When Rama I established the new capital of Bangkok in 1782 his ambition was to construct a royal temple along the lines of the grand chapels of previous capital cities. Symbolizing the simultaneous founding of the Chakri dynasty, this temple was to surpass its larger Sukhothai and Ayutthaya predecessors in the splendor of its design and decoration. The result of his vision was Wat Phra Kaeo, or Temple of the Emerald Buddha (officially known as Wat Phra Si Rattana Sasadaram), so called because the bot houses the Emerald Buddha image, brought here from Wat Arun in 1785.
The Bot and Peripheral Buildings
The most sacred building within the palace complex, the bot of Wat Phra Kaeo was erected to house what is still the most revered image of the Buddha in Thailand: the Emerald Buddha.
The exterior doors and windows of the bot are inlaid with delicate mother-of-pearl designs. Along the marble base supporting the structure runs a series of gilt bronze garudas (half bird, half human). The staircase of the main entrance is guarded by Cambodian-style stone lions, or singhas. Inside, the surprisingly small image of the Emerald Buddha sits in a glass case high above a golden altar. Carved from a single piece of jade (not emerald), it is 26 in (66 cm) tall and has a lap span of 19 in (48 cm). The Buddha has been attributed to the late Lanna School of the 15th century. It is dressed in one of three costumes: a crown and jewelry for the summer season; a golden shawl in winter; and a gilded monastic robe and headdress in the rainy season. The reigning monarch or a prince appointed by him presides over each changing of the Buddha’s attire in a deeply symbolic ceremony. Inside the bot are murals from the reign of Rama III (1824–51). They depict the classic subjects of Thai mural painting, namely the Traiphum (Buddhist cosmology), the Buddha’s victory over Mara (the god of death), and scenes from the previous lives of the Buddha – the jatakas. Around the temple are 12 open-sided salas (small pavilions) built as contemplative shelters.
Southeast of the bot is the 19th-century Chapel of the Gandharara Buddha. The bronze image of the Buddha calling the rains housed here is used in the Royal Plowing Ceremony in May. The bell in the nearby belfry is rung only on special occasions such as New Year’s Day.
The Upper Terrace
Of the four structures on this elevated terrace, the Phra Si Rattana Chedi, at the western end, is the most striking. It was built by King Mongkut (Rama IV) to enshrine a piece of the Buddha’s breastbone. The golden tiles decorating the exterior were later added by King Chulalongkorn (Rama V).
The adjacent Phra Mondop, used as a library, was built by Rama I as a hall to house Buddhist scriptures. Although the Library is closed to the public, the exterior is splendid in itself. The Javanese Buddha images on the four outer corners are copies of early 9th-century originals, which are now in the museum near the entrance to the palace complex. Outside the building are memorials to all the kings of the present Chakri dynasty, and bronze elephant statues representing the royal white elephants from the first five reigns of the dynasty.
To the north of the mondop is a model of Angkor Wat in northwest Cambodia. The model was commissioned by Rama IV to show his people the scale and gracious splendor of 12th-century Khmer architecture – Cambodia during his reign being under Thai rule.
The Royal Pantheon houses life-size statues of the Chakri kings. Rama IV had intended the hall to hold the Emerald Buddha, but decided that it was too small. The pantheon is open to the public only on Chakri Day.
The Northern Terrace
Ho Phra Nak was originally constructed by Rama I in the late 18th century to enshrine the Nak (literally, alloy of gold, silver, and copper) Buddha image that had been rescued from Ayutthaya. Rama III, however, demolished the original hall, preferring to build the present brick and mortar structure to house the ashes of minor members of the royal family. The Nak Buddha was moved into the neighboring Wihan Yot, which is shaped like a Greek cross and decorated with Chinese porcelain. Also on the Northern Terrace is the Ho Phra Monthien Tham, or Auxiliary Library, built by the brother of Rama I. The door panels, inlaid with mother-of-pearl, were salvaged from Ayutthaya’s Wat Borom Buddharam. Inside, Buddhist scriptures are stored in fine cabinets.
The Prangs, Yakshas, and Ramakien Gallery
Surrounding the temple complex is the cloisterlike Ramakien Gallery, decorated with lavishly painted and meticulously restored murals. This is Thailand’s most extensive depiction of the ancient legend of the Ramakien. The 178 panels were originally painted in the late 18th century, but damage from humidity means that frequent renovation is necessary. The murals are divided by marble pillars inscribed with verses relating the story, which begins opposite Wihan Yot and proceeds in a clockwise direction.
Guarding each gateway to the gallery is a pair of yakshas (demons). Placed here during the reign of Rama II, they are said to protect the Emerald Buddha from evil spirits. Each one represents a different character from the Ramakien myth: the green one, for example, symbolizes Tosakan, or the demon king.
The eight different-colored prangs on the edge of the temple complex are intricately decorated with Chinese porcelain. They represent the eight elements of the Buddhist religion, including the Buddha, the Dharma (law), the sangha (monkhood), and the bhiksunis (female Buddhists).
The Legend of the Emerald Buddha
In 1434 lightning struck the chedi of Wat Phra Kaeo in Chiang Rai in Northern Thailand, revealing a simple stucco image. The abbot of the temple kept it in his residence until the flaking plaster exposed a jadeite image beneath. Upon learning of the discovery, the king of Chiang Mai sent an army of elephants to bring the image to him. The elephant bearing the Emerald Buddha, however, refused to take the road to Chiang Mai, and, treating this as an auspicious sign, the entourage re-routed to Lampang. The image was moved several more times over the next century, then was taken to Haw Pha Kaew in Laos in 1552. It was not until General Chakri (later Rama I) captured Vientiane in 1778 that the Emerald Buddha was returned to Thailand. It was kept in Wat Arun for 15 years, before a grand river procession brought it to its current resting place on March 5, 1785.