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Archaeology: Buddha images were often used as symbols of political power as it shifted from one center to another. Unraveling the travels of these images is no easy task.
From Suthon Sukphisit, Bangkok Post
Today we know Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Lampang, Lamphun, Nan, and Phayao as provinces in northern Thailand. But 200 years ago they were all independent cities with their own rulers.
During certain periods of their history their leaders were close relatives, and the cities they controlled coexisted like siblings, not interfering with one another's affairs.
At other times they behaved as enemies, dispatching armies to attack one another. Then there were periods when one after another they would take turns in being the regional center of power, art, and religion. And there were dark periods when they yielded sovereignty to conquerors from Myanmar.
History in these cities is a chronicle of change and transformation.
Historical research gives a clear chronicle of the events that transpired in these northern cities as the centuries passed. But the picture that emerges is a rather lifeless one created by documents, architectural structures, objects, and artworks that were witnesses of their eras.
The most important aspect of any historical event, however, is the people and history often fails to record the nature of the society in which they lived, and their thoughts and ideas.
We know, however, that the basis of society in all of these cities was a common religion, Buddhism. Although all experienced periods of danger from natural disasters or wars, and were changed by advances and declines, one thing that remained constant was the predominance of Buddhism.
And one feature shared by Thai Buddhists, whether from the North or the Central Plains, was a reverence for images of the Lord Buddha.
These images had a powerful significance for these cities and for the communities that comprised them. So much so, in fact, that they became tools to show who was more powerful than whom.
Important Buddha images were captured and taken away from weaker cities by more powerful ones. This became so standard a practice that many of the most important images in existence today traveled in this way at some point in their history.
There are many examples. The Emerald Buddha which today is kept at the Temple of the Emerald Buddha in Bangkok was formerly in Laos, but as Prof. Suraphon Damrikun
Siam was more powerful than Laos at the time, the Siamese brought it here.
The Phra Buddha Sihing image currently in the National Museum was taken by the Siamese from Chiang Mai of Chiang Mai, and the Phra Sri Sakayamuni image now housed in the viharn of Wat Suthat was brought from Sukhothai.
In fact every important Buddha image now found in Bangkok once resided in some other major city, and their origin and movements tell a historical story.
However, there have been duplications along the way to confuse issues. For example, there is a Phra Buddha Sihing in the Phutthaisuwan Throne Room of the National Museum in Bangkok, another in the Viharn Lai Kam of Wat Phra Sing in Chiang Mai, and a third at Wat Saeng Muang Ma in Lampang. The problem of determining which one is the real one is very complicated.
The Phra Kaew Morakot - Emerald Buddha carved from green stone - at Wat Phrathat Lampang Luang and the Phra Kaen Chan Daeng - Red Sandalwood Buddha - that appears in the history of Chiang Saen also have unclear histories.
The Phra Kaen Chan Daeng disappeared, and the Phra Kaew Morakot appeared, at Wat Phrathat Lampang Luang. Then, less than five years ago the long-lost Phra Kaen Chan Daeng appeared at Wat Pa Tan in Mae Tha district in Lampang province.
In unraveling the history of these images, the year in which a given event
took place is considered of primary importance.
The structure of the society at the time and the way the people thought must also be taken into account.
The hypotheses that can be arrived at when all these factors are taken into account are fascinating and often very feasible.
Prof. Suraphon Damrikun, an historian and archaeologist who heads the Thai Arts Section of the Faculty of Fine Arts at Chiang Mai University, said there is much that is not clear concerning the histories of well-known Buddha images.
"Sometimes existing documents chronicle their travels clearly," he said.
"When they appeared somewhere, the event was recorded. But when we look at the style of the image, we may find it is not what we thought it was.
"For example, the Phra Buddha Sihing in Bangkok came from Chiang Mai where, we know from history, it was an image from the Chiang Saen era. But the one in Bangkok is in the style of the Sukhothai era.
"The image in Viharn Lai Dam in Chiang Mai, on the other hand, is in the Chiang Saen style, and it's smaller, too.
According to history, it came from Kamphaeng Phet, and has been where it is now ever since.
"The Phra Buddha Sihing image recently discovered at Wat Saeng Muang Ma in Lampang resembles the one in Bangkok; they're the same size. We can't say yet which is the real one, but we have to accept the fact that before Somdej Krom Phra Rachawang Buan (the younger brother of King Rama I), requested for it to be brought to Bangkok, he had the Phutthaisawan Throne Hall (now the National Museum) built especially to house it.
This indicates he must have seen it at its earlier location. He must have recognized which image it was. The question of the Phra Buddha Sihing will have to be considered for a long time.
"One problem we think we've solved concerns the Phra Kaew Morakot image at Wat Phrathat Lampang Luang at Koh Kha in Lampang. It's called the Phra Kaew Morakot Don Tao because it was once kept at Wat Phra Kaew Don Tao in Lampang province.
"It's different from the Phra Kaew Morakot in Bangkok. The history of the Bangkok image has been clearly established: It was kept in Lampang for 21 years, then moved to Chiang Mai by Phra Chao Tilokarat in 1468. Subsequently it was taken to Laos, and then to Bangkok, where it has remained ever since.
"The Phra Kaew Don Tao image is smaller than the one in Bangkok. Historical records indicate that when Phra Chao Tilokarat took the image now in Bangkok to Chiang Mai, he had another image made and placed at Wat Phra Kaew Don Tao so the people of Lampang would not be so saddened at the removal of the original. I don't believe that story.
"We know the image was at Wat Phra Kaew Don Tao before it went to Chiang Mai. This is strange, because it's one of the most revered of Buddha images, so why wasn't it housed at Wat Phrathat Lampang Luang, which is bigger and more important?
"And where was it kept before that? After studying all of the old chronicles and records carefully and considering its style, we now think it came from Chiang Saen. Having arrived at this hypothesis, we have to consider its feasibility.
"We know Chiang Mai of Chiang Saen, which was located to the north of resent-day Chiang Rai on the banks of a Mekong and Kok rivers, once flourished. At the time the Burmese controlled the entire North, they divided it into two parts, upper and lower, each governed separately. Chiang Saen was a center of power of the northern art, and Chiang Mai of the lower one.
"The situation changed when Phra Chao Kawila, who was a contemporary I King Rama I of Rattanakosin and use ancestry was from Lampang, led uprising against the Burmese, who the time controlled Chiang Mai. He succeeded in expelling the Burmese, and became the ruler of Chiang Mai.
"Then he got the idea of destroying the Burmese once and for all. He raised an army and in 1804 invaded Chiang Saen, which was under Burmese control. He razed Chiang Mai and divided the inhabitants into two groups. The first were resettled in Lampang near Wat Kaew Don Tao, the others were sent to Bangkok.
"Those who traveled to Bangkok were again separated into two groups, some going on to Khu Bua in Ratchaburi, the others settling in Sao Hai in Lop Buri. Their descendants continue to speak the northern language and weave cloth in designs from the old Chiang Saen, although they have long been living in the Central Region.
"Not long afterward, the Phra Kaew Morakot appeared at Wat Phra Kaew Don Tao in Lampang. The one at Wat Phrathat Lampang Luang had to have come later.
"There is an interesting question here. Consider Wat Phrathat Lampang Luang, which was built in the fifth century, was one of the most important temples in Thailand, and the Phra
Kaew Morakot is now considered one of Lampang's major Buddha images. So why didn't the name of the image appear earlier in the historical records, even just as a mention of some restoration or repair work done on it at some point in the past? There is no reference to the Phra Kaew Morakot at all, so we can only conclude that it wasn't there until fairly recently.
"But the history of Chiang Saen does record that in 1386 a high-ranking monk named Phra Siriwangso brought two images, one made of crystal Phra Kaew, the other of gold Phra Thongkham to Wat Koh Don Thaen in Chiang Saen. Historians believe this must have been a temple set on an island in the Mekong River that has since submerged. After this reference, history has no more to say about these two images. No one knows where they disappeared to." Prof. Suraphon stressed that when the inhabitants of Chiang Saen were relocated, they had to travel great distances, and would not have brought anything with them unless it was very important to them.
"But if people revere something very highly, they will take it with them," he said. "And it's important to remember that they would have to hide it, not let anyone know that they had it. They would help each other conceal it and take turns looking after it. The primary reason for this is that such an image would be a source of spiritual strength for them all. The second would be to prevent anyone in power from taking it away from them.
"Once they had settled and housed the image in an appropriate place, this Phra Kaew Morakot, and once it was openly displayed, a retrospective history had to be created for it. It was claimed that the Lord Buddha came down from heaven to Chiang Mai of Kok
Kuttanakhon, which is usually understood to be Lampang, and created the image for the city. The purpose of the story is to establish that the image was native to Lampang.
"But I'm convinced that the name 'Kok Kuttanakhon' can be interpreted as meaning a city on the banks of the Kok River, and that Chiang Mai couldn't have been any place except Chiang Saen. Some historical records say that Phra Chao Tilokarat made the image to replace the one that was taken to Chiang Mai.
"When Chiang Mai of Lampang had become powerful, its rulers brought the Phra Kaew Morakot Don Tao to Wat Phrathat Lampang Luang, and some residents of Chiang Saen followed the image to Lampang and settled around the temple.
"At present the Phra Kaew Morakot is still kept in the viharn, Where it is protected by strong iron bars. It isn't taken out except on important occasions, and even taking pictures of it is forbidden.
"The annals say that the Phra Kaen Chan Daeng was once at Chiang Saen, and then it disappeared from the records for centuries. But not long ago it was found at Wat Pa Tan in Koh Kha, near Wat Phrathat Lampang Luang.
They won't let visitors see it except at Songkran, when the monks bring it out for a bathing ceremony. Formerly, they kept it on a rotating basis at their homes, not in the temple, and no one knew about it. I think it is most likely the image that once disappeared." Ancient mysteries can sometimes be unraveled by pondering the circumstances, and the way of thinking, that prevailed in the past. And once one enigma has been explained, a spark sometimes jumps that can help illuminate events that seemed lost in historical obscurity.