Monday, 27 June 2011

Preview: The Temple Of The Emerald Buddha

Meet the Emerald Buddha.

This cheeky little chap is a good example of how size sometimes doesn't matter. Despite only being 66cm high and tubby 48cm wide, he has managed to gather an entire temple complex around him...

Now, first things first, and there is a slightly awkward truth to get out of the way. The Emerald Buddha is not made of emerald, no; instead he is made of the still-green but slightly less precious jade. This is sometimes justified by stating that it is merely the emerald colour that the name references, but one cannot think that the name is slightly misleading. Trading standards in Britain surely wouldn't have it.

If the Emerald Buddha was made of actual emerald, he would fetch quite a handy price in the sales. Even at a very conservative price of $500 per carat, with a carat equalling 0.2 grams and the Emerald Buddha weighing an estimated 5000 grams, the value would be in the region of $2.5 billion. Likely it would be much more. That's a gross simplification of emerald pricing, but it gives you an idea. Being made of jade would lower the cost by about 90%, a still quite handy $250,000,000 plus. But that's not really the point, for a price can't be put on something priceless, which is what the Emerald Buddha is as a sacred and venerated icon of Thailand. To give a sense of quite how important the Emerald Buddha is, only one person in the world is allowed to touch him, and that is his caretaker - which just happens to be the Thai king. As anyone who has visited Thailand will know, the Thai people take their royalty a little more seriously than we in the UK do, and instead of hounding our figureheads to death, punishment is meted out to anyone who even insults them with up to twenty years in prison. Therefore, that King Rama IX, a figure of worship in Thailand, is just the man who changes the Emerald Buddha's clothes gives some indication of how precious this little 66cm high fellow is.

Yes, changing its clothes is one of the king's duties, performed three times annually. The Emerald Buddha likes to dress for the seasons, and so three times a year there is a costume-changing ceremony performed, with robes for either the hot, raining or winter seasons being put on. Traditionally, as part of the purification rites, the king would then spray water over the princes and officials in attendance in the temple that houses the Emerald Buddha, but this has been extended by King Rama IX into spraying his loyal subjects standing outside too. It's all become somewhat of a holy water fight. Add some buxom beauties and you've got a rap video.

The Emerald Buddha and his caretaker king are intrinsically linked, going back all the way to the beginnings of King Rama IX's Chakri dynasty in 1782. That was when his predecessor, King Rama I (all the kings in between have also been called Rama), began construction of the Grand Palace in Bangkok, with the intention of recreating the glory of the ruined Thai city and kingdom of Ayutthaya, destroyed mere decades earlier but that had once dominated south-east Asia. Within this palace, a temple complex - Wat Phra Kaew or the Temple of the Emerald Buddha - was built, with the actual individual temple to house the icon built in 1783. In the early days he was taken out on little jaunts and parades around the streets, to help relieve the kingdom of diseases and other misfortunes, but he has otherwise remained in his lofty position inside his principle temple in the complex.

Given the history of the Emerald Buddha, I would suppose he misses these little adventures, for the early history of the Emerald Buddha was quite action packed. In fact, it is difficult to separate myth from actual history, with some of the more mythical accounts rooting him right back to 43BC. In these, a devoted but grief-stricken monk called Nagasena was asked to retrieve a large precious stone in order to carve a Buddha, by the Hindu gods Vishnu (the supreme Hindu god) and Indra (King of the gods, and the god of weather and war), to pay their respects to the kings of Siam - even though Siam wouldn't recognisably exist for another 1200 years. Nagasena was a little afraid, for the precious stone location of Mount Velu was full of dark demons, but Vishnu and Indra kindly accompanied him, and everything was ok, as one would expect when accompanied by the supreme god and the king of gods. Nagasena successfully carved the Emerald Buddha, felt less grief-stricken, and the Emerald Buddha had many adventures over the following centuries, including flying kings and what could be interpreted as rampant time-travelling.

Something closer to reality has the Emerald Buddha emerging in the mid 15th Century, upon a 1434 lightning strike on a stupa in Chiang Rai in northern Thailand. This uncovered the Emerald Buddha, hiding underneath a more ordinary stone image. Regardless of whether this is true or just a further part of the myth that was spun around a particularly valuable chunk of carved jade, the Emerald Buddha quickly assumed venerated status and moved around a number of places before setting in the Lao capital of Vientiane for over 200 years, eventually making its way into Thai hands in 1779.

The Emerald Buddha is merely the centrepiece of the temple, temple complex and indeed the Grand Palace all built around it and in the historic centre of Bangkok. The complex is built in the traditional Thai architectural style, which is ornate and colourful, and features numerous buildings, statues and monuments. Unlike old ancient buildings, the Emerald Buddha temple complex is not frozen in time as a museum to its own existence, but is a "living" monument, undergoing a major restoration and repainting every fifty years, and continuing the same ceremonial functions for over two hundred years.

I'll be visiting the Temple of the Emerald Buddha in October, where I will give a fuller account of the history of the complex, as well as bringing a change of clothes for the Emerald Buddha himself (I feel he needs some smart evening attire).

Reviewed 23rd December 2011.

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