Saturday, November 10, 2007

Thailand's Chao Praya River temples

Many temples along the Chao Phraya River hold keys to the old Thai way of life


The old `ubosot' of Wat Phummarin Rajpaksri outlines late Ayutthaya architecture with its tiny, curving base reminiscence of a Chinese junk.

Ansarissunnah Mosque, the centre of the Muslim community in Bang Yi Khan.

Some of the historical murals at Wat Dusitaram.

The work of Master Kong Pae in Wat Daowadeung.

History lies at every nook and corner along the banks of the Chao Phraya River, especially in Thon Buri where Bangkok grew its roots.

Thon Buri, according to Julapassorn Phanomwan na Ayudhya, was founded during the Ayutthaya period, and residents were mostly aristocrats working for Ayutthaya's royal court.

"Thon Buri was a model of Ayutthaya," said Julapassorn, president of Siam Tasana, a group of Thai history and culture enthusiasts. "Everything was kept in original condition."

These include numerous temples, ancient neighbourhoods and the old way of life.

"In Bang Yi Khan district, south of Rama VIII bridge, the Hindu community used to have their cow sheds," added Rapeepat Kesakoson, an officer at Bangkok's tourism division, who has a keen interest in Bangkok's history.

In the days prior to World War Two, the area from Phra Pin Klao and Rama VIII bridges, including Bang Yi Khan, was occupied by farmers, who planted a wide range of fruits such as mangosteen, durian, orange and mango.

But that was before several bridges connecting Bangkok and Thon Buri were built. Phra Pin Klao bridge was opened in 1973, and brought industrialisation and development to Thon Buri. Farmlands were replaced with commercial buildings and residential areas. These changes also effected the Bangkok side of the river.

"There were no environmental or preservation concerns at that time. It was a mistake to build a bridge that split Ratanakosin Island into two," said Rapeepart.

Bridges brought tremendous change to Thon Buri.

However, years of disconnection with the mainland, except for boats, Thon Buri has kept much of its original charm. Temple after temple dot the river bank, many of which date back to the Ayutthaya period.

Just south of Phra Pin Klao bridge, is Wat Dusitaram, an ancient religious site. Who built it and when it was built is unknown but in the reign of King Rama I of the Ratanakosin era, the temple was promoted as a royal temple. Paintings in the temple's ubosot, or ordination hall, portray the Triphum Phra Ruang, an ancient piece of Buddhist literature depicting the three worlds of heaven, Earth and hell.

The murals have a red background which signifies Ayutthaya art. Julapassorn explained that the colour red represents heaven and the accentuated gold colour is usually synonymous with religious art.

The most outstanding painting depicts hell and is located behind the temple's main Buddha idol.

"It is probably the most beautiful and frightening painting about hell," said Julapassorn. "Ayutthaya painters concentrated on telling the story rather than applying realistic elements. So less significant characters in remote corners of the mural were often made larger than those at eye-level locations for fear that viewers would be unable to see them. No technique to create perspective was employed." he added.

In the 1920s, the nearby small Wat Phummarin Rajpaksri, inhabited by only one monk, was joined to Wat Dusitaram along with Wat Noi Thongyu, another temple which was severely damaged during World War Two.

The old ubosot and viharn (scripture hall) of Wat Phummarin Rajpaksri, which are now closed, outlined Ayutthaya architecture with its small size and curving base reminiscence of a Chinese junk. About half of the interior murals are damaged by humidity and floods, but can be still recognised as a piece created in the reign of King Rama IV.

Because of its small size and limited wall space, many episodes of the Tossachart Jadaka, or the 10 Lives of Buddha, are depicted in one mural.

Julapassorn explained that, according to traditional Thai city planning, when a temple is built, a community is established around it so that people look after the temple.

Around Wat Dusitaram as well, a sizeable population moved in. Eventually it wasn't only the Buddhists who inhabited the area - many Muslims also moved to the area.

"This [south of Phra Pin Klao bridge] was a gateway to the Muslim community in Bangkok," said Rapeepat.

And it still is. Evidence of which can be found along the Bangkok Noi canal, at the Ansarissunnah Mosque.

Thon Buri was once an important port and therefore, welcomed foreigners from many regions. Most of them were Muslims from Singapore who were UK subjects during the 19th century colonisation. Some of the Muslims in the Bangkok Noi area moved from the old capital of Ayutthaya, where a majority of them worked for the royal court.

Around the mosque, they formed a sizeable neighbourhood. Their religious centre was first located on the opposite side of the canal, but when King Rama V wished to build a railway station in the area, the mosque was moved and the king provided money for its construction.

Ansarissunnah Mosque now faces the canal and is the heart of the Muslim community.

Though it seems that Islam and Buddhism are tearing Thailand's South apart, the two communities live in harmony at Bang Yi Khan. Many Muslims make a living by producing and selling items that are offered to monks, said Julapassorn. Some may be surprised to learn that unique home-made mattresses are largely produced here.

Rajthevi Mattress, owned by Charlie Muksuri, is one of the pioneers in the business. Workers use a stick to poke kapok fibres, found in seed pods, little by little into a cloth bag until the mattress becomes tightly packed. Despite its declining popularity, the mattress still maintains its top quality.

"Some people use it for over 10 years," claimed Jumras Puangsri, one of the workers.

Muslims in the Wat Dusitaram community are also famous for their cooking skills. Samosa, an Indian snack, curry puffs and even Thai desserts top the list of recommended items. It is said that the founder of the legendary Mont Nomsod, a cafe' selling fresh bread and Thai custard, learned how to bake bread here.

A rather complicated route leads to Wat Daowadeung, which is to the north of Phra Pin Klao bridge. The temple was first established by one of King Rama I's wives, and was originally constructed in wood.

In the reign of King Rama III, the temple underwent major renovations. A concrete ordination hall was built and magnificent murals adorned its interior. The paintings were created by two prominent painters of the Rattanakosin era: Master Thong Yu and Master Kong Pae. According to legend, the two were professionally rivals but good friends in personal life.

Julapassorn explained that several temples were renovated during the reign of King Rama III, causing a shortage of Thai craftsmen.

So skilful Chinese ones like Master Kong Pae were hired to create Thai art. He added that the Chinese artist was famous for painting scenes with lots of action, with a sense of humour.

Among the typical angels portrayed on one corner of a mural at nearby Wat Bang Yi Khan, a Chinese man, believed to be a caricature of the artist, is blended in with others in the painting.

Just like this quaint guy who has been in the temple for centuries, the ancient Thai way of life and culture is preserved well in Bang Yi Khan.

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