A little illustrated
guide to Thailand's First Buddhist Monument
About 60km to the West of Bangkok, in the town of Nakhon Pathom, stands probably the earliest Buddhist monument in Thailand, Phra Pathom Chedi. A few years ago, I had the great pleasure of visiting this place of worship and (even) took some photos. Recently, a friend sent me an official guide, published by the 'Office of Utility Management and Maintenance of the Great Pagoda'. Now that I have scanned in a few of my photos, I thought I'd take the opportunity of presenting a little tour to indicate especially how old are the roots of Buddhism in Thailand and also how the Buddha Dhamma can be seen in practice in such places. The historical notes are taken from the official guide.
The roots of this pagoda are over 2000 years old. During his reign in India in the 3rd Century before Jesus Christ (B.C.), Emperor Asoka sent out missionaries to lands far away. One of these was what is presently Thailand, at that time called Suvarnaphumi. The evidence for this has been provided by the discovery of stone wheels of law (Dharmachakra), carved altars and the Buddha's footprints, all of which preceded the making of the first Buddha rupas (images) in 143 B.C.
Phra Pathom Chedi means 'The First Stupa' (Phra used here as emphasis for the sense of 'holy'). The original stupa was 39 metres high and built in the style of the great stupa at Sanchi. It is considered sacred since it contains some relics of the Buddha Gotama that were brought over by the early missionaries. The orginal monument is still there, but has since been built over and restored under the guidance of various monarchs. This is indeed a very special chedi for the rulers of Thailand, since it has been the royal tradition the reigning monarch must offer candles and joss sticks whenever passing Phra Pathom Chedi.
Today, the chedi lies at the heart of a town that celebrates its 100th anniversary this year (the name Nakhon Pathom replacing Nakorn Chaisri somewhat later). Before 1897, the stupa was in the midst of jungle, so King Chulalongkorn ordered Nakorn Chaisri to be transplanted a couple of miles! The pagoda is generally approached from the North side along an extended avenue. Even from far away one gains an impression of the large scale. At 120 metres in height, it was the tallest Buddhist monument in the world, perhaps it still is?
Moving closer, one approaches marble steps that lead up towards the North vihara (or chapel) and there looms the image of a standing Buddha.
Moving further in, concentric with the central stupa is a surrounding gallery or portico that connects the four viharas:
I was delighted to see these being used for Dhamma study by some monks and was kindly granted permission to take a few photos of the Venerable Ajahn (teacher) and his students, young monks. I am very happy to see such an ancient centre of Buddhism so full of Dhamma-related activities.
The writing on the blackboard says:
Many thanks to Khun Jo for the translation!
There is a vihara for each of the four points of the compass, with Buddha rupas in each. However, I took few photos in these. One exception is the following view of a huge reclining Buddha, which is traditionally meant to show the posture of the Buddha as he passed on - fully Awakened!
There are numerous other features including the architecture of the chedi and some special bell booths in the pagoda yard, completing this as one of the most important religious sites in Thailand. If you happen to be touring Thailand, then please try to pay a visit and may it inspire you to build up your own Buddhist practice!
This article was originally one of a series of contributions I made as a 'Buddhist
Guide' for the Mining Company.