This weekend’s journey was to Wat Saket, home of the Golden Mount, or Phu Khao Thong in Thai. The Golden Mount refers to the 190 foot tall golden chedi that sits atop a man-made hill at Wat Saket.
Wat Saket is about 5 miles, or a $4 taxi ride, northwest of the apartment. It is a sprawling compound in which there are a main chapel, viharn (sermon hall), ordination hall, library, monks’ quarters, and the golden chedi. The temple dates back to the Ayutthaya period when it was known as Wat Srakes; it was extensively renovated during the reign of King Rama I.
King Rama III ordered that a large chedi be constructed at Wat Saket. The chedi, however, collapsed during construction since the ground could not support the weight. As you can see on the map above, Wat Saket is close to the Chao Phraya River and near the intersection of two canals, so the soil was likely very soft, perhaps even marsh-like. Over time, the collapsed structure took the shape of a hill. In 1865, during the reign of Rama IV, the hill was reinforced with thousands of teak logs. Atop this reinforced, artificial hill, King Rama V built the golden chedi in which two Buddha relics were placed. The concrete walls that surround the Golden Mount today were added in the 1940s to prevent erosion.
The first stop of my journey was at the main temple building that houses several large Buddha images. There were many people in the temple praying and making merit. Next to the temple was an assembly hall in which several people were finishing lunch. In the panoramic picture below, the seats on the left are where the monks would sit for any ceremony.
As I was about to begin the ascent to the chedi, I came across some children dressed in very elaborate costumes who were raising money for some cause by singing. The girl pictured below had a fabulous voice and great poise. The path to the Golden Mount encircles the man-made hill and contains over 300 stairs. The stairs, however, are about half the height of normal steps that would be found in a home or building, so the ascent is relatively easy. About halfway up is a small coffee shop and rest rooms. Further up are groups of bells and gongs that can be rung for good luck.
At the top of the stairs is a room directly below the chedi in which there are many Buddha images. In the middle of the room is the vault that holds the two Buddha relics that were brought to the chedi by Rama V. The first relic was interred in 1877 and the second, a gift from Lord Curzon (the British Viceroy of India), in 1899. I found two sets of Buddhas particularly noteworthy. The first is a set of three jade Buddhas; the second is a set of seven images that represent events in the life of the Buddha. Since these events are supposed to have occurred on different days of the week, many people relate to the image from the day on which they were born as one that will bring them luck.
Sunday: The enlightened Buddha stands in pensive thought with his right hand crossed over his left. After Buddha had achieved enlightenment, he stood for seven days under the Bodhi tree to contemplate his achievement of complete knowledge and the suffering of all living things.
Monday: Buddha is standing with his right hand raised to pacify his relatives. When Buddha came back from Heaven, he found his relatives fighting over river water to be used in their rice fields. Buddha encouraged them to compromise and said that human life is much more valuable than water.
Tuesday: Buddha realizing Nirvana. The dying Buddha is reclining on his right side with his toes even. If his eyes are open, he is still teaching; if they are closed, he has entered heaven.
Wednesday: Buddha is holding an alms bowl. After four years in his ministry, Buddha visited his father, younger brother, and son. His father was aghast when Buddha begged for food holding an alms bowl. Buddha calmed his father by explaining that the lineage of Buddha meant that he had to be available to followers who devotedly bring food.
Thursday: Buddha is meditating in the classic lotus posture — both soles upward and visible, his hands resting in his lap with the right above left, all fingers extended, and palms upward.
Friday: The contemplating Buddha is standing with hands resting across the chest, the right hand covering the left. The pose implies a complete spiritual transformation with benevolent tranquility obtained through meditation. As those of you who know me well have probably already guessed, I was indeed born on a Friday!
Saturday: Buddha is sitting on a large coiled serpent that is protecting him from a raging storm. The meditating Buddha is unaware of the storm since the King of Nagas lifts him over the rising waves.
From the room below the chedi, a narrow staircase takes you to the outside. From here, the sight and size of the golden chedi are spectacular, as is the view of Bangkok. You can see not only the temple compound and nearby homes but also the Chao Phraya and the tall skyscrapers that define the Bangkok skyline.
In late October, the ceremony of the pagoda red cloth blanket takes place at Wat Saket. People write their names and those of their relatives and friends on a red cloth that worshipers parade up the steps of the Golden Mount and then wrap around the pagoda that contains the Buddha relics. The inscriptions are supposed to bring happiness, health, and success to those whose names are on the blanket. At the chedi, markers were available for people to write on a red cloth to seek good fortune.
On the way down, the path went by a cemetery built into the base of the Golden Mount. From the late 1700s into the 1800s, Wat Saket served as the Bangkok’s crematorium and as many as 60,000 plague victims were cremated here.
My visit to Wat Saket ended at the temple’s ordination hall. The ordination hall is where new monks take their vows and it can be identified by the sacred boundary stones that surround it. The ordination hall is surrounded by cloisters that contain hundreds of Buddha images.
Kop Khun Krab.
© 2012 Kurt Brown. All rights reserved.