Wat Phaya Wat: Hints of Haripunchai

From Khao Noi, the two-hundred-and-seventy-metre-high hill which overlooks the town of Nan, we headed back towards town on foot. Situated on the road out towards jungle-clad Khao Noi was Wat Phaya That, another one of Nan’s intriguing historic wats. Just by chance, I had actually got a glimpse of it when we were flying into town a couple of days before. The flight-path had taken us right over the temple grounds, so we had glimpsed Wat Phaya Wat’s famous chedi out the window of the plane. But unsatisfied with so fleeting a look, we were now determined to see this renowned edifice up close.

Arriving at the wat, we found the temple grounds to be largely deserted. There were no cars in the car park, nor any pilgrims or tourists about. But there were a few shade trees and lots of flowering shrubs, which gave the area an attractive appearance. All in all, the grounds were not large and we had soon come up to the viharn (ordination hall) of the temple. Though it was not a very old structure by all accounts, it had been well-constructed (reconstructed?) in a classic Lanna style, so it turned out to be unexpectedly interesting to visit.

The approach to the temple was a naga staircase. These naga staircases seemed to be something of a Nan specialty: we had already encountered them at Wat Phumin and Wat Phra That Khao Noi. The one here was not especially distinguished looking; we were more impressed by the timber architecture inside. The side walls had been decorated with gold stenciling of the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac- the Year of the Rabbit, the Year of the Monkey and so on- which was not something we usually expected to see in a Thai vihaan. There was also the more traditional feature of jataka murals telling the life of the Buddha.

Even better than the painted decoration were the ceremonial textiles which hung down from the ceiling. Decorated with elephants, temples and other auspicious symbols of the Buddhist faith, they were clearly had a religious significance. Yet the stylized, geometric look of the motifs also reminded us of the hill-tribe textiles of Northern Thailand, giving the display a very local feel. For Thai pilgrims, however, the focal point of the building would not have been the textiles of stencils but rather the Phra Chao Naikong, an elegant Thai Buddha which was set before the equally lovely altar.

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The interior of the vihaan features ceremonial textiles and jataka panels

But as attractive as the vihaan is, the real reason to come to Wat Phaya That is to head around the back of it and check out its extremely rare chedi. This is what we did next. This five-tiered pyramidal chedi is built in classic Mon style. More exactly, it bears a very close resemblance to the early thirteenth century brick chedi at Wat Kukut in the town of Lamphun. Lamphun was the then-capital of Haripunchai, the greatest Mon kingdom in the northern part of Thailand. It is also home to some of the few extant Mon monuments in the whole of Thailand. The one here at Wat Phaya Wat is very similar. Its brick tower is inset on each tier with rows and rows of niches. Inside them stand diminutive Walking Buddha figures which are covered in stucco; traces of decorative stucco can also be found on the arches above the niches.

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A standing Mon style Buddha with robes rendered in stucco

This combination of brick monuments with stucco facing is one of the hallmarks of the Mon ethnic group, who were once widely dispersed across the territory which is now Thailand. As their were assimilated into Thai culture over the centuries, their sculpture and architecture was to prove influential on the Thai kingdoms such as Sukhothai and Ayutthaya. However, rarely did Thai architecture bear so marked a Mon influence as at Wat Phaya That. It is true that the elongated ear-lobes, long parrot-like nose and elegantly draped robes of the Walking Buddhas show the influence of Sukhothai art but the overall conception of the chedi owes a heavy debt to Haripunchai . What makes this even odder is the fact that this chedi was not built until the seventeenth or eighteenth century- or at least that is what the signboards at this temple claim. It raises the question of why a Haripunchai-style chedi would have been built here four centuries after the fall of Hairpunchai to the Lanna kingdom.

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The brick chedi of Wat Phaya Wat

Was there perhaps a small Mon community which took refuge in Nan after the fall of Haripunchai to Lanna? As a still independent principality, Nan offered an alternative to submission to rule from Chinag Mai. Or was the chedi a simple case of imitation? After all, Lamphun remains an important pilgrimage town until the present day. Had the builders of this more recent chedi merely copied it upon returning from a pilgrimmage? Whatever the answer, this chedi remains one of very few Mon-style monuments in all of Thailand. And it is another element in Nan’s unusually mixed artistic heritage, which includes Lanna, Thai Lu, Lao and Mon influences.

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Wat Phumin: The Temple of the Whispering Lovers

Nan is a Thai town with a very unusual history. Though it is counted as one of the northern provinces of Thailand, it is located much closer to the Lao border than the former Lanna capital of Chiang Mai, and it has a distinct identity to match its isolated location within Thailand. It was long an autonomous principality which drew as much influence from Xishuangbanna in China as from the Lanna settlements of Northern Thailand. This history of seclusion and separation is very much reflected in its arts and architecture. While the artistic heritage of Lanna is clearly in evidence, you will also see the influence of the Tai Lü, a group whose ancestral homeland is Xishuangbanna district of Yunnan Province in China. There influence is best appreciated by visiting Wat Phumin, which is often regarded as the most extraordinary of Nan’s outstanding collection of wats.

The history of Wat Phumin dates back to 1596 when the wat was first built. It has a highly unusual form; indeed, it is utterly unique in all of Thailand. The wat is designed with a cruciform shape and staircases extend out on all four sides with elaborate nagas for balustrades. This makes it seem as if the entire wat is riding on the back of two gigantic nagas. Besides the staircase sit two even larger guardian figures- a pair of brick and stucco lions which guard the temple from malign spirits. Apart from that, it is has a multi-tiered roof but this does not sweep low down to the ground like those from Luang Prabang and Chiang Mai, remaining a series of horizontal lines. The other unmissable thing is the entrance doors, which are masterpieces of Lanna woodcarving. Every inch of the doors is filled in which intricately carved motifs, many of them floral. Yet its beautiful form notwithstanding, it is the interior of the temple which has earned it such widespread fame within Thailand.

The visitor to a Thai wat will usually expect to see one main Buddha image inside the hall. If it is a famous historic wat, these images will usually be of great artistic or historic value, often dating back to one of the great historic kingdoms of the Thai past. However, in Wat Phumin there are not one but four main Buddha images, with one oriented towards each of the four entrance doorways. Each of the four Buddhas are seated on a high pedestal in the bhumisparsha posture, which is also known as the ‘earth-touching’ position. They are surrounded by four enormous teak pillars which support the roof. The whole tableau is very impressive and atmospheric, with the seated Buddhas dominating the central space of the wat. However, it is also not this central tableau which is Wat Phumin’s main source of fame. That distinction goes to the folksy murals which decorate the walls of the wat in such vivid detail.

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The famous ‘whispering lovers’ scene

The murals of this temple are very famous in Thailand, and entire books have been devoted to describing and commenting on them. In this blog post I have no intention of analyzing, classifying or describing them in any detail. All I intend to do here is offer the broadest of overviews or introductions. Basically, the murals were painted during the second half of the nineteenth century by a Tai Lü artist, and they represent one of the finest examples of extant mural art surviving in Thailand. Rendered in vegetable pigments, they have lovely, rich, earthy colours which are a marked contrast with the more fluorescent colours of modern Bangkok wats. But what really makes them so special is the way they depict nineteenth century village life in a quietly observant way.

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Walled city and people courting

Though there are scenes from the royal court, with all its elaborate rituals, it is the scenes of village life which are most memorable. You will find people playing musical instruments, studying, engaged in scenes of courtship, smoking cigarettes and working in the fields. In other words, unlike the typical jataka scenes we often find on murals, the ones at Wat Phumin are often much more secular, depicting life in Nan in the village and the fields. Often an earthy humour is evident in the murals. In one scene two (gay?) men seem to flirt with their eyes as they go promenading with their supposed girlfriends. There is even the famous ‘monkeys copulating’ panel in which a male monkey flaunts an erect penis at the rather unhappy looking female! The most famous of the scenes, however, is undoubtedly the ‘whispering lovers’ panel, in which a tattooed Tai Lü man in a sarong whispers to his lover, a Tai Lü woman dressed in beautiful traditional textiles. The subtle coloring of this mural and the atmosphere of quiet intimacy make this scene very memorable. Wat Phumin could easily  detain the art lover for much longer than they expected.