Once the Sukhothai kingdom’s principle royal monastery, Wat Mahathat is now one of the most impressive ancient religious sites found anywhere in Thailand. Its ruins sprawl over a large chunk of land at the heart of the historical park’s central zone. Be sure to explore slowly enough to notice the delicate details enduring in the shadows of towering chedis, prangs and Buddha images.
Officially known as Wat Phra Sri Rattana Mahathat (Monastery of the Great Sacred Royal Gem Chedi), this is one of many Thai temples with similar names -- another impressive site with the exact same name is found up in Si Satchanalai. It’s a name that always signifies utmost importance surrounding a large chedi where sacred relics are enshrined. By these standards, Sukhothai’s Wat Mahathat sets a high bar.
Surrounded by laterite walls and moats, the complex ebbs around a graceful chedi topped with a Sukhothai-style finial designed in the shape of a lotus bud. It’s believed that bones and ash from the historical Buddha’s body were brought from Sri Lanka and placed in the chedi’s reliquary.
Adorning the bottom section of the main chedi’s multi-tiered base, faces and other details are still evident on several of the 168 pilgrims depicted walking counter-clockwise around the chedi. The Thai practice of encircling a sacred chedi three times on foot continues today -- arrive early and you might see ochre-robed monks and pilgrims in white strolling slowly around the Maha That.
On either side of the main chedi, a pair of brick towers protect stunning 12-metre-high standing Buddha images known as Phra Atharot. Wander nearby to check out smaller Buddha images complemented by faded depictions of elephants and beings that you might encounter in Buddhism’s many plains of heaven and hell.
Other features include laterite mondops in the Haripunchai style and prangs built by the Khmer. These predate the central chedi and the many Sri Lankan-style bell-shaped chedis by several centuries. Like many of Sukhothai’s monasteries, Wat Mahathat’s layers of artistic styles display how the site developed gradually over time and different dynastic reigns.
Fronting the entire complex is the massive laterite base of a wihaan with pillars that once supported a wood roof. Probably used for chanting and other ceremonies, this would have been the monastery’s largest building. It once housed a bronze seated Buddha image cast in 1362 that’s now enshrined at Bangkok’s Wat Suthat. A striking brick-and-plaster Buddha image seated in the subduing mara posture now takes its place.
Adjacent to the wihaan is the site of Sukhothai’s former royal palace, though all that remains of it is a 52-metre-long rectangular base with some stairs and receding tiers.
In total Wat Mahathat features 198 chedis along with various mondops, barriers, statues and a handful of trees providing some shade -- plan on spending an hour here if you don’t want to miss anything.
How to get there
Wat Mahathat is impossible to miss on the left after entering the central zone through the main eastern gate. From here it's best to head northwest to Wat Si Sawai.
By David Luekens
Last updated on 16th June, 2016.