Atmospheric with a rich history
Published: 18th August, 2017
Fronted by the Giant Swing, Wat Suthat enshrines a huge bronze Buddha image that connects the ancient Sukhothai kingdom to modern Thailand. Those who don’t care about the history will most likely be soothed by the meditative atmosphere and impressed by exquisite murals and Buddha images at one of Bangkok’s premier temples.
King Rama I established Wat Suthat in the early 19th century and his grandson, King Rama III, oversaw the finishing touches some four decades later. Seated in the Subduing Mara posture and crafted back in the 13th century, the principle Buddha image, known as Phra Si Sakyamuni, has a height of eight metres and is the largest Sukhothai-style bronze Buddha in the world. The ashes of King Rama VIII were enshrined in the base of the image following the young king’s mysterious death in 1946.
Originally enshrined at Wat Mahathat in Sukhothai, the image is exceptional not only in terms of artistry but also in the history of Thailand. According to Joe Cummings in Buddhist Temples of Thailand, “When the Buddha arrived in the new capital, Rama I walked barefoot in the streets alongside his subjects for seven days while the image was paraded around the city.” Back in Sukhothai, it had been one of the most sacred Buddha images in a kingdom that laid down many of the cultural roots for the modern Thai nation. Records also say that part of Bangkok’s outer wall or gate had to be torn down to get the image inside.
Much excitement must have accompanied the arrival of Phra Si Sakyamuni, helping to solidify a sense that the young capital was worthy of replacing the old capital of Ayutthaya. Wat Suthat is now one of four temples in Bangkok bearing the highest royal grade, the others being Wat Pho, Wat Arun and Wat Mahathat.
One of the oldest examples of Rattanakosin-period architecture in Thailand, the central ochre-roofed wihaan is a sanctuary where locals take breaks from the chaotic city to meditate. Set in an easily overlooked spot at the back of the hall, a lacquered relief from the ancient Dvaravati civilisation depicts the Buddha instructing his mother after returning from Tavatimsa heaven. The wihaan’s vast walls and pillars display murals featuring scenes from the Jatakas and early Bangkok life. King Rama II carved some of the original teakwood door panels himself, which are now exhibited at the National Museum.
The temple’s full name, Wat Suthat-Thepwararam, refers to the god Indra’s heavenly city in Hindu mythology. An ice-blue image of Indra sits atop Erawan, the silver three-headed elephant, near the top of the wihaan’s glittering outer gable. Long cloisters filled with dozens of seated Buddha images join 28 Chinese-style pagodas and a statue of King Rama VIII on the marble base outside. At the back of the grounds, the ubosot hosts more murals and Buddha images; resident monks chant here daily at 08:30 and 15:30.
Wat Suthat goes hand-in-hand with Sao Ching Cha, the Giant Swing that towers as one of Bangkok’s signature landmarks. It was built in 1784 at the site where an annual Brahman ritual was held to re-enact the Triyampawai, a Hindu epic detailing the creation of the world by Brahma. In the story, a pair of powerful Nagas wrap their serpentine bodies around two mountains on either side of the sea in an attempt to keep the new world from breaking apart when Siva arrives with the full force of a god to oversee it.
Decorated in red lacquer, the swing’s two teak pillars signify the two mountains in the Triyampawai. During the festival, the king watched as a swing representing the nagas propelled teams of men up to 30 metres above the ground to reach for a bag of gold placed atop a 15-metre-high bamboo pole. Many competitors fell to their deaths and the swinging was outlawed in 1932, but Brahman priests continue to lead a festival here each year in December.
The Sao Ching Cha area remains a centre for Hinduism in Bangkok. Just west of Wat Suthat, Dhevasathan is an active Brahman shrine containing images of Brahma, Siva and Ganesha. East of the temple, a smaller shrine depicts Vishnu and is overseen by the large Dev Mandir Hindu temple, located a short walk south down Siri Phong Road.
If you’d like to learn more about the history and attributes of Wat Suthat and Sao Ching Cha, pop into the office that fronts the complex to pick up a 40-baht booklet written in English by a Western monk-scholar. Here you’ll also find an old photo of the deadly swinging competition. After hitting Wat Suthat you could grab a pad Thai at nearby Thip Samai before strolling southeast to the Corrections Museum or northeast to Wat Saket and the Golden Mount.
Wat Suthat is centrally located in the old town on Bamrung Muang Road and can be reached by walking a half-kilometre south from Democracy Monument on Dinso Road. Open daily 09:00-20:00. Admission is 20 baht but it’s not forcefully collected.
David Luekens first came to Thailand in 2005 when Thai friends from his former home of Burlington, Vermont led him on a life-changing trip. Based in Thailand since 2011, he spends much of his time eating in Bangkok street markets and island hopping the Andaman Sea.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
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