Thursday, February 19, 2009

Lamphun's Little-Known Animal Shrines

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

Links with Old Burma

Nowadays the ancient northern Thai Kingdom of Lan Na - literally the ‘One Million Rice Fields’, together with its capital, the venerable city of Chiang Mai, is very much an integral part of the Thai polity. It was not always so, however. Union with Siam took place just two centuries ago, and Bangkok's absolute control was not fully established until the first decades of the 20th century. Five centuries ago, in the time King Tilokarat (1441-87), Lan Na was independent and enjoying a golden age. To the east lay the Kingdom of Lan Chang, or ‘One Million Elephants’, centred on modern Laos. To the south Ayutthaya flourished as the capital of Siam, whilst to the west the Kingdoms of Pegu and Ava were twin centres of Burma's burgeoning influence and strength.

Relations between Burma and Thailand are as old as the history of the two peoples in mainland Southeast Asia. When the Tai first began to settle in the Lan Na region, they found the Mon ruling over the local Lawa people from their capital at Haripunchai - today the quiet provincial capital of Lamphun, probably the oldest continually inhabited city in Thailand.

The Lan Na Kingdom was founded by King Mangrai in the mid-13th century. Mangrai subdued the local Mon and founded his new capital at Chiang Mai on April 18, 1296. He went on to establish friendly relations with Burma when he travelled to the court of King Suttasoma of Pegu. King Suttasoma cemented this alliance by giving Mangrai his daughter, the Lady Phai Kho, in marriage. According to the Chiang Mai Chronicle: 'the two rulers met at the Asa River, and feasted their retainers with food and drink, and staged great entertainments for three days and three nights. They pledged their undying friendship in every way'. The Chronicle also notes that the King of Phukam - later to become Ava - in Upper Burma was also on good terms with Mangrai, and sent five hundred families of artisans, including silver, gold, bronze and iron smiths, as a gift of friendship to the Lan Na court.

For the next two and a half centuries Lan Na flourished as an independent state, trading and exchanging goods and ideas with neighbouring countries. Links were established with distant Sri Lanka via the Burmese port of Martaban, and Theravadan monks travelled between the great Buddhist centre of Anuradhapura and Chiang Mai. As a result of these links, in 1477 King Tilokarat sponsored the 8th Buddhist World Council at Wat Chet Yod - then just outside Chiang Mai, today well within the city confines beside the Superhighway. Delegates travelled to the council from Burma, Sri Lanka and all over the Buddhist world. Lan Na was in its prime, a recognised regional power able to treat on equal terms with both Burma and Siam.

Of course, there were wars too. The kings of Chiang Mai were under constant pressure from the Siamese to the south, and during the century of decline which followed the death of Tilokarat in 1487 suffered attacks not just from Ayutthaya, but also from Yunnan, Shan State, Laos and even Vietnam. For strategic reasons, the armies of Pegu did not take part in these generalised attacks until King Bayinnaung succeeded in subduing Upper Burma and the Shan region in the late 1550s. From this time on, however, Bayinnaung became the main player in the region, and by 1558 the whole of Lan Na was in his hands.

For the next two centuries Chiang Mai was a tributary of Burma. Unlike the Siamese, the people of Lan Na generally do not retain bitter memories of Burmese conquest. Judging by the chronicles, when a suzerain was just and his rule generous, the Northern Tai would support him even against the Siamese. In the beginning, this was indeed the case. As the Chiang Mai Chronicle records, 'The Burmese did no ill or oppression of any sort'. Later, however, as conditions deteriorated, resistance began to develop - though to little or no avail. Only after the armies of Burma had devastated Ayutthaya in 1767 did Chao Kawila, Lord of Lampang, decide to throw in his lot with the Siamese. As a result, on the 14th February, 1775, a joint Lan Na-Siamese army seized Chiang Mai and began the process of uniting the Lan Na Kingdom with Siam.

Visitors to Chiang Mai today do not have to look far for reminders of the city's long links with neighbouring Burma. Unfortunately, little remains from the two hundred year period of direct Burmese rule. This is hardly surprising - when Chao Kawila entered the city in 1775 he found it depopulated and impoverished as a result of the long years of war. Not until March 1797, did Kawila re-establish the city and set about rebuilding it. The restored brick bastions and moats that encompass the Old City date from this time, as do the city's outer earthen ramparts in their present form. To this extent they are a link with Burma, but only in so far as they managed to keep the armies of Ava at bay.

Fortunately, even in times of war the armies of Southeast Asia's great Buddhist nations generally considered religious buildings sacrosanct. Because of this, at least one legacy of the original Burmese administration survives. In 1565, just seven years after Bayinnaung's conquest, the Burmese military commander in Lan Na had a huge bronze Buddha image cast, in cooperation with Queen Wisutthithewi of Chiang Mai. It was named ‘Phra Buddha Müang Rai’, doubtless in honour of King Mangrai, the city's founder. The image has survived the intervening centuries, and today can be seen at Wat Chai Phra Kiat on the north side of the Old City's central Ratchadamnoen Avenue, not far from Wat Phra Singh. It is in Lan Na style, and so was certainly cast by local artisans.

Wat Ku Tao, to the north of the Old City by the old sports stadium, is another survivor from the years of Burma's suzerainty. Here, within an unusual chedi formed like five inverted alms bowls, are believed to lie the ashes of the first Burmese ruler of Chiang Mai, King Nawrahtaminsaw (1578-1607). Another stupa from this period is Chedi Khao, the ‘White Chedi’. Standing by the banks of the River Ping near the gates of the United States Consulate, it now serves as a roundabout at the junction of busy Wichayanon and Wang Sing Kham Roads. According to legend, this chedi commemorates a trial of will between a Burmese soldier and his Lan Na opponent. Once, when Burmese armies stood at the gates of the city, it was decided to settle the issue by single combat. Whichever army's champion could stay under water longest would decide the victory. Both sides chose their best swimmers, but once beneath the waters of the River Ping the Lan Na volunteer tied his clothing to a rock. He thus won the contest at the cost of his life, and Chedi Khao still stands in his honour.

The recapture of Chiang Mai by Kawila in 1775 may have ended Burma's control over Lan Na, but it certainly did not end the relationship between the two neighbours. All through the 19th century Burmese nationals settled in Chiang Mai and other cities of north Thailand to take part in the region's expanding teak logging industry. Many became rich as a result, and some invested their profits in acts of merit-making. The most vivid surviving reminders of Burmese influence in Chiang Mai date from this period, and are well worth visiting.

In the south-east corner of the Old City stands Wat Myanmar, a fine example of a 19th century Buddhist temple which would not look out of place in Mandalay. This temple is associated with the lowland Burman tradition in the city, and pictures of Shwedagon and Sule Pagoda adorn the walls. Further to the east, on the north side of Chang Moi Road in the commercial heart of Kawila's new city, may be found Wat Dok Kham, also closely linked to Burma, but in this case with the Pa-o people from Shan State. Once again the buildings are markedly non-Lan Na in style, more redolent of Taunggyi than of Chiang Mai. Finally, just to the north-east of the Old City, in an area of Shan settlement near Sanam Kila Road, Wat Pa Pao remains the spiritual heart of the Shan community in Chiang Mai. A venerable building with time-warped walls and leaning gateways, this is the oldest of the city's temples linked with Burma. Nearby, at Wat Chiang Eun, a recently-restored octagonal Shan pagoda shelters a Mandalay-style Buddha. In the tea shops and restaurants of this area one can enjoy Shan noodles and even lapet pickled tea. Afterwards, should the mood strike you, why not try a Burma cheroot from the plentiful supplies available at Chiang Mai's Kat Luang (Warorot) Market? Here too you may find lungyi or sarongs from Mandalay, Lashio and even Mytkyina. After all, Burma isn't so very far away!

Text by Andrew Forbes, images by David Henley. © CPA Media, 2007

Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Legend( s) of Queen Chamadevi

Queen Chamadevi is historically a somewhat shad­owy figure. Believed to have been a 6th or 7th C. Mon princess of Lopburi, sent to found and rule the city of Haripunchai (modern-day Lamphun), she is credited with bringing the benefits of civilisation - Buddhism among them - to the North. But if the history is fragmentary, the leg­ends that have accreted and are still current about her in this part of the North are fully-fleshed and highly-coloured - sensational, even.

What the Northern chronicles, and especially the kon song whose familiars are often associated with the queen, tell us, is that as a baby she was found by a hermit in a giant lotus, and having been parented, protected and tutored by him, was sent to Lopburi where the king completed her education, and married her to one of his sons. She then returned with a full entourage up the Chao Praya and Ping rivers to the city her hermit 'father' had established magically for her. Interestingly, she failed to bring her husband with her, but gave birth to male twins shortly after her arrival, thus securing the succession. This was just as well, the legends tell us, because fellow but rather more primitive Mons in the region were not entirely welcoming. In particular, the leader of the Mon-Lua apparently based around Doi Suthep, one Khun Luang Viranka, was affronted when she refused - or at least strategically put off - his offer of marriage. For a while, Chamadevi kept him at bay with one excuse and another, but eventually, threatened by military force, she compromised. If he could throw his spear from Doi Suthep into her walled city, she would surrender her hand, she told him. Quite a chal­lenge, you might think, given that the distance, Doi Suthep to Haripunchai, is some 15 miles, but this is legend, and accordingly with his first throw the 'barbarian' chieftain landed his spear just outside the walls of the city. Alarmed that he might suceed with his next, Queen Chamadevi sent a present to Viranka, a hat that had been fashioned from an undergarment of the Queen and menstrually soiled by her. The simple fellow, flattered and pleased by what he took to be a compliment, put the hat on - with predictable results. The hero's sec­ond throw landed the spear not far from his feet, Viranka then realising that royally deceived and enchanted, he had completely lost his virile power. Out of disappointment and despair, the legends tell us, Viranka sent his last throw directly upwards, the spear falling to pierce the chest and kill the hero. Nevertheless, Khun Luang Viranka continues to be among the major spirits respected by Chiang Mai's people in some of their most important ceremonies. On the other hand, Queen Chamadevi survived, prospered and saw her area of rule extended. And she continues to be not only respected in local ceremonies, but to make appearances from time to time to mOdern-day followers, among other things ensuring that her history is told the way she wants it. But that in itself would be another story.


The trip one hundred kilometres down the super-highway to Lampang takes you back to a quieter, slower-moving era, symbolised by the horse-carriage 'taxis' clip-clopping through the streets there. Lampang's mascot is the White Rooster image standing at the City Gate. Townspeople say that during one of the Buddha's legendary visits to the North, the King of the Gods, Indra, concerned that people might not wake in time to welcome the Great Being, took the form of the bird and crowed his warning. Apart from its many his¬toric temples, Lampang is also famous for its handicrafts (available at local shops) and fruit production. Its elephant training centre and hospital, 38 kms. out of the city, is well worth visiting and has a program that allows you to see the great beasts at their best.

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