Features on Asian Art, Culture, History & Travel

X Close





Story by Ron Emmons (December 2020)

When General Taksin moored his boat beside Wat Makok on the west bank of the Chao Phraya River at dawn one day in October 1767, he could hardly have imagined how deeply his action would influence the future of his country, Siam. His intention was simply to pay homage to a holy relic in the temple, but he must have got a good feeling for the place as he chose it as the site of a royal palace, and the town of Thonburi as the country's new capital, where he was crowned king the following year.

The temple was re-named Wat Jaeng (‘temple of dawn') to honour Taksin's auspicious arrival and for several years it was Siam's most important temple, housing the talismanic Emerald Buddha until the capital was moved in 1782 to the east bank of the river, where the village of Bangkok began its growth into the metropolis it is today.

Now known as Wat Arun, after Aruna, the Hindu god of dawn, the temple is one of Bangkok's top attractions. The distinctive silhouette of its five towering prangs adorns the 10 baht coin and is used by the Tourist Authority of Thailand as its logo. Yet surprisingly few tourists actually visit the place, settling instead for a photo of what has become the classic view of the temple at sunset from the opposite bank, or illuminated at night from a cruise boat on the river.

No doubt many visitors feel ‘templed out' after walking round the dazzling monuments at Wat Phra Kaeo and the Grand Palace, the capital's one unmissable sight, but for anyone willing to hop on the regular, cross-river ferry from Tha Thien near Wat Pho, the Temple of Dawn offers priceless insights into the country's history, culture and cosmology.

‘Taksin the Great', as he is called these days, turned from hero to villain within fifteen short years of sweeping to power after the rout of Ayutthaya by the Burmese in 1767. His personal charisma enabled him to emerge as the main contender for leadership of the country when Siam was in total disarray. He chose Thonburi for the new capital because of its proximity to the Gulf of Siam and its consequent convenience for trade, and at first he was hugely popular for re-unifying a splintered nation.

However, power clearly went to his head and in 1779 a French missionary reported “He passed all his time in prayer, fasting and meditation, in order by these means to be able to fly through the air.” When he imprisoned and tortured members of his own family and close allies on suspicion of a conspiracy to oust him, even his staunchest supporters turned against him and he met an ignominious end, trussed up in a velvet sack and bludgeoned to death with a club.

Taksin's demise marked the end of a turbulent period of Siamese history and opened the way for the beginning of the Chakri dynasty with the coronation of King Rama I in 1782 – a dynasty that still prevails today in the form of King Vajiralongkorn, Rama X. One of Rama I's first actions was to move the capital across the river to Bangkok on the east bank in order to offer more protection against an attack from the west by the Burmese, but though he moved his royal palace to the Grand Palace, and the Emerald Buddha to Wat Phra Kaeo, the Temple of Dawn continued to be respected and treated as a royal temple.

In those days, the temple would have looked very different to the way it is today, as its major feature, a central prang surrounded by four smaller ones, was not added until the 19th century. Work on the prangs was begun by Rama II, continued by Rama III and completed by Rama IV (King Mongkut) in the 1850s. The central prang is a dazzling sight, covered in shards of colourful ceramics that arrived as ballast on ships from China, which must count as an ingenious early example of recycling. From 2013-2017 it was subject to a major restoration and now looks at its best again.

The prang soars around 80 metres high, and a set of steep steps leads part of the way up the prang, with a railing to help climbers pull themselves up. From there, visitors are rewarded with fantastic views of the river and the glittering spires of Wat Phra Kaeo on the opposite bank. The climb is intended to be difficult to remind people of the struggle necessary to develop spiritually, but it also offers the chance to study the ceramic patterns more closely.

The prangs are often termed ‘Ayutthayan' to describe their style, though the underlying influence is Khmer, and anyone who has visited Angkor Wat in Cambodia is likely to notice a resemblance. As with Angkor Wat, the main prang at Wat Arun is a representation of Mount Meru, the abode of the gods in Buddhist and Hindu cosmology.

It consists of three sections, each representing progressively higher levels of existence, and is capped by a vajra or thunderbolt. Niches in the main prang contain images of the Hindu god Indra mounted on Erewan, a three-headed elephant, while the four smaller prangs feature statues of Nayu, the god of wind, on horseback. The prangs are supported by demons and monkeys, and in coves on the second level of the central prang are carvings of kinnaree, mythical creatures that are half-bird, half-woman. Kinnaree and other mythical creatures like garuda, hongsa and naga that are common sights in Thai temples are believed to inhabit the Himaphan Forest at the base of Mount Meru.

The four smaller prangs that surround the central one represent the four great seas of the physical world, and between these are four mondops (open-sided buildings with pyramidal roofs) containing statues of the Buddha at key stages of his life – birth, meditation, preaching his first sermon and attaining Enlightenment. Eight sets of steps lead up to the terrace on which the prangs are located, and all these approaches are guarded by statues of Chinese warriors that sport flowing beards.

The visual impact of the lavishly decorated prangs is so strong that once most visitors have walked around the terrace and perhaps clambered up the steep steps to admire the view, they are ready to move on. However, it is well worth exploring the rest of the temple complex, especially the bot or ordination hall, which also has important historical features. The original hall, like the prangs, was built during Rama II's reign, and though it has since been re-modelled, it still evokes the king's spirit, in the face of the presiding Buddha image, which it is believed His Majesty moulded himself, and in the monarch's ashes, which are interred in the base of the image.

The unmistakable influence of Rama V, or King Chulalongkorn (r.1868-1910) can be seen in the murals above the windows on the south side of the building. Paintings illustrating previous lives of the Buddha were destroyed by fire during his reign, so he had them re-painted in a comparatively modern style, as was his whim with almost everything, from architecture to automobiles and matters of state. Among the bygone kings of Siam, his is the image that visitors are most likely to see as he enjoys virtual cult status among modern Thais – hardly surprising since he steered his nation through a stormy era without falling into the hands of colonial powers as did all its neighbours – Burma, Malaysia, Cambodia and Laos.

Other interesting features of the ordination hall, which is open to the public only on special occasions, include a throne that is beautifully carved and inlaid with glass mosaic, as well as paintings on the door panels that depict trees bearing fruit in the form of shapely females. Guarding the entrance are two fearsome yaksa, or giants, one white and the other green, which, like the temple's prangs, are encrusted with glittering pieces of ceramic.

The cloisters or gallery that adjoin the hall are lined with Buddhas in the posture known as ‘subduing Mara', in which the right palm rests on the right knee, and the fingers reach down to touch the ground. Also known as ‘calling the Earth to witness', this posture (or ‘attitude' as it is more correctly denoted) is the most common to be seen in Buddha images throughout the Kingdom of Thailand, and signifies determination to resist the temptations of the senses.

In front of the prangs are two small viharn, or assembly halls, that date back to Taksin's era, when the northern hall was used as the ordination hall. There is little of interest inside these days, though the doors carry interesting depictions of soldiers with guns from Rama V's time. For visitors with energy to spare, there is still a bell tower, a mondop with a footprint of Buddha and the monk's guti, or simple living quarters, to explore.

Yet for many, after climbing half-way to Heaven, confronting mythical beasts from the Himaphan Forest and following a crash course in Thai history, it's now time to settle down in one of the breezy pavilions beside the river and reflect on the wonders of the Temple of Dawn, towering resplendent on the west bank of the Chao Phraya River.

Text by Ron Emmons; Photo by Ron Emmons - CPA Media