Discovering Buddha in Bangkok

By Barbara Rizza Mellin

On my trip to Thailand last year, I discovered that Buddhist temples (or wats) are ubiquitous throughout the country, especially in Bangkok. Mixed among the towering skyscrapers in this city of more than six million people, 95 percent of whom practice Buddhism, are countless temples, some relatively simple and many beautifully ornate. The statues of Buddha housed within offer an astonishing variety of styles, mediums and poses—standing, sitting, walking and lying down. Among them is an 11,000-pound solid gold statue in Chinatown’s Wat Triamit, a diminutive, but treasured “Emerald Buddha” at Wat Phra Kaew, and an enormous Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho.

Wat Pho, the oldest and largest temple in Bangkok, is a royal monastery and temple dating back to 1656. Following the war with Burma (now Myanmar), the King, wishing to preserve Thailand’s identity and culture, collected Buddha statues from throughout the country. A double colonnade of these statues, 150 in the inner and 244 in the outer rows, surrounds the Phra Ubosot or prayer room of Wat Pho. All are made of cast bronze and have been restored, lacquered and gilded with gold. In addition to these figures, four large Buddha statues mark the cardinal entrance points of the temple.

Phra Buddha Theva Patimakorn is the main image in the Phra Ubsot. Its name means, “The Buddha built by heavenly beings.” In reality built by King Rama I, this golden Buddha sits with hands resting atop his folded legs in a posture of concentration. An elaborate base, ordered by King Rama III adds height and majesty to the statue. The room is further adorned with images from the life of Buddha.

This temple is best known, however, for the reclining Buddha statue, Phra Buddha Saitas. Lacquered and gilded, the figure is 150 feet long and approximately 50 feet high! After removing my shoes (as one must in all Asian temples), I proceeded around the interior perimeter of the building viewing the statue, segment by segment, as it is too big to view at one time within the confined temple space. Buddha’s feet alone are more than 16 feet long and almost 10 feet high. His soles are inlaid with mother of pearl in patterns that depict “auspiciousness” according the Sri Lankan tradition. Wat Pho alone is home to 1,000 images of Buddha.

The Grand Palace complex, established in 1782, consists of a royal residence, government offices and the temple of the Emerald Buddha, Wat Phra Kaew. Actually made from a solid block of green jade, this Buddha is only about two feet tall. Yet, it is one of the most revered and iconic statues in Thailand. The diminutive sculpture is thought to bring prosperity to all who worship it, and on my visit the crowd of worshipers and tourists was quite large. First discovered in 1464 in Chiang Rai, it was taken to Laos and Chiang Mai before being permanently positioned in Bangkok. Today, it sits upon an elaborate stepped pedestal adorned with 112 Garudas (king of birds) and is flanked on both sides by 10-foot tall standing, crowned Buddhas. Murals on the walls represent Buddhist cosmology and scenes from the life of Buddha. The statue wears a different costume for each of Thailand’s three seasons (summer, rainy and winter).

In addition to these magnificent statues in the current capital, there are statues of Buddha found throughout Thailand, especially in the early capital cities of Sukhothai (1238-1438) and Ayutthaya (1351-1767) when the country was known as Siam. (I will discuss these two former capitals in another column.)

Barbara Rizza Mellin is an award-winning author and artist. She is a member of Winston Salem Writers and Associated Artists. Her art can be seen during September at the Red Wall Gallery, Yadkin Arts Center and throughout 2018 at PTI Airport, Executive Center, Main Terminal, Greenhill Center for N.C. Artists, Greensboro, and Artworks Gallery, Winston-Salem.

All photos by Bruce A. Mellin


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