by Jim Goodman
The word kruba means ‘great teacher’ or ‘teacher of teachers’ and is bestowed on monks with a reputation for extraordinary piety and religious awareness. A monument to the Three Krubas of Li stands at the outskirts of the town of Li, with statues of Siwichai, Apichai Khao Pi and Chaiyawongse, all of them monks from the district. The first monk so designated was Siwichai, born to a devoutly Buddhist but poor peasant family in Ban Pang in 1878.
Three years before he died, Siwichai carried out his most famous project in 1935 by mobilizing thousands of devotees to build a road from the northwest edge of Chiang Mai 15 km up the mountain to the temple of Doi Suthep. The mountain was named after Chamadevi’s first guardian Wasuthep and the temple constructed in 1383. Surrounded by forests, it is visible from the valley and Is one of the city’s notable landmarks and, with the road making for easier access, a popular tourist attraction. On the full moon might of the 4th lunar month, the occasion of Makha Bucha, marking the day of the Buddha’s birth, Enlightenment and death, Chiang Mai devotees hike to the temple to pay homage, returning after sunrise.
Back in Li, a quiet small town 100 km south of Lamphun, one of Siwichai’s disciples, Kruba Apichai Chao Pi, acquired a similar reputation. His most notable achievement was the renovation of Wat Prathat Phanom on a hill in the town. The temple had been abandoned for three centuries and under Apichai’s directions volunteers built a new, expanded temple compound and gilded chedi. After his death his body was mummified and laid in a glass coffin inside the temple. Devotees ritually change the corpse’s clothing once every March. A statue of him, 15 meters tall, stands in front of the chedi, from where people also to come at sunrise to enjoy the view across the valley.
This tale of Chamadevi, as well as others of her exploits around Li, is not part of the usual narratives about her, historical or mythical, in Lamphun or elsewhere in her former realm, such as the imagery of Wat Chamadevi and Wat Prayeun in Lamphun or Wat Doi Kham south of Chiang Mai. Wall murals at these temples depict mythical scenes from her life like her abduction as an infant by an eagle and rescue by Wasuthep, his training of her on the mountain, her boat journey to Lawo, her enthronement and how she first battled and then outwitted the Lawa chieftain Viranga.
features a large seated sculpture of her and on the plain beside the river stands a chedi built at that time.
Relying only on this imagery one could conclude that after the trouble with the Lawa peace was established all around and Chamadevi’s career afterwards consisted of simply spreading Buddhism. The people of Li, however, retain more of her life story, beyond just the tale of the chedis of Wat Ha Duang. And thanks to the legacy of Chaiyawongse, the third famous kruba of Li, this is on public display.
What also distinguishes this temple is the courtyard next to the assembly hall that exhibits a replica of the boat Chamadevi rode on her journey to Haripunchai. Wall murals along the corridor portray incidents of her life, in particular her military exploits around Li. A portrait of her fondling an elephant while it bows in obeisance and a gibbon kneels nearby suggests her affinity with wild animals. There’s a scene of her presiding over her court and another of her dispatching emissaries to her allies or subordinate princes in her military campaign against enemies east of her realm.
A depiction of her preparing plans for combat while camping in the jungle comes next, followed by portraits of her and her armies in battle. In these she or her sons ride elephants in fights with enemies, but in other scenes only the armies are in action, foot soldiers against their foes. In one mural she is on horseback on a hill directing maneuvers and in another she rides forth, wielding a sword, to engage in a duel with a mounted opponent.
Murals in Wat Doi Kham portray her military training under Wasuthep and there are historical records of her leading Lawo forces to repel an invasion by a rival Mon state, though these were written long after the events. Nevertheless, the murals at Wat Huai Tom reinforce her military reputation and hint at a more involved life than that assumed by her devotees today in the Lamphun area.
The Karen village here also specializes in handicrafts, like basketry, woodcarving and especially weaving. Displays of textiles—sarongs, Karen blouses and fringed shoulder bags are just outside the compound and the steady trickle of visitors provides customers.
Modeled on the Shwedagon pagoda in Yangon, Myanmar, the gilded Sri Wiang Chai Chedi stands over twenty meters high. As the area is relatively level land, it can be seen from far away. The compound also holds a shrine housing life-size images of a pair of cattle, statues of the Buddha, of a demon spirit, of Chaiyawongse himself and a general riding a multi-headed elephant. It is a fitting example of the work of the three krubas of Li, carried out not by the sponsorship of government or the wealthy class, but by the common people, motivated solely by the desire, as good Buddhists, to do something to make merit.
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