Beautiful Temples and Forgotten Power Struggles in Ubon Ratchathani

Ubon Ratchathani located 600km from Bangkok on the Mun river is one of north-east Thailand’s major cities and historically marks the boundary between Bangkok’s power and that of the ancient kingdoms of Laos. It is home to some beautiful temples of national significance which also hold some subtle messages relating to power struggles now long forgotten between the central rulers of Siam and the local rulers of Ubon.

Wat Thung Si Mueng
The Ho Phra Bat and Ubosot of Wat Thung Si Mueng, Ubon

Wat Thung Si Mueng

Wat Thung Si Mueng is one of Ubon’s most notable temples. It was founded by the temple’s first abbot Chao Khun Phra Ariyawongsajarn Yannawimol in the early 1850’s and is located just east of Ubon’s royal grounds known as Thung Sri Mueng. To the tourist it looks like a typical Thai temple but this is because it is a departure from local architectural practice and built in the style of Bangkok temples.

The reasons for this lie in the background of the temple’s founder. Chao Khun Phra Ariyawongsajarn had grown up by the Chi River about 30km from Ubon but around 1828 went to study as a monk in Bangkok at Wat Saket. The move from rural Ubon to the centre of Bangkok would have been extremely daunting but no doubt exciting for the young Ariyawongsajarn. He arrived at Wat Saket at a time when King Rama III was making major renovations to this royal temple including the massive undertaking of building the man-made mountain now known as The Golden Mount.

golden mount bangkok
The Golden Mount that overlooks Wat Saket, Bangkok

The young Phra Ariyawongsajarn studied hard at Wat Saket and clearly demonstrated considerable talent to his superiors. In the early 1840’s he was elevated to Chao Khun status and sent back to Ubon as the head of the monastic order there. When he returned to Ubon as Chao Khun Phra Ariyawongsajarn he took with him a copy of Wat Saket’s Buddha footprint. His first task therefore was to build a suitable Ho Phra Bat to house this sacred footprint and this was the purpose of Wat Thung Si Mueng.

buddha footprint
The Buddha footprint at Wat Thung Si Mueng

A New Architecture for Ubon

Chao Khun Phra Ariyawongsajarn recruited a fellow monk and skilled builder Phra Khru Chang from Vientiane to help build Wat Thung Si Mueng. But Chao Khun Phra Ariyawongsajarn was also determined to bring modern ways to his home town. Traditional building techniques in this Lao region would involve building a sturdy wooden frame on which a roof and walls would then be erected. But Chao Khun Phra Ariyawongsajarn had seen Chinese influenced building techniques at Wat Saket in which brick walls bear the entire load. So at Wat Thung Si Mueng he oversaw the construction of 110cm thick brick walls that could support their own load and that of the roof without any wooden frame. This would have flown in the face of all local wisdom. The architectural style of Wat Thung Si Mueng is thus an importation from Bangkok.

One feature of the Ho Prabat that is very local however, are the beautiful crocodile guardians on the front staircase. Growing up by the Chi and Mun Rivers, fearsome crocodiles would have be a familiar sight to Chao Khun Phra Ariyawongsajarn. A later renovator however clearly decided that the more traditional nagas should be added over the top of this local quirkiness.

crocodile guardians
Traditional Nagas cover the original crocodile temple guardians

Beautiful Murals

Inside the Ho Prabat the walls are decorated with expertly executed and well preserved Jataka paintings, that is pictures depicting stories from the lives of the Buddha. The paintings cover all four walls entirely and are a dense assemblage of different stories. Behind the main buddha image on the western wall is the popular Calling the Earth to Witness story in which Mae Thorani destroys the forces of Mara whilst the Buddha meditates (Described in an earlier Siamrat article here).

buddha statue and mural
The Main Buddha Image of Wat Thung Si Mueng in front of the mural depicting the Buddha’s Calling the Earth to Witness

Although these Jataka scenes depict the Buddha’s lives they also show many everyday scenes. But the scenes shown are generally not those that would have been familiar to the locals of Ubon. Instead what one sees is the daily lives of people living around the canals of Bangkok. There is even a scene of vultures picking at a human carcass which again recalls Chao Khun Phra Ariyawongsajarn’s period at Wat Saket. Although now a popular tourist spot in Bangkok, in the nineteenth century Wat Saket was notorious as the temple outside of the city walls where the dead were taken and excarnation was practiced. That is the corpses were left in the open and fed upon by flocks of vultures, thereby demonstrating the Buddhist belief in the worthlessness of the human body. These gruesome scenes would have been very familiar to Chao Khun Phra Ariyawongsajarn.

temple mural
Scenes of everyday life around Bangkok’s canals, whilst towards the top vultures can be seen feeding upon a human carcass

The Ho Trai Scripture Library

Wat Thung Si Mueng is probably most famous these days for its scripture library, the Ho Trai, that lies in the centre of a pond and is a beautifully preserved example of traditional Isaan-Lao architecture. It was also built at the instigation of Chao Khun Phra Ariyawongsajarn who would have spent many years studying in the library of Wat Saket which at that time was also built in this traditional way in the centre of a pond to protect the manuscripts from insects. The Lao influence of his artisan Phra Khru Chang is clear in this wooden building with its impressive multi-tiered roof.

haw drai glang nam
The Ho Trai library at Wat Thung Si Mueng is a beautiful example of Isaan architecture

Saving the Temple

There is one final feature of Wat Thung Sri Mueng that forms an interesting part of its history. As noted earlier Chao Khun Phra Ariyawongsajarn defied local wisdom by building the Ho Phra Bat with thick load bearing walls rather than with a wooden supporting framework. Although he had seen this technique employed in Bangkok his builder Phra Khru Chang came from Vientiane and lacked any experience with this type of construction. By the time of Chao Khun Phra Ariyawongsajarn’s death in 1881 the structure of the Ho Phra Bat was showing signs of failure due to inadequate foundations.

His successor Phra Khru Wirotratanobon (Abbot 1881 – 1942) set about urgent remediation work. Against the outside rear wall of the temple he built a metre thick masonry block to support the wall. Inside the temple he wedged a sturdy wooden frame to help take the load off the walls. The pillars of this frame now stand in front of the Jataka paintings obscuring certain scenes. No doubt many of the locals nodded wisely and muttered that such support should have been there from the start.

In the 1880’s a wooden frame was constructed within Wat Thung Si Mueng to prevent its collapse

Thammayut and a Changing Order

In 1851 whilst the construction of Wat Thung Sri Mueng in Ubon was still at an early stage King Rama III died. He was succeeded by his half-brother Mongkut who had spent the previous 27 years in the monkhood. During this time Mongkut had become convinced of the need to reform Buddhist practice, stripping away the magical elements and adhering closely to written Buddhist doctrine. In 1833 he established the Thammayut monastic sect to put his ideas for reform into practice.

The Thammayut sect was controversial at the time as Mongkut demanded the re-ordination of monks, suggesting that those of the mainstream sangha order were no longer legitimate. Mongkut’s elevation to the throne as Rama IV suddenly bought Thammayut to centre stage and to a position of influence far exceeding its number of adherents.

Just two years into his reign Rama IV sponsored the establishment of Wat Supatanaram in Ubon Ratchathani, the very first Thammayut temple in Isaan or north-east Thailand. Its first abbot was Phra Tawatammee, a relative of the royal family. Two years later Thammayut established Wat Sri Ubon Rattanaram on land from within the palace grounds of Ubon’s local ruler. Phra Tawatammee moved to become abbot at this temple which became the city’s principal temple.

Wat Supatanaram,
Wat Supatanaram, the first Thammayut temple in Isaan

And so within a few years the locally born Chao Khun Phra Ariyawongsajarn at Wat Thung Sri Mueng who had remained always loyal to the central power of Bangkok found his authority and links to that central power bypassed by the outsider Phra Tawatammee.

Change Comes to Ubon’s Rulers

For the ruling family of Ubon similar changes were to occur. At the start of his reign Rama IV had recognised the authority of Ubon’s ruler Phra Prom Worarat Suriyawong by the presentation of gold regalia. Prom was the third ruler of Ubon, the city having been established by his uncle in the late eighteenth century after a split with the ruling family of Champasak led by Prom’s grandfather. Prom oversaw a period of great expansion for Ubon but on his death in 1863 Bangkok chose to overlook Prom’s son as heir and instead appointed Chao Phrom Thewanukhro as the king of Ubon Ratchathani.

Chao Phrom Thewanukhro was a prince from the vanquished polity of Vientiane and in the eyes of Bangkok’s elite a suitable and dependable “Lao” to rule over the remote “Lao” principality of Ubon Ratchathani. Things looked very different in Ubon where the populace saw the established and successful ruling family being pushed aside in favour of a Siamese appointed outsider. Revolt ensued with the leading families in Ubon refusing to co-operate with the new ruler even when the highest members were imprisoned in Bangkok. By 1882 armed rebellion had broken out. Ironically even though Bangkok’s rulers picked Chao Phrom Thewanukhro as a reliable “Lao” they did not trust him enough to provide him military forces.

By this time King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) was on the throne and facing an international situation of increasing tension with France over territories around the Mekong. The rebellion in Ubon presented an opportunity that France could exploit to further its colonial ambitions, a situation that could no longer be tolerated by Bangkok. In April 1883 Chao Phrom Thewanukhro was withdrawn and replaced by a Siamese “commissioner” backed by armed force. Local rule had been abolished and replaced by direct administration from Bangkok.

Discontent Written in the Murals

If we return now to where we began this story, Wat Thung Si Mueng, within the beautiful murals we can find clues to local discontent with these political changes.

The entire eastern wall around the temple entrance depicts the story The War of the Relics which spills over onto a large part of the northern wall also, covering more than 100 square metres. The story begins in the top left hand corner of the eastern wall with the death of the Buddha and his cremation led by his follower Ananda. The lighting of the funeral pyre is delayed by the gods until the arrival of Mahakasyapa, sometimes depicted as a rival to Ananda. Following the cremation the relics of the Buddha are taken into the centre of the highly fortified diamond shaped city.

buddha relics mural
The relics of the Buddha are heavily defended at the heart of the city

Word of the Buddha’s death spread and King Ajatasatru, ruler of Magadha, is seen on the northern wall approaching the city with his army to demand that the relics be handed over to him for internment in a stupa he would build. Six other kings join Ajatasatru as both sides prepared for war.

Ajatasatru's army mural
King Ajatasatru, ruler of Magadha, approaching with his army

However, the Brahmin Dhumrasagotra intervenes and successfully argues for the equal rights of all and for the relics to be divided fairly. Dhumrasagotra oversees the division of the relics into eight shares, each to be taken to a rulers kingdom and enshrined in a stupa. The story conveys a message of correct public behaviour and morality and the importance of fairness in a rulers actions if chaos and war is to be averted.

bangkok palace mural
The Brahmin Dhumrasagotra persuades the king to share the relics fairly amongst all contenders

The scene of Dhumrasagotra’s intervention is painted on the lower right hand side of the eastern wall. The river scene of a Chinese junk raising its sail for departure, bamboo houses along the water front and the tiled buildings around the palace make it very clear that this is Bangkok. Inside the palace the Brahmin Dhumrasagotra chastises the king on the importance of equality and fairness.

But the story at Wat Thung Si Mueng does not end there. In the version painted, the Brahmin Dhumrasagotra is not entirely honest and during the division of the relics he attempts to hide a tooth of the Buddha in his hair. His deceit is observed in the heavens and Indra (Always easily spotted as the green coloured deity) descends to earth, takes the tooth from the Brahmin thief and enshrines it in a great stupa in the heavens. The moral of the tale is that corruption will be observed by the deities in the heavens who will uphold the universal principle of fairness for all.

division of the relics mural
Brahmin Dhumrasagotra oversees the division of relics in the palace whilst Indra descends to earth to pluck the hidden tooth relic from the brahmin’s hair

These fascinating murals date to the period from about 1860 to 1880 in which both the abbot Chao Khun Phra Ariyawongsajarn and the ruling families of Ubon found their positions in society undermined by decisions of the new rulers in Bangkok. Their sense of injustice is revealed in these paintings that they sponsored. The message there for all to read concerns the universal law of fairness and the alternative path of discord and war.

Where To Go

References

Siamrat is completely indebted for this article on the fascinating paper below by Ivan Polson, which prompted a trip to Ubon to personally see the amazing murals at Wat Thung Si Mueng:

The Art of Dissent: The Wall Paintings at Wat Thung Sri
Muang in Ubon Ratchathani. Ivan Polson, University of New England, Australia. The Journal of Lao Studies, Volume 3, Issue 1, pps 91-127. ISSN : 2159-2152. Published by the Center for Lao Studies at http://www.laostudies.org

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