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WALKING (!) UP TO THE TEMPLE ON DOI SUTHEP
Chiang Mai Makes its Annual Pilgrimage the Traditional Way
by : John Cadet
Well, we've all heard the saying, ‘If you haven't been up to the Wat Phra That on Doi Suthep, you haven't visited Chiang Mai' - and probably agreed with the sentiment.
That's right, the Wat Phra That (Temple of the Holy Buddha Relic): one of the North's most famous temples of pilgrimage, in that respect well worth visiting, even leaving out of account its fascinating history, extraordinary imagery and spectacular viewpoint.
But did you say walking up to the Wat Phra That? And did you add - in the middle of the night? Now really, aren't you in all senses of the phrase, going just a little too far?
Let's take this very, very slowly, shall we?
The History of the Temple and the Role of the White Elephant
As I say the temple is one of the most venerable and visit-worthy in the whole of the Kingdom. The Chronicles of the North tell us it was founded by King Guena in 1373. He'd received a Buddha relic from Sukhothai, and intended enshrining it at the big foundation to the west of Chiang Mai city: at Wat Suan Dawk. But when the relic miraculously split into seed-like pieces, he decided the smaller piece should be kept at his temple of choice…but puzzled over what to do with the bigger of the two.
The solution was one with a long history in the Indic tradition. It was decided to place the relic on the back of a white elephant, which was then to be allowed to roam until it found a suitable site for enshrinement.
And roam the elephant did, according to the chronicles. It went west till it came to the foot of what's now called Doi Suthep, climbed the lower slopes, lay down in a couple of places - places the entourage felt were highly suitable. And if you've climbed the mountain on foot you can sympathise with their feelings in this respect. But it wasn't till it was some 1,500 ft above the Chiang Mai plain, at the spur on which the temple now stands, that the elephant gave what were certainly the relevant and conclusive signals.
Having circumambulated the site three times anticlockwise, the elephant trumpeted, lay down, and died. Because of its tiredness, so the chronicles tell us.
The Sacred Mountain and its Spirits
So much for the location of the temple, then. As to its attractiveness to pilgrims, the relic alone would account for that, but we should also not forget that mountains are sacred in their own right, according to Southeast Asian tradition. The forest and hills outside the protective mandala of the city teem with powerful spirits, and even to this day the citizens of Chiang Mai organise a number of remarkable ceremonies ensuring that these spirits - not by any means automatically well disposed towards the temporary human residents in their eternal realm - are kept happy.
And just how careful the Chiang Mai citizens need to be in this respect, the vivid and various imagery of the Wat Phra That stand witness.
The Images at Wat Phra That
At the foot of the imposing staircase sweeping up to the temple gates, for example, you meet the Primal Pair - Mae Torani (Mother Earth) wringing the waters of fertility from her hair, and Phaya Nak her consort, the Great Serpent, undulating along the balustrades at either side of the stairway. Their children, the ferocious kumphan (earth spirits) stand guardian at the temple entrance. Inside the first courtyard, furthermore, we find an image of the white elephant that brought the relic to the temple; a hermit draped in a tiger skin; the life-sized figure of a monk, pasted over with gold leaf and bearing a peacock-plumed staff. And a little further down, we meet the good-natured little elephant-headed Hindu god, Ganesh, squatting patiently at either side of one of the doors to the inner courtyard…now what on earth can he be doing here?
But having glanced at this sample of the images, symbols and artifacts the temple offers us, each with its own reference to the relationship between the temple within its concentric walls, and the forest and spirits of the mountain outside, let's go up the short flight of stairs and into the inner courtyard. Here, with the gallery of murals depicting the life of the Buddha behind us, and a protective wall surmounted by ornately decorated railings in front, we find ourselves confronting the object of our pilgrimage, the magnificent chedi built all those years ago - and lovingly maintained throughout the centuries since - that houses the sacred relic.
From the city below, the top of this chedi is just faintly visible way, way above, and at night the light shining from its tip reminds us that the temple's protective watchfulness never ceases.
The Srivichai Highway
You can of course go up to pay your respects at the Wat Phra That, and enjoy the coolness, at virtually any time, and with a deal great less trouble - not to speak of a better outcome - than the white elephant experienced. Nearly seventy years ago, an especially revered Northern monk by the name of Khruba Srivichai invited his followers to build a road where before there'd been only the little-used footpath - a road that was completed, so great was the response, within six months, and has been much improved since. It's possible then to drive from the city up through the National Park, reaching the reliquary within half an hour. From the parking lot you can then tackle the stairway, if you're feeling up to it. And if not, do the last couple of hundred feet by cable car.
Pilgrimage could hardly come easier, it would seem.
The Easy and the Hard Way Up
However, it needs to be said that there are differences still between East and West. There's a small but hardy group of Western residents in Chiang Mai - a very small group, let it be added - that gets a glow of achievement out of slogging up the path that goes from close to the Channel Seven TV Relay Station near the foot of Doi Suthep, alongside the little perennial stream, around the waterfalls and through the forest, right up into the heart of the temple, with only the briefest reference to the Srivichai Road - simply crossing it at one place: meeting no-one on the way, hearing only the call of the birds, the whisper of the breeze, the murmur of the town below and the boom and tinkle of the bells of the temple inviting them higher.
But this is not the Thai way. The Thai way is in company: the more the merrier. With music, singing, and dancing. With plenty of food. With a sufficiency of (non-alcoholic) drinks. With the forest and its dodgy spirits at a sensible distance. And with support vehicles, just in case of emergencies…
There's also the feeling though that the bun (merit) you make on a pilgrimage of this sort is at least partially proportional to the difficulty and effort involved, and that's certainly one of the reasons for the events that occur in the middle of May/ early June each year - sibha kam, duen hok - the twenty-four hours of the full moon in the fifth month, according to the local calendar. This is known as Visakha Puja, and commemorates the especially auspicious day of the birth, enlightenment and death of the Buddha.
Visakha Puja: the Night Procession
Which is why on the night of Saturday 21st May by the Western calendar this year, groups from all over the North, as well as from the city - youth groups, village groups, community associations etc etc - will gather at the Khruba Srivichai statue at the foot of the mountain. Then, with monks chanting in the lead, dancers in costume pausing every so often to perform their elegant, graceful manoeuvres, young and old people in traditional costume pulling village drums, and masses of the citizenry carrying banners of every description and colour cheerfully coming after, they follow the 12 kms. of winding road under the full moon, making their slow way up to pay their respects at the Wat Phra That.
And how do they pay those respects?
Inside the inner courtyard, they wiang-tian - that's to say, circumambulate the chedi three times clockwise. Having placed their lighted candles on the wall of the chedi, they kneel and repeat a sutra or two. And no doubt many of them will then make a fervent request for a boon of some kind…to pass an exam, solve a family problem, get rid of a debt, win a girl/boyfriend - the usual human concerns. Afterwards there will be more music to entertain them, some picnicking around the temple, and the consumption of a great deal of khau dtom (rice soup) to keep up the energy levels. And when the dawn of Wan Visakha eventually appears on the eastern horizon, the taxis and buses will do very good business getting the by-this-time weary celebrants back to the city. They made their bun on the way up, after all. There's no equivalent merit to be made by walking back down.
But fortunately Visakha Puja is a national holiday, and since this year it falls on a Sunday, Monday too is wan chotchoei, a replacement day. So back in the city there will be plenty of time to rest the weary legs, complete the process of regeneration.
Time to reflect too - especially if this is a first time venture - that walking up to the Wat Phra That in the traditional way makes it very much a night to remember.
(Text © J.M.Cadet 2005)