April 28, 2008
Some look like they’re flipping the bird. Others are like bells with their pointy handles jutting out. Some are dome-shaped, others are cylindrical and needle-like. Some are merely a few meters taller than you, others are towering landmarks in the city. All ornate in colorful designs yet with a common distinct architecture. I had not seen so many of them until I got to Bangkok.
They are all called stupa, aka chedi or chorten. Stupa comes from Sanskrit, meaning “tuft.” The stupa is part of a wat, a basic Buddhist structure that enshrines relics of Buddha or ashes of enlightened teachers, as well as revered rulers. It is said that the essence of enlightenment emanates from the remains of the sages it contains.
Symbolically, it represents Buddha himself in an enlightened and meditative posture. The top of the spire is his crown, the bell-shaped middle his head, the four-cornered and terraced bottom his body and feet, and the base his throne. Thus, a stupa is an object of veneration for Buddhists.
For me, they are objet d’art. In the Wat Arun and Wat Pho grounds, there are probably hundreds of stupas, each one as fascinating as the next. They are painted in pastel and vivid hues that glisten in the sun. Floral designs form mandala patterns that reveal beauty in symmetry and detail up close, in contrast to the beauty of form and color when seen from afar.
In Wat Pho, four major stupas are color-coded, each commemorating one of the four ramas (kings) of ancient Thailand. Collectively, they are called Phra Maha Chedi of the Four Reigns. They are easily my favorite because of their imposing height and symmetrical mosaic design.
A few stupas come in stucco-white. Bare and white, they evoke more ascetism than their ornate cousins.
When a stupa towers above the rest, it is called prang (or tower). Wat Arun has several. In fact, its central prang is the tallest in Bangkok at more than 80 meters, truly an icon of the city. These spires of Wat Arun are also the oldest at more than 300 years old. The wat is named after Aruna, the Indian god of the dawn (ironically, I did not see his image in the wat).
From afar, Wat Arun looks drab and gray in broad daylight, although it is said to be iridescent at dawn and dusk, which may be due to the overlay of porcelain and seashells painted in vivid reds and saffron-yellows. This is actually recycled porcelain originally used as ballast by Chinese ships that arrived in Bangkok in the 18th century. I’m surprised recycling was in vogue at that time. The intricate design and carvings on the prang can blow you away. Visitors can also scale the spire on the sides (all I could muster to do was stand before it, mesmerized).
The central prang represents the mythical Mount Meru, just like the spires of Angkor Wat. There are four other smaller prangs surrounding it. The details can overload your senses; you’re bound to miss some and discover them in the photos later on. I only noticed the image of Pai, the god of the winds, mounted on his horse and gazing out of the prang, when I looked at the photo. Pai in the sky, if you will.
Behind the prang is a bot, a hall that houses the image of Buddha. The sheer scale of this bot is impressive, from the flaming red ceiling to the glistening golden Buddha. Crowds of devotees kneeling, bowing, and offering incense, however, can deter from taking photos inside. Savoir faire should keep visitors from taking pictures while locals are praying in the bot.
Thus, you are reminded that this is a place of worship more than just a historical attraction, as evidenced by monks going about their business within the temple courtyards and hallways. Buddhism is in the air here. More than the pervading aroma of incense, it is the meditative vibe emanating from the countless stupas in the wat grounds that can make a tourist share in the religious experience, believer or not.