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 
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