The Mystical Hill of Phu Po

Our final stop in the little-visited province of Kalasin was Phu Po, a hill situated about twenty-eight kilometres to the north of Kalasin city. With the site receiving very few visitors, there was no hope at all of getting there by public transport, so we went by hired car. Still, even that did not remove all difficulties, as the site was set off the main road and was extremely poorly signposted. While Google Maps may work very well in major cities, it is far from accurate on the backroads of Kalasin province, and we took a few wrong turns. We had to keep stopping to ask for directions, which was not always easy as there were so few people around. However, in the end we made it to Phu Po (sometimes referred to as Phu Por), a sandstone mountain which rises to a height of 336 metres above sea level. Though certainly not one of the world’s great peaks, it almost looked like one in the generally flat terrain of Kalasin.

Alongside the hill, there was a large parking lot with very few parked cars. Our driver brought the car to a halt and told us he would wait for us there. We got out and headed straight toward the hill, ignoring the obviously modern religious buildings which had been built at the foot of the hill. On the far side of the parking lot, there was a deep rock shelter (not really a cave), which was home to one of the two relics of the Dvaravati era which had survived at Phu Por. As usual we were a little nervous in approaching a religious site in a foreign country, but the caretaker was a friendly, laid-back soul who just waved us in with a laugh and told us there was no need to remove our shoes first.

IMG_0265.jpg
The Reclining Buddha at the bottom of Phu Por

Carved into the sandstone wall of the rock shelter was a mahaparinirvana scene, otherwise known as a Reclining Buddha scene. The English translation of the name is somewhat misleading in that it merely suggests a recumbent Buddha; in fact the mahaparinirvana pose is the scene of the Buddha’s death bed, which gives it a deeper emotional impact. The scene depicts the moment when the Buddha left the world and entered Nirvana. The version at Phu Por dates from either the eighth and nineteenth century and belongs to the Mon-Dvaravati artistic tradition. The image here is about five metres long and the carving is still crisp despite its great age. It was now covered in gold paint of no great vintage, but in spite of this we still had the sense of being in the presence of an ancient example of Mon art.

It is believed that the carving is the product of Buddhist monks who had retreated to Phu Por to live the spartan life of the forest monk in a small community there. In all likelihood, they hoped to reach Buddhist enlightenment away from the temptations of the world. Apart from meditation and other ascetic pursuits, they had turned their hand to the making of Buddhist artworks. Without the resources to build large stupas, chedis or wats, they merely carved Buddhist art into the sandstone walls of the hill itself. It was a tantalizing hint of a vanished culture and tradition, a crisp evocation of a world of Mon monks seeking enlightenment in remote forests, centuries before either the Khmers of Thais arrived in this part of the world.

IMG_0269.jpg
The trail up Phu Por, a sacred hill in Kalasin

From the lower rock shelter, we began our ascent of the hill. A well-maintained staircase led up the face of the hill, passing through spindly trees, clumps of bamboo and rock formations. I found myself wondering how similar it was to the environment the monks of Phu Por had encountered twelve centuries ago. Apart from the staircase and a single tin-roofed pavilion about halfway up the hill, the rest of the hill appeared to be in a natural condition. Perhaps the shrubs and trees on the hill had been much the same when monks had first made the hill into a forest retreat, bringing the Buddhist faith to a remote part of ancient Thailand.

When we got near the top of the hill, there was a second rock shelter. This one was being visited by a group of Thai children, who started back down the hill when we approached. At this point I was partly drawn by the impressive views which had opened across the surrounding countryside and also curious to see the second of Phu Por’s ancient Buddha carvings. The rock shelter here was much smaller than the one at the foot of the hill, but it also had a potent aura of mysticism. This was partly a product of the votives and intense sticks which had been left in the shelter and also of the prayer flags which had been strung around the site. But, as below, the main attraction was the Buddhist carving which had been carved into the rock face. Artistically, this one is viewed as even better than the one below. Like its brethren from the foot of the hill it depicts a mahaparinirvana scene, but the treatment of the face and the robes is ever more artful here. Furthermore, the Buddha has a soft, dreamy expression which suggests a state of spiritual bliss. The carving was also a reminder of the importance of religion in Thailand from the earliest periods of history.

IMG_0273
A close-up of the Buddha near the top of Phu Por

From the second rock shelter, a wooden ladder went up the rock face to the very top of the hill. We climbed up it and found ourselves on top of Phu Por. From there we walked on through the forest on top of the hill, which was denser than the forest and scrub on the slopes. We wandered for about ten minutes along a clear trail. At some points there were beautiful purple wildflowers alongside the trial. I was curious to see where it lead and wanted to keep going, but my travelling companions reminded me that our driver was waiting and that the trail might descend down another face of the hill. Agreeing with this logic, we headed back from the top of Phu Por and began our journey back to Kalasin.

IMG_0280
The view from the top of Phu Por
Advertisements

The Reclining Buddha of Sung Noen

From Pak Chong, we got on the Nakhon Ratchasima bus, which we had learned passed right through Sung Noen: the town which was home to both Wat Dharmacakra Semaram and Muang Sema Historical Park. After leaving Pak Chong, the bus made good time, and after about forty minutes the conductor signaled for us to get down by the side of the road. It was at this point that our illusions of a trouble-free trip to Muang Sema ran into difficulties. It seemed that the highway passed along the edge of Sung Noen but didn’t head right into the centre of town.

As it turned out, there was a songthaew waiting at the turn-off but this was one of the times when my attempts to communicate in Thai failed completely. The songthaew driver couldn’t recognize my pronunciation of either of the places we wanted to go to, so we were stranded. Instead of renting something there, we decided to hop onto the next kind of public transport that was heading towards town and try and rent something there. After about twenty minutes another songthaew came along that took us the final couple of kilometres into town.

It turned out that Sung Noen was a sleepy country town of two-storey, timber-fronted shops, with few signs of modernization besides the obligatory branch of 7-11. We looked around the street near the railway station but couldn’t find any public transportation for rental. There was a public bus waiting in the street but apparently it just did the run into Nakhon Ratchasima a few times a day. By this point our frustration was mounting and we really didn’t know what else to do. We confronted the possibility that we just have to wait around until the bus to Nakhon Ratchasima left. But fortunately, it didn’t come to that. Cameron eventually found the name of the sights we wanted to see in Thai and a songthaew pulled up just down the road from the bus. It turned out that it was the same vehicle and driver we had met on the main road, but this time he understood where we wanted to go, or at least claimed to. He said he would take us there and back for three hundred baht. It was probably an exorbitant price but we had no other options.

But then the driver took us to a small wat on the outskirts of town, which was clearly not Wat Dharmacakra Semaram. There was simply nowhere that a colossal Reclining Buddha could have been housed. However, there was some sort of community meeting or function happening in one of the halls at the temple, so there were a lot of people around. Fortunately one of the guests could understand my Thai pronunciation and he gave our driver directions to the right place. We set off again and this time there was no more confusion; we pulled up at the historic wat some five minutes later.

It was in most respects a very modest temple which you would not have glanced twice at if you passed it along the road. However, it was home to one extraordinary antiquity, which was now preserved in a custom-built hall. The hall was an open-sided structure consisting of a metal roof on brick pillars. It was really just a protective shelter for the 11-metre long, sandstone Reclining Buddha which was the temple’s main claim to fame. We signed into the visitor’s book, made a 20 baht donation and then went into the hall to get a closer look at the monument.

IMG_0092.jpg
A view from the front of the Reclining Buddha

It was a seventh century Dvaravati Buddha seated in mahaparinirvana, or the ‘sleeping’ posture. The English name of the Reclining Buddha gives a somewhat misleading impression, as the posture is actually a representation of the Buddha’s death scene- literally, the Buddha entering Heaven. The facial features of the figure are somewhat degraded, making it impossible to get a clear sense of his expression; the nose in particular is very damaged. The tight curls of his hair are quite obvious however and these have a typically Mon appearance. In addition, there were traces of gold leaf evident on the face of the statue; however, they were probably not recent. A smaller model of the Buddha had been made in front of the historic statue for devotees to apply gold leaf to. This was presumably so the locals could continue making offerings to the Buddha without damaging the original statue.

img_0095
The 11 metre-long Buddha’s colossal feet, with traces of gold leaf

It was difficult to get a clear view of the entire statue because of the rather cramped building it has located within. However, he had particularly massive feet which reminded us of the very famous Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho in Bangkok. By going around to the rear of the statue, you get a sense of how the statue consists of many interlocking blocks of sandstone. It would once have had a stucco coating- the Mon were masters of using stucco to face monuments- but the stucco has now mostly peeled off. Nonetheless, sections of it still remain on the head and the arm on which it rests. Originally, the entire statue would have been housed in a timber building which was twenty-six metres long; archaeological work at the site had revealed faint traces of this original structure.

As we looked at the statue, which discussed its extraordinary age: some thirteen or fourteen centuries old. If this date is even close to correct, it is by far the oldest Reclining Buddha statue in the country. As such, it bears testimony to the earliest penetration of Buddhism into Thailand, especially Isaan. It is presumed that Buddhism must have entered Isaan  (Northeastern Thailand) via this part of the country, as there is a relatively narrow passageway between the mountains wilds of the Khao Yai area and Cambodia to the South. It is worth noting that there are many carvings of the Buddha in the mahaparinirvana posture from rock shelters in Isaan.

IMG_0094.jpg
The Buddha’s head and the upturned fingers of the supporting hand

It is possible that this image the precursor or ancestor of the later images from across the Isaan region. It has been speculated that the Sung Noen area was actually the site of the capital of the early Buddhist polity of Sri Canasa. Perhaps Buddhism spread first to Sri Canasa from the Chao Phraya River basin and the art and religion of Sri Canasa was later to influence that of the entire Isaan plateau. Whatever the full story, the Reclining Buddha of Wat Semaram Dharmacakra proved a rare and unique example of the monumental arts of the Dvaravati period.

Apart from the hall of the Reclining Buddha, there is a building known as the Temple Museum. This one-room museum is worth a quick look for visitors to the site. There are a number of Dvaravati antiquities on display, most of them in a highly fragmentary condition. There is a very large lotus pedestal which may once have supported a Buddha statue, but it is only the base which now survives. Behind it on the wall is a pastel-colored painting of a seated Buddha, which may serve as a representation of what the whole statue may have looked like.

There is also what appears to be a headless and armless standing Buddha, as well as various other stone fragments, few of which are very prepossessing. Easily the most interesting exhibit is a magnificent and complete dharmacakra which dates back to the 8th or 9th centuries. With a diameter of 1.41 metres, it closely resembles ‘wheels of the law’ from other Dvaravati sites such as Nakhon Pathom and U Thong. The artefact represents the first sermon of the Buddha at Sarnath, where he set the wheels of a new religion in motion, preaching about the eightfold path to Enlightenment.

The dharmacaka of Sung Noen is now encased in a plastic box to protect it from over-zealous devotees, who would doubtless love to stick gold leaf to its exterior. In front of this protected dharmacakra is another one (perhaps a replica?) which Thai visitors are free to hang floral votives off and make incense offerings to. There is a ceramic pot before this dharmacakra in which incense sticks were burning. It gave the whole place the atmosphere of a smoky village shrine. For me, the most interesting detail of the dharmacakra was perhaps the small lion’s head at the bottom, a common feature on Dvaravati ‘wheels of the law’. You can see a similar motif on the famous example from the Guimet Museum in Paris. Having seen this little museum-cum-shrine, we went in search of our songthaew driver, ready to move on to Muang Sema Historical Park.