April 28, 2008
Who put the bang in Bangkok?
Not the “entertainers” in Patpong, certainly. I even skipped that entirely. I turned in early instead for a day of temple-hopping. And was I glad I did!
To be honest, I initially had qualms about seeing another Buddha. I had been to Wuxi, China where a colossal Grand Buddha stands at about 90 meters tall. It would be fairly remote for any other Buddha to top that.
But the Reclining Buddha in Wat Pho had me at the first sight of his massive head.
Why would Buddha be reclining in the first place? Too much Pad Thai, perhaps? It is said that King Rama III built the statue in 1832 to allow people to meditate on Buddha’s attainment of nirvana. I had associated that kind of transcendental tranquility with the lotus position, but this image of Buddha in repose explicitly captured the idea of freedom from worldly pain and passions.
The wihan (an assembly hall that houses the Buddha) could feel stuffy because of the dense stream of people crammed in the narrow passageway. Ironically, it was the quietest crowd. The silence was just intermittently broken by clanging sounds of coins dropped on prayer bowls and the clicks of cameras all around.
For the first time I saw Buddha’s toes. They were curiously long and of even lengths, juxtaposed so closely as if webbed. These non-human toe features, I learned later, symbolize the extra-human strength of Buddha.
The soles of his feet were elaborately designed. Toe prints were visibly lined with a swirl of concentric circles, the soles extravagantly overlaid with a parquet of mother-of-pearl. The squares show the 108 auspicious characteristics of Buddha, and the circular center of each sole represents Buddha’s chakra. Under these Gulliver-feet was a throng of tourists jockeying one another for that perfect shot. Considering my height, or the lack thereof, I didn’t stand a chance against the tall farang (Caucasian, in Thai) photography buffs.
I barely made it through the throng to have my picture taken by Buddha’s backside instead. It was less crowded, but the figure was no less magnificent…
…or photogenic. The back of Buddha’s head looked like a jackfruit, embellished with little spiry projections that conjured a crown rather than hair – truly his crowning glory.
The walls of the wihan had been adorned with Mithila mural paintings. They supposedly tell a story, not individual static scenes but a series of events. However, it was impossible to stop and figure out the plot while a file of tightly-packed people nudged you to go on.
There is not much space in the wihan that a full view of the horizontal statue can only be had from either end: as you enter and as you leave. My last look was the most spectacular: the Reclining Buddha’s 46-meter long glistening glory, feet first. That puts the bang in Bangkok in my book!