Visitors to almost any northern Thai temple won’t help but notice the numerous wooden poles propping up branches of the temple’s bo tree. What are they? Why are they there? Well, please read on.
The bo, or bodhi or pho tree (ficus religiosa) is the Buddhist holy tree par excellence, since it’s the species under which Buddha was believed to have been sitting when he attained enlightenment. As such, it’s a near essential feature of any temple grounds.
What is more specific to north Thailand, though they can be seen elsewhere in the kingdom, are the aforementioned wooden poles clustered around the base of the tree. The old Lanna term for the tree is sari and the poles are called mai kham sari. Bodhi trees have pliable branches, so older ones droop, and by supporting the branches Thais believe they are supporting their religion and will thus gain good fortune, peace, happiness (say by winning the lottery) and so on.
Ideally the prop should be the same length as the branch it is supporting. Since the mai kham tree (a hardwood tree thought to give the best results for propping up sacred branches) has only short branches itself, bamboo is often used to prop up longer sections. The mai kham sari require a fork to form the prop part, and believers also secrete notes and supplications in the space between fork and branch.
The above — a veritable forest of mai kham sari — is at the prestigious Wat Phra That Lampang Luang in Lampang, though visitor’s are most likely to come across them at popular Chiang Mai temples such as Wat Phra Sing or Wat Chedi Luang.
Learn more about this distinctive northern tradition at the excellent new Chiang Mai Lanna Heritage Museum.
By Mark Ord
Last updated on 12th October, 2013.