When King Mengrai first left Wiang Goom Gaam to found his new Lanna capital at Chiangmai it is said that he pitched camp in the area where Wat Chiang Mun now stands. Reportedly constructed in 1296/97, it was the first temple built inside the city walls on the site of the Wiang Chiang Mun palace donated by King Mengrai for this purpose.
Entering the compound through the main gate off of Sripoom Road the whole complex is laid out before you. To the left are the monks quarters in a shady corner. It is said that the monastic side of the temple has always been well maintained throughout its 700 plus year history.
Directly in front of you as you enter is the central wiharn with its glittering colored glass catching your eye and just to the right of it is an ancient bell waiting to be rung to announce your visit. After removing your shoes, climb the stairs onto a shady porch with a set of temple drums on display to your left before entering the hall that contains the principal Buddha image. I was fortunate that during my visit a service was underway in the wiharn that I was able to observe. Nine monks were sat cross-legged alongside the left wall, joined together by a piece of string that they all held in their laps. They were chanting their devotions which I sat and listened to for a while. The laity were all seated in the center of the wiharn in front of the Buddha beneath a string mesh and were also each clutching a single length of string which combined their worship into one. A number of ladies were passing backwards and forwards bringing food for the monks main meal of the day once the service was complete. I only wished that I could understand what they were saying and the purposes of the ritualistic elements. Perhaps I will have to make the time to study this while in Thailand. I don’t know if this is a regular day and time but for anyone interested my visit took place at 10 a.m. on a Saturday morning. Out of respect, I refrained from taking photographs of the proceedings although several other people did photograph without this appearing to cause anyone any concern.
Leaving the wiharn I decided to tour the temple in a clockwise direction and set off to my right with the haunting chants of the monks following me. Adjacent to the wiharn is a small chapel that contains a Buddha image and what I guessed to be the likenesses of three monks associated with this temple. Along the side of this small chapel are the images of nine Buddhas in different postures each with an alms bowl in front of them to receive donations. Nine is regarded as a lucky number in Thailand.
Moving on you come to a small ubosot or ordination hall that was built in the time of King Mengrai’s dynasty. It was first restored in 1571 by Paya Saen Luang and in 1805, during the time of Jao Kawila, the current building was erected. In 1823, Chao Suphat, later King Sethi Kham III, the ruling prince of Chiangmai was ordained as a monk in this building. The ubosot remains locked and a small area around the building is also off limits. This is both for ritual and security purposes as on the front porch stands one of several valuable historical artifacts that can be seen at Wat Chiang Mun. A stone tablet with inscription that was written in 1581 in Fak Khaam alphabet and Tai Yuan dialect it contains an important piece of information that dates the exact founding of Chiangmai by King Mengrai to 1296. It also confirms that during the founding King Mengrai resided in this area.
Circling to the rear of the main wiharn you will find Chedi Chang Lom which is the oldest and most significant stupa in the temple compound. It is recorded that once King Mengrai, King Ngaam Muang from Payao and King Ruang of Sukothai had fully completed the construction of the new city and this temple then the chedi was erected upon the site of the original royal palace. Enshrined within the chedi is said to be a hair relic of the Lord Buddha. This is now referred to as ‘The Sacred Elephant Encircled Stupa’ for obvious reasons as it is supported by a veritable herd of these endearing animals. Atop the white chedi is a gold decorated top that is glistening in the sun against a clear blue sky this morning and looking a picture.
The next building, which is constructed parallel to the main wiharn, has recently been restored. When I last visited here in 2006 craftsmen were just putting the final touches to the entrance staircase and it is good to see the results of their work today. Gathered in the porch are several ladies offering you the opportunity to make merit for yourself by releasing birds from the confines of small baskets. I have never fully understood the logic behind this practise. I can see how you may be viewed favorably for the act of releasing the birds but what is the situation for those who captured and imprisoned them in the first place? Wouldn’t it be better for all, and in particular the birds, if they were just left alone by all in the first place, or, am I missing the point ?
This wiharn contains two more valuable historical pieces, made all the more mysterious by their being kept secured behind several heavy cages. The first is a crystal white quartz image of Pra Setangkamanee or Pra Gaew Khao, made in the Lanna style it is believed in Lopburi about 1800 years ago. It had once belonged to Queen Jaamadevi of Lamphun until King Mengrai brought it here after razing Hariphunchai. This image is much revered for its rain making abilities and features in the annual Songkhran festivities when it is carried through the streets to induce the rains. The second image is a marble stone known as Pra Sila that depicts the Buddha standing in the tribunga or hipshot stance and subduing the elephant Nalakiri. [I am not up to speed with Buddhist legend but website http://www.freewebs.com/buddhaimages/6473postures.htm tells us that Nalagiri elephant was in a bad mood. It was released by Devadatta and it was intending to harm the Lord Buddha while he was walking alms from people in Rajagaha. Ananda, the loyal attendant of the Lord Buddha sacrificed his life to protect the Lord Buddha. But Nalagiri elephant was finally tamed with the mercy of the Lord Buddha. He also taught the elephant to observe the five precepts and do no harm to other people, so that the elephant can be reborn in a better state of beings]. The stone was carved by craftsmen of the Pala school in Northern India approximately 2500 years ago. It is said that both of these revered pieces have resided at Wat Chiang Mun since the temple was first built. The inner walls of this wiharn are adorned with murals of episodes from the life of Lord Buddha freshly painted in glorious technicolour.
Between the two wiharns are wonderfully manicured lawns and flowering shrubs fronted by a stone platform with bench seats. Adorning this are several ‘cheerful’ elephants which I promise will bring a smile to your face.
Adjacent to the temple entrance are a number of shops selling refreshments. There are nearly always tuk-tuks and red taxis waiting here to whisk you on your way to your destination of choice.
By Steve Maidment
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