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Wat Mahan Temple Thailand's first public school.

Wat Mahan Temple

Wat Mahan, Bangkok Thailand

Tags: Bangkok, Thailand, Wat Mahan

Introduction to Wat Mahan

On your left is Wat Mahanop. It is one of 600 temples presently found in Bangkok. In Siam, wherever there was a community of reasonable size, you would find a Buddhist temple, known as wat in Thai. In the old days, almost all religious, social, and educational activities took place within the temple.

Building a wat is the first duty of the community. In rural areas, temples are usually built using money collected within the community. If resources are limited, the villagers build the temple with their own hands using whatever resources they can find. In the city, wat are mostly built by wealthy or influential individuals to mark a great achievement. For example, a victorious general returning from war might build a temple. Such an act is not only a fitting way to commemorate a military victory but it would also help offset the bad karma collected on the battlefield.

The Thai government classifies all temples in order of importance. They are grouped into two categories: common temples and royal temples. In Thailand, there are approximately 31,000 temples, of which only 200 are ‘royal’ which means they were built by, or dedicated to, members of the royal family.

Enter Wat Mahan on the North Side

Mahanaparam, the name of this temple, comes from a Sanskrit phrase meaning “the great abode of water.” This refers to the Sea of Samsara which, in Buddhist belief, symbolizes the cycle of birth and death that ensnares all beings.

Wat Mahan is a royal temple built by Prince Annop, a son of King Rama 3. The prince began construction on the temple in 1850. The King himself gave 80,000 baht to assist in the construction of the temple. However, it could not be finished until Rama 4 gave the Prince another 80,000 baht.

The first structure you will see is the bell tower. All proper temples will have a bell tower which is used to call the monks to morning and evening prayers and to important ceremonies. Each temple has its own unique pattern which announces to the community that the monks have performed their duties. Some believe that the temple’s bell is heard in all the 6 realms, and that all beings from heaven to hell will benefit from the sound.

On the right you will see a statue of King Rama 5. The statue was installed by locals to mark the 100th anniversary of Siam’s first public school for commoners which was established here in Wat Mahan. King Rama 5 hoped to set up a system of public schools like those he had seen in Europe. The first school was a simple affair with the purpose of teaching the general public how to read and write. All ages were welcome, and young and old could be seen learning here together.

Enter the Temple Courtyard

As you walk into the inner court you will see the ubosot, or bot, in front of you. Within most temples, the bot is the place where monks assemble for all religious duties and ceremonies such as ordinations and chanting. Thai ordination halls are always surrounded by a protective wall with 8 stone markers.

This bot is a simple design made from bricks and mortar without decoration. The entrance is colored with small ceramic tiles, with a Chinese dragon at the center. The door and window frames are in gilded black lacquer. The panels of the doors and windows are painted with various kinds of animals gilded with glass mosaic. Usually this bot is locked and you will not be able to see inside.

Behind the Wat Mahan Temple

Behind the bot you will find three large stupas, called chedi in Thai. These monuments are tall pyramids or cones supported by a round or square base. Originally, chedis like these were built to contain relics of the Buddha, but nowadays they are used to hold the cremated bones and ashes of kings or important monks, sort of like the pyramids of Egypt. It is also Thai custom to cremate the dead and then place the remains somewhere within the temple. The names and photos of those interred in the chedis can be found on ceramic plaques.

Just in front of the chedis is a Bodhi tree. This tree is supposedly a direct descendant of the tree under which the Buddha attained enlightenment. It was brought here as a sapling from Sri Lanka by King Rama 5. Bo trees such as this one are also considered a form of chedi, as they represent the Buddha’s enlightenment.

Temples are also considered to be playgrounds, and you will often see kids happily running around Wat Mahan. This temple is a popular place for local boys to practice takraw, a game that involves a small bamboo ball. In front of the chedis you can see takraw courts painted onto the cement where you might spot a few boys kicking a ball around. There are several variations of the game, but the version played on this court is a blend of volleyball and badminton. The hands cannot be used, so the players take turns twisting and flipping across the court trying their best to keep the ball airborne. Wat Mahan is one of the few temples, if not the only temple, where devotees give takraw balls as offerings. Supposedly, their tightly woven rattan represents group unity and strength. You can usually see a few just within the viharn which you will visit next.

Enter the Viharn

The viharn is a standard feature of most Thai temples. The word means “abode” or “dwelling” in the ancient Indian language of Pali, a language similar to the one spoken by the Buddha. Buddhists believe that the viharn hall is quite literally the abode of the Buddha. In the centuries following the death of the Buddha, his followers did not allow images to be made of him. Instead, round pillars were constructed to represent his body. As Greek culture spread to the east, some began to craft images of the Buddha. Although controversial in the beginning, Buddha images were eventually accepted, and were housed in large halls to protect them from rain and sun. Until today, the viharns are used to house Buddha images.

Wat Mahan houses the famous 500 year old Luang Pho Ruang Buddha image. Prince Annop brought this Buddha to Wat Mahan from the old Siamese capital of Sukhothai. And many Thai people come here to pay their respects to the image and make offerings. You might see some devotees placing sheets of gold leaf on the images in front of the large Buddha image. This is a common Thai practice that often leaves the original image looking like an unusual golden blob.

By Blaine Johnson


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    • Interesting Temple Close to Khao San Road

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