural heritage, city authorities began targeting the last long-neglected monuments for renovation.   Among these was Wat Inthakin, in the north central part of the old town, which was actually the first religious building erected in the city during its original construction in the 1290s.  It housed the City Pillar, its palladium, which, unlike other city pillars in Thailand, was a standing Buddha image.  (Kawila later removed it to a separate shrine in Wat Chedi Luang.)
       With its limited function, Wat Inthakin was not a monastery and consists only of its main worship hall (viharn), a couple of old chedis to its rear and another across the street.  The elegant, restored viharn has a two-tiered, nearly black roof, with gilded edges and gilded embellishments in the front, rendering it one of the most beautiful buildings in the city.
museum mural of daily life in the 15th century
       Next to Wat Inthakin is a museum dedicated to the life and times of King Tilokarat, who reigned 1441-1487, considered Lanna’s Golden Age.  Tilokarat expanded the kingdom’s territory in all directions, which is shown on a map inside, and was also a great promoter of Buddhism.  The museum exhibits include wall murals depicting scenes of the daily life of the commoners, like weaving, cooking, carrying water and dancing, as well as elephants going off to war.  Elsewhere there are statues of the king in his court, models of events in his reign, warriors with their weapons and famous monks of the times.  Altogether, the Inthakin Museum gives a well-rounded picture of everyday life in Lanna’s Golden Age, from daily chores to royal spectacles, and even the 15th century style of punishing criminals.
Chedi Plong
       This century’s renovations also included sites in the suburbs outside the old walled city.  Haiya, the neighborhood adjacent to the old town’s southern moat, was home to commoners, particularly crafts workers, who were not permitted to live within the city proper.  An earthen wall surrounded the area and residents had their own chedis and temples.  
       Suriyawong Road, directly south of Chiang Mai Gate, hosts a few of these, including a lone brick chedi in the Sukhothai style and a couple of temple compounds.  The further of these, Wat Yang Kuang, features a recently restored chedi.  Rising from an octagonal base, except for its gilded crown at the very top, it is all white, making it look almost like a modern creation.
       In contrast, the restored Chedi Plong at Wat Chiang Chom, north of the old town near Sri Wattana market, retains its original brick structure and unusual circular shape.  The adjoining temple compound is all newly rebuilt, and the Buddha image at the base of the chedi is recent, but the chedi itself is basically the original one, with a shape unique to the city and representative of the great variety of chedi styles erected in Old Chiang Mai.
the gutters and chedi at Wat Jedlin
       Within the old city, the most important renovation was that of Wat Jedlin, on Phrapokllao Road, south of the city center.  It was one of those temples abandoned during the Burmese occupation, not re-established by Kawila or anyone since, including the committee assigned to preparing Chiang Mai for its 700th anniversary.  It was originally the site for the coronation of King Kae Mu, the last monarch of independent Lanna.  Until 2004, all that remained of the wat was its chedi and a large Buddha head on a platform next to a pipal tree.  Behind it was a swamp.
       The renovation program began with enclosing the compound with a wall and erecting an elaborate brick and stucco entrance gate on Phrapokklao Road.  Unfortunately, appreciation of this is marred by the presence of a jumble of wires attached to a concrete pillar beside it.  Visitors usually go in through the wider vehicle entrance to its left.   The new, triple-roofed viharn is just behind the entrance gate. Inside in front of the altar are a few very realistic statues of the temple’s most famous monks, along with a Chinese Buddha in the front, a Burmese one in the middle and a large Lanna-style Buddha in the back.
antique Buddha head, Wat Jedlin
the praying skeleton
       The antique Buddha head in the courtyard next to the viharn has also been restored, with a concrete nose and left eye.  A small altar behind it features a mock skeleton dressed in a white suit.  When people drop a donation into the box beside it, the skeleton bows forward with hands folded and recites a prayer.
       Right behind the viharn is the original chedi, dating back to at least the 16th century.  On the lowest tier of the base sit a row of nine round stone balls.  Called luknimit in Thai, these stones are ordinarily buried in the ground to mark the boundary of the temple when it is first built or undergoes restoration.  If they are out in public it indicates a reconstruction or renovation is being planned though that may be a long way off yet.  Meanwhile devotees come to make merit by adorning the stones with wafers of gold leaf.  On the day of the luknimits’ ceremonial burial, people come to add to that burial objects that symbolize their desires in the same hole as the luknimits:  notebooks and pencils to improve their memories, needles to sharpen their brains and threads to represent a continuous line of progress in their lives.
symbolic animal, Wat Jedlin
       Wat Jedlin mean the Temple of the Seven Gutters, or Troughs, that have been mounted once again next to the chedi.  In classical times the king allegedly sat at the end of these gutters for a ceremonial cleansing bath.  Nowadays a Buddha image sits at the end of the gutters, bathed during major festivals.
       The swamp behind the chedi has been cleaned up and reduced to an attractive pond.  A rickety bamboo bridge spans it, with rest stops along the way, and ends at the monks’ quarters on the other side.  Visitors can enroll in a session of Monk Chat, also offered at other Chiang Mai temples, and converse with English-speaking monks about Buddhism, monastic life or anything else.
       The monks are from the immediate neighborhood, for the restoration of Wat Jedlin went beyond historical reconstruction to revival of an institution.  An example of its new neighborhood relevance is the contribution to the compound of a new symbolic sculpture of a strange black and white animal with four ears and five eyes, mounted next to the old Buddha head.  A poster next to it explains that the creature represents Buddhist precepts. The four ears represent the four virtues of loving kindness, compassion, empathy and equanimity.  The five eyes stand for the five taboos against killing, stealing, unlawful sex, harmful speech and using intoxicants.
pond in front of Wat Jedlin's monks' quarters
       The other major temple restoration, actually completed before that of Wat Jedlin, was of Wat Lokmolee, just outside the old city moat on its northwest side.  King Ku Na, the 6th monarch of the Mengrai Dynasty, who ruled 1367-1388, established the site as a residence for ten Burmese monks he invited to live in Lanna.  Its importance rose in 1527 with the construction of a viharn and the second tallest chedi in Chiang Mai, after the one at Wat Chedi Luang.  From then on it was known as Wat Lokmolee, the Topknot of the World.
       This was also the year Lanna’s Golden Age ended and the kingdom began its decline.  King Ket Chettharat, who had just come to power, was a weak ruler who alienated his court officials, who deposed him in 1538.  But his son proved an even worse ruler and these same officials deposed and executed him in 1543 and restored Ket Chettharat.  Two years later he also suffered assassination and his daughter Chiraprapha became Queen Regent. 
       Two weeks after her accession a major earthquake struck Chiang Mai and toppled the towering chedi at Wat Chedi Luang.  Shortly afterwards Ayutthaya invaded Lanna.  Unable to raise enough troops from the other parts of the country, perhaps because she was a woman, she had to agree to Ayutthaya’s terms.  When Ayutthaya attacked again the following year her forces defeated them.
the viharn's front entrance
the viharn's side entrance
       Then she abdicated in favor of her son Sethathirat, who ruled just one year and then moved to Luang Phabang to become king there, taking the Emerald Buddha of Chiang Mai with him.  Lanna’s misfortune continued as the country was without a king at all for three years.  Finally, Mae Ku mounted the throne, but wasted the country’s resources on inconclusive border wars.  In 1558 King Bayinnaung of Pegu captured the city after only token resistance. 
       Mae Ku served as a vassal ruler until deposed and exiled to Burma in 1564.  His wife succeeded him in the role as Queen Wisuttha Thewi until her death in 1578.  From then on the Burmese installed their own sovereigns.  Wat Lokmolee lost its royal patronage.  Its chedi housed the remains of the murdered Ket Chettharat, probably those of Chiraprapha and for certain those of Wisuttha Thewi.  But it was no longer an active temple.  Its neglected buildings, except for the chedi, which remained in place right down to the 21st century, fell into ruin and eventually people removed the bricks and timber. 
Phya Phom, the god with four heads
roof decorations on the viharn
       Reconstruction began in 2003 by walling off the compound, erecting a tall, ornate entrance gate and building a new viharn in the classic Lanna style with a triple roof of dark tiles.  Tall, carved staffs, with portraits of the twelve calendar animals, flank the front and side entrances.  Carved plaques depicting scenes from Buddhist mythology grace the interior walls and the space above the entrance.  The interior features a massive seated Buddha, decorated walls and a ceiling painted with floral and geometric designs and a scene from the Buddha’s life.
       Besides the monks’ quarters, the temple’s renovation included the addition of features not part of the original compound.  Now there are statues of Phra Phom, the four-headed Thai equivalent of the Hindu Creator God Brahma, a multi-armed bodhisattva Guan Yin, the Mahayana Buddhist goddess of compassion, and a reclining Ganesh, the elephant-headed son of Shiva.
       In front of the chedi is a rope pulley, for a bamboo tube attached to a gilded, dragon-headed bird.  Devotees fill the tube with water and then pull it on the rope high up on the chedi.  At the end it dumps the water to splash on one of the Buddha images on a tier of the chedi, an act of merit for Thai Buddhists.
statue of Queen Chiraprapha
devotional water tube at the chedi
       The most notable addition, though, is the shrine to Queen Chiraprapha just inside the compound.  The bronze sculpture dates its creation to 2003, the year of the temple’s reconstruction, and is the only reminder of her historical existence in the city.  She ruled Lanna only about a year and a half and the circumstances of her abdication, and what happened to her afterwards, remain undocumented and unclear.
       Yet the shrine has become popular among Chiang Mai women and fresh flowers and offerings mark the site every day.  After all, she was independent Lanna’s only queen, obviously installed after her father’s deposition because she was qualified, She abdicated after defeating and inflicting great losses on Ayutthaya’s second invasion, so one could say she retired in triumph.  All those factors make her, in the minds of Chiang Mai’s female devotees, worthy of veneration.
the restored Wat Lokmolee

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