Ku Chang Ku Ma: The War Elephant’s Shrine

The final stop on our trip around the lesser-known sights of Lamphun was Ku Chang Ku Ma, a pair of brick ancient brick stupas reputed to have associations with the legendary Queen Chamadevi. It is set on a quiet, leafy street in the suburbs of the small city. Coming on a motorbike, it only takes a few minutes from the major wats of Lamphun’s old town. While it is certainly not an overwhelming site, for those looking for traces of the old Mon kingdom of Haripunchai, it should definitely be on your list. History aside, it is also notable for the highly unusual design of its main stupa, the shape of which is totally unique among the ancient monuments of Thailand.

Arriving on a Sunday afternoon, we pulled up in the site car-park. There were a couple of street-stall vendors selling rice and drinks to visitors. At the time of our visit there were a dozen pilgrims who had stopped by the venerable brick monuments to lay garlands, burn incense or simply sit around enjoying drinks and snacks. Situated directly opposite the car-park, the main stupa is flanked by spirit-houses and statues of war-elephants with raised trunks (a modern addition), most of which have been liberally decked with garlands. Like so many shrines in Thailand, it has an aura of serene mysticism.

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Ku Chang Ku Ma

The stupa now consists of exposed red brick but traces of plaster remain on the upper portions. It would probably have been entirely covered with plaster originally; the Mon ethnic group were masters at decorating their religious monuments with stucco. In terms of shape, it is a cylinder which tapers towards the top. While this is the only surviving example of the this kind of stupa in Thailand, it is comparatively common in the Mon sites of Myanmar. For instance, there is one beautiful example on the Irrawaddy riverfront at the famous archaeological site of Bagan. This could be a suggestion of cultural exchange between the Mon kingdom of Haripunchai, which was based in Lamphun, and the Mon kingdoms of ancient Myanmar.

According to local legend, Ku Chang Ku Ma was built by Haripunchai’s founder, Queen Chamadevi, who ruled the area in the 7th century. The stupa is said to entomb the tusks of the queen’s most fearsome and revered war-elephant, which obviously explains the surrounding statues. It is also worth mentioning that the Thai word for elephant is chaang, which is reflected in the shrine’s modern name. Behind the main shrine is another more typically shaped stupa, which is said to be the tomb of Queen Chamadevi’s war horse. Whatever the truth of these claims, the shape of the main monument gives some credence to the fact it is of Mon lineage, which means it probably dates back to at least the early 13th century. For this reason alone, it is a must-see monument for anyone tracing the region’s Haripunchai heritage.

 

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