The Multi-Layered Heritage of Wat Phra Yuen

Even among the select group of visitors who include Lamphun on their itineraries to Northern Thailand, the temple of Wat Phra Yuen is likely to be passed over. This is a shame because it is arguably one of the oldest temples in the region and one which has vestiges from three different kingdoms: Haripunchai, Sukothai and Lanna. In this it can be seen as a composite of a millennium of different political and cultural influences in this small part of the world. Yet in spite of these claims, it retains a very unassuming appearance.

Unlike most of Lamphun’s sights, it is nowhere near the walled and moated core of the old town. Instead, it is a few kilometres away, amidst the rice-fields which surround the small city. When we arrived around lunchtime on a Sunday, we found no one else around. Parking the motorbike on the leafy grounds of the wat, we wandered around, taking a look at the ensemble of temple buildings. There are two main structures at the site: a comparatively modern vihaan and an ancient stupa. Though you will see both as soon as you enter the compound, we decided to examine the vihaan first and save the stupa for last.

While the vihaan is relatively modern, probably dating to within the last few decades, it is a colourful example of a Northern Thai temple which is worth at least a few minutes of your time. On the outside you can see wooden naga finials on the tips of the eaves, stone temple guardians crouching on the balustrades of the staircase and elaborately decorated windows with coloured glass inlay. The inside of the temple is even more lively; the focal point is a large Buddha depicted in the touching-the-earth posture. Seated at the far end of the hall, before it are a row of slender, wooden columns with lotus-bud capitals. Both the columns and architraves are painted red and decorated with gold stencil work. The overall effect is surprisingly elegant. There are also some beautiful carvings in the window panels, most of them depicting standing Buddhas with flowing robes. However, a brief look around will probably suffice as the wat’s greatest treasure is outside in the yard.

On the grounds of the wat is a large, white stupa which is one of Lamphun’s links back to the kingdom of Haripunchai, an ethically Mon kingdom which, it is claimed, ruled the region between the seventh and thirteenth centuries. The prevailing mythology about Haripunchai also propounds that the kingdom was founded by a legendary ruler by the name of Queen Chamadevi. A statue of her graces the centre of town to the present day. In truth, the surviving monuments and statues of Haripunchai go back as far as the tenth century but no earlier, so the kingdom may not be quite as old as legend would have it. Nonetheless, Lamphun is certainly an ancient city which was founded and ruled by the Mon ethnic minority for many centuries before it was incorporated into the dominant Northern Thai kingdom of Lanna. And recent archaeological work at Wat Phra Yuen has confirmed that the lowest level of the stupa at the temple (consisting of the foundations and some monk’s prayer cells) are, indeed, of Haripunchai heritage. This monument has more than a thousand years of history behind it. On the other hand, its present form bears scant resemblance to how it would have appeared in the days of Queen Chamadevi.

A standing Buddha in one of the prayer niches

Its first major renovation was when a huge Sukothai-style mondop was built over the original Mon monument. It was at this point that it first attained its current monolithic proportions. In this Sukothai-era reconstruction, it would have had a large, pointed roof on top. Local residents suggest that this may have been extent as late as the early twentieth-century when the crumbling monument was reconstructed again as a squarish stupa. This third version shows a clear influence from the Pagan style of Burma. It is worth noting, however, that, apart from these three major renovations, numerous minor adjustments would also have been added over the centuries.

In its current form, it has a monumental square base with four, grand staircases, one located in the centre of each side. A low parapet runs around the edge of the upper terrace, clearly demarcating the upper portions from the base. On the terrace (which is not admissible to visitors), you can see a couple of lesser stupas. In the centre of the terrace is a large block of masonry, which is patchily whitewashed. On each side there is a long, deep niche, where a large, Sukothai-style standing Buddha can be found. While most of the monument shows signs of dilapidation, these images are well-maintained. If anything, their brilliant gold coats of paint might look too clean and bright for some tastes. On top of the monument is an ornate, tiered roof, topped with a golden parasol. The signs of deterioration notwithstanding, this is still a venerable monument, whose mixed heritage makes it worth the time of any historically-minded passerby.

One of the ornamental staircases of the main stupa

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