The Emerald Buddha, known to Thais as Phra Keaw Morakot, is the most venerated Buddha image in all of Thailand and is the highlight for many of the 8 million visitors to Bangkok’s Grand Palace each year. But few of these visitors consider where this sacred image originated from or are aware of the journey travelled by the Emerald Buddha prior to being installed within its specially built chapel. In fact tracing the route of this revered image can make for an interesting journey in itself taking the traveller around Thailand and Laos and connecting them to the history of the ancient kingdoms of this region.
The origins of the Phra Keaw Morakot are shrouded in mystery. Traditionally the Chronicle of Phra Keaw Morakot (Of which there are multiple versions) describes how the Hindu god Indra together with Vishnu appeared to the ascetic Nagasena in the gardens of the Indian temple of Asokaram and instructed him to create a Buddha image from precious stone that would last forever as an object of worship for Buddhist devotees. The precious gem stone was taken from Mount Velu by Indra and Vishnu themselves who battled demons and giants to achieve this task. From these mystical beginnings the Chronicles describe how the Phra Keaw Morakot was subsequently moved through Sri Lanka, Angkor, “Ancient Ayutthaya”, Kamphaeng Phet, Lop Buri and finally Chiang Rai.
Unfortunately there is no historical evidence to tell us where the image was created nor evidence to confirm the above journey. The Phra Keaw Morakot enters the historical records in 1434 in Chiang Rai. In that year lightning struck a stupa at Wat Pa Yiah (Temple of the Golden Bamboo Forest), just outside of Chiang Rai city, causing its partial collapse. Inside the broken stupa monks discovered the Phra Keaw Morakot. Initially it was covered in stucco and gold leaf and was assumed to be made of normal stone. It was only some three months later that the abbot noticed a chip in the gold and stucco and broke open this covering to reveal the beautiful green crystal statue within.
The temple where the Phra Keaw Morakot was discovered is today much changed from the humble forest temple of the 15th century. Renamed Wat Phra Kaew after this remarkable find, in 1978 the temple was upgraded by the King to be a Royal Temple, Third Class. Then in 1990, in honour of the ninetieth birthday of Her Royal Highness the Princess Mother (The current King’s Grandmother), a close replica of Phra Keaw Morakot was commissioned. Known as the Phra Yok Chiang Rai this replica is now housed in the Haw Phra Yok (Hall of the Jade Buddha).
News of the discovery of Phra Kaew Morakot reached King Samfangkaen of Lan Na in Chiang Mai who in 1436 ordered that the image be bought to his city. No doubt with befitting pomp and ceremony the Phra Keaw Morakot set off for Chiang Mai by elephant. But at the crossroads leading to Lampang the elephant charged down the road to Lampang. All attempts to make the elephant take the road to Chiang Mai were unsuccessful and a second elephant behaved in the same manner. The king concluded that the guardian spirit of Phra Keaw Morakot did not want to come to Chiang Mai and so he allowed the image to be carried to Lampang instead.
Thus for the next thirty two years the Phra Keaw Morakot resided in Lampang at Wat Phra Keaw Don Tao. This temple dates back to the founding of Lampang and is reputed to have a single hair of the Buddha enshrined in its 50 metre high chedi.
In 1468 with a new king on the throne in Chiang Mai, King Tilokarat, the Phra Keaw Morakot was again ordered to the capital city. It seems the guardian spirits were agreeable this time and the Phra Keaw Morakot was installed in the East facing niche of the huge chedi at Wat Chedi Luang.
In 1545 an earthquake struck Chiang Mai and the upper half of the great chedi collapsed. Today the chedi has been partially restored and in 1995 to commemorate its 600th anniversary a copy of the Phra Keaw Morakot made from black jade, called Phra Phut Chaloem Siriracha, was installed in the East facing niche.
In 1551, just a few years after the earthquake, the father of King Setthathirat of Chiang Mai died in Xiang Don Xiang Thong, the capital of the Lan Xang Kingdom. Faced with factional disputes over the succession, King Setthathirat moved to Xiang Don Xiang Thong to establish his authority as the new King of Lan Xang. Setthathirat carried with him to Xiang Don Xiang Thong the Phra Keaw Morakot.
The Kingdoms of Lan Na and Lan Xang however, were under considerable threat at this time from the Burmese. Therefore in 1560 King Setthathirat decided to move his capital south to Viang Chan (Vientiane) again taking with him the Phra Keaw Morakot as well the Phra Saek Kham, another highly revered Buddha statue.
As compensation to the people of Xiang Don Xiang Thong, Setthathirat ordered a new temple, Xiang Thong, to be built to house the city’s most sacred Buddha image, the Phra Bang. The city itself was renamed Luang Phrabang in honour of this sacred image.
In his new capital of Viang Chan King Setthathirat built a magnificent new temple in 1565 to venerate the Phra Keaw Morakot. And there the sacred image stayed for over 200 years until 1779 when Siam invaded the city, led by King Taksin’s top general Chao Phraya Chakri.
At this time King Taksin of Siam was fighting to re-establish the authority of Siam after the disastrous destruction of Ayutthaya by the Burmese in 1767. As a sign of the ascendancy of the rejuvenated Siamese Kingdom Chao Phraya Chakri carried the Phra Keaw Morakot back to the new Siamese capital in Thonburi.
Later, in 1827, a second Siamese invasion sacked the city of Viang Chan and the old Wat Phra Kaew there was completely destroyed. It was only in the 1930’s that the temple was rebuilt in concrete following the original plans. Today it is a museum popular with tourists.
And so in 1779 the Phra Kaew Morakot was bought to King Taksin’s capital in Thonburi and installed at the temple Wat Chaeng adjacent to the King’s relatively modest palace. This temple is today known as Wat Arun or The Temple of Dawn and is famous for its 70 metre prang which was built some thirty years later.
The stay in Thon Buri was short. In 1782 King Taksin was deposed by Chao Phraya Chakri who established himself as King Phra Putthayotfa Chulalok (Rama I). The new King moved the capital across the river to Bangkok to provide a better defensive position against possible Burmese attack. He then embarked on a major building program, building the now famous Grand Palace, within which he built a dedicated chapel for the
Phra Kaew Morakot called Wat Phra Si Rattana Satsadaram, commonly known as Wat Phra Kaew, Temple of the Emerald Buddha.
The Phra Kaew Morakot statue has now resided in Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok for 234 years, becoming in the last forty years a huge tourist attraction. It remains however the most revered Buddha image in Thailand, its sacred powers confirmed by its mythical origins, its remarkable rediscovery in Chiang Rai and its amazing journeys as the talisman of kings through the ages down to the current day.
Where to Go
- The Origin and Significance of the Emerald Buddha. Eric Roeder, Explorations in Southeast Asian Studies, Vol 3, Fall 1999.
- The Lao Kingdom of Lan Xang; Rise and Decline. Martin-Stuart Fox, White Lotus Press, 1998
Edits : This article was edited on 11/03/2019 to correct the name of
Phra Phut Chaloem Siriracha at Wat Chedi Luang.