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That Luang

That Luang

That Luang: Heart Of The Lao Nation


"Near Wieng Chan is a very interesting pagoda called Wat Luang. Religion and war are there combined; the lower part is a perfect fortress riddled with loop holes. The Haw Chinese took possession of it without any opposition, and by means of ropes pulled off the spire in search of treasure."

James McCarthy, Report of a Survey in Siam, 1895.

Pha That Luang, the "Great Sacred Stupa" of Vientiane, is the most important religious edifice in Laos. It also has great spiritual significance for the Lao people, having been considered the symbol of Lao independence and sovereignty since the time of Lan Xang, the Kingdom of the Million Elephants, in the mid sixteenth century. It is a strange and exotic structure, uniquely combining – as McCarthy saw – the ethereal features of a Buddhist temple with the more mundane requirements of a stronghold or fortress. As well it might – for the fate and fortune of That Luang over the centuries has been as uncertain as that of the Lao Nation it represents.

According to legend, That Luang was first established in the year 236 of the Buddhist Era, corresponding to 307 B.C., when five Lao monks who had been studying at Rajgir, in India, returned home bearing a breastbone of the Buddha. The five pilgrims persuaded Phaya Chanthaburi Pasithisak, then ruler of Vientiane, to build a stupa over the sacred relic 'for those who wished to pray and worship'. The structure erected by Phaya Chanthaburi is said to have been tumulus-shaped and made of stone, 'having four flanks, each ten metres wide, four metres thick, and nine metres high'. It is commonly believed that this, the earliest stupa at That Luang, is enclosed within the present structure.

Be this as it may, there are no signs of Phaya Chanthaburi's stupa at That Luang today, nor have archaeological excavations turned up anything older than the foundations of a Khmer temple thought to date to the eleventh century A.D., or about a thousand years ago – which is still a venerable age.

The second, historic establishment of Pha That Luang was undertaken by King Setthathirat the Great, who moved the Lao capital from Luang Prabang to Vientiane in the mid-sixteenth century. Construction of the great stupa began in 1566, on the site of the former Khmer temple, and in subsequent years four temples were built at the cardinal points around the central that.

In 1641, about seventy years after the completion of Pha That Luang, Vientiane was visited by a representative of the Dutch East India Company, Gerard Van Wuystoff. At this time King Surinyavongsa sat on the throne of Laos, and the Kingdom of a Million Elephants was at the peak of its wealth and power. The Dutchman was deeply impressed by That Luang, which he describes as 'an enormous pyramid, the top of which is covered with gold leaf weighing about a thousand pounds'.

Van Wuystoff was a Protestant businessman, more interested in making money than in the mores of the Lao. A less friendly account, penned by the Italian Catholic Gian Filippo de Marini and published in French translation at Genoa in 1664, purports to see heathen licentiousness at every street corner in Vientiane. Even so, when confronted with That Luang, the author's style becomes unusually lyrical, noting that the great central tower 'is surrounded by leaves of fine gold, suspended so that they strike against each other in the smallest and most gentle wind, making a harmony so soft and so agreeable that one could easily believe one were listening to a musical concert'.

Unfortunately, the glory of Lan Xang was soon to pass. When King Surinyavongsa died in about 1694, he left no clear heir to his throne. The Kingdom of a Million Elephants split into three competing factions, and a long period of Siamese-Vietnamese rivalry for control over the Lao state was ushered in.

According to Lao traditions (but not, apparently, to those of the Thai), That Luang was sacked by Siamese armies under Chaophraya Chakri, later Rama I, in 1779. Certainly many hundreds of Lao families were brought back to Siam and settled in the region of Saraburi during this campaign. Moreover, and of deep significance, the two Buddha-image palladia of Lan Xang, the Emerald Buddha and the Phabang, were brought back to be enshrined in Thonburi.

Further and more serious damage was done to That Luang following the rebellion of Chao Anu of Vientiane in 1827. Siam's King Rama II, outraged by what he perceived as Anu's treachery, sent forces which tore down the walls of Vientiane and carried off virtually the entire population for resettlement on the west bank of the Mekong. That Luang was abandoned to the surrounding jungle, being briefly rediscovered in 1867 by a Frenchman, Delaporte, who made detailed sketches of the crumbling monument.


In time Delaporte's drawings would serve as a guide in the reconstruction of the great that, but for the moment its worst trial was still to come. From the late 1860s, following the collapse of the Taiping and Yunnan rebellions in southern China, bands of Chinese marauders distinguished by the colour of their banners – "Black Flags", "White Flags" and "Red Flags" – began to trouble upper and central Laos. In 1872 these bandits, known to the Lao and the Thai alike as "Haw", captured Vientiane – or what remained of the city. This was the final disaster for the old Lao capital. The Haw were bandits, pure and simple, and they were looking for loot. In the words of James McCarthy, an Irish surveyor in the service of the Royal Siamese Government who accompanied Thai troops pitted against the Haw some twenty years later:


"The pillaging march of the Haw was rapid and without interruption... Their progress could be traced by the ashes of villages, and by temples and pagodas of which the ground had been dug up... It is the custom of Buddhists when building wats and pagodas to make offerings of jewelry and money to propitiate the deity. These offerings were placed usually under the sitting figure of the Buddha, in its breast, and in the floors of the wat, exactly where the line of sight of the figure strikes the floor. The places were dug up by the unfortunate inhabitants, the Haw meanwhile standing by, sword in hand, directing the proceedings."

It was at this time that the great stupa was torn from the top of That Luang; a faded, sepia photograph of the destruction wrought by the Haw has come down to us from McCarthy, the once-noble spire lying smashed on its side, the that torn open like a giant wedding cake.

The Haw invaders were not finally expelled from Laos until 1893, when the French first assumed control of the country. This event signalled the eventual revival of That Luang, for in 1899 France moved the Laotian capital from Luang Prabang to Vientiane and began the construction of a new colonial city which would be the administrative headquarters for the whole country. As a part of this scheme, ancient monuments were systematically restored, beginning with That Luang in 1900. The Lao people were not happy with this restoration, however – a recent Laotian publication accuses the French architects of rebuilding the that 'in a Western style, thus losing its Lao characteristics'. Accordingly, in 1930, again with French help, the temple was restored. On this occasion, however, the drawings made by Delaporte in 1867 were used as a guide, in an attempt at re-establishing the structure's authenticity. The present aspect of That Luang dates from this time.

Today the great edifice, located about four kilometres north-east of Vientiane city centre, still retains a very fortress-like appearance. Surrounded by a high-walled cloister pierced by tiny windows, access is by way of finely-gilded, red-lacquer doors which add to the overall impression of a medieval keep or fortress. Seen in this light, and from a distance, the narrow, pointed lesser stupas surrounding the main that also seem strangely threatening – in the not altogether fanciful words of one contemporary guidebook: 'almost giving the impression of a missile cluster'. Close up, however, the sacred religious nature of the structure is unmistakable. Naga serpents – those characteristic insignia of Tai Buddhism – compete for space with gilded Buddha figurines and stylised lotus flowers.

The main stupa is designed to be mounted by the faithful, and there are walkways to facilitate this. Each level of the Meru-like mound contains different architectural features designed to illustrate some arcane aspect of the Buddhist belief. Devout believers are supposed to contemplate the significance of these features as they circumambulate the main that. Thus the first level is surrounded by no fewer than 323 bai sema, or ordination stones; the second level by 120 lotus pearls and thirty small stupas representing the Buddhist Perfections, beginning with alms-giving and culminating in equanimity. Each of these small stupas once contained smaller stupas of pure gold, but these were taken by the Haw in the late nineteenth century.

The third level leads the visitor to the very base of the great that – a curvilinear, four-sided spire representing an elongated lotus bud, symbolic of the enlightenment attainable through Buddhism. The stupa is crowned by a stylised banana flower and an elaborate, gilded parasol. From ground to pinnacle, That Luang is 45 metres high.

Seated atop a white plinth some eighty metres from the main entrance to the that is a statue of King Setthathirat. This great Lao monarch first made Vientiane the capital of a united Lao state, and was responsible for the foundation of That Luang in its present form nearly five centuries ago. Across his knees he holds a long, curving sword – symbolically guarding That Luang, the heart of the Lao nation, and the most unique religious edifice in the country, for all time.


Text by Andrew Forbes; Photos by David Henley & Pictures From History - © CPA Media