The quiet provincial capital of Lamphun, just 26 kilometres south of Chiang Mai, has so long been overshadowed by the Lan Na capital as to have become almost an adjunct. Certainly few visitors stay in Lamphun, preferring to visit as a day trip. Yet Lamphun is at least three centuries older than Chiang Mai, and possibly - at least according to legend - fully five centuries more ancient, which would make it the longest continually inhabited city in Thailand.
Lamphun is generally renowned because of the sophisticated Mon-Haripunchai civilisation of which it became the centre. An offshoot of the larger and better-known Mon-Dvaravati civilisation centred on Lopburi, Lamphun became famous after the enthronement of Queen Chama Thewi, probably during the late 9th or early 10th century AD. The Lan Na chronicles, verified where possible by archaeology and other corroborative texts, suggest that the foundations of the Kingdom of Haripunchai were laid at Lamphun by a group of Buddhist monks from Lopburi some time in the 9th century AD.
These monks asked the Mon king of Lopburi to provide them with a ruler for their city, and he sent his daughter, Chama Thewi, who arrived in Lamphun accompanied by a large retinue of Mon retainers. The new queen was a woman of strong character, who tenaciously defended the interests of Haripunchai against the local Lawa people, and actively promoted Buddhism in the region. She founded a dynasty that was to last until the mid-11th century, and established her capital, Lamphun, as an important centre of Mon culture and influence until its eventual absorption by King Mangrai of Lan Na, in 1281 - long after the demise of the more southerly Mon Kingdom of Dvaravati.
The most important surviving architectural legacy of Mon-Haripunchai civilisation is the revered Wat Phra That Haripunchai, considered one of the seven most important temples of Lan Na, which stands in the centre of town on Thanon Inthayongyot. It was founded in 1044 by King Athitayaraj or Addita of Haripunchai, supposedly on the site of Chama Thewi's royal palace. Legend has it that the queen's personal quarters are enclosed in the main 46-metre high Lan Na-style chedi, covered in copper plates and topped by a gold umbrella.
Almost as important, and certainly of great historical significance, is Wat Chama Thewi, better known locally as Wat Ku Kut. This temple is the site of the two oldest surviving Haripunchai monuments in Lamphun, both brick chedi decorated with stucco figures of the Buddha, dating in their present form from about from 1218, and considered to be the finest surviving examples of Mon architecture in Thailand. The larger of the two, Chedi Suwan Chang Kot, is a stepped pyramid 21 metres high, and thought to have been the model for a similar dagoba at Polonnaruwa in Sri Lanka (See Ancient Chiang Mai 3). Nearby there is another chedi of smaller proportions but similar style. This structure, the Ratana Chedi, is said to contain the ashes of Queen Chama Thewi herself.
Less well known, but more unusual, are a series of four ku, or relic-containing shrines, dedicated to Chama Thewi's royal animals, which were also founded during the late Haripunchai period. These stand quite close together on the northwestern outskirts of town, on the south bank of the River Kuang, about 1 kilometre from from Lamphun Railway Station.
The largest and best known of these unusual shrines is Ku Chang, or the 'elephant relic shrine'. It is dedicated to Chama Thewi's great war-elephant, Blacky-Purple, which was instrumental in Chama Thewi's victory over local the Lawa chieftain King Luang Viranga. The tall black chedi and neighbouring shrine are cluttered with wooden, plaster and stone elephants of every size and description. Fresh bananas and sugar cane are brought for the spirit of Blacky-Purple every morning, and the frequent visitors - predominantly local women - offer lao khao (white liquor), pigs' heads, candles, incense and yellow chrysanthemum flowers to the departed animal. Stalls stand nearby, selling fresh sticks of sugar cane and hands of sweet bananas those wishing to make offerings appropriate to an elephant guardian spirit.
The shrine is clearly highly venerated. Some of the giant wooden elephants within are so covered in garlands that it is almost impossible to see what they are. Accompanying the prayers of the worshippers and smoking incense is the regular rattle of fortune-telling sticks, as visitors cast inscribed bamboo tapers on the ground to see what the future holds for them. Ancient lime trees shade the area, and on sunny days - which are much of the time - a pleasant, dappled light illumines the scene. No doubt Blacky-Purple, the guardian spirit of the city of Lamphun, is pleased by such continuing respect nearly a thousand years after the historic defeat of King Luang Viranga.
A smaller, bell-shaped chedi set close behind Ku Chang marks the site of Ku Ma, final resting-place of Chama Thewi's swiftest steed. Though less venerated than the shrine of Blacky-Purple, local people make offerings of wooden and ceramic horses which crowd around the base of the monument. Taken together, Ku Chang and Ku Ma form the central point of Lamphun's animal relic chambers.
Harder to find is Ku Maeo, the cat chedi--it may be necessary to ask directions from a helpful local resident. Hidden in deep undergrowth at the end of a poorly-maintained park just to the east of Ku Chang, it remains completely covered in vegetation, and can only be discerned by a red flag on a tall stick fixed near the summit. A spirit shrine dedicated to Chama Thewi's cat stands in front, but appears to receive little in the way of veneration.
Finally, a short distance further away behind a small temple is Ku Kai, the chicken chedi, dedicated to Chama Thewi's cockerel, a rooster whose call could reportedly be heard in distant Lopburi! A few years ago, just like Ku Maeo, Ku Kai was in a state of very poor repair, being little more than a pile of rust-red bricks, all trace of stucco gone, behind the temple walls of Wat Kai Kaew, the Temple of the Crystal Cockerel. In recent years, however, this chicken chedi has been carefully restored, and is now bound round with red and gold votive cloths, surmounted by the statue of a small chicken, and protected by encircling railings. Within the temple grounds other reminders of the royal bird can also be found. Golden cockerels with red tails are set in the temple walls above each window, and a much more recent cockerel statue guards the temple grounds.
These Haripunchai-era animal ku are most unusual. While the most important such chedi, Ku Chang and Ku Ma, were restored by the Fine Arts Department at Silipakorn University some decades ago and are now carefully maintained, it is heartening to find the Ku Kai, too, has now been rebuilt, apparently with local funds. I asked about the future status of Ku Maeo, still just a pile of vegetation-covered, crumbling brickwork, at the nearby Ku Chang Shrine. The guardian assured me that it was due to be restored, but he couldn't say when. "It is just a matter of time and money", he opined.
Text by Andrew Forbes, images by David Henley. © CPA Media, 2005