Thursday, 22 December 2011

11. Wonder: The Temple of the Emerald Buddha

(For the Temple of the Emerald Buddha preview, please click here.)

When the Siamese capital city of Ayutthaya fell in 1767, it seemed like that might be it for Thai civilisation. The Burmese came in, utterly destroyed the city, burned the libraries and literature, stole all the gold, took loads of slaves, and left the Thai world in a smouldering ruin. Ayutthaya was finished, the king was dead (starved in hiding or shot by the Burmese, depending on accounts), and a golden age was over.

But it wasn't game over. The Burmese had other problems, namely the Chinese, and couldn't waste their energy trying to control the mess of the fallen Thai nation; indeed, it's been suggested that if Ayutthaya could have just held on for a little longer, it would never have fallen. A couple of years after Ayutthaya's collapse, an military leader called Phraya Taksin declared himself king in the absence of any other ruling power. He set up shop in his new capital, just across the river from Bangkok, and who knows what could have been if soon after he hadn't started to go a bit mental, and start believing he was the new Buddha. His ministers were not so sure, and had him executed after just a year in charge.

One of Taksin's old generals then took charge, wisely not declaring himself the new Buddha. He shifted the capital across the river, to what we now know as Bangkok. What does every king need? A palace, of course. And a Grand Palace is even better. From 1782 to 1785, the first edition of the Grand Palace sitting at the heart of Bangkok was built. The general was posthumously named King Rama I, and was the first of the still-running Chakri dynasty still idolised today in Thailand (slag off the king and you can expect years in prison here).

Rama I's Grand Palace was built in the same style as the old royal palace of Ayutthaya, and like it was positioned on the riverbank, facing north. He wanted to recreate the glory of Ayutthaya, to the point of plundering bricks and materials from the ruined city to the north to build his new vision. Forts, gates, royal residences, palace walls all quickly went up. Just one more little thing needed - a temple. Ever since the Sukhothai Kingdom in the 13th Century, there had been a tradition of having a Buddhist temple as part of the royal palace; indeed, it was necessary to legitimise his reign. For this, a relic or sacred item would be required as the focal point, and Rama I had the perfect thing: the mysterious, the precious, the sacred Emerald Buddha.

A few years earlier, when still just a general serving under Taksin, Rama I had enjoyed a short excursion up north, in Laos. After a little bit of warring, he recovered or stole, depending on interpretation, the Emerald Buddha from the Lao capital, Vientiane. He gave it to Taksin, though Taksin didn't do much with it, but upon Rama I taking power and shifting his base to Bangkok and the Grand Palace, it became his symbol of a new Thailand. As the Grand Palace went up, the various buildings of the temple also went up, including the chapel that houses the Emerald Buddha. Since their construction in 1785, they have never been allowed to fall into disrepair, and ongoing maintenance goes on till this day.

The Grand Palace itself takes up a pretty large and squarish area. It's a couple of kilometres in circumference, and 218,400 square metres in area - to put that in more manageable terms, it would take about half an hour to walk round the outside, and is a little bit bigger than Buckingham Palace and its gardens. The buildings that comprise the Temple of the Emerald Buddha rest in a walled-off section at the north-east corner of the palace grounds, taking up about 10% of the total area.

In the temple area there are a number of buildings, statues, and stupas, but I would regard there as being four main buildings. Of these, the ubosoth is the largest and most significant.

The ubosoth may also be called the chapel, or the royal monastery. This is where the Emerald Buddha sits, high up on a pedestal, in a seated meditation pose. Around him is a hugely ostentatious collection of gold and statues and colours, most prominently two large golden Buddha statues of about three metres either side of the Emerald Buddha, cast in 1841 by King Rama I's grandson, Rama III. The chapel walls - which are one metre thick - are decorated with an abundance of colours and gold, telling tales from Buddha's life. The entire interior is immaculate, and despite the colours and gold is not remotely gaudy, instead being in good taste. You're not allowed to take photos inside, but here's a picture of me standing by the window.

The huge numbers of tourists that push their way around the outside of the chapel entrance, and that cluster in the small area inside, behind those who are kneeled and praying, betray the fact that this attraction is still the fully-functioning private chapel of King Rama IX. The temple's primary function remains that of the personal place of prayer for the king, as it was designed when first built in 1785. That's why it's part of the Grand Palace - the king didn't have to travel far to make his prayers. Despite being a royal monastery, no monks actually stay there. Our guide, for my second visit to the site, explained this was for practical reasons - the king originally had many wives, and he couldn't trust a bunch of sexually repressed men around them. Why build the Emerald Buddha's chapel as a monastery then, when no monks would be living there? Tradition is the simple answer. In order to fulfil the requirements of Buddhist temple architecture, a monastery is required, with all the trimmings (such as a belfry to sound the times for ceremonies and prayers), despite no monks being around to use it. Monks still visit, of course, but I'm sure the likes of King Rama V - who had around 150 wives, consorts and concubines (some of which were his half-sisters), fathering 77 children with them - kept a pretty close eye on what they were up to.

From the outside, the chapel impresses. The architectural style is hardly unique - although it's formally called Rattanakosin ("Old Bangkok") style, the similarity with buildings all around the region are clear to see. The Royal Palace in Phnom Penh (which has its own Temple of the Emerald Buddha) for one has similarities. The Khmer-style inspiration is evident. Nonetheless, the chapel, to my eyes, is the best example of the style of architecture I've seen, and the building and surrounding temple are justly famous. It's simply exquisite. It's large first of all, perhaps a little smaller than the Parthenon in Greece so not in the realms of gigantic, but still large enough to dominate the temple area. But the chapel goes beyond mere size, it's the perfect symmetry and attention to detail, and the sheer finery that impress. As with the interior, chucking so much gold on a building would usually run the risk of making it kitsch and gaudy, but this isn't the case with the chapel. Somehow, it has a subtlety. It looks opulent and right side of extravagant, and is an engrossing sight to simply behold in one view, or fascinating to walk around and admire the many details. Most admirable, or at least most notable, of these details are the hundred or so bronze garudas that surround the base of the chapel, as though holding it. These mythical (in Hinduism and Buddhism) bird-like creatures protect the chapel from evil, and each holds a naga, a serpentine creature representing evil. Poor snakes can't cut a break in any religion it seems: they of course are responsible for the fall of man in the Old Testament (though women and apples also had a say).

So I like the chapel a lot. But although the chief building of the temple complex, it is not my sole focus. It is merely the most notable part of an ensemble piece. Three other significant buildings that make up the temple are situated on a terrace just next to the chapel, and therefore are raised a little above it, and this trio together are perhaps more a more recognised image of the temple than the chapel itself.


The tallest of these is the Phra Si Ratana Chedi, the golden pagoda. Enshrining a hair of Buddha, it was a later addition to the temple, being built in 1855 under Rama IV, and was in imitation of the three stupas that made up Wat Phra Si Sanphet, my favourite temple in Ayutthaya. Like these, originally it was white, but Rama IV's son, Rama V, changed it to gold after studying in Europe. He was inspired by mosaics in Italy, so at his command the pagoda was covered in gold mosaic tiles imported from Italy. The mosaic style differentiates it from the usual gold pagoda, but otherwise it's to a pretty standard design. It's not open to the public - only the king is allowed to enter

Next to the golden pagoda is the Mondop, or the library. This dates back almost to the beginning of the temple, and was originally built from teak wood. Unfortunately, in 1788, when Rama I transferred the sacred text of the Tripitaka to his new library, he had a big celebration, and sparks from the firework burnt the library down. Oops. However, the Tripitaka was saved, and a new library built the following year, with a more cautious fireworks display. We see this version today. Like the golden pagoda, only the king is allowed to go in.

The third major building, and the second largest building in the temple, is the Royal Pantheon. Another later addition by Rama IV, this was started in 1856 but wasn't finished until after Rama IV's death. It was initially designed as the new home for the Emerald Buddha, as Rama IV thought the chapel was too low, or lower than the Tripitaka housed in the library (which being on the terrace was at a higher elevation) at any rate. The Tripitaka, in one form, is the Buddhist law, and Buddha is supposed to be above the law, and so Rama IV wanted this to literally be the case as well as symbolically. But rather stupidly, it was built much smaller than the chapel, and so was too small for royal ceremony. When Rama V took over, he took a look at it and said "no." So they put a bunch of other statues in instead, and it doesn't really do very much. Depending on who you speak to, it's open to the public between one and seven times a year.

These are all the chief buildings of the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, and the buildings that have the largest gatherings of tourists and tour groups congregating around, but there are plenty others. Notably, also on the terrace, is a large scale model of Angkor Wat. It's a funny experience, visiting one Wonder to find a small replica of a different Wonder inside it. It's another Rama IV creation. During his reign, Angkor was in Thai territory, and Rama IV was an admirer of Khmer architecture. He originally wanted to move an entire Angkor temple to Bangkok as he thought people would find it interesting, but as you might imagine this was a slightly unworkable idea. So he made a replica of Angkor Wat instead. I'm all for this and would be delighted to discover a miniature, say, Colosseum inside the Tower of Pisa, or miniature Easter Island statues in Machu Picchu.

The entire effect of the buildings and statues, not to mention the finely-done and vivid painting from Hindu mythology that run along the gallery walls that surround the temple, is one of surprisingly tasteful ostentation. I've outlined my admiration for the main chapel already, and this extends to the entire complex. The chapel is certainly the best building there, but its enhanced by its surroundings. It's glitz, it's bright, it's shiny, but it's charming and elegant. Fit for a king.

I made two visits to the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, and unfortunately I don't feel either did the place justice. For the first time in my Wonder quest, I feel I need to visit a Wonder again. I don't think it will much affect my final assessment of it, but I also don't think I was able to fully soak it in. There's a lot to see and admire, and on neither occasion did I fully manage that. My first visit was alone, as Burness was tired and visited the temple many years ago on a separate holiday. It was the middle of the day, the sun was hot, the tourists were absolutely everywhere, and I realised I was horribly hungover. I walked around and enjoyed what I saw, but my head was pounding and I didn't spend too much time there. On my second visit, this time with Burness, we got a guide to show us around, a Thai guy apparently called "Jeff". Jeff spoke excellent English, and gave an excellent account of the temple, and really helped me appreciate the different buildings and their meaning. My only criticism was the sheer pace of the tour, which 45 minutes later was over. This wouldn't have been a big problem, but the finishing point of the tour was outside the temple - and I would have had to pay another 400 Baht (£8) to get back in!

And so I fully intended, on my final morning in Bangkok, the day after returning from Ayutthaya, to get up early, arrive at the entrance at the 8.30am opening time, and take the audio tour, hopefully in a slightly less tourist-jammed temple. I would have time to enjoy my surroundings and let them sink in. Alas, the night before dictated otherwise, and I only got back to the hotel at 6am, after a night of Thai boxing, getting stopped by police and witnessing a forced £1000 bribe for drug possession, and throwing ping-pong balls at go-go dancers. There was no way I was able to visit the Temple of the Emerald Buddha at 8.30am that morning.

Regretfully then, I don't think I'll fully got to grips with this Wonder, but at the same time, I feel my assessment now is probably close to what my ultimate assessment would be. And that is: I like it a lot. It's just... well, beautiful. Even the throngs of tourists and my pounding hangover didn't distract from this. It's all just so elegant, so detailed, so masterfully done. A masterpiece of architecture, it is fair to say. At the heart of Bangkok, at the heart of Thailand, this is deservedly the country's premier temple and spiritual heart.

Some criteria then.

Size: It's a collection of buildings rather than one single giant buildings, and none of them are huge. Big, but not huge.
Engineering: Well built, but to tried and tested techniques, and the fact they were all built in the space of a few years shows that the construction was straightforward.
Artistry: Architectural masterpieces. The beauty of the Temple of Emerald Buddha, especially the chapel that houses the Emerald Buddha, is the highlight. The balance between extravagance and good taste is perfect.
Age/Durability: Around two hundreds years old mostly, the buildings are kept in immaculate condition by the nation, and as long as there is a Thai nation these buildings will exist. However, they have burnt down before, and without continual maintenance I don't think they would survive the aeons and shifts of time.
Fame/Iconicity: The soul of Thailand, and perhaps Bangkok's chief tourist attraction. Outside of south-east Asia though, they are not widely recognised. Anyone who has been to Thailand will know about it; anyone who hasn't probably won't.
Context: Part of the Grand Palace, which is as grand as the name suggests. Despite being in the middle of Bangkok, the high walls around the complex shut out the chaos of the city, so that walking around the temple feels removed from what's going outside the walls.
Back Story: The Emerald Buddha has an elaborate mythical back story going back a couple of thousand years, and is the icon of Thailand. The story of its temple is pretty much the story of the birth of modern Bangkok and Thailand.
Originality: Although an outstanding piece of Khmer-inspired architecture, the style is not hugely original.

I liked the Temple of the Emerald Buddha a lot, much more than I had expected to. It's a worthy spiritual icon for Thailand, and is certainly Thailand's Wonder. But as a World Wonder? No, I don't think so. Its impact is through beauty, not size, and although the impact of size is not the be-all and end-all of Wonders, it doesn't have the originality, the engineering marvel, or the sense of timelessness to further distinguish it (as the Sydney Opera House does, you could argue). Still, despite the crowds of tourists, I found it a pleasure. The temple buildings are among the most masterly and finely-decorated I have visited, and I would rate it a firm mid-table position for all the Wonders I've so far visited, nudging a little ahead of the Shwedagon Pagoda.

The Seven Wonders of the World So Far
1. Angkor Wat
2. Sydney Opera House
3. Borobudur
4. Petronas Towers
5. Temple of the Emerald Buddha
6. Shwedagon Pagoda
7. Bodhi Tataung Standing Buddha

Notable Landmarks (or National Wonders)
Banaue Rice Terraces

Interesting Places
Ananda Temple in Bagan
Marina Bay Sands

Ayutthaya Historic Park

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