Bangkok is the land of the Buddha. Whichever part of the city you to go, there will be a Buddha temple thronging with devotees, tourists and, of course, saffron-robed monks. An averagely greedy person would love to visit all of them, for each one showcases the elegance of Thai architecture and sculpture in its own unique way. But time overrules all else and so you will be forced to choose.
Here’s one suggestion to pick an itinerary: Go for temples where the idol is placed in different postures and pick one of the designated Buddha days to visit – we took our tour on a full moon evening. Before you embark upon your spiritual or architectural excursion, keep a few things to keep in mind: dress modestly, always remove your shoes before entering the temple, back away from the Buddha statue rather than turning your back, and don’t come in the way of the worshippers. Other handy tips will come as you read on.
Begin your tour with the Standing Buddha of Wat Indrawiharn. Gleaming in gold, this tall statue is one of the main attractions of central Bangkok. Despite all you may have heard and read about the height and the history of this structure – at 32 metres high, it is said to have taken 60 years to finish – nothing can prepare you for its magnificence, as you stand at the famed lotus feet. So close to the statue, you will not be able to see his tranquil face and yet, you can feel his peaceful countenance looking at you.
On a full moon night, there are many worshippers making offerings at the feet of this east facing Buddha and the low buzz of whispered prayers – there’s an unspoken rule in these temples to never speak loudly – only adds to the mood. There is pulley system by which you can raise your offering of a silk scarf to the Buddha’s shoulder. On certain days you are also allowed to climb up the ladder adjacent to the statue.
In the square that faces the statue, there are many small and big Buddhas. There’s also one which is an imitation of the Emerald Buddha placed in the Grand Palace. To the right hand side of the figure is an area which is like a locker of wooden boxes. “Here, people keep some of the ashes and bones of the departed,” said Sukon, the officer in-charge of the temple. “We believe that is the way to attain nirvana. Often people buy their own space before they die, or else their relatives bring their ashes and buy a space,” he elaborated.
In front of the office of this temple, there are eight Buddhas positioned in a single file behind each other. Each one of them is different from the other in its posture or the hand ‘mudras’. Explained Sukon, “These are eight Buddhas, represent one for each day. We celebrate full moon, new moon and half moon days as Buddha days. Also every devout does not go to the same temple. You go to the temple of the day you were born. We have a Monday Buddha, Tuesday Buddha, Wednesday morning and evening Buddha. There is a Buddha for each of the remaining four days too. Therefore, those born on Tuesday will go the Tuesday Buddha temple. Wednesday alone has two Buddhas because we believe that Buddha attained nirvana on a Wednesday and so he was different in the morning and different in the evening.”
At the Wat Indrawiharn, there is a practice of sticking small gold paper on one of the smaller statues in the complex. Whisper a prayer and stick the gold paper as your message. Tourism can make even offering prayers a commercial experience and so you will find people selling caged birds outside the temple asking you set them free by purchasing them.
Ok, back to the tour. The next posture to see is that of the seated Emerald Buddha at the Grand Palace. It takes around 100 Bahts by ‘tuk tuk’ (local rickshaws) to get to the sprawling complex that was home to the king till recently. Even now the royal quarters lie to one side, while the rest is open to the public.
The Emerald Buddha temple lies within the palace. The most important thing to keep in mind before entering this complex is that you have to be dressed conservatively. While there are no specific restrictions for women, it’s advisable to give up the T-shirt and shorts outfit for the day. Of course, for those who are unaware there is a dressing room very near the entrance where you can borrow or buy a sarong or a long shirt. The administrative staff here is supportive and helpful, as they politely explain that these are just some of the measures aimed at maintaining the sanctity of Thai tradition and the temple.
What is impressive here is that even though hundreds of tourists are milling around the palace grounds, there is a certain section that is cordoned off for those who have come specifically to pray. A word of caution to the regular tourist: Check the timings for visit on the four Buddha days because of the special prayers. Generally, in the mornings it’s between 8.30 and 12.30 and then again in the afternoon from 1.30 to 5.30.
The Emerald Buddha sits atop a large pyramid of smaller idols and a bewildering array of colour and craft. In Thai it is called a busabok, or an open pillared construction of wood with multi-storeyed roof, the use of which is restricted to the king and objects of veneration. On a full moon day the Buddha is draped in a gold shawl. This statue is said to be only 66 cms tall and 48.3 cms wide and has been carved out of a single piece of jade. It inspires great reverence and as you enter the hall, you are allowed to sit quietly to pray in its presence for as long as you wish. The message you carry back from this Buddha is that virtues can make even the small figure resplendent.
A short distance from the palace is the Wat Pho, where you will see the reclining Buddha. Even though the Bangkok sun is sharp, there is a pleasant breeze that makes the walk possible. This temple complex houses a 15 metres high and 43 metres long statue. If the sheer splendour of the structure has you gaping in awe, the intricate mother of pearl work on the feet will leave you wonderstruck. The ornamentation on the feet is made up of 108 panels depicting auspicious symbols like the white elephant, flowers, and so on.
All along the inner walls of this room are small bronze bowls. Dropping a coin in each one is believed to bring good luck. And this is also how this wat, or temple, is maintained.
Keep the Wat Pho visit for the end of the day. Not only do you see the reclining figure of the great teacher you also see a hall of more than a thousand Buddhas, one after another, all lined all along the huge compound. It is this picture that you will take back with you. You also begin to see the Buddha everywhere. And perhaps, you even begin to see the Buddha in everyone, too.