Elaborate Srivijaya-influenced temple
Published/Last edited or updated: 8th November, 2020
Wat Phra Borommathat Chaiya stands as the most elaborate example of Srivijaya influence remaining in Thailand today. Built around an eye-catching Javanese-style chedi, the site is thought to have been established when Chaiya was an important regional centre of the Srivijaya kingdom around the eighth century CE. Today the chedi features on the Surat Thani provincial symbol and is mimicked by the provincial capital’s City Pillar shrine.
Scholars generally agree that the Old Malay-speaking, seafaring Srivijaya kingdom was based in parts of Sumatra and Java, its influence spreading as far as the Philippines and Madagascar from around the seventh to the 13th centuries. Its people adhered to a mix of Vajrayana and Mahayana Buddhism, and to a lesser extent, Hinduism, which were brought by the Indian Gupta and Pala empires. Though the Srivijaya left far less conspicuous traces than, say, the Khmer empire, it did leave an important mark on Southeast Asian art and culture.
Many scholars believe that the Srivijaya’s linguistic legacy can still be heard in the Old Malay derived languages spoken in modern Indonesia and Malaysia. Srivijaya subjects also may have been the first to introduce Buddhism to what’s now Thailand and Cambodia, though their Mahayana-dominated form would eventually lose out to Theravada Buddhism from Burma and Sri Lanka. The chedi at Wat Phra Borommathat is one of a handful of ancient Srivijayan monuments that can still be seen in the Chaiya area, with two others found at nearby Wat Kaeo and Wat Long.
First constructed out of brick and vegetable mortar some 1,200 years ago, the chedi was twice restored in the early 20th century. Some alterations were made, including the addition of Thai artistic elements, but the original shape was largely preserved. Those who have explored ancient Javanese temple sites will notice a strong resemblance to the sanctuaries of Prambanan and others. Rising from a square base, its five patterned tiers include shelves, nitches and points leading up to a lotus and topped by a slender spire. Buddhist relics are said to be enshrined inside.
Surrounding the chedi on all four sides are ceramic-roofed cloisters filled with Buddha images of various shapes and sizes. Near a Bodhi tree on the other side of the cloisters, a trio of sandstone Ayutthaya-era Buddha images in the Subduing Mara posture sit side by side, exposed to the elements. Local lore claims that these images prefer to be outside, evidenced by a lightning strike on a building they were once placed in.
The temple grounds also include a medium-size ordination hall which, surprising given the importance of the temple, has no murals and only a small collection of typical-looking Buddha images. Stroll to the temple’s northern section and you’ll find a cluster of attractive old wooden buildings that appear to hail from around a century ago.
Sharing a car park with Wat Phra Borommathat is the Chaiya National Museum, which procures a small but interesting collection of ancient statuary discovered in the area. Highlights include a roughly 1,300-year-old Avalokitesvara head kept in the front room, and images of Ganesha and Vishnu. The museum also contains some Dvaravati- and Ayutthaya-era sculptures found at Wat Kaeo. A ticket to the museum costs 100 baht for foreigners and photography is not allowed inside.
Wat Phra Borommathat Chaiya and the Chaiya National Museum are located 1.5 kilometres west of the Chaiya Railway Station on Route 4011, on the way to Route 41, and are marked by signs in English. The twin attractions work best as part of a day trip that could also include the aforementioned Wat Long and Wat Kaeo along with Wat Wiang, Wat Suan Mokkh and the fishing and silk-weaving village of Baan Pumriang.
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.