Wat Mahawan Woramahawihan: The Shrine of Phra Sila Dam

In March 2018, we returned to Lamphun after a 12-year absence. Arriving on a rented motorbike from Chiang Mai (a city located about 25km to the north of Lamphun), we not only revisited the city’s major sites but also saw some lesser ones which we’d missed on our first visit. One of the ones which we visited for the first time was Wat Mahawan Woramahawihan, a Lamphun city wat which housed the holiest Buddha image in the whole province- Phra Sila Dam.

The wat is located near the city moat in the historic core of the city. This makes it an easy add-on to a visit to Lamphun’s main sight, the magnificent, gilded temple of Wat Phra That Haripunchai. However, as we soon learned, Wat Mahawan Woramahawihan is one of those Thai wats which vividly illustrates the difference between legend and reality. According to legend, the wat had been established in 667 by Queen Chamadevi of the Haripunchai Kingdom. It had been built to house a black statue which was war booty from a war against Lavo, which was the former name for the modern city of Lopburi. The statue- variously known as Phra Sila Dam (The Black Stone Image), Phra Phutta Sikkhi or Phra Rot Lamphun- can still be seen at the temple today, and it attracts a steady flow of Thai pilgrims. But while the statue itself is clearly of great age, the buildings at the wat belie the claims of its great antiquity.

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A close-up of the famous statue, with gold-leaf accretions

By and large, the current complex dates back not to the 7th century but rather the 1940s. However, isn’t to deny that it has some heritage value. Of particular note is the hor trai (Buddhist scripture library), which is an attractive old timber building with dramatic gables, tipped with the ubiquitous Thai roof ornaments known as chofah. In front of it is a tall, thin belltower of similar vintage. Other structures from this period include a small, wooden shrine and a drum tower. Nearby there is an exotic-looking sala tree ,which has pink blossoms of an otherworldly appearance. Apparently, the species has associations with Buddhist mythology. On the other hand, it can’t even be as old as the library building.

Of greater promise for antiquity-spotters is the golden chedi behind the wat. Consisting of of bricks, plaster and gold plating, the chedi clearly has greater durability than the other parts of the temple, which are mostly built of wood. However, the chedi is designed in the style of the Lanna kingdom, not the earlier Haripunchai kingdom, which had a very different aesthetic style. That means that there is no reason to believe that the chedi was a product of the Haipunchai kingdom, let alone the reign of the legendary Queen Chamadevi. However, it is possible that the current chedi was built over the core of an older structure, as this had often been the case in Thailand.

From there we went to see the main vihaan, which was where Phra Sila Dam was enshrined. Like most of the complex, it seemed to date back no more than a few decades. It has a multi-tiered roof and a three-headed naga balustrade on the front steps. It made me curious to see what this temple looked like in the early twentieth-century and if anyone has any period photographs, I’d certainly be keen to look at them. Nonetheless, we were really there to see Phra Sila Dam, so went inside, hoping to spot the venerable image.

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The tusk-flanked image of Phra Sila Dam

There were a couple of friendly women who worked as attendants at the temple, selling amulets cast in the image of Phra Sila Dam. They also collected donations for the upkeep of the temple. They confirmed to us that the image could be seen inside the vihaan and showed us a photo of what to look for. It was located at the far end of the vihaan, as part of a dazzling tableau of gold and mosaic work, elephant tusks, lotus-shaped ornaments and electric candles. The largest element was a large, seated Buddha set on a lotus pedestal with beautiful glass inlay, but this was not the revered image. Phra Sila Dam was set in front of it, flanked by a pair of elegant tusks.

The venerated image was modest in size, its formerly black stone now coated in a thick layer of gold-lead. It showed a seated Buddha with a highly stylized naga hood. He had the blunt, thick-lipped features of Mon Buddhas, which suggested that it was of considerable age, the Thais having conquered the Mon kingdoms of Thailand as far back as the thirteenth century. Famous with Thais, this image is rarely seen by foreigners, but this was clearly a shame. It is is an interesting but little-known link to the Haripunchai kingdom and possibly even its legendary founding monarch, Queen Chamadevi. A visit here is likely to be rewarding for the historically-minded tourist.

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