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
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