By Kalinga Seneviratne
The charming city of Chiang Mai about 700 km north of Thailand’s capital Bangkok is the Kingdom’s second largest city, but, compared to Bangkok’s 9 million population this city has got just over 200,000. It’s a city with Buddhist temples at almost every corner, rich in history and tradition – a city that has grown around an ancient wall surrounded by a narrow channel, that gives it a real charm and now attracts thousands of tourists both domestic and international.
This city’s history goes back to the late 13th century to the Lana Kingdom that includes today’s northern Thailand, Laos and parts of Myanmar. While parts of the old wall has collapsed, yet, you can see some remnants of it, especially at the four corners and some rebuilt sections with bridges across the moat to reach the old city interior that is full of active temples with intricate external carvings, wooden roofs and colourful paintings depicting the Buddha’s life or other Buddhist tales on interior walls and sometimes on ceilings. There are over 300 temples – known as Wat – in and around the old city.
Since the city was founded in 1296 AD and the fact that over 700 years so many temples have survived is testament to both the skills of the original builders and the dedication of the many artisans that followed to maintain them for future generations. The Thais take pride in their Buddhist culture and heritage and these temples are testimonies to that fact. In some temples, there are English-speaking young monks who are happy to discuss Buddhism and its history with visitors, and they have set aside time in the evenings for what are called “monk chat”.
Almost at the centre of the old city is Wat Chedi Luang a tall ancient stupa about 90 meters tall, which was built 1400 years ago. It has been reduced to 60 meters after an earthquake hit the chedi in the 16th century. The stairs to reach the golden Buddha statues in the chedi are protected by Naga serpents on the sides. A black emerald Buddha statue was found to be placed inside the chedi when the earthquake hit, but, it has been taken away for safety reasons and a replica placed in the temple.
The temple house an interesting statue of a monk with a colourful story. It is a monk called Tan Phra Maha Kajjana who was an arahant and a handsome man whom most mistook to be the Buddha. He did not want people to be attached to his outer appearance, so he has transformed himself in to an ugly looking fat monk.
A closeby temple is Wat Phra Singh that was built by King Phayu in 1347 to house the ashes of his father. The temple has expanded over the years into a good example of the best elements of Lana style architecture and culture. When entering the complex, on the right of the main building, there is the library with a top wooden structure built on a stone base and on the top building is where ancient scriptures are kept, protected from floods.
A temple with a different architecture to the rest is found just outside the city gates in Wat Bhupharam which was originally built in 1497 but when the Burmese occupied the city in 1561, the Burmese monks rather than abandoning the building they have modified it with Burmese designs. Normally Thai temples have a rectangular shape while this one has a cross one with a sort of tower in the middle – a building with intricate carvings of nagas, lions and attractive roof. It has also got a library with ancient palm leaf written copies of Tripitaka and a shrine room with green jade Buddha statues.
Last but not the least, is another Wat, which is different to the rest, which has a green exterior wall carvings compared to mainly yellow or gold in most of the other temples. This temple, which is within the old city, is Wat Che Tawan. The interior has some very colorful and interesting wall paintings.
The temple architecture in general reflects the architecture you find across Laos, which is not surprising as the Lana Kingdom has covered almost the entire Laos. This architecture is different to temple architecture you find as you go south in Thailand that has more Khmer and Sri Lankan influences.