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
                                                                        * * * 


Monday, November 5, 2018

The Tropic of Cancer and the Hani in Mojiang

                                                           by Jim Goodman

view of Mojiang from the Tropic of Cancer Park
       The Tropic of Cancer, 23 degrees north of the equator, the line that forms the southern boundary of the earth’s temperate zone, runs right through the city of Mojiang, Yunnan.  The city is the capital of a county on the eastern side of Pu’er Prefecture, lying west of the Ailao Mountains that run along the right bank of the Red River.    What lured me to the area was not so much its geographical significance as the fact Mojiang is an Autonomous Hani County, the uppermost part of the Ailao Mountain range where they reside.
       Though it is the only strictly Hani autonomous county in the prefecture, the Hani are not the only minority nationality living in it.  I discovered this right away when I rode a bus to Mojiang from Mosha, on the Red River in Xinping County.  Upon departure the road climbed into the forested Ailao Mountains and after about 30 km swerves around Dajianshan, 2278 meters, and enters the county on the high plain around Malu village.
market day in Malu
       This is Yi territory, inhabited by a sub-group whose dwellings, of mud-brick walls and wooden posts on stone foundations with tiled roofs, and clothing resemble those of Yi in southern Chuxiong Prefecture.   The women dressed in a colorful jacket with an apron in front, the lapel, upper sleeves and apron borders heavily embroidered, with a sliver-studded stomacher across the waist, black trousers and turban.
       The men wore ordinary modern clothes, but both sexes might also don the goatskin coat.  Made from the skins of two goats, also popular in Chuxiong Prefecture, especially Dayao County, it hangs open in the front and reaches to the knees.  In the summer people wear the fur side out and in the winter the fur side in.
Yi woman in the Malu market
Haoni woman above Bixi
       It was market day when we passed through Malu, so progress was quite slow.  Stalls were up all along the main road and people wandered among them oblivious of the vehicle traffic.  Beyond Malu, the road begins a long and slow descent towards Mojiang.  It passes the attractive Buka Reservoir, a long and narrow body of water surrounded by forested hills, and then runs by Hani settlements perched on hillsides above their terraces.
Haoni woman on the road
older Haoni woman in Mojiang
       Different sub-groups of Hani live in the county but they all speak a similar dialect, which is quite unlike that spoken by Hani in Honghe, Yuanyang and other places further down the Ailao Mountains, which is close to that spoken by the Aini sub-group in Xishuangbanna.  The sub-group north of Mojiang, concentrated above Bixi, is called Haoni and their women wear a distinctive outfit. 
rural Mojiang County above Bixi
       They wear ordinary modern trousers and long-sleeved blouse.  Over this is a short-sleeved jacket, waist-length in the front and knee-length in the back, dark blue or black for older women and white for younger ones.  If white, it is heavily embroidered with red designs on the sleeves and back. On their heads they wear a tall turban, fastened with their braids across the front and with hair braids hanging far down the back.
       From Bixi the road descends further, through an area of Han villages, until it reaches Mojiang, about 12 km further.  Mojiang lies in a natural bowl with mountains all around and two small hills in the urban area.  It’s predominantly Han-inhabited, mostly full of modern buildings, but with an old-fashioned neighborhood left and a park with a pond and elegant pavilions.
astronomical observatory, Tropic of Cancer Park
       The southern hill is the site of the Tropic of Cancer Park.  Climbing the staircase I passed a niche of carved red sandstone pillars and, near the tip, a circle of white Stonehenge-like pillars about 1.5 meters high.  On the summit is a monument with a spiraling exterior staircase, evocative of the ancient Lighthouse of Alexandria.  A row of red bricks marks the actual Tropic of Cancer line here and I could actually walk the line through this monument. 
       Near this stands a large stone sundial and behind it is the domed astronomical observatory with a large telescope inside.  With nothing to obscure the view, it’s a perfect place to observe the heavens as well as the city and its setting.
tower over the Tropic of Cancer line
pavilion in the Mojiang city park
       Mojiang is a small city.  Nearby gold mines gave it some prosperity in the past, but it was not a major stop on the main trade routes through the province.  Caravans on the Tea and Horses Road did not come here.  The French Mekong Expedition passed by in the late 1860s, during the Muslim Revolt that ravaged Yunnan for several years.  Mojiang appeared to have been spared the depredations suffered by other cities like Ning’er and Pu’er and the French were pleased to find the local inhabitants extremely hospitable.  The city officials even provided them an escort to their next destination.  This tradition seemed to have continued to today, for I found Mojiang people very friendly and helpful.
water wheels in the river near Nanwen
       Mojiang hosts market day every five days.  Besides the local residents and Han villagers from the valley, many Hani turn up; the Haoni and two other sub-groups.  One came from villages south of Mojiang, around Nanwen, on the Aomo River.   The women wore dark blue jackets, knee-length trousers, wrappers around the calves a belt with a brightly embroidered sash hanging down the back and a black turban festooned with lots of bright yarn.  Their villages are much lower than those of the other sub-groups and they also use water wheels for farms along the Aomo River.
       The other, Bukong Hani, I would meet on a return trip to Mojiang a couple years later.  I had a task to perform, to deliver some books by a Hani teacher friend to his colleague in the Mojiang Middle School.  After I introduced myself and mentioned my interest in Hani culture, he invited me to a local restaurant with a few of his fellow teachers, all Hani.  We had a leisurely meal, lots of rice wine and talked about the Hani I had met in other parts of Yunnan.
Bukong Hani house
       One of the teachers came from Longba, a town southeast of Mojiang.  He informed that a Hani village a little beyond Longba, called Dameido, would be celebrating Hani New Year the next day.  As in the mountains of Yuanjiang County, where I had just observed it, the Hani in Mojiang hold it in November, rather than at Lunar New Year, though on different days in different districts. 
       With a couple days to spare before I had to return to Kunming, I set out early morning on a bus to Longba, a ride about an hour and half through open countryside.  From here, continuing east, the road is rougher and soon amongst the hills and terraced farms.  The road ended at Zhaogaisu, with Xiaomeido village just across the stream.  At the latter settlement the first Hani I met were three men departing for Dameido, so I joined them.
terraced farms of Dameido village
       The landscape is not as dramatic as north of Bixi or further down the Ailao Mountains, like Yuanyang and Luchun Counties.  The hills are smaller, the terraces less steeply angled and not always irrigated.  Domestic architecture, however, is quite different from that of Hani villages elsewhere in Mojiang and next-door Honghe County.
       The Bukong Hani, the name of the area’s sub-group, live in block-like, mud-brick houses with flat roofs and a notched ladder connecting the lower floor roof with the upper roof.  They resemble those of the Huayao Dai in Xinping County and those of the Yi and Hani in Yuanyang and Jinping Counties, but with no shed on the roof.  No doubt they lay out crops here to dry, but my arrival didn’t coincide with any harvest.  Instead, I saw local residents sometimes ascending to the roofs just to sit in the sun or do some stitching. 
on the flat roofs of Dameido village houses
       Dameido lay on the other side of the ridge, about a twenty-minute walk.  I didn’t have a contact name to look up.  When I asked for one the evening before, my Hani hosts told me it wasn’t necessary.  Hani people are very hospitable.  Just show up and someone will invite you to stay with them. 
       And that’s how it went.  One of my walking companions took me to his uncle’s house in the upper part of the village.  The path was higher than the settled area, so we had to climb down a notched ladder to get to the lanes between the houses.   His uncle immediately invited me to stay the night.  New Year had just begun and folks were killing pigs and preparing dishes for the evening feast. 
       We had tea and jiu (rice liquor) inside on a hard mud floor, cabinets lining the walls, large jugs of rice wine in front of them and the kitchen to the right just inside the door.  A bedroom on this floor was graced with a wooden window frame with carved floral designs.  Upstairs were more bedrooms, one of which I would use, and from the roof I had a great view of the stars later that night.
Bukong Hani women on the first floor roof
My host Mr. Li claimed Dameido was a thousand years old.  Every house was in traditional Hani style, with the only exterior modern intrusion being a single rooftop satellite dish.  The men dressed in modern clothing, but most women and many girls still preferred the traditional look.  They wore indigo-dyed, hand-woven cotton jackets over trousers.  The jackets fastened in the front and were decorated with silver chains and coin buttons.  Around their heads they wrapped a turban with embroidered ends.  Young women and girls festoon the front of the turban with colored threads.
       After a late afternoon tour of the village it was time for the banquet.  Before it began an older woman went to several corners of the ground floor with a basket of seeds, scattering some in each spot as an offering to the spirits    We then commenced dining on several pork dishes, including the fat, blood soup, a few vegetables, rice and jiu.
       The special dish for the occasion was a sweet dumpling called tangyuan in Chinese.  When preparing these the Hani first cook three of them, each marked as representing people, animals and crops.  Whichever pops up first out of the bowl they’re cooked in indicates good luck in the coming year for whichever of the three the dumpling represents.
Bukong Hani girl
Bukong Hani woman
       Mr. Li had several guests, so it was a typically long and drawn out meal.  We talked about Yunnan and Thailand (they weren’t curious about America).  Nobody spoke English here, their Hani dialect was incomprehensible to me, so we conversed in basic Chinese, at a level I could more or less understand.
       After this first day of feasting, the second day was devoted to entertainment.  The previous evening the villagers had erected a sturdy swing in the center of the village near the middle school and next to the basketball court.  It had a strong crossbeam supported by two tripods, with two ropes hanging down and a board connecting them. 
Mr. Li entertaining his guest before a meal
riding the New Year swing in Dameido
       People rode it standing up, alone or in pairs, and doing knee bends to go higher.  By mid-morning the scene was crowded with youths eager to swing.  Such was the demand for a turn that each rider only got to execute three or four movements and thus didn’t get very high.  But everybody had a good time and no one tried to hog the time and swing longer than anyone else.
       After a couple hours the kids started drifting off to lunch, as did I.  I walked back to Mr. Li’s house and passed a shirtless man sitting on a stool and a Hani woman massaging his back with jiu as a treatment for a skin rash.  So they don’t just drink the stuff.  When I arrived, Mr. Li brought out his bow and two-stringed instrument and, while the women prepared the food, entertained me with a few tunes.
Hani woman in Dameido
       Then we had our meal, resembling that of the night before.  I reported what I saw around the swing and mentioned that only about a third of the girls wore Hani clothes.  He replied that the percentage would likely go up tonight for the dances.  Unfortunately, I had to return to Mojiang.  The third day involved visits to relatives, both within Dameido and to other villages.
       One of Mr. Li’s guests said dances would also take place in Zhaogaisu and there was a bus from there to Mojiang at 4 a.m.  Zhaogaisu was where I had to go first anyway, but when I got there folks told me no dances that night and no bus next morning.  Fortunately, a truck gave me a lift all the way to Mojang. 
       The following day I took a bus back to Kunming to keep my appointment.  Naturally, my recent experiences with the Hani of Dameido kept reverberating in my memory.  And I also recalled that dinner in Mojiang, when one of the teachers told me not to worry about not having a contact in Dameido  because “The Hani are very hospitable.”  Yes.  I’d just had proof.
the Hani village of Dameido
                                                                        * * *

for  more on Mojiang and the Hani see my e-book The Terrace Builders

Mojiang is one of the stops on Delta Tours Vietnam’s journey from Kunming to Jinghong.  See the schedule at