Saturday, March 26, 2022

History and Legends in the Mountains of Chiang Mai

                                         by Jim Goodman


       The best-known mountain in northern Thailand is the one that stands just west of the city of Chiang Mai.  Called Doi Suthep, it rises 1676 meters and the streams flowing down from its slopes have always irrigated the vast fertile plain below.  It’s not the highest peak in the north, but especially revered for its temple, Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep, which enshrines a famous religious relic—a part of the Buddha’s shoulder bone.  The temple dates its construction to 1383, about a century after Mengrai had established the Kingdom of Lanna over most of northern Thailand.  The site was selected by mounting the relic on the back of a white elephant, a most auspicious animal in local culture, and turning it loose to choose its own way.

       The elephant immediately headed for the mountain, ascending it through the forests.  When it reached a point at 1070 meters altitude it halted, trumpeted three times, then laid down and died.  The people cleared the immediate area, built the temple and installed the relic.  It has been a popular Buddhist pilgrimage site ever since, particularly after the monk Kruba Sivichai, from Li district, Lamphun province, organized devotees in the early 20th century to construct a road to the temple.  As the century progressed Doi Suthep became a top tourist destination, for the temple and its cultural significance, as well as views of the plains from a clearing along the road, an occasional royal residence further on, the nearby Hmông village of Doi Pui and the jungle trails for forest exploring. 

      Most visitors are aware of the temple’s origin, but not of its name.  Doi Suthep was named after a famous hermit called Wasuthep, usually depicted wearing leopard or tiger skins, his long braided hair coiled in a bun. who lived here around the 8th century.  He was said to be the descendant of two cannibal ogres, Pu Sae and Ya Sae, who were terrorizing the area until the Buddha appeared before them.  When the ogres attacked he repelled them with kindness, against which they had no defense.  So they submitted, converted to Buddhism and were appointed as spirit guardians for the area.  He also gave them one of his hairs as a relic, which was later installed in a pagoda at Wat Doi Kham, on a small oblong hill ten km south of Chiang Mai.  Today large statues of Pu Sae and Ya Sae sit in a shrine at the foot of the hill.

       The hill lies back from the highway about a kilometer.  A very tall Standing Buddha dominates the first view.  Within the temple compound is a very long Reclining Buddha, as well as a large Seated Buddha, 17 meters high and reputedly the largest of its type in Asia.  The pagoda was supposed to have been first built in 683 CE.  It collapsed in 1966.  During its reconstruction, people discovered a hidden chamber underneath containing several old images.    

       These have been removed and hardly anything remains from ancient times.  It still attracts regular devotees from the district, and occasionally Buddhist Palong women from the hills to the west, brightening up the crowd with their distinctive red and black jackets, red sarongs and wide silver belts.  Besides the Buddha shrines and imagery, one of Wat Doi Kham’s temples is dedicated to Queen Chamadevi, the original ruler of Haripunchai (now Lamphun), the first organized state in northern Thailand.  She was born in a Mon family in a village west of Lamphun, but due to the scarcity of records from that time, the events of her life and career have long been intertwined with legends and myths.  Among these are her connections to Wasuthep and his role in the founding of Haripunchai.   

       According to local legends, when Chamadevi was still an infant, an eagle snatched her from her cradle and flew to Doi Suthep.  The hermit Wasuthep harried the eagle into dropping its prey over a pond.  A lotus flower sprang up to receive the baby.  Wasuthep rescued the child and raised her as his own, imparting his wisdom on the ways of the world and training her in martial arts.  When she reached puberty he decided to divine her future and discovered that she was destined to become the ruler of a great new state.

      That was something he couldn’t really train her for, so he decided to send her downriver by boat to Lawo (now Lopburi), the nearest of several Mon kingdoms in central Thailand.  He put two monkeys in the boat to keep her company, the origin of Lopburi’s sprawling monkey community today.  When she arrived at the palace in Lawo the royal family considered this an auspicious event and raised her as a princess in their own family.

       She became quite beautiful as she matured, arousing the ardor of neighboring Mon princes, all of whom she refused.  One suitor opted to attack Lawo with his army to force her consent.  Drawing on her martial arts lessons from Wasuthep, the princess herself led the city’s soldiers to repel the assault.  She never did marry, though she did have a lover and was pregnant by him when suddenly she got the call from Wasuthep to come up and take charge of the new state.  He had already laid out the capital as a walled city in the shape of a conch, bounded by moats and a river.  She left her lover behind and made the long river journey up to Haripunchai, arriving with an entourage that included 500 Buddhist monks.  She gave birth to twin sons later.   

       The region around Haripunchai, in addition to Mon villages, was largely inhabited by the Lawa people, especially the Doi Suthep area.  Chamadevi subdued them and instigated their conversion to Buddhism; that much is historical fact, but exactly how has been the subject of legend and fancy.  Accordingly, the Lawa chieftain Viranga sent spies to learn about the new intruders and they reported how beautiful the queen was.  He fell in love by hearsay and sent a message of proposal.  She refused.  His army attacked, but was beaten back, thanks to the queen’s magic elephant Blackie Purple, named for its color, whose green tusks disintegrated anything it touched.

       A more popular version has Chamadevi making a deal with Viranga.  Since he claimed supernatural powers she demanded he prove it by hurling a spear from the top of Doi Suthep to the center of Haripunchai.  She even gave him three attempts, confident he couldn’t succeed.  However, on his first throw Viranga’s spear landed just outside the city walls.  Maybe he did have such powers, she worried, so devised a trick.  She congratulated him forgetting so close, said she was sure he would succeed next throw and to please wear this special hat she sent  that she had made for him for the occasion.      

       The hat was made from her underwear soiled by menstruation, thereby automatically canceling his supernatural powers.  Viranga donned the hat, huffed and puffed and hurled his spear and it landed at his feet.  Aware of the deception he threw his last spear straight up and stood with his chest exposed so that when it fell back down it pierced and killed him. 

       The spear-chucking challenge and Chamadevi’s reception at Haripunchai are part of the interior wall murals at Wat Chamadevi in Lamphun.  In the temple devoted to her at Wat Doi Kham the wall murals behind her altar depict her life with Wasuthep, clad in tiger skins like an Indian rishi, with q Buddha image in his cave.  There are vignettes of her abduction by an eagle, Wasuthep rescuing her, bringing her up as an infant, giving her weapons training as a girl and sending her off to Lawo with the monkey companions. 

     No doubt her introduction of Buddhism to northern Thailand accounts for the presence of Chamadevi altars in Buddhist temples.  But Thai Buddhism, in terms of veneration, is male-oriented, towards the Buddha as well as famous monks.  Perhaps Chamadevi veneration, of a woman so much a part of northern cultural history and identity, redresses this innate religious imbalance, the way Devi worship does for Hindus and veneration of Mary among Christians.  Observers won’t see any difference in the prayers and offerings at images whether of Buddha or of Chamadevi.

       Besides the statues in her altar, the Wat Doi Kham compound features a gilded bronze image of her standing with a sword pointing to the ground, modeled on the one in Chamadevi Park, Lamphun, a painted terracotta one of her seated and a painting on an exterior wall of her standing in her royal regalia.  A couple statues of Wasuthep also grace the area.

       The next stop on the ‘Chamadevi Trail’ lies down Highway 108 from Doi Kham all the way to a temple in Hod district.  The route passes by Doi Inthanon, a peak of 2565 meters altitude, the highest in Thailand.  Swathed in various kinds of forests, it did not have any religious center, though two fine chedis stand beside the road near thesummit, with a good view of the plains below, built in late 20th century in honor of the last king and queen.  The actual summit is not accessible, for it is the site of a Royal Thai Air Force weather radar station.

      Originally known simply as Doi Luang—the Big Mountain—its contemporary name Inthaton is a contraction of the name of the last nominal ruler of Chiang Mai Chao Inthawichayanon.  Worried about the burgeoning lagging industry in the north and its threat to the mountain’s forests, he lobbied hard to protect the mountain’s ecosystem by declaring the area a national park.  This finally took place in 1954 and Doi Luang became Doi Inthanon.  Besides the range of tree species—tropical, deciduous and evergreen—the park includes several spectacular waterfalls, like Mae Klang, with good; paved roads to reach them.

        South of Doi Inthanon the next town is Chom Thong, site of a temple built on a hill resembling a termite mound (chom pluak in Thai) surrounded by coral trees (thong lang).  The temple and chedi were first constructed in 1451 and renovated often since then.  The town also claims a legendary visit by the ancient Mauryan Buddhist Emperor Ashoka, who came here to lay relics, long lost, along with details of them and the journey itself.

       Continuing south along the western side of the Ping River near Hod, one comes to Wat Phrachao Tho Muang.  It sits on a small hill back from the road, while on the plain below it, closer to the Ping River stands a partly dilapidated and propped up old brick chedi from the time of Chamadevi’s boat ride from Lawo to Haripunchai, built to commemorate her overnight stop here.  A large statue of her, seated and dressed in white, dominates the compound.  Other sculptures in the vicinity depict Kings Taksin and Chulalongkorn, Guan Yin and a big red Garuda.  A red ubusot and a white viharn sit side-by-side, each twelve meters high.

       In the Haripunchai Era Hod was called Pitsadan Nakhon and became known for a tragic love story at least a thousand years ago.  The protagonists were the local princess An Fah and a young man Noi Singkham who was the son of one of the ruler’s men.  Haripunchai had had a couple centuries of peace by then, yet this period was still characterized by sharp class distinctions.  When Hod’s ruler learned of his daughter’s affair he warned her that it was forbidden and if she didn’t break it off both she and her lover would suffer grievously, implying this social infraction was a capital offense.

       The pair refused and opted to escape from Pitsadon Nakhon by horseback.  They rode towards Ban Don Dan, with the ruler’s men, including An Fah’s brother, in hot pursuit.  In danger of capture the lovers decided on joint suicide.  To accomplish this they would drive their horse over a high cliff beside the Ping River.  As they approached their plunge Noi Singkham blindfolded the horse with a white cloth so that the animal would not see what it was doing.  Still, he hesitated going through with the act and so An Fah spurred the horse to carry out the deed.  All three went down together and perished, while An Fah”s brother reached the cliff and saw the horse’s footprints at the edge.

       The spot is called Pha Wing Chu—Runaway Lovers’ Cliff.  It is 250 meters long and rises 25 meters above the Ping River.  Doi Inthanon is visible in the distance.  A shed holding large standing statues of all three players in the drama stands several meters back from the cliff and a smaller sculpture of the lovers riding the horse is near the edge.  Sympathizers of the doomed lovers, over a thousand years later, still come here to lay offering, for examples, for affairs of the heart can inspire as much regard as those of the soul.

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