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  Cover story : 25 Aug 05 / Vol. 22 No. 10

  The Emerald         Buddha's
  Eventful History           Traces of the   image's journeys
                                          By Inthira
  Photos by Induang and by courtesy of TAT

Visiting Thailand, a country where Buddhism has flourished for more than one thousand years, you will not be astonished to see a large number of Buddhist monasteries and Buddha images. In lists of tourist attractions in Bangkok, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha (Wat Phra Kaeo) is the most prominent place where all tourists must pay a visit because it houses the Emerald Buddha, the most sacred Buddha image of Thailand.

The Emerald Buddha in the costumes
of the cool, hot and rainy seasons, respectively.

In spite of the Buddha image's significance, very few people, even the Thais, know about its long eventful history. The image had gone through long journeys before being enshrined in the Temple of the Emerald Buddha in Bangkok. Those journeys give explanations why there are several temples with the same name Wat Phra Kaeo in the North of Thailand.

For travellers who are interested in history or Buddhism, paying homage to historical sites or temples housing or involved in the journeys of the Emerald Buddha is well worthwhile. Moreover, going to these ancient temples will allow you to appreciate the splendour of their ancient architecture, sculpture and paintings as well.

About the Emerald Buddha
The image is carved from a fine block of jade, not emerald which refers to its colour only. In the usual cross-legged sitting posture, the statue measures 48.3 cm (1ft. 7in.) across the lap and 66 cm. (2ft. 1.98 in.) high from base to top.

The Temple of the Emerald Buddha, Bangkok

The journeys of the Emerald Buddha
Historical evidences of the Emerald Buddha have been discovered in both written records and archaeological facts.
As for the written records, there are several ancient documents mentioning the Emerald Buddha. From these, historians drew conclusions that the image was built in 43 B.C. by Phra Nagasena Thera in Pataliputtara Town (today's Patana State of India). After that, Phra Kaeo was moved to be enshrined in numerous significant cities as will be described below.

In A.D. 257, a war broke out in India, so the Emerald Buddha found his way to Ceylon. Then in A.D. 457, King Anurut the Great of the Pukam Kingdom dispatched a group of high-ranking Buddhist monks to Ceylon to ask for the bestowal of the image. The request was granted and the image was transferred in a junk. On the way, a storm drove the junk to Kamphuchea (today's Cambodia). A flood hit the town afterwards, thus Phra Kaeo was moved to Inthapat town in Angkor Wat. Later on, Phra Kaeo was brought to Ayutthaya (the former capital of Thailand A.D.1350-1767) in the reign of King U-thong (1350-1369).

A detail from the mural paintings at Wat Hongrattanaram, Bangkok,
depicting Phra Kaeo in a junk.

In the reign of King Ramesuan (1369-1370) of the Ayutthaya Kingdom, the Emerald Buddha was moved to the Wachira Prakan Kingdom (today's Kamphaeng Phet). Then in A.D. 1391, the image found its way to Chiang Rai, where it was covered with layers of plaster and was put in a stupa in a temple by Chao Mahaphrom. After that, the stupa was struck by a thunderbolt and Phra Kaeo, mistaken for an ordinary Buddha statue, was placed among many others in a vihara. A few months later, the stucco covering the nose of the statue came off. Seeing that the inside was in bright green, the abbot of the temple had the coverings of the whole object removed. It was then known to everybody that it was made of a single piece of jade pure and flawless. The image became known as Phra Kaeo Morakot, meaning the Emerald Buddha, and the temple housing it was known as Wat Phra Kaeo.

King Samfangkaen of Chiang Mai sent a convoy to bring the Emerald Buddha to his capital in A.D.1436.

However, when the party came to a junction where three roads met, the elephant carrying the image became excited and ran towards Lampang instead of Chiang Mai as intended. The beast was calmed down but again it became frightened when it was taken back to the junction. It was replaced with a tame one but the same thing happened again. Therefore, the Buddha image was carried to a temple especially built in Lampang named Wat Phra Kaeo Dontao Suchadaram, where the image was kept for 32 years until A.D.1468.

After King Tilokkarat was enthroned in that year, he moved the Emerald Buddha to Chiang Mai. Then in A.D. 1551, the king died without an heir. Prince Chaiyachetta of Laos, whose mother was the daughter of a former king of Chiang Mai, was chosen by the nobles and the high priests to be the next ruler.

The next year Prince Chaiyachetta's father died and the Prince's younger brothers vied with each other for the throne. The prince was called back to Luang Prabang, the capital of Laos, to suppress the strife. Uncertain of his own future, the prince took the Emerald Buddha with him when going back to Laos, on the pretext of providing opportunities for his relatives there to worship it.

Prince Chaiyachetta became King of Laos after reestablishing order in the country. He could not and did not return to Chiang Mai, because the nobles of Chiang Mai had in the meantime invited Meku of Muang Nai, who was of the royal blood, to be their new king, for fear that Chiang Mai would become a vassal state of Laos.

A painting on the inside of the dome of The Ananda Samakhom Hall in Bangkok, depicting King Rama I, founder of the Chakri Dynasty, riding on elephant back upon his triumphant return from an expedition.

And the Emerald Buddha was kept in Luang Prabang for 12 years.

In A.D. 1564, King Chaiyachetta moved his capital to Vientiane to avoid confrontation with the neighbouring Kingdom of Mon, which was emerging as a new power. He again took the Emerald Buddha along. It was placed there for the next 214 years.

Wat Phra Kaeo, Chiang Rai province

Finally, in A.D.1779, the Emerald Buddha was brought back to Thailand safe and sound, by none other than the founder of the present Chakri Dynasty of Thailand himself, Chao Phraya Chakri (later King Rama I). At that time Phra Kaeo was housed at the Temple of Dawn.

When Chao Phraya Chakri became king and established Bangkok as capital in A.D.1782, he ordered the construction of Wat Phra Kaeo within the compound of his palace to house the Emerald Buddha up to the present time.

Temples Used to House the Emerald Buddha

Here are brief descriptions of the temples used to house the Emerald Buddha:

1. Wat Phra Kaeo, Kamphaeng Phet (358 km north of Bangkok)
Wat Phra Kaeo, Kamphaeng Phet, is one among the world heritages of Kamphaeng Phet Historical Park which is located next to today's Kamphaeng Phet town.
This historical site is situated in the heart of the ancient Wachira Prakan Kingdom and adjacent to the palace compound as was practised in former times. The temple's architectural plan is rectangular and it stands parallel to the city wall. In the vicinity of the monastery, 35 bases of ruined stupas of different styles were discovered. There also stand remains of 8 viharas and 3 ordination halls. All these remind us of its significance in the old days. A principal Ceylonese stupa was found in the centre of the temple compound. Its base was surrounded by lion figures standing in niches.

Kamphaeng Phet Historical Site

2. Wat Phra Kaeo, Chiang Rai (785 km north of Bangkok)
Wat Phra Kaeo, Chiang Rai, is located at Thai Rat Road, Chiang Rai town. Formerly, its name was Wat Pa Yia (Yia is a kind of local bamboo.) In A.D. 1434, as mentioned above, the stupa was struck by a thunderbolt. A stucco Buddha image was exposed to be made of jade, which is the Emerald Buddha. Nowadays, a replica of the Emerald Buddha is enshrined here instead of the original one which was moved to Bangkok.

A replica of the Emerald Buddha enshrined in Phra Kaeo Hall, Wat Phra Kaeo, Chiang Rai province

3. Wat Phra Kaeo Dontao Suchadaram, Lampang (599 km north of Bangkok)
Wat Phra Kaeo Dontao Suchadaram, situated on Suchada Road, Lampang town, aged more than a thousand years, is a beautiful ancient temple featuring the typical Northern Thai temple architecture. There are venerable constructions in the monastery such as Phra Barommathat Dontao, a large stupa containing the Buddha's hair relic, Vihara of Phra Chao Thong Thip, built by Queen Chammathewi, aged more than a thousand years as well, a mondop showing Burmese art influence and the Lanna Museum.

Wat Phra Kaeo Dontao Suchadaram,
Lampang province

4. Wat Chedi Luang, Chiang Mai (696 km north of Bangkok)
Wat Chedi Luang on Phra Pok Klao Road centrally located in Chiang Mai town is where the largest stupa in Chiang Mai, built in the 7th reign of the Meng Rai Dynasty (A.D.1386-1401) is situated. The stupa was renovated in the reign of King Tilokkarat and was used to house the Emerald Buddha for a period of 85 years (A.D. 1468-1553).
The stairway to the entrance of the principal vihara has an exquisite pair of stuccoed naga, which are considered as the most beautiful naga of the North. Besides, there is a city pillar called Sao Inthakhin, constructed in A.D. 1296 when King Meng Rai the Great, the founder of Chiang Mai, established Chiang Mai town. At present, this pillar, made of a whole large log buried under the ground, was sheltered in a small Thai-style vihara and is celebrated yearly around May.

Wat Chedi Luang, Chiang Mai province.

In addition to paying homage to these sacred places, you can make side trips to various tourist attractions nearby to enjoy sightseeing. More about the story of the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, Bangkok.

Special thanks to Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) Northern Office (Region1,2,3&4) for giving Thaiways useful information and opportunity to visit these historical places.

For the correct pronunciation of romanized Thai words, see
Romanization System of the Thai Language.

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