April 28, 2008
Some looked like they were flipping the bird. Others were like bells with their pointy handles jutting out. Some were dome-shaped, others cylindrical and needle-like. Some were merely a few meters taller than I, others towering landmarks in the city. All were ornate in colorful designs yet with a common distinct architecture. I had not seen so many of them until I got to Bangkok.
Called stupa from Sanskrit of “tuft,” it enshrined relics of the Buddha or ashes of enlightened teachers and revered rulers in a wat. It was said that the essence of enlightenment emanated from the remains of the sages contained therein.
Symbolically, it represented the Buddha himself in an enlightened and meditative posture. The top of the spire was his crown, the bell-shaped middle his head, the four-cornered and terraced bottom his body and feet, and the base his throne. As such, a stupa was an object of veneration for Buddhists.
For me, they were objet d’art. In the Wat Arun and Wat Pho grounds, there were probably hundreds of stupas, each one as fascinating as the next, painted in pastel and vivid hues glistening in the sun. Floral designs formed mandala patterns that revealed 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 were color-coded, each commemorating one of the four ramas (kings) of ancient Thailand. Collectively called Phra Maha Chedi of the Four Reigns, they were easily my favorite because of their imposing height and symmetrical mosaic design. A few stupas came in stucco-white. Bare and white, they evoked more ascetism than their ornate cousins.
When a stupa towered above the rest, it was called prang (or tower), which Wat Arun had several with its central prang the tallest in Bangkok at more than 80 meters, truly an icon of the city. These spires of Wat Arun were also the oldest at more than 300 years old. The wat was named after Aruna, the Indian god of the dawn. Ironically, I did not see his image in the wat.
From afar, Wat Arun looked drab and gray in broad daylight, although it was said to be iridescent at dawn and dusk, for the overlay of porcelain and seashells painted in vivid reds and saffron-yellows. This was actually recycled porcelain originally used as ballast by Chinese ships that arrived in Bangkok in the 18th century. I was surprised recycling was in vogue at that time. The intricate design and carvings on the prang blew me away. Visitors could also scale the spire on the sides, though all I could muster to do was stand before it mesmerized.
The central prang represented the mythical Mount Meru, just like the spires of Angkor Wat. There were four other smaller prangs surrounding it. The details could overload the senses; I missed some and discovered 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.
Behind the prang was a bot, a hall houseing the image of Buddha. The sheer scale of this bot was impressive, from the flaming red ceiling to the glistening golden Buddha. Crowds of devotees kneeling, bowing, and offering incense, however, could deter from taking photos inside. Savoir faire kept me from taking pictures while locals were praying in the bot.
Thus, I was reminded that this was 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 was in the air here. More than the pervading aroma of incense, it was the meditative vibe emanating from the countless stupas in the wat grounds that could make a tourist share in the religious experience, believer or not.