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Wat Phra Mahathat

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Wat Phra Mahathat stands among Thailand’s earliest Theravada Buddhist monuments designed in the Sri Lankan style. It’s a major pilgrimage site for Thai Buddhists, an important place of study for scholars of Southeast Asian history and a must-see attraction for travellers. The 78-metre-high central chedi is also the spiritual heart of Nakhon Si Thammarat.

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Southern Thailand's most significant chedi, undergoing restoration in 2015.

Southern Thailand’s most significant chedi, undergoing restoration in 2015.

The temple’s full name of Wat Phra Mahathat Woramahawihan translates as “Great Noble Temple of the Great Relics Chedi,” and the chedi (or stupa) itself is known as Phra That Borommathat, a name used for several other chedis in Thailand. Constructed around the early 13th century and renovated nine times from 1612 to 1995, the chedi was built in the Sinhalese Buddhist style, possibly as a statement that the Theravada form of Buddhism had won out over the Mahayana school propagated by the Srivijaya empire, which probably ruled over the area until the 11th century.

Wat Phra Mahathat places the Nakhon Si Thammarat kingdom (formerly Tambralinga) right there with Sukhothai and Lanna among the earliest civilisations to lay foundations for Theravada Buddhism in what would eventually become Thailand, an overwhelmingly Theravada country. Recognising this important contribution in 2012, UNESCO placed the temple on a tentative list of world heritage sites.

Wat Phra Mahathat may have also been established as a way to reunite the kingdom after a disease forced many subjects into the countryside. While a city almost certainly existed here prior to the 13th century, it was renamed Nakhon Si Thammarat during or immediately after Wat Phra Mahathat’s construction, and the chedi is still thought to bring unification and prosperity. Each year in February or March, depending on the moon cycle, the city comes together to wrap a saffron cloth around the chedi as part of the Hae Pha Khun That festival.

An Ayutthaya-era ubosot compliments the chedi to the south.

An Ayutthaya-era ubosot compliments the chedi to the south.

Scholars believe that the wide bell-shaped base was placed over an older Srivijaya-built monument. Resembling ancient stupas in Sri Lanka, such as Anuradhapura’s Thuparama and Jetavana sites, Wat Mahathat’s brick-and-stucco base supports a nearly 11-metre-tall spire with 52 rings crowned by hundreds of kilos of gold. The chedi is also thought to enshrine a tooth relic of the Buddha, a claim that may well be true given several records detailing how relics of the Buddha were brought to Sri Lanka, coupled with a known Tambalingan invasion of Sri Lanka in the 12th century.

Surrounding the chedi are 22 stucco elephants at the base, while eight walking Buddha images represent the Noble Eightfold Path. There are also 173 smaller chedis, including scaled-down replicas of the main chedi standing in four corners of the square-shaped complex. Roofed cloisters filled with hundreds of Buddha images serve as the boundary markers, topped by a second-floor gallery that allows pilgrims to perform the merit-making act of circumnavigating the chedi three times.

Off the northeast corner of the inner cloisters is an entrance to a fairly large museum displaying Buddha images and other valuables that have been donated over the years. Further north stands an attractive white mondop topped by a two-tiered roof, containing a large Buddha footprint shrine. Four wihaans mark each of the four cardinal directions around the chedi, and these are dwarfed by an Ayutthaya-era ordination hall to the south. There’s also a broad Bodhi tree believed to have sprouted from a clipping brought from Sri Lanka.

A shrine honouring two Tambralingan princes.

A shrine honouring two Tambralingan princes.

Beyond the ordination hall at the southern end of the complex, market vendors sell local snacks, souvenirs and amulets believed to invoke the strength of Jatukham and Ramathep, a pair of ancient Tambralingan princes. Hidden under some nearby trees, a small bronze statue depicts the two princes while perhaps also representing the Hindu gods, Skanda and Vishnu, according to Joe Cummings in the book, Buddhist Temples of Thailand.

While it fails to dazzle to the extent of some of the ruins at Sukhothai, Ayutthaya and Phanom Rung, Wat Phra Mahathat boasts plenty to grab your attention for an hour. Coils of incense smoke, white-clad pilgrims, monks and gently chiming bells contribute to the sacred atmosphere. The central location also makes it an ideal centrepiece to a cultural walking tour through Nakhon town.

If you’re keen to explore other ancient religious sites of the upper Malay peninsula, you’ll also appreciate Wat Phra Borrommathat Chaiya and related sites in the town of Chaiya, north of Surat Thani. To learn more about Wat Phra Mahathat and Nakhon Si Thammarat, check out UNESCO’s page on the temple, or pick up a copy of Stuart Munro-Hay’s academic work, Nakhon Sri Thammarat: The Archaeology, History and Legends of a Southern Thai Town.

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