Ho Trai in Lamphun

One of the lesser-sung buildings in the tradition of religious architecture in Thailand is the ho trai or Buddhist scripture library. The best place to see one on a trip to the ancient town of Lamphun is undoubtedly at Phra That Hariphunchai, which is the premier temple in town. There is much to enjoy at the wat including some extremely rare chedis from the Haripunchai kingdom, but it also worth sparing some attention for its library. This one is very much in the Lanna architectural tradition, bearing a close resemblance to the famous cousin at Wat Phra Singh in Chiang Mai.

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The ho trai of Wat Phrathat Haripunchai

It rests on a tall and narrow three-metre high stone base, which is painted barn-red.  This height would have not only have protected it from flooding but also the predations of insects. It is also notable for its naga guardians perched at the top of the slender staircase. The upper portion of the library is an elegantly proportioned teak structure with elaborate woodcarving and the Thai roof ornaments known as chafoh. The ones on the ho trai are of the garuda-shaped variety. Even in a temple overflowing with venerable structures, this one is an eye-catching beauty, an excellent example of old Lanna charm.

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The gables of the ho trai at Wat Mahawan Woramahwihan

By way of contrast, it is worth comparing the solid, stone-based ho trai at Wat Phra That Haripunchai with the one at nearby Wat Mahawan Woramahawihan. Dating from the 1940s, it is not of any great antiquity but it is an attractive example of a rustic, wooden scripture library. It is a two-storey structure with timber balustrades, a multi-tiered roof and elaborate wood-carving on its gables. The wooden panels over the windows are elaborately carved dharmacakras and attendant deers, a reference to the episode of the Buddha’s first sermon at Sarnath. Overall, the structure has of a more humble, village-styled feel than its counterpart at Wat Phrathat Haripunchai. It is surrounded by a wooden belltower and a small shrine, which appear to be of a similar vintage. It is a good example of a more vernacular style of ho trai.

 

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Ho Trai in Chiang Mai

The ho trai is the library of a Buddhist scripture library in Thailand. It is always included as part of a larger ensemble of buildings in a Buddhist monastery. Its primary function is to store the sacred books or palm-leaf manuscripts of the monastery. In the past, they were often built on stilts above ponds, as this would help to protect the manuscripts from rats, insects and other vermin.

In Northern Thailand- the territory of the former kingdom of Lanna- ho trai on stilts are less common than they seem to be in Central Thailand. Here the most common form of ho trai is a narrow two-storey structure with a brick and mortar base and a wooden superstructure. While they are rarely the focus of much attention in travel writing, some of them are aesthetically impressive buildings which a history or architecture buff might get some enjoyment from. On a recent trip to Chiang Mai and Lamphun, we encountered a number of historic ho trai. This article will cover a couple of notable examples from Chiang Mai and a later article will focus on the examples we encountered in Lamphun, just to the south.

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The rear view of the ho trai at Wat Phra Singh

If you were only going to see one ho trai on a trip to Northern Thailand, the obvious choice would be the one on the grounds of Wat Phra Singh. A fine example of Lanna architecture, the library dates back to the fourteenth century, making it one of the oldest monuments in Chiang Mai. It is built on a high stone base, which would have put its sacred manuscripts safe above the periodic flooding of the Ping River. Apart from its functionality, the base of the monument is a thing of considerable beauty, with beautiful, stucco figurines of devata, a kind of heavenly being. The devata on this ho trai are female, with elegant proportions and the elaborate head-dresses and garments associated with royalty. The ones on the corner of the base are performing the wai, the prayer-like Thai greeting, which is performed with palms pressed together. The base is also noteworthy for its long, narrow staircase which is flanked by a pair of guardian figures. The upper story is made from timber, with a multi-tiered, Lanna-style roof. This upper section is decorated with glass mosaics and gold lacquerwork, which greatly adds to its charm.

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The front of the ho trai at Wat Chiang Man

For a point of contrast, you could also check out the simpler ho trai on the grounds of Wat Chiang Man, which is sometimes referred to as Chiang Mai’s oldest temple. This ho trai is set over a pond, which would help to deter termites and other unwanted pests. The wooden structure reflects in the waters of the pond below, not only protecting its treasures but enhancing the aesthetics of the scene. The structure itself has a simple fretwork balcony but a subdued elegance is achieved through the foliate gold lacquerwork which adorns the front of the building. The roof, in the Lanna style, features steeply upturned chofah decorations. It appears this structure is much more recent than the one at Wat Phra Singh, but it still offers a modicum of old Lanna charm.