During my first semester in Thailand I had the opportunity to listen to at least two fellow exchange students grumble about how, “once you’ve seen one wat (Thai word for temple) you’ve seen them all”.
I’ll admit this wat displayed many familiar features: a massive stupa, a humble temple, a tall surrounding wall, a line of Buddha images ready to receive coins and two growling nagas racing down the hill to greet temple visitors. But it was the details that were the most intriguing.
With the initial awe wearing off I was starting to wonder about the meaning of the curious objects around me.
Wat Phra That Chae Haeng was built in 1355. It’s one of the most sacred northern wats and especially special for those born in the year of the rabbit (I’m a monkey myself).
As I softly tread across the courtyard, my feet quietly slapping the white tiled ground, I noticed an open door. Poking my noise through it I was astonished to find dozens of strings streaming down from the ceiling. It looked like a complex job with a grid stretched out overhead.
So what was it for? As I learned further into the entryway the striking heat of the sun blended into the subtle caress of shade.
I’ve been told the strings allow blessings to transfer from the central Buddha image to the followers or monks holding the other end of the string. If the strings are overhead the participants of the ceremony tie the dangling string around their head, the holiest part of their body. Later, the strings are cut up and wrapped around the wrists of visitors to give them good luck.
Pulling myself back out of the doorway I took ten steps back and gazed up into the sky. The giant copper centerpiece known as a chedi or stupa—but not pagoda because apparently those are structures you can enter—gleamed in the sunlight.
A chedi is basically the cathedral of the East. It is designed to represent Mount Meru, the mountain found at the centre of mythical Buddhist and Hindu cosmos. All of the ones I’ve seen were definitely built to impress, as hosts to architectural grandeur and style.
They were also designed to house Buddhist relics. This chedi encapsulates a holy relic from Sukhonthai and silver and gold votive tablets. A part of its name, phra that, actually means “holy relic”. So if you are wondering whether the chedi you’re visiting is host to a holy relic you can actually glance at its name to find out.
See that stout little building on the right in the photo above? That’s the temples mondop, an open-air structure with a multi-tiered roof. The strings were present here again, seeming to hold together the fate of those who kneel before the Buddha images below.
On the traditional Chinese New Year holiday this year, I learned that the small images of Buddha statues lining tables along the edge of temples are for asking for blessings or wishes. Each Buddha represents something different.
You can ask for anything from good health to patience to receiving a break from a hectic lifestyle.
To my surprise I’d find out later, at the Nan Provincial Museum, that Buddha images were once created in a variety of styles. I’m so used to the mass-produced Buddha images with the serene, thoughtful look but it turns out Buddhas can be pretty expressive and diverse in form.
Seeing this though, I began to wonder—why do the Buddha images have such large dangling earlobes?
I found one online article pretty enlightening on the subject.
It states that the elongated earlobes symbolize that the Buddha is all-hearing. The ears also allude to the time before the historical Buddha, called Prince Siddhartha Gautama before achieving the buddha title, gave up his heavy earrings and other earthly possessions in his quest for enlightenment.
The objects that really puzzled me after visiting so many wats in Thailand though, were the enormous golden spheres plastered with coins. What on earth were they? I’d seen them in their exposed form—where they were just cement balls. What will happen to them?
They will be buried in the ground.
Yep, there are nine of these balls called luk nimit. When they are ready they will be buried at the four cardinal and sub-cardianal points under the ordination hall with the ninth sphere being buried under the central Buddha. They are marked by sacred boundary stones called bai sema, which surround the hall used for monks’ activities.
I hope this helps make your future trips to Thai temples as interesting as mine will be. I’m pretty excited to share my newfound knowledge with my friends the next time we go. If by some twist of fate you spot me at one of the temples be sure to say hello!
I’ll be the short Canadian woman in flashy colours running around pointing at everything in sight while spouting random facts.