The ornate gates and many-tiered roofs with leaping flames, the demon guardians, the sumptuously gleaming decor, the Buddha images and the subtle donation boxes: all these comprise a temple and are incredulously frequent, which I suppose is a sure sign that we've arrived in South East Asia. Would you believe that in the old walled city section of Chiang Mai a humble 1800m by 2000m in area there are no less than twenty two individual temples?? But I am getting ahead of myself...
90-95% of Thai people subscribe to Theravada Buddhism beliefs and philosophy. The remaining are Mahayana Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, atheists, etc. Needless to say, images of the Lord Buddha are numerous if not all that varied, but there are certainly all kinds of other deities worshipped throughout the land. Several Hindu gods boast shrines, Brahma the Creator's Erawan shrine in Bangkok, for example, is said to be the fastest of all to grant a wish. Erawan in fact means elephant, and these are permanently married to Thai culture, art and symbolism and so it's no surprise that Lord Ganesha, Remover of Obstacles, is also ubiquitous on altars and in relic shops.
Miniature shrines or temples called spirit houses are placed beside every home and building. This is a hold-over from the times of belief in animistic spirits, which are much more unpredictable and moody than their major-religion counterparts, and must be supplicated in order to assure their benevolent mood. The spirit houses are abodes for those spirits who were displaced by the construction of a man-made structure. Apparently to properly honour the spirits, any improvement or renovation of the human dwelling must be matched accordingly in the spirit house.
Our first real tour of the temples began at the Grand Palace in Bangkok - once the royal residence and now the recipient of an endless stream of foreigners and Thais. All spend their visit gazing in wonder at the lavish wealth and detail on every surface of the many structures such as stupas, halls, sculptures, carvings, even a replica of Angkor Wat. The main attraction within this multitude of masterpieces is the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, not so grand in itself but housing the country's most revered statue of the Buddha -- 45cm tall and clothed in garments changed for each of the rainy, hot and cool seasons.
Next was Wat Pho, one of the oldest and largest temples in Bangkok, the site of Thailand's first university and the birthplace of instruction in Thai massage. The complex is home to over a thousand Buddha images collected mainly from ruined temples of the former capitals Ayutthaya and Sukhothai. The most famous of the images is the Reclining Buddha, illustrating the sage's passing into nirvana. The gold-plated statue is 46m long and 15m high. The feet alone are 3m each in height and inlaid with mother-of-pearl in the design of 108 auspicious characteristics of the true Buddha.
After five days in the Thai capital, we boarded a 12-hour train to Chiang Mai, the second biggest city and mecca for studying the ancient healing form of Thai massage. We chose to travel in the daytime to catch the countryside rolling by. Our departure from Bangkok was alongside slummy dwellings and scary, dirty water... then masses of uniformed schoolchildren milling about on a break. Right out of the city, the emerald green of rice paddies dominated the landscape, often with scores of storks and occasionally relatives of the water buffalo in the flooded low plains. Palms of various shapes and sizes and trees so overgrown with leaves and vines they looked like green creatures ambling beside the train. Now and then a farmer trod along with his small herd of cows, lean and of the type whose hyde hangs down from their bodies. Mountainous hills sprang up from the earth and guided us north, their dark grey shapes sometimes to the west and sometimes to the east of our rambling carriage, and when they moved in I was amazed at the lush cover of plants and foliage all along their sides.
Every settlement boasted at least one temple and then suddenly I looked up and yelped in surprise at an enormous golden Buddha statue seated on a temple roof several kilometres away. We saw his twin sheltered in a temple courtyard further along the track, and then a third gleaming giant figure, this one high up on a mountain side, adding his mysterious Mona Lisa expression to the Land of Smiles.
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