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Sunday, July 26, 2020

Bangkok, at Wat Arun

Many of Bangkok’s most famous temples and historical monuments lie on the banks of the Chao Phraya River which flows through the city and the best way to visit them is by a motor boat.  These boats offer a refreshing alternative to the Bangkok notoriously congested traffic.

Wat Arun, or Temple of Dawn, is a Buddhist temple (or ‘wat’) is the most famous temple on the banks of the Chao Phraya river.  At first I confused it with ‘Temple of Doom’ of Indiana Jone’s movie. Actually it is called Temple of Dawn as the first light of the morning reflects off the surface of the temple on the Chao Phraya river creates a wonderful cinematic vision. Also, the Temple of Dawn derives its name from the Hindu god Aruna, the charioteer of Surya, the sun. ‘Arun’ in Sanskrit means the rays of the rising sun, thus Aruna is often personified as the radiations of the rising sun and became a symbol of Dawn.

During the war with Burmese and Chinese armies in the 1760’s the Ayutthaya Kingdom was essentially in ruins. One of the Siamese general fighting the war, Phya Taksin, viewed the Wat Makok temple ruins at dawn from the Chao Phraya River and swore to rebuild it once the war was over.

General Phya Taksin led the liberation of Siam from Burmese occupation in 1767, and the subsequently unified Siam after it fell under various warlords. As the King of Siam, he then established the city of Thonburi as the new capital near the Wat Makok temple, as the city of Ayutthaya had been almost completely destroyed by the invaders. He rebuilt Wat Makok and renamed it Wat Jaeng, Temple of Dawn. The temple was highly revered, and for a time even held one of Thailand's greatest Buddhist relics, the Emerald Buddha.

Phya Taksin was overthrown and executed in a rebellion by his long-time friend Maha Ksatriyaseuk who then assumed the throne as Rama I, founding the Rattanakosin Kingdom and the Chakri dynasty, which has since ruled Thailand.

Rama II restored the Wat Jaeng temple abandoned after Phya Taksin was overthrown. He embarked on an ambitious building project that raised the central pagoda higher and redesigned the aesthetic of the temple. He also renamed it Wat Arun, keeping the theme of dawn but connecting it with India, homeland of Buddhism. Construction began under Rama II was completed by Rama III around 1847. This is the temple we see today, towering over the Bangkok skyline as one of the most iconic structures in Thailand.

Keeping with Thai architectural styles of the time, Wat Arun is full of ornament. Its massive pagoda in the center, called the prang, a stupa-like pagoda, was inspired by Khmer architectural traditions. The central prang is about 80 meters tall, inlaid with seashells and colored porcelain. It is considered the tallest prang in Thailand and is surrounded by four smaller prangs. Each of the four corners of the temple contain images of guardian gods of the four directions. The grouping of five pagodas represents Mount Meru, the central mountain of Buddhist cosmology, based on Hindu cosmology as the home of the gods and the center of the physical and spiritual universe.