Wat Pho, centre of are and learning - Bangkok, Thailand
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Wat Pho

 a centre of art and learning

Wat Pho, A Center of art and learning

by Marie Moon

It is Sunday in Bangkok. A day of rest? Not so for this huge metropolis, where there is always so much to do and see. We had heard of some Sunday activities at Wat Pho and decided to investigate.

By 10:00am the heat was already intense. The thought of a cramped and hot bus was not appealing. Wat Pho can be reached more comfortably and easily by boat. From either end of Bangkok city along the Chao Phraya River, a constant stream of fast and comfortable ferries operate from 6am to 6pm. Jump off the ferry at Tha Thien, walk through the pier and down the soi to the main road. Wat Pho sits directly opposite the soi; its enormous structures commanding total attention from those passing by. Quite simply, Wat Pho is not easy to miss.

Built during the Ayutthaya period, Wat Phrachetuphon Wimonmangkhalarm (Wat Pho) was completely restored by order of King Rama I in 1789. Numerous Buddha images were brought to the temple, having been rescued from abandoned temples in other parts of the country following battles with the Burmese.

Two generations later King Rama III ordained another major restoration for the temple so as to make it into a centre of learning and art. After 16 years of labour the temple became an important source of knowledge for people of all classes. Literature and poetry on numerous fields of knowledge were inscribed onto marble tablets to be placed on the walls of the buildings within the temple complex. Medical texts were also chiselled onto the walls next to metal caste anatomical figures demonstrating the referred point. Yogi models were created in various poses according to the study of yoga. Indeed, Wat Pho was an institution of higher learning and academic excellence.

The temple entrance is guarded by two huge Chinese giants. The mighty stature of the carved stone forms impose strong and threatening images despite their sad, redundant history. For they were shaped by artisans merely practicing their skills and were used only as ballast for trading boats, left behind when silk and merchandise replaced the weight.

It was during the second period of vast restoration that King Rama III ordered the construction of the Phra Buddhasaiyat or Giant Reclining Buddha for which the temple is now most famed. A massive, 49 metres in length and 12 metres in height, the majestic Buddha reclines on an elaborately decorated platform in an equally fine pavillion. The Buddha is made of a concrete base upon which lacquer is applied. The surface is entirely covered with brilliant gold leaf except for the soles of the feet, which are permeated with exquisite mother of pearl inlay. Perfect swirls form toe-prints and the flat sole area features 108 different artistic impressions of heaven, very skillfully carved and inlaid with pearly sheathes. The number 108 is regarded to be a very auspicious number by Buddhists.

The structure housing the Reclining Buddha is awesome. Almost every inch of the walls, support columns and ceiling are hand-painted in detailed designs with scenes from Ramakien. Painting the ceiling must have been a job for a steady hand, a brave heart and a faithful believer; scaffolding was precariously constructed from bamboo poles to reach the ceiling some 15 metres above the ground. The paints were, and remain made of only natural materials. Examples of this fine artistry are evident throughout the entire temple complex.

The courtyard outside the Reclining Buddha bustles only with the activity of a small but highly refreshing waterfall. Mist from the torrent dances on the faint breeze to cool the faces of visitors on a hot Sunday morning. This oasis became a refuge for us when the vehement heat, intensified by the whitewashed temple walls became unbearable.

Continuing out from the courtyard, we strolled by the 95 chedi, decorated in a colourful mosaic of ceramics. A chedi is a resting-place for the ashes of a Buddhist devotee. Of great importance among these chedis are the those belonging to the first four Kings of the Chakri dynasty.

Past the chedi is what is heralded to be the fertility shrine. The inclusion of Hindhu gods into Buddhism is exemplified by this shrine, which pays homage to the Hindhu god Shiva. It is believed that if a woman wishes to become pregnant she should pray to the shrine and sit on it. I did not!

The main hall of worship provides cool respite from the sun and we took a much-needed break here; resting, breathing and contemplating. The doors to the temple are regarded by many Thai artists as the most beautiful examples of craftsmanship in all Thailand. Mother of pearl inlay, cut to astonishing precision, form intricate patterns and scenes. The tranquility of the temple surely fostered some of the patience and great skill paramount to such an engaging craft.

Outside the temple, we rounded the next corner to find a hive of Sunday action. Young children could be heard chanting Buddhist scriptures. This was quite mesmerizing and added the dimension of sound to the array of cultural performance that lay before us. Under a makeshift shade, a group of young children were learning Thai dancing with a very amiable looking Ajarn. In another corner more children were huddled over miniature hua khon, the masks used in traditional Thai khon drama. Each artist was at a different stage of completion; collectively the masks demonstrated the immense skill involved in their creation. Thai children are often noted for their artistic skill and here is a fine example. Yet another group were learning to play the ranat, which is similar to a xylophone, the phee, a Thai flute, and the ching, small cymbals. We marvelled at the display and lingered until lunchtime when the school of arts ceased its activites.

Continuing through the grounds, we came upon the preparations for a Chinese funeral later that evening, signalling the importance of Wat Pho to all Thai people no matter their ethnic heritage. Further along we came to the area occupied by the famous Wat Pho Thai Traditional Medical School. As the centre of knowledge for the Thai nation, Wat Pho stood as a university where students would come to learn traditional Thai literature, medicine and, in particular, massage. Wat Pho Thai Traditional Medical School has received worldwide recognition for its massage courses. Each year hundreds of Thai and foreign enthusiasts complete training at Wat Pho and many move on to open massage clinics around the world.

Due to the popularity of this school among Thai and foreign students alike, the college has moved to a nearby street but many trainee and graduated therapists remain in the temple compound to apply their ancient expertise. We opted for a foot massage, as walking around in the oppressive heat had made us weary and a full body massage would only have sent us closer to slumber. The half-hour foot massage sent shivers, tingles and thumps up through my legs, tweaking the tired areas of my spine back into action.

Wat Pho is a truly fascinating place and deserves "must see" status on any itinerary for the history, the art, the magnitude of the place and for a Thai massage delivered the way it is supposed to be.



- January 2003, Volume 6 Issue 1

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