By Kalinga Seneviratne
The temple of the huge reclining Buddha known as Wat Pho is one of the most well-known and popular cultural icons of Thailand. The lacquered and gilded image made with brick and stucco is 46 meters in length and 15 meters in height, with the feet 5 meters long and 4 meters in width. The patterns crafted on the soles of the Buddha is believed to contain auspicious signs that were found by Brahamins in Prince Sidartha’s soles five days after his birth.
Millions of people visit Wat Pho every year, many believing that worshipping here bring them peace and happiness. Many foreign tourists in particular come here to have an authentic Thai massage perhaps wondering what has Buddhism got to do with massage?
The temple is regarded as Thailand’s first Open University, which was set up in the mid-19th century where a medical school was established teaching traditional Thai medicine. Murals and scriptures inscribed in walls are still seen around the temple buildings and in 2011 UNESCO recognised the historic significance of these and entered the 1,431 of the stone inscriptions here into their “Memory of the World’. This listing recognized heritage documents of universal value.
Though originally influenced by Indian Ayurvedic and Chinese medical sciences, the collection of knowledge in the inscriptions are seen today as uniquely Thai in flavor reflecting Thai wisdom and heritage. These came into being during the reign of King Rama III in the 18th century, when he had sages and royal scholars reviewing various treatises on poetry, traditional medicine and medical recipes, and had these knowledge inscribed into stone plates that were put up as decorations around the buildings and structures of the temple. These can be seen in its original settings (but with some glass coverings) even today.
Since 1955, the old university has been transformed into a private medical school known as Wat Po Thai Traditional Medical School where training is provided not only in Thai massage but also in traditional Thai midwifery, old age heathcare and pharmacy. Their graduates are employed across Thailand in healthcare centres, spas and hospitals. While the training school is now located just outside the temple, their graduates operates two Thai massage clinics inside the temple premises on its perimeter.
Wat Pho is a first grade royal monastery and temple going back to the first reign of the royal house of Chakri (18th century). Right around the temple shrine rooms are pagodas of varying sizes and colours. The pagodas are decorated in colourful ceremics and different colours depict the reign of the king under whom these were built.
Many of the gates are guarded by bearded “Chinese Dolls” that fascinates many visitors. The figures were used as ballast to stabilize ships that were coming in trading with China, and later they were placed in the temple as decorations. All figures, however, are not of Chinese men.
One of the most valuable art works of Wat Pho are the murals painted on assembly hall walls that depicts various stories connected with Buddhism and reflect Thai traditional medical knowledge. They were created by skilled artistsans and monks of the early Rattanakosin period. The art works reflects the lifestyle of that period and Thai beliefs.
Enshrined all over the outer galleries and assembly hall are Buddha images of various sizes and styles. There are almost 400 Buddha images that were brought to Bangkok during various periods from all over Thailand. Thus, the styles reflect the sculptural skills and traditions of various eras and areas. Wat Pho has restored, lacquered and gilded the images.
The main Buddha image is the Phra Buddha Theva Patimakorn image in gold that was brought here during the reign of King Rama I and its base built by King Rama III. It resides in the main assembly hall Phra Ubosot.
Wat Pho is thus not only a temple of worship but also a traditional healing training centre and clinic, and a gallery of Thai arts and traditional wisdom.