Friday, December 21, 2018

Ninh Thuận, Vietnam: the Chăm Who Stayed

                                                             by Jim Goodman

King Pôrômê as an incarnation of Shiva
       After the indigenous Vietnamese themselves, and the Chinese who conquered and administered them for over a thousand years, the most important players in the country’s history were the Chăm kingdoms in central Vietnam.  For much of its history Vietnam was divided into three distinct parts; geographically, culturally and politically.  The northern third was Vietnamese, the Mekong Delta was Khmer and the narrow strip between the mountains and the sea in central Vietnam was Châm.
       An Austronesian people who began migrating into Vietnam from the 3rd century, the Chăm eventually established five different states along the coast.  The northernmost Chăm got involved with raids on Vietnamese settlements even while the Chinese were still there.  After Vietnam won back its independence it responded to a new wave of assaults by attacking and destroying the capitals of the states that sponsored them, extending its own frontiers to the Hi Văn Pass above contemporary Đà Nng. 
Ninh Thuận Chăm dancers in Nha Trang
       The Chăm inhabitants fled further south to Vijaya, a still strong Chăm kingdom with its capital near present-day Quy Nhơn.  For the next few centuries Vijaya was involved in wars with the Khmer, the Mongols and the Vietnamese.  They beat the Mongols as allies of the Vietnamese, but afterwards resumed hostilities and in the late 14th century sacked the Vietnamese capital three times.
       The next century, though, Đăi Việt, as the nation was known, had a new dynasty. Its greatest king, Lê Thánh Tông, responded to a new set of Chăm provocations by leading his armed forces down to Vijaya and conquering it in 1472 and obliterating its existence.  Most of Vijaya’s soldiers died or were captured.  The civilians scattered to the hills of today’s Phú Yên province or further south to the last two Chăm kingdoms in Kauthara, now Nha Trang, and Panduranga, in Ninh Thuận province. 
weaver on the backstrap loom, Mỹ Nghiệp
       The Chăm were both farmers and seafarers and among the latter many converted to Islam.  Kauthara was about equally divided between them.  Violent faction fights broke out in the early 17th century, only quelled when an ethnic Churu chieftain became King Pôrômê of Panduranga and used his army to put down the fighting in 1627.  Kauthara later launched another invasion of Phú Yên in 1651, attempting to annex it while Đai Việt was busy with its own civil conflicts in the Red River Delta.  But the Chăm had once again underestimated their foe and a vigorous Vietnamese counter-attack took the capital and put an end to the kingdom.  
       Kauthara’s population all fled.  The capita city was deserted.  The Muslim Chăm went to Cambodia, Indonesia and Siam.  Hindu Chăm moved south to Panduranga, the last Chăm state outside Đai Việt’s borders.  It was never as rich or as martial as the others.  Ninh Thuận and BìnhThuận, the next province south, are the most arid places in Vietnam.  Panduranga was far from the Chăm-Vietnamese conflict zones and mostly stayed out of Vihaya’s wars.  It did, however, in the 12th century, attack and drive out Angkor’s Khmer army from Vijaya. 
weaving from the side on an upright Chăm loom
ancient style image on a Bầu Trúc vase
       After Đai Việt’s annexation of Kauthara, Panduranga became the last bastion of Chăm political control, culture and arts.  Its ruler King Pôrômê had just been caught in a skirmish around Kauthara and killed during the Vietnamese assault on Kauthara.  The victorious Vietnamese of the Nguyễn Lords’ realm then installed a couple successive client kings while they turned their attention north with an attack on the territory of their rival Trịnh Lords.
Hòa Lai towers
       Meanwhile, a local lord named Pô Sot took Panduranga’s throne in 1657 and for the next 35 years the frontiers were quiet and relations with Đai Việt peaceful.  But in 1692 Pô Sot ordered his army to seize Kauthara, hoping to incorporate it back into Panduranga.  The new young Nguyễn Lord Nguyến Phúc Chu sent military forces down that repelled the invasion, seized Panduranga’s territory and announced its annexation.  The following year a plague broke out in Panduranga, killing Pô Sot, whose younger brother Pô Saktiray succeeded and then organized a revolt that drove out the Vietnamese. 
       The Nguyễn Court opted to make a deal.  It canceled outright annexation.  Chăm rulers would be vassals of the Nguyễn Lords, but have full authority over Chăm residents of the state.  Resident Vietnamese officials would oversee state policies and be in charge of Vietnamese settlers.  Reconfirmed twenty years later, the agreement remained in force until Emperor Minh Mạng abrogated it in 1832. 
carvings on Hòa Lai's North Tower
       Vietnamese settlers who moved into Panduranga did not displace the local Chăm but instead cleared unoccupied land.  Unlike the fall of Kauthara and other Chăm states further north, no mass dispersal of the indigenous population took place.  Descendants of Panduranga’s 17th century inhabitants are still living in Ninh Thuân and Bình Thuận provinces, as well as in the hills of Phú Yên.  They are a minority there and the entire population of the Chăm in Vietnam today is only around 165,000, including the Muslim Chăm in the Mekong Delta, mostly around Chău Đốc. 
       Yet Chăm culture has continued, both that of the majority Hindu Brahmin Chăm and the smaller Muslim community the Bani Chăm.  While not every ancient tradition and practice has survived, the core elements have.  The Brahmin Chăm still venerate the Hindu deities, as well as their own mother-goddess Po Nagar and various nature spirits.  The Bani Chăm follow a less strict form of Islam, do not read Arabic and so do not study the Koran, and only their priests observe the Ramadan fast.  They have retained their pre-Islamic veneration of spirits associated with natural elements like the rain, the mountains and the sea, and sometimes join with the Brahmin Chăm in agricultural rituals, such as the Rain-Praying Festival at the beginning of the Chăm year.
warrior carving, Hòa Lai North Tower
entrance tower, Poklong Garai

      Both Brahmin and Bani Chăm are matrilineal and this is the primary distinction between them and their Vietnamese neighbors.  This system was so infuriating to the Lê Court’s Confucian kings and mandarins that it banned marriage between Vietnamese males and Chăm females.  In the Chăm’s matrilineal system, of course, the husband goes to life with his wife’s family and the inheritance goes from mother to daughter.  The rites of passage for girls in adolescence is a much grander ceremony than the equivalent one for boys, even among the Bani Chăm, where the boys’ rite involves circumcision.
Poklong Garai temple complex
       Among the other ancient customs still practiced by the Brahmin Chăm are the funeral rites.  Cremation is the mode and the manner and associated rituals are the same as those in the Indian Hindu heartland, except at the conclusion.  The Chăm cut nine pieces of bone from the forehead of the corpse and place them in a metal box.  After the fire has consumed the corpse and the ashes have been thrown in the river, the mourning family takes the box with the forehead bone pieces back to the village cemetery and ritually deposits it under a stone stele called kút in the Chăm language.
       Most Chăm are farmers and live in houses indistinguishable from those of their Vietnamese neighbors.  Both men and women wear headscarves, though the emerging generation seems to eschew this custom.  Besides basic agricultural activity, a couple villages still maintain their traditional crafts.
       A little south of Phan Rang, the provincial capital, is Mỹ Nghiệp. a village specializing in weaving.  Women here use two kinds of looms.  With the backstrap loom (̣a.k.a. loin loom), which can be tied to any post, tree, bench or even the rear of a parked tractor-trailer, they sit on the ground or floor and weave cloth about 50 centimeters wide and of variable length.  Afterwards they stitch two lengths together to make the final product wide enough for blankets or curtains.
the face of King Poklong Garai
mini-towers on the upper tiers
       The other is a narrow standing loom, about 2-3 meters long, which the weaver operates by sitting to the side of it rather than behind.  This they use to make narrow strips of cloth for belts, sashes, headscarves, etc. 
       Between Mỹ Nghiệp and Phan Rang is the ceramics specialty village Bầu Trúc.  On most any day one can see lines of freshly made pots drying in the yards.  Most of the production is for everyday use, so rather plain and ordinary.  But shops also sell more decorative items, with some artistic flair, from miniature models of Chăm towers to vases embossed with relief figures of Chăm goddesses.
Dancing Shiva at Poklong Garai
       In the vicinity of Phan Rang, three sets of ruins from the heyday of historic Pandurang still stand, all in relatively good condition. The oldest, built in the 9th century and standing next to Highway 1A 14 km north of Phan Rang, is Hòa Lai.  Originally it consisted of three towers, but during the American War one was bombed to smithereens.  Of the remaining two, the south tower has lost some of its decorations, but the northern one is practically intact.  The arches over the entrance and false doors feature carvings of vegetation, while low-relief sculptures of warriors, mythical animals and the head of an elephant adorn the exterior walls.
       Local Chăm people believe the Khmer built the Hòa Lai towers, though Western researchers found no evidence to support this belief and consider them early Chăm creations.  Nevertheless, the Chăm do not revere them and hold no ceremonies there.  The other two, however, Poklong Garai and Tháp Pôrômê, see frequent devotee visits and are the venues for the late summer Ka Te Festival, the most important event in the Chăm calendar.
       Poklong Garai, built in the 13th century, sits on a mound called Betal Hill, five km northwest of Phan Rang.  It is the best preserved of all Chăm relics.  It is named after a Chăm king who ruled from 1151-1206.  He was a real person, but the details of his life have been mixed with legends.  He promoted irrigation works across his semi-arid kingdom and is even more famous for the way he dealt with a Khmer invasion by challenging them to a tower building contest.  The Chăm won and the Khmer went home.
Brahmins at prayer, Chăm Culture Museum painting
       People believe that the largest of the three towers was the one built to win the contest, or at least the model for it.  But records say the complex went up in the reign of Chê Mân in the late 13th century.  By then Poklong Garai had become a Chăm protective deity and within the main tower the central worship object is a lingam with the face of the king.
       The main tower, with three tiers, rises over twenty meters from a square base ten meters per side. At the corners of the upper tiers are tiered mini-towers with tops shaped liked bulbs and terracotta leaves protruding from their corners.  It’s a much more ornate building than the Hòa Lai towers.  Over the entrance is a stone Dancing Shiva, one of the finest examples of Chăm sculptural art.  Small figures of devotees also sit in niches of the upper walls. 
       The entrance tower, about a third as high, in the same style but not as well decorated, stands east of the main tower.  In between them is the mandap, a rituals building on a rectangular base and with a saddle-shaped roof.  In the lot below the hill the Chăm Culture Museum features exhibits of handicrafts like textiles and pottery, musical instruments, swords, daggers, ritual items and men’s and women’s clothing.  Photographs of various cultural activities, and paintings depicting the past, compete the displays
playing the Chăm type of clarinet
Ka Te Festival, Chăm Culture Museum painting
      In a rural area about fifteen km southwest of Phan Rang is the province’s third Chăm relic—Pôrômê Tower.  Also atop a small hill, this 17th century monument, dedicated to the deified King Pôrômê, was the last brick tower the Chăm constructed.  It follows the Poklong Garai style, but is only eight meters high and less ornate. Around the mini-towers, though, are a few carvings of devotees in prayer and bulls looking skyward.
       Inside the tower is a stele bearing the image of a multi-armed King Pôrômê and beside it a smaller half-body stone image of one of his wives. Another wife image stands outside.  Pôrômê also was known for great irrigation projects and the main ditch built in his reign is still in use.  At the mid-April New Year, local Chăm perform the rituals devised during its construction and then carry out its renovation.
the upper tier of Pôrômê Tower
staircase to Pôrômê Tower
       At both Pôrômê and Poklong Garai the major annual event, held for three days late October, is the Ka Te Festival.  Nearer to Phan Rang and accessible via a good road, Poklong Garai draws bigger crowds, but at both places the essentials are the same.  The first day Brahmin priests perform a variety of rituals and bathe and clothe the images in the towers.  Then the people return home for ancestral rites, followed by three days of feasting, singing and dancing. 
       Chăm power and glory have long vanished.  But Ka Te draws more celebrants every year.  The obvious conclusion is that Chăm culture, traditions and customs, and above all Chăm consciousness, continue unabated right through modern times.

top of the main tower at Poklong Garai

                                                                             * * *            

Phan Rang and its Chăm relics are part of the three-week historical-cultural journey of Delta Tours Vietnam.  See the itinerary at 

Thursday, December 6, 2018

The Cult of Chamadevi, Queen of Ancient Lamphun

                                 by Jim Goodman

devotees at the altar of Chamadevi in the park
       Men have been the movers and shakers of historical events almost everywhere in Thailand.  The notable exception is Lamphun, the oldest city in northern Thailand, supposedly founded in the 7th century, where the first ruler was a remarkable woman named Chamadevi.  Historians differ on the dates, but none dispute her existence and her role in the foundation of Haripunchai, as Lamphun was first known.  But there are no extant contemporary accounts and the chronicles about the period were all written long after King Mengrai of Lanna conquered the city in 1281.
       Chamadevi was a Mon princess from Lawo (today’s Lopburi), one of several allied Mon city-states in central Thailand in the 7th century.  Invited to rule the newly established city of Haripunchai, she brought along 500 monks, as well as scholars and skilled artisans, with the intent to make Haripuuchai a new Lawo and a successful northward extension of Mon civilization.  She subdued the indigenous Lawa people and established Theravada Buddhism as the state religion.
Chamadevi setting out from Lawo, from a mural in Wat Prayeun
       This much of her story is certain.  It’s the details that have been embellished.  Writing centuries after the events, the chroniclers probably relied on the oral accounts of local residents.  And they uncritically recorded everything they heard.  Thus, historical facts have been embroidered with legends filled with fanciful, colorful details that so resonated with the local people that they turned her into a cult figure.
       According to the best-known story, Chamadevi was born to a wealthy farmer near Pasang, south of Lamphun.  At the age of just three months she was carried off by a giant bird and taken to the residence of the hermit Wasuthep on the mountain west of present-day Chiang Mai that in later times would be named after him—Doi Suthep.   He raised her as his own daughter and gave her the name Chamadevi.
Wasuthep and the Buddha, Wat Ku Tao
Chamadevi's shrine, Wat Ku Kut
       When she reached puberty at 13, Wasuthep decided to divine her fortune and discovered she was destined to become the ruler of a new state.  In order that she would obtain the proper training for such a role, the hermit dispatched Chamadevi by raft downriver to Lawo, along with a pair of monkeys to keep her company, believed to be the ancestors of contemporary Lopburi's monkey community.  Her arrival both astonished and pleased Lawo’s king and queen and they raised her in the palace.
Chamadevi's army, Wat Prayeun mural
       She grew up educated, pious and adept in military affairs.  By the time she was twenty she was very beautiful and attracted many suitors, all of whom she turned down.  One of them, a neighboring  Mon prince, reacted to her rejection by leading an army against Lawo.  Chamadevi herself directed the defenders, who repulsed the disappointed prince’s troops.
       A few years later Wasuthep, who had been busy recently laying the foundations for Haripunchai, arrived in Lawo to request that Chamadevi be allowed to serve as sovereign of the new city.  Chamadevi happened to be pregnant at the time, but not married.  In fact, her lover had entered the monkhood.  She may have been an embarrassment at Court and perhaps the King of Lawo agreed to her departure to squelch the gossip. 
repelling Viranga's attack, Wat  Ku Kut mural
       They made the journey by river, which took, depending on the chronicle, three to seven months.  A week after her arrival she gave birth to twin sons—Mahantayos and Anantayos.  With the large retinue that accompanied her, she quickly set up a state modeled on that of Lawo and began patronizing Buddhism.
       Wasuthep disappears from the narratives, but back around his former home on Doi Suthep, the Lawa inhabitants were aware of developments just 25 km south.  But when their leader King Viranga listened to his spies’ reports, what struck him most were their descriptions of Chamadevi’s great beauty.  He fell in love and dispatched a messenger asking the new queen to marry him.  She bade him wait, for she was weaning her infant sons.
Chamadevi's court at Haripunchai, Wat Prayeun mural
       Viranga waited.  Every year he sent a renewal of his request to Haripunchai.  Each time the queen replied that she was still weaning her sons.  When the two boys finally reached the age of eight, Viranga got fed up with this obviously false excuse and decided to invade Haripunchai and take Chamadevi by force.  His army was strong enough to breach the city walls and open the northern gate, through which Viranga rode through for his triumphal entry.
       Suddenly, from the southern part of the city, came Chamadevi’s counter-attack.  Her young sons rode her personal war elephant, named Blackie Purple after the color of its skin, charged at the Lawa and terrified both them and Viranga’s war elephant.  The latter turned so quickly that it broke Viranga’s leg against the gate.  Commemorating that incident, the northern gate of contemporary Lamphun is named Pratu Chang Si—Elephant Crush Gate.
Wat Sanpayangluang, Chamadevi's cremation site
       Blackie Purple died not long afterwards and Viranga believed his next assault would be victorious.  Chamadevi suspected that as well, so she proposed a deal.  Since he claimed supernatural powers he should prove it by hurling a spear from his home on Doi Suthep to the city of Haripunchai.  The confident Viranga accepted the challenge, mounted Doi Suthep, summoned his powers and hurled his spear.  It fell just short of the city walls.  Not bad for a first attempt and, by terms of the deal, he had three tries.
        Alarmed at the result, Chamadevi resorted to guile.  She sent Viranga the gift of a special cloth hat to congratulate him on getting so close to success on his very first attempt.  The love-struck Viranga donned it at once and prepared for his second throw.  But this time the spear landed a few meters from his feet.  Part of the hat was made from Chamadevi’s undergarments, soiled by menstrual blood, a condition that automatically canceled Viranga’s supernatural powers.  Realizing he’d been tricked, Viranga threw his last spear straight up into the sky and bared his chest so that it struck him dead when it fell back down.
Mon-style sculptures at Wat Sanpayanglaung
       Chamadevi never did marry.  And neither the Lawa nor anyone else attacked Haripunchai again during her lifetime.  The rest of her reign was peaceful, devoted to establishing the government on a firm foundation, building temples and promoting Buddhism.  She reigned for about two more decades and then abdicated in favor of her son Mahantayos and moved south to Lampang, a new city whose ruler was her other son Anantayos.
       She died at the age of 89.  King Mahantayos had her corpse brought back to Haripunchai in a stately procession.  She was cremated at what is today called Wat Sun Pa Yang Luang, north of the old town and one of the most attractive temples in the region.  This was the site of northern Thailand’s first Buddhist temple, dated 542, long before the establishment of Haripunchai.  Chamadevi came here frequently to pray. 
the main chedi at Wat Phra That Haripunchai
13th century chedis at Wat Ku Kut
       Chamadevi’s legacy was a strong state that maintained its independence even after its parent Lawo fell to the Khmer in the 10th century.  Her dynasty died out in the early 11th century, when a devastating epidemic caused the city’ population to evacuate to Thaton, in lower Myanmar, for nearly a generation.  But then they moved back to Haripunchai.  In 1044 the king of a new dynasty ordered the construction of Wat Phra That Haripunchai on the grounds of Chamadevi’s former palace. 
       The magnificent gilded chedi, 43 meters tall, that dominates the compound, is said to be on the site of Chamadevi’s bedroom.  It was built a century later by King Aditayaraj to celebrate three victories over Khmer invaders.  Conscious of the state’s original sovereign, he also had a chedi built at Wat Ku Kut, a little west of the old city, in honor of Chamadevi. 
Blackie Purple, Chamadevi's elephant
Chamadevi's horse
       This chedi collapsed in an earthquake several years later.  In 1218 King Saphet ordered it rebuilt to a height of 21 meters.  Called Chedi Suwan Chang Kot, it is a stepped pyramid on a square base, with niches on each side containing standing Buddha images.  The same year saw the erection of a smaller companion, 11.5 meters high on a hexagonal base, called Chedi Ratana, which is believed to contain the ashes of Queen Chamadevi.
Ku Chang, the mouument to Blackie Purple
       By now Haripunchai was past its peak as a kingdom.  Tai Yuan people from further north began migrating into the state.  In 1258 they were strong enough to overthrow the king and install a new dynasty.  In 1281 the Tai Yuan state of Lanna under King Mengrai conquered the city, but more by subversion rather than by violence.  Mengrai admired Haripunchai and modeled his own capitals, first Wiang Kum Kam and then Chiang Mai, on the moats, walls and city gates of Haripunchai.  He was equally impressed with its level of civilization and patronage of Buddhism, which he sought to replicate in his own kingdom.
       From then on Haripunchai’s history is subsumed into that of the Kingdom of Lanna, which fell under Burmese rule in the mid-16th century.  In the late 18th century, in the wake of Kawila’s expulsion of the Burmese from northern Thailand, the city, like other cities in the north, was deserted.  After Kawila re-established Lanna he launched kidnapping campaigns in northeast Burma to repopulate the kingdom.  Among those captured were Tai Lue from Muang Yong, more popularly known as Yong people, who were forcibly resettled in Lamphun, the new name for Haripunchai.  They are still an important part of the city’s population.
Ku Ma, the monument to Chamadevi's horse
statue of Chamadevi in the park
       In recent decades Lamphun has become very conscious of its ancient heritage, including the importance of Chamadevi.  This is in spite of the fact that virtually nobody living there can trace descent from Haripunchai’s original population.  Yet as residents of Chamadevi’s city, they are conscious of her legacy and legends.  The chedis at Wat Ku Kut, also called Wat Chamadevi, have remained in remarkably good condition.  The new temple in the compound features wall murals of the Chamadevi story, such as the founding of Haripunchai and the contest with Viranga.
       In the eastern suburbs of Lamphun lies Wat Prayeun, where the interior walls of the ubosot—ordination hall—are also filled with murals of Chamadevi’s life.  These are a bit more ornate than those at Wat Ku Kut, and not always historically accurate.  The painting depicting her departure from Lawo shows the three prangs that are the iconic symbol of Lopburi, Lawo’s successor.  But those were built by the Khmer, long after the event.  Another painting, of a scene in Haripunchai, includes the gilded chedi, which wasn’t built for another few centuries.
holiday decorations at Chamadevi's Park
       Besides Wat Chamadevi, Lamphun’s devotees also visit Chamadevi’s animal shrines, located in a quiet compound on the Kuang River east of the city.  The biggest is Ku Chang, a bullet-shaped chedi with a tapering top, said to contain the tusks of Blackie Purple, Chamadevi’s famous war elephant.  Behind it, smaller and shaped like a bell, stands Ku Ma, the tomb of her swiftest warhorse.  Large images of elephants stand in the courtyard, while smaller ones, of elephants and horses, crowd the fronts of the chedis and the rear wall of the compound.
       These unique animal shrines are still venerated by Lamphun residents, who pray before them and leave offerings of fruits and flowers or another small elephant statue.  In the bushes left of Ku Ma, not easily visible, is a small shrine to Chamadevi’s cat.  To the right of Ku Chang stands another dilapidated little shrine to the queen’s rooster, whose morning crow could allegedly be heard for several kilometers.  Neither of these receives local devotees, yet Ku Chang and Ku Ma attract regular attention, for they are integrally part of Chamadevi’s cult. 
      Endorsing this cult, the city government back in 1982 opened a park dedicated to Chamadevi, just within the moats on the southwest corner of the old town.  A rather voluptuous statue of her stands at the north end of the park.  Behind it are several sandstone reliefs depicting periods of Lamphun’s history, from the founding of Haripunchai to the introduction of railways, flanked by statues of Blackie Purple and Chamadevi’s horse.  Lavish decorations fill the park on holidays.
Loy Krathong balloon
Salak Yom 'trees' at Wat Phra That Haripunchai
       Lamphun’s two major annual cultural events are Salak Yom in September and Loy Krathong in November.  Both center their activities on Wat Phra That Haripunchai.  In the former, a Yong community festival, people make artificial trees of offerings, the upper half for the monks, the lower half for the deceased, and carry them in a long procession to the temple.  They leave them there until next evening, when they distribute the offerings.
       For Loy Krathong, people float offerings in the river and moats in the evening, as in Chiang Mai.  But the biggest event is the launching of huge balloons the morning of the full moon day.  This takes place right next to the chedi.  Thus both celebrations climax on the grounds of Chamadevi’s former palace.  The shrine to her within the compound is busy those days, but attracting even more devotees is the altar beneath her statue in the park.  For her worshippers, Chamadevi is modern Lamphun’s patron and protector and a heroine unmatched by any other anywhere in Thailand.

larger than life--Queen Chamadevi and her subjects 
                                                                        * * *


Thursday, November 22, 2018

Chiang Mai’s Forest Temples

                                                                        by Jim Goodman

temple at Wat Pha Lat
       When King Mengrai founded Chiang Mai in 1296, he laid out a city in a nearly square shape, surrounded by moats and walls on all four sides.  The king, his ministers, high-ranking nobles and the royal guards lived within the city.  Besides the palaces, nobles’ mansions and the barracks, the other buildings were mostly temples and monasteries.  The Kingdom of Lanna was a Theravada Buddhist state, religion was royally patronized and thus monks formed a large part of the urban population.
       Some of the nobility had homes on the other side of Chang Puak Gate and the northern moats.  Most of the commoners lived outside the city, especially between the eastern walls and the Ping River and in Haiya, the neighborhood south of the walled city.  They regularly entered the city during the day, mainly to the daily market through the center of the city.  But these temporary crowds returned to their homes by evening, when the gates were locked and quiet prevailed within.
the tunnel chedi at Wat Umong Maha Therachan
a tunnel of Wat Umong Suan Puthatam
       Most of the temple compounds stood beside groves of trees, usually away from the commercial zone.  This made them excellent locations for pursuing a largely quiet and contemplative lifestyle.  Yet from early in Lanna history, a faction of monks sought something even closer to nature, remote from the limited hustle and bustle of old Chiang Mai.  They would be known as the forest monks and concentrate on meditation in temples well beyond the settled areas. 
the chedi at Wat Umong
discarded image at Wat Umong
       King Mengrai was a very religious-minded sovereign and often consulted with monks on matters pertaining to state policies as well as religion.  One of his favorite advisors was the monk Therachan, who lived at the compound now named after him—Wat Umong Maha Therachan.  He used to meditate inside a tunnel chedi on the compound.   As construction proceeded inside the city, of palaces, temples, roads and such, he complained to the king that the commotion was disturbing his meditation.
martial scene in stone, Wat Umong
       In response, King Mengrai ordered tunnels excavated within a mound on a hill in the forest west of Chiang Mai.  This was the first forest temple in the region, established around 1300 and named Wat Umong Suan Putthatam.  Therachan moved here and, we can assume, meditated in peace ever after.  The compound was abandoned in the 15th century and fell into ruins until it was finally renovated and reconstructed in 1948.
       Chiang Mai’s expansion since then has put its western suburban neighborhoods right up to the walls of the compound.  Yet it’s still a very quiet place and sprawls over a much bigger area than any city temple compound.  Besides its architectural and sculptural features, Wat Umong is also a meditation center for the laity.  Thais and foreign tourists enroll for as many days as they like, rise and eat early, listen to lectures, do some temple maintenance work and meditate as many hours as they can in special meditation quarters.
ladies in stone, Wat Umong
       Tall, leafy trees shade most of the pathways.  The meditation center and information office is a little ways inside the compound.  Signs everywhere urge for quiet and consideration.  Tour group leaders don’t use megaphones here, either.  The road continues past the meditation center and ends in front of the temple’s main architectural attraction—the mound with the tunnels inside and the chedi on top.
       Three tunnels about 25 meters long lead from the base of the mound to a long corridor tunnel at right angles to these, with a seated Buddha image in the center.  Altogether, they make a more capacious site in which to meditate than the cramped tunnel chedi of Wat Umong Maha Therachan.  But as they are full of tourists every day, they are no longer used for that purpose by resident monks, who live in separate huts in the grove behind and to the right of the chedi. 
ancient times on a stone stele, Wat Umong
enemy warriors, Wat Umong
       On the mound above the tunnels stands a large chedi in the Ayutthaya style, like an inverted bell, restored in 1948.  A row of sculpted Buddha figures surrounds the base of its spire.  Off to one corner of the area is a sculpture of a skin-and-bones Buddha at the peak of his ascetic practices, just before he abandoned them. 
hallway at Wat Padaeng
       To the right of the tunnels lies a yard containing religious images removed from homes or temples and no longer used.  As it would be sacrilegious to destroy them, people leave them here, at a kind of image dumping ground.  Some are broken, missing heads or missing bodies, but others are still intact and attractive pieces of religious art.
       Even more impressive are the works on exhibit inside and outside the long hall in front.  Some are paintings with mostly religious themes.  The bulk of them are stone carvings depicting mythological and quasi-historical themes.  A majority of them are rectangular or even round slabs of stone embedded in the lower walls of the building.  Others are free-standing steles.
viharn and chedis at Wat Padaeng
       The works are mostly high-relief sculptures ranging in theme from the religious, such as the death of the Buddha or portraits of very Indian-looking deities, to secular scenes like riding off to war on elephants and horses.  Martial scenes characterize several sculptures, along with portraits of demon-like enemies.  But the set also includes depictions of women making offerings and groups of young monks.  The high quality of the carvings, with realistic faces, attention to detail and sheer number of figures fitted into some of the steles exhibited in this fine outdoor museum further augment the experience of visiting Wat Umong..
chedi at Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
stream beside Wat Pha Lat
       Back in front of the tunnels, a lane turning left passes a few shrines on the way down to a large pond, home of ducks, catfish and turtles.  At a booth above the bridges to the small island visitors can buy food for the creatures in the pond.  There’s also a coffee shop here.  For those residing at Wat Umong, in the wee hours of the morning here they might catch sight of rabbits and squirrels scampering about and even deer poking their heads through the bushes on the far banks.  As Chiang Mai’s first forest temple, Wat Umong still remains close to nature.
staircase figures,Wat Pha Lat
       Not far from Wat Umong, on a wooded hill above a residential neighborhood road, stands the much smaller compound of Wat Padaeng.  Except for the chedis, the compound consists mainly of recently constructed buildings, has no sculptural displays or facilities for laymen to learn or practice meditation.  Yet it qualifies as a forest temple, with a couple dozen resident monks and an atmosphere even more tranquil than at Wat Umong.
       After Wat Umong, the next major forest temples constructed were on Doi Suthep, the mountain west of the city that has always been revered by Chiang Mai people.  Even today, except for the temple grounds, a royal palace and two Hmong villages, thick forests swathe the entire mountain.  The construction of the temple Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, visible from the city 15 km away, dates from the 14th century, commissioned by Lanna’s King Nuena.
       According to the popular origin story, a monk from Lamphun claimed to have found a Buddhist relic—a shoulder bone of the Buddha—and presented it to King Dhammaraj of Sukhothai.  But after proper installation and a round of rituals, the relic didn’t seem to affect anything and Dhammaraj lost interest.  However, King Kuena, who had just taken over in 1355, had heard of it and secured permission for its transfer from Sukhothai to Chiang Mai. 
elephant at rest, Wat Pha Lat
Phra Phrom image, Wat Pha Lat
       Upon conveyance to Lamphun the relic broke into two pieces.  The smaller piece wound up in a local temple.   Kuena ordered the larger piece placed on the back of a white elephant, which was released into the forest.  The animal at once began ascending Doi Suthep.  It made a couple stops along the way, then came to a spot high up the slope, trumpeted three times and fell over dead.  The king ordered a temple built on that spot to house the relic.
monks' huts, Wat Pha Lat
       The temple buildings have largely been replaced by very ornate modern versions.  But the original chedi, 24 meters high, built in 1384 and completely gilded, still stands in the main courtyard, surrounded by small shrines and images.  The monastic communities that once lived here were even more isolated than those at Wat Umong.  Once a year, though, on the night before Buddha’s birthday, devotees hiked up the mountain to pay respects to the enshrined relic.  Other than occasional visits by monks on pilgrimage, this was their only contact with the outside world,
       In 1935, Kruba Sivichai, a monk with a reputation for restoring old temples in    northern Thailand, organized devotees to build a paved road from the foot of Doi Suthep to the temple.  Nowadays, this road makes it easy to get there, so the temple has become a popular tourist attraction and a village full of food stalls and souvenir shops has grown in front of it.
       About a third of the way up the mountain, a lane branches left down and around a couple of nondescript roadside buildings to the premises of Wat Pha Lat—Temple of the Sloping Cliff.  In their eagerness to get to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, most travelers pass this by, yet this is the best contemporary version of a classic forest temple.  The shrines and other buildings lie on angled slopes, surrounded by trees and near a running stream.
Wat Rampoeng
16th century chedi at Wat Rapoeng
       The compound was built around the same time as Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, on a spot where the white elephant carrying the relic paused to rest.  Compared to Wat Doi Suthep, the buildings are modest, spaced apart from each other, and the chedi isn’t gilded.   The small number of resident monks lives in a row of huts in the center of the compound, while the main meditation center lies on the lower part of the compound slope.  Monks may also choose to do this exercise along the bank of the stream.  Lots of birds flutter among the trees, while squirrels, lizards and peacocks meander near the shrines.
miniature gold trees, Wat Rampoeng
       Besides its exquisite natural setting and serenity, Wat Pha Lat also features interesting sculptures.  The shrines hold various Buddha images, but more striking are the guardian creatures in front of them or at the bottom of the staircases.  These range from mythical lions to Thai-style sphinxes to creatures with a dragon body and the upper torso of a human (or maybe a god).  Other works of art include a four-faced Phra Prom, the Buddhist version of the Hindu god Brahma, a reclining elephant and a celestial scene carved on a wooden door.
       The last of Lanna’s classic forest temples was Wat Rampoeng Tapotharam, the Temple of Ascetic Practices, about four km southwest of the old city.  In the late 15th century, King Yot Chiang Rai, following up an itinerant monk’s tale of miraculous rays of light emanating from beneath a certain tree, discovered a container holding a tooth of the Buddha.  To honor this relic, in 1492 he ordered a monastery built on the spot. 
       Like at Wat Doi Suthep, the original buildings have all been replaced, except for the chedi, erected early 16th century to store the relic.  Shaped like a cone, it has eight diminishing tiers.  Wat Rampoeng was periodically abandoned and reopened and served as a compound for Japanese troops in the 1940s.  From 1974 it took on an additional identity as a meditation center.  Though the surrounding forest has largely made way for a suburban residential neighborhood, the temple lies at the end of a quiet lane, still has lots of trees around it and is far enough back from the Canal Road that traffic noise is inaudible.
viharn interior, War Rampoeng
       While it doesn’t enjoy the same isolation as Wat Pha Lat, for civilization, not a forest, lies just outside the entrance gate, Wat Rampoeng has a community of several dozen monks, all dedicated to the same forest monk lifestyle.  At any given time, it also houses many meditation students, who sign up for usually a 24-day course in the vipassana meditation method.  As at Wat Umong, they wear white clothing, rise and retire early, don’t eat after noon and spend most hours learning and practicing meditation. 
       The two viharns (assembly and worship halls), while new, are outstanding examples of religious architecture.  The sloping roofs are dark, setting off the gilded decorations along their edges, as are the walls, with golden embellishments above the doors and windows.  In front of the entrances stand miniature, gold-leafed trees, left there by pious devotees.   Altogether, Wat Rampoeng is one of the most beautiful compounds in the Chiang Mai area.
       Forest temples were designed to be close to nature.  Yet they are also endowed with exquisite works of art.  So then being close to nature implies being close to art.  The one reinforces appreciation of the other.  It is this concept that enhances the pleasure of time spent in a forest temple, whether as a contemplative resident monk or just an enchanted visitor.

the bigger viharn at Wat Rampoeng
                                                                        * * *