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.

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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.

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One of the ornamental staircases of the main stupa
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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.

 

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.

Sat Mahal Pasada and Wat Kukut

One of the lesser known influences on the art of South-East Asia has been Sri Lanka. But the links between Thailand and Sri Lanka, in particular, are quite strong. Both countries, for example, practice Theravada Buddhism, showing long monastic links between the two countries. Even today the visitor to the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy, Sri Lanka will see travelling pilgrim monks from Thailand. The large bell-shaped stupas which we associate with Ayutthaya in Thailand can also be found in all the ancient royal cities of Sri Lanka. But perhaps the most intriguing link we have found between the two countries is the way that the stupa in the grounds of Wat Kukut in Lamphun (a town that was the final Mon capital of Thailand) so closely resembles the Mahal Pasada, a semi-ruined tower-stupa in the royal capital of Polonnaruwa in Sri Lanka. Clearly, there had been Mon monks in Polonnaruwa, the capital of medieval Sri Lanka, who took architectural knowledge back to their capital in Lamphun. The two photos below will show the obvious similarities- both are tiered, brick towers with stucco standing Buddhas placed in niches. There are some differences too, however. For example, the stupa in Sri Lanka has a narrow ambulatory- an area for walking around.

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Sat Mahal Prasada from Sri Lanka
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Wat Kukut from Lamphun, Northern Thailand