History and museums
Wat Pho (Thai: วัดโพธิ์, IPA: wát pʰoː), also spelt Wat Po, is a Buddhist temple complex in the Phra Nakhon District, Bangkok, Thailand. It is on Rattanakosin Island, directly south of the Grand Palace. Known also as the Temple of the Reclining Buddha, its official name is Wat Phra Chetuphon Vimolmangklararm Rajwaramahaviharn (Thai: วัดพระเชตุพนวิมลมังคลารามราชวรมหาวิหาร; rtgs: Wat Phra Chettuphon Wimonmangkhlaram Ratchaworamahawihan; IPA: wát pʰráʔ tɕʰê:t.tù.pʰon wíʔ.mon.maŋ.kʰlaː.raːm râːt.tɕʰá.wɔː.ráʔ.má.hǎː.wíʔ.hǎːn). The more commonly known name, Wat Pho, is a contraction its older name Wat Photaram (Thai: วัดโพธาราม; rtgs: Wat Photharam).
The temple is first on the list of six temples in Thailand classed as the highest grade of the first-class royal temples. It is associated with King Rama I who rebuilt the temple complex on an earlier temple site, and became his main temple where some of his ashes are enshrined. The temple was later expanded and extensively renovated by Rama III. The temple complex houses the largest collection of Buddha images in Thailand, including a 46 m long reclining Buddha. The temple was also the earliest centre for public education in Thailand, and still houses a school of Thai medicine. It is known as the birthplace of traditional Thai massage which is still taught and practiced at the temple.
Wat Pho is one of Bangkok's oldest temples. It existed before Bangkok was established as the capital by King Rama I. It was originally named Wat Photaram or Podharam, from which the name Wat Pho is derived. The name refers the monastery of the Bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya, India where Buddha is believed to have attained enlightenment. The older temple is thought to have been built or expanded some time in the reign of King Phetracha (1688–1703) of the Ayuthaya period on an even earlier temple site, but its founder is unknown. After the fall of Ayutthaya to the Burmese, King Taksin moved the capital to Thonburi where he located his palace beside Wat Arun on the opposite side of the river from Wat Pho, and the proximity of Wat Pho to this royal palace elevated it to the status of a wat luang (royal monastery).
In 1782, King Rama I moved the capital from Thonburi across the river to Bangkok and built the Grand Palace adjacent to Wat Pho. In 1788, he ordered the construction and renovation at the old temple site of Wat Pho, which had by then become dilapidated. The site, which was marshy and uneven, was drained and filled in before construction began. During its construction Rama I also initiated a project to remove Buddha images from abandoned temples in Ayutthaya, Sukhothai, as well other sites in Thailand, and many of these Buddha images were kept at Wat Pho. These include the remnants of an enormous Buddha image from Ayuthaya's Wat Phra Si Sanphet destroyed by the Burmese in 1767, and these were incorporated into a chedi in the complex. The rebuilding took over seven years to complete, and 12 years after work began, in 1801, the new temple complex was renamed Phra Chetuphon Vimolmangklavas in reference to the vihara of Jetavana, and became the main temple for Rama I.
The complex underwent significant changes in the next 260 years, particularly during the reign of Rama III (1824-1851 CE). In 1832, King Rama III began renovating and enlarging the temple complex, a process that took 16 years and seven months to complete. The ground of the temple complex was expanded to 22 acres, and most of the structures in Wat Pho were either built or rebuilt in this period, including the chapel of the reclining Buddha. He also turned the temple complex into a public center of learning by decorating the walls of the buildings with diagrams and inscriptions on various subjects. These marble inscriptions have received recognition in the Memory of the World Programme launched by UNESCO on 21 February 2008. Wat Pho is regarded as Thailand’s first university and a center for traditional Thai massage. It served as a medical teaching center in the mid-19th century before the advent of modern medicine, and the temple remains a center for traditional medicine today where a private school for Thai medicine founded in 1957 still operates.
The name of the complex was changed again to Wat Phra Chetuphon Vimolmangklararm during the reign of King Rama IV. Apart from the construction of a fourth great chedi and minor modifications by Rama IV, there had been no significant changes to Wat Pho since. Repair work, however, is a continuing process, often funded by devotees of the temple. The temple was restored again in 1982 before the Bangkok Bicentennial Celebration.
Wat Pho is one of the largest and oldest wats in Bangkok with an area of 50 rai, 80,000 square metres, and is home to more than one thousand Buddha images, as well as one of the largest single Buddha images at 150 feet (46 m) in length. The Wat Pho complex consists of two walled compounds bisected by Chetuphon Road running in the east–west direction. The larger northern walled compound, the phutthawat, is the part open to visitors and contains the finest buildings dedicated to the Buddha, including the bot with its four directional viharn, and the temple housing the reclining Buddha.< The southern compound, the sankhawat, contains the residential quarters of the monks and a school. The perimeter wall of the main temple complex has sixteen gates, two of which serve as entrances for the public (one on Chetuphon Road, the other near the northwest corner).
The temple grounds contain 91 small chedis (stupas or mounds), four great chedis, two belfries, a bot (central shrine), a number of viharas (halls) and other buildings such as pavilions, as well as gardens and a small temple museum. Architecturally the chedis and buildings in the complex are different in style and sizes. A number of large Chinese statues, some of which depict Europeans, are also found within the complex guarding the gates of the perimeter walls as well as other gates within the compound. These stone statues were originally imported as ballast on ships trading with China.
Wat Pho was intended to serve as a place of education for the general public. To this end a pictorial encyclopedia was engraved on granite slabs covering eight subject areas, namely history, medicine, health, custom, literature, proverbs, lexicography, and the Buddhist religion. These plaques, inscribed with texts and illustration on medicine, Thai traditional massage, and other subjects, are placed around the temple, for example, within the Sala Rai or satellite open pavilions. Dotted around the complex are 24 small rock gardens (Khao Mor) illustrating rock formations of Thailand, and one, called the Contorting Hermit Hill, contains some statues showing methods of massage and yoga positions. There are also drawings of constellations on the wall of the library, inscriptions on local administration, as well as paintings of folk tales and animal husbandry. These illustrations and inscriptions in Wat Pho have been registered by UNESCO in its Memory of the World Programme set up to promote, preserve and propagate the wisdom of the world heritage.
Phra Ubosot (Phra Uposatha) or bot is the ordination hall, the main hall used for performing Buddhist rituals, and the most sacred building of the complex. It was constructed by King Rama I in the Ayuthaya style, and later enlarged and reconstructed in the Rattanakosin style by Rama III. The bot was dedicated in 1791, before the rebuilding of Wat Pho was completed. This building is raised on a marble platform, and the ubosot lies in the center of courtyard enclosed by a double cloister (Phra Rabiang).
Inside the ubosot is a gold and crystal three-tiered pedestal topped with a gilded Buddha made of a gold-copper alloy, and over the statue is a nine-tiered umbrella representing the authority of Thailand. The Buddha image, known as Phra Buddha Theva Patimakorn and thought to be from the Ayutthaya period, was moved here by Rama I from Wat Sala Si Na (now called Wat Khuhasawa) in Thonburi. Rama IV later placed some ashes of Rama I under the pedestal of the Buddha image so that the public may pay homage to both Rama I and the Buddha at the same time. There are also ten images of Buddha's disciples in the hall, Moggalana on its left and Sariputta on its right, and a further eight Arahants below.
The exterior balustrade surrounding the main hall has around 150 depictions in stone of the epic, Ramakien, the ultimate message of which is transcendence from secular to spiritual dimensions. The stone panels were recovered from a temple in Ayuthaya. The ubosot is enclosed by a low wall called kamphaeng kaew, which is punctuated by gateways guarded by mythological lions, as well as eight structures that house the bai sema stone markers that delineate the sacred space of the bot.
The viharn in the east contains an 8 metre tall standing Buddha, the Buddha Lokanatha, originally from Ayutthaya. In its antechamber is Buddha Maravichai, sitting under a bodhi tree, originally from Sawankhalok of the late Sukhothai period. The one on the west has a seated Buddha sheltered by a naga, the Buddha Chinnasri, while the Buddha on the south, the Buddha Chinnaraja, has five disciples seated in front listening to his first sermon. Both Buddhas were brought from Sukhothai by Rama I. The Buddha in the north viharn called Buddha Palilai was cast in the reign of Rama I. The viharn on the west also contains a small museum.
This is a group of four large stupas, each 42 metres high. These four chedis are dedicated to the first four Chakri kings. The first, in green mosaic tiles, was constructed by Rama I to house the remnants of the great Buddha from Ayuthaya, which was scorched to remove its gold covering by the Burmese. Two more were built by Rama III, one in white tiles to hold the ashes of his father Rama II, another in yellow for himself. A fourth in blue was built by Rama IV who then enclosed the four chedis leaving no space for more to be built.
The viharn or wihan contains the reclining Buddha and was constructed in the reign of Rama III emulating the Ayutthaya-style. The interior is decorated with panels of mural.
Adjacent to this building is a small raised garden (Missakawan Park) with a Chinese-style pavilion; the centrepiece of the garden is a bodhi tree which was propagated from the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi tree in Sri Lanka that is believed to have originally came from a tree in India where Buddha sat while awaiting enlightenment.
Phra Mondob or the ho trai is the Scripture Hall containing a small library of Buddhist scriptures. The building is not generally open to the public as the scriptures which are inscribed on palm leaves need to kept in a controlled environment for preservation. The library was built by Rama III. Guarding its entrance are figures of giants called Yak Wat Pho placed in niches beside the gates. Around Phra Mondob are three pavilions with mural paintings of the beginning of Ramayana.
The chapel and the reclining Buddha (Phra Buddhasaiyas, Thai พระพุทธไสยาสน์) were built by Rama III in 1832. The image of the reclining Buddha represents the entry of Buddha into Nirvana and the end of all reincarnations. The posture of the image is referred to as sihasaiyas, the posture of a sleeping or reclining lion. The figure is 15 m high and 46 m long, and it is one of the largest Buddha statues in Thailand. The right arm of the Buddha supports the head with tight curls, which rests on two box-pillows richly encrusted with glass mosaics. The figure has a brick core, which was modelled and shaped with plaster, then gilded.
The soles of the feet of the Buddha are 3 m high and 4.5 m long, and inlaid with mother-of-pearl. They are each divided into 108 arranged panels, displaying the auspicious symbols by which Buddha can be identified, such as flowers, dancers, white elephants, tigers, and altar accessories. At the center of each foot is a circle representing a chakra or energy point. There are 108 bronze bowls in the corridor representing the 108 auspicious characters of Buddha. Visitors may drop coins in these bowls as it is believed to bring good fortune, and it also helps the monks to maintain the wat.
Although the reclining Buddha is not a pilgrimage centre, it remains an object of popular piety. An annual celebration for the reclining Buddha is held around the time of the Siamese Songkran or New Year in April, which also helps raise funds for the upkeep of Wat Pho.
The temple is considered the first public university of Thailand, teaching students in the fields of religion, science, and literature through murals and sculptures. A school for traditional medicine and massage was established at the temple in 1955, and now offers four courses in Thai medicine: Thai pharmacy, Thai medical practice, Thai midwifery, and Thai massage. This, the Wat Pho Thai Traditional Medical and Massage School, is the first school of Thai medicine approved by the Thai Ministry of Education, and one of the earliest massage schools. It remains the national headquarters and the center of education of traditional Thai medicine and massage to this day. Courses on Thai massage are held in Wat Pho, and these may last a few weeks to a year. Two pavilions at the eastern edge of the Wat Pho compound are used as classrooms for practising Thai traditional massage and herbal massage, and visitors can received massage treatment here for a fee.
There are many medical inscriptions and illustrations placed in various buildings around the temple complex, some of which serve as instructions for Thai massage therapists, particularly those in the north medical pavilion. Among these are 60 inscribed plaques, 30 each for the front and back of human body, showing pressure points used in traditional Thai massage. These therapeutic points and energy pathways, known as sen, are engraved on the human figures, with explanations given on the walls next to the plaques. They are based on the principle of energy flow similar to that of Chinese acupuncture. The understanding so far is that the figures represent relationships between anatomical locations and effects produced by massage treatment at those locations, but full research on the diagrams has yet to be completed.