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Wat Phra Kao

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

The first glimpse of Siam which the traveller obtains at Paknam is a fair sample of what is to be seen pretty well throughout the country. As Constantinople is called the City of Mosques, so Bangkok may, with even more reason, be termed the City of Temples. And not in Bangkok only and its immediate neighbourhood, but in the remotest parts of the country, wherever a few people live now, or ever have lived, a Wat with its image, or collection of images, of Buddha, is to be found, surrounded by numberless phrachedees, those curious structures which every devout Buddhist-and all Buddhists are in one sense or another devout - erects at every turn as a means of gaining favour with the deity, or of making atonement for his sins. On the rich plains, in the recesses of the forests, on the tops of high mountains, in all directions, these monuments of universal allegiance to a faith which, more perhaps than any other, claims a devotee in almost every individual inhabitant of the lands over which it has once obtained sway, are to be found. The labour, the time, and the wealth lavished upon these structures are beyond calculation...

The work which, in popular estimation at least, will make his Majesty's reign most memorable in Siam, is the completion and dedication of the great royal temple, Phra Sri Ratana Satsadaram, or, as it is usually called, Wat Phra Kao. The erection of this magnificent pile of buildings was commenced by Phra Puttha Yot Fa Chulalok, " as a temple for the Emerald Buddha, the palladium of the capital, for the glory of the king, and as an especial work of royal piety." This temple was inaugurated with a grand religious festival in the year Maseng, 7th of the cycle, 1147 (a. n. 1785), but, having been very hastily got ready for the celebration of the third anniversary of the foundation of the capital, it was incomplete, only the church and library being finished. Various additions were made from time to time, but the Wat remained in an unfinished state until the present king came to the throne. The vow to complete the works was made on Tuesday, the 23rd of December, 1879. The works were commenced during the next month and completed on Monday, the 17th of April, 1882, a period of two years, three months, and twenty days. Thus it was reserved for King Chulalonkorn, at an enormous outlay, entirely defrayed out of his private purse, and by dint of great exertions on the part of those to whom the work was immediately entrusted, to complete this structure, and, on the hundredth anniversary of the capital of Siam, to give the city its crowning glory.

The work was placed under the direct superintendence of the king's brothers, each of whom had a particular part of the work allotted to him. One, for instance, relaid the marble pavement, and decorated the Obosot with pictures of the sacred elephant; while a second renewed the stone inscriptions inside the Obosot; a third laid down a brass pavement in the Obosot; a fourth undertook to restore all the inlaid pearl work; another undertook the work of repairing the ceiling, paving, and wall-decoration, and made three stands for the seals of the kingdom; another changed the decayed roof-beams; another covered the great phrachedee with gold tiles-the effect of which in the brilliant sunlight is marvellously beautiful - and repaired and gilded all the small phrachedees; another renewed and repaired and redecorated all the stone ornaments and flower-pots in the temple-grounds, and made the copper-plated and gilt figures of demons, and purchased many marble statues; two princes divided between them the repairs of the cloisters, renewing the roof where required, painting, gilding, paving with stone, and complet ing the capitals of columns, and so on. Thus, by division of labour, under the stimulus of devotion to the religion of the country, and of brotherly loyalty to the king, the great work was at length completed, after having been exactly one hundred years in course of construction. On the 21St of April, 1882, the ceremony of final dedication was performed, with the greatest pomp, and amid general rejoicings.

Under the name " Wat Phra Kao " are included various buildings covering a large area of ground, which is sur. rounded by walls decorated with elaborate frescoes. In the centre is a temple, called the Phra Marodop, built in the form of a cross, where on festive occasions the king goes to hear a sermon from the prince-high-priest. The walls of this building are richly decorated with inlaid work, and the ceiling painted with a chaste design in blue and gold. The most striking feature, however, is the beautiful work in the ebony doors, which are elaborately inlaid with mother-of-pearl figures representing Thewedas, bordered by a rich scroll. Behind this chapelroyal is the great phrachedee, called the Sri Ratana Phrachedee, entirely covered with gilt tiles, which are specially made for the purpose in Germany to the order of H. R. H. Krom Mun Aditson Udom Det.

There are several other large buildings in the templegrounds, but the structure in which the interest of the place centres is the Obosot, which shelters the famous "Emerald Buddha," a green jade figure of matchless beauty, which was found at Kiang Hai in a. n. 1436, and, after various vicissitudes of fortune, was at last placed in safety in the royal temple at Bangkok. This image is, according to the season of the year, differently attired in gold ornaments and robes. The Emerald Buddha is raised so high up, at the very summit of a high altar, that it is somewhat difficult to see it, especially as light is not over plentiful, the windows being generally kept closely shuttered. For the convenience of visitors, however, the attendants will for a small fee open one or two of the heavy shutters, which are decorated on the outside with gilt figures of Thewedas in contorted attitudes. When at last the sun's rays are admitted through the " dim religious light," and the beam of brightness shines on the resplendent figure - enthroned above a gorgeous array of coloured vases, with real flowers and their waxen imitations, of gold, silver, and bronze representations of Buddha, of Bohemian glassware, lamps, and candlesticks, with here and there a flickering taper still burning, and surrounded with a profusion of many-storied umbrellas, emblems of the esteem in which the gem is held -the scene is remarkably beautiful, and well calculated to have a lasting effect on the minds of those who are brought up to see in the calm, solemn, and dignified form of Buddha the representation of all that is good here, and the symbol of all happiness hereafter. The floor of the Obosot is of tessellated brass, and the walls are decorated with the usual perspectiveless frescoes, representing scenes in Siamese or Buddhist history.

It is in this Obosot that the semi-annual ceremony of Tunam, or drinking the water of allegiance, takes place, when the subjects of Siam, through their representatives, and the princes and high officers of state, renew or confirm their oath of allegiance. The ceremony consists of drinking water sanctified by the priests, and occurs twice a year - on the third day of the waxing of the Siamese fifth month (i. e., the 1st of April), and on the thirteenth day of the waning of the Siamese tenth month (i. e., the 21st of September).

The foregoing description gives but a faint idea of this sacred and historic edifice, which will henceforth be regarded as a symbol of the rule of the present Siamese dynasty, and the completion of which will mark an epoch in Siamese history.

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