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If entering Bangkok’s Chinatown to the south through the Odean Gate, a shrine that bursts with ornate detail and spiritual mystique immediately grabs your attention. Fittingly situated next to a charity hospital, the shrine houses a religious image of particular importance for the city’s Chinese residents — a sparkling Chao Mae Kuan Im (aka Kuan Yin, Guanyin, Kannon or Quan Am), the Mahayana Buddhist bodhisattva of compassion.
Though she’s often referred to as a ‘goddess’, Kuan Im is one of the best known of many bodhisattvas, or iconic beings mainly associated with Mahayana Buddhism who are believed to work over countless lifetimes to ease the suffering of others. Kuan Im is viewed as the ultimate embodiment of compassion, mercy and love, and she is thought to possess magical powers such as the ability to take any form imaginable. Mythical or not, Kuan Im is one of the most widely worshiped religious figures in the world.
The Chao Mae Kuan Im shrine is located next to a small hospital operated by the Thian Fa Foundation, a charity launched in 1902 to provide traditional Chinese medicine and care for impoverished people. It was founded by members of five distinctive groups of Chinese immigrants — the Cantonese, Hakka, Hokkien, Hainanese and Teochew — and today it remains an example of many different people coming together for the benefit of all. The hospital continues to provide free check-ups, traditional medicine and modern care for the needy.
A sign on the hospital written in Mandarin expresses the foundation’s underlying theme: “Put the pain and agony of the people into one’s heart”. This ideal of selflessness, compassion and charity is embodied tangibly by the image of Kuan Im. It may not be 43 metres long or made of solid gold, but we feel this is one of Bangkok’s most spectacular religious images thanks to its long history, graceful presence and the exquisite craftsmanship with which it was created.
Carved from a single piece of golden teak wood, the image was the work of an anonymous master artisan of the Song Dynasty in China between 800 and 900 years ago. It was sent to Thailand before the Chinese revolution in the mid 20th century and placed in the shrine next to Thian Fa Hospital in 1958. The image depicts Kuan Im in the posture of blessing all beings, and it leaves out the vase and willow branch often found in statues of the bodhisattva throughout Vietnam and elsewhere.
Although beautiful at any time, the image is especially striking after dark when it shimmers amid carefully placed lighting and incense smoke. Faithful residents gather each evening at 19:30 to chant Buddhist scriptures, pay homage to Kuan Im and pray for her guidance. The shrine attracts local worshippers and curious onlookers at all hours of the day, and the eldest Thai princess, Sirikorn, has a tradition of visiting it during Chinese lunar new year.
While Kuan Im is the main draw, the open-air structure that houses the shrine is also historically significant and attractive. On either side of the image, portraits of the six founders of the Thian Fa Foundation are placed over two teak wood cabinets that were gifts from King Rama V in the early 1900s. The adjacent walls are adorned with bright murals depicting scenes from the Pure Land school of Buddhism, including a teaching Amithaba Buddha and Kuan Im surfing the waves on a dragon. Eight red pillars hold up a roof decorated with intricate carvings, paintings, lanterns and chandeliers.
How to get there
Chao Mae Kuan Im shrine is located at the far southeastern end of Yaowarat Road, about a 10-minute walk from Hualamphong MRT station.
By David Luekens
Last updated on 5th March, 2014.