Monday, August 30, 2021

The Three Krubas of Li


                                                         by Jim Goodman


       In its previous incarnation as Haripunchi, Lamphun was the first city established in Northern Thailand, way back in the 7th century.  It was allegedly planned by the hermit Wasuthep, who adopted and raised a Mon girl, from a nearby village, after rescuing her from  an eagle's grasp, then when she reached puberty sent her downriver to be trained for her future role at the Mon royal court at Lawo, today’s Lopburi.  When her boat arrived the royal family considered this something auspicious and took her into the palace as a member of their own family.

       Wasuthep had also taught her martial arts and the new princess proved her value as an asset by leading Lawo’s armies in victorious battles with rival Mon states.  After a few years she answered Wasuthep’s summons and left Lawo to return upriver to take charge of the new city as Queen Chamadevi of Haripunchai.  She subdued the indigenous Lawa tribe, introduced and spread Buddhism in the area, expanded the realm’s territory and eventually abdicated in favor of her elder twin son and retired.  After her death Chamadevi remained an indelible part of the people’s memory and regard and her cult continues down to the present, with a big park in Lamphun honoring her memory..   

       In later centuries Haripunchai repelled three Khmer invasions, halting Khmer expansion in Thailand after its conquest of the other Mon states in the Menam Chao Phya River basin. The next major event in the city’s history was its conquest in the late 13th century by King Mengrai of Lanna.  Quite impressed by its high level of civilization, he did not attack the city but instead basically took it by subterfuge.  He built his own capital at Chiang Mai, 30 km north, modeled on Haripunchai's layout and designated Haripunchai the spiritual capital.

       Though its legacy still influenced Northern Thailand in religion and architecture, the city no longer played a role in regional history.  Eventually renamed Lamphun, it was just the small capital of a small province.  But in the late 19th century it once again became influential thanks to the work of the Three Krubas of Li, the province’s southern district.

       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.

       As  he grew up the boy believed that his family’s poverty must be due to karma from a previous life and decided to atone for that with good works.  He became fully vegetarian and a Buddhist novice at 18 and fully ordained monk a few years later.  He became known for his asceticism, mastery of meditation, generosity and compassion for animals.  After his ordination he built a new temple in Ban Pang by persuading the local populace to cooperate as a way of making merit.  This was the first of many such temple projects, usually renovations, which Siwichai sponsored and led, such as Wats Suan Dok and Phra Singh in Chiang Mai and Wat Chamadevi, with its 12th century chedis, in Lamphun.  

       His charisma attracted a wide following and his recommendations on a proper monastic life, inspired by his own example, won respect throughout the region.  It also stirred up controversy, even outright opposition, with the religious hierarchy in Bangkok.  At that time the kingdom was under the rule of Chulalongkorn, Rama V, and the former Kingdom of Lanna was semi-autonomous, still having its own hereditary sovereign (chao).   France and Great Britain were gobbling up territory on Thailand’s borders and Rama V felt the need to more fully integrate the company in the face of foreign threats.

       Besides reducing the Chao of Chiang Mai’s powers, Rama V’s government sought to unify the country’s Buddhist practice.  The Sangha Act of 1902 created monastic hierarchies with royal titles and rankings.  Lanna monasteries tended to be without established hierarchies and Bangkok abbots viewed Siwichai as antipathetic to the Sangha Act.  Moniks like Siwichai were expected to fall in line.  It was a matter of national unity, not to mention ecclesiastical  authority.. They ordered him arrested and subjected to several interrogations, even confined for over a year to Wat Haripunchai in Lamphun.  

      The suspicions were unjustified, for Siwichai’s work was concerned with making merit and spreading good works and not involved in monastic organization, much less Lanna separatism.  The charges were dropped and Siwichai was free to resume his projects.  The affair did have one impact on him, for his renovations did not restore Lanna temples in the precisely original Lanna style, but modified to the Rattanakosin style of central Thailand, such as whitewashed walls and orange roofs.

       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. 

       A statue of Siwichai stands in the Doi Suthep compound and another one stands in front of the assembly hall at Wat Phra Singh.  Devotees also erected a huge seated Siwichai, with hunched shoulders, on a hill beside the expressway at the turnoff to Lamphun.  The temple he built at Ban Pang has a museum displaying his personal effects and Siwichai amulets are still popular.

       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. 

       Close to the Three Krubas of Li monument lies Wat Phrabat Ha Duang, which local legend claims was originally built at the direction of Queen Chamadevi.  Returning here from military campaigns in the east she witnessed five lighted balls floating over five pieces of soil.  She ordered chedis to be constructed over each of the spots.  Those standing there now are not the originals, but recent renovated versions in exactly the same places.

       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.

       Murals also portray true historical events such as her reception in the city, her life at court and her diplomacy, in which she arranged for her twin sons to marry the deceased Viranga’s daughters, thus pacifying the Lawa and accommodating them to her rule.  Nothing else.  A temple a little south of Hot named after her was built next to a place on the Mae Ping River where she stopped for a break on her boat journey from Lawo.  It 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.

      In the 1970s Chaiyawongse, strict vegetarian himself, persuaded Karen villagers to give up consuming animal products, become Buddhists and rebuild a temple ten km south of Li next to a large village of two branches of the Karen minority.  Called Wat Phrabat Huai Tom, the temple compound features special architectural elements like a rounded temple roof and a stepped white pagoda.  A statue of Chaiyawongse sits beside the entrance to the assembly hall. 

       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.

       How much of this is relevant to the Karen Buddhists who come to pray at the temple is a good question, for hers is a separate cult, more like that of a guardian spirit, only partially connected to the Buddhist religion.  The Karen have only been living in Thailand about two hundred years.  But Wat Prathat Huai Tom also draws Thai pilgrims from throughout the area, largely descendants of Chamadevi’s original subjects.  For them the murals and boat replica are likely to resonate more.

       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.

       Chaiyawongse’s final project, done in the 90s, was to persuade Li people to build a new chedi and temple called Wat Chedi Sri Wiang Chai.  He claimed to have found fossilized cattle feces left by a previous incarnation of the Buddha, when he was a cow belonging to a bodhisattva.  This made the spot sacred and, worried that the area now open range and uncultivated might be profaned by development, he launched his building campaign.

       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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