Wat Doi Suthep Temple, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Wat Doi Suthep Temple, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Wat Phra That Doi Suthep (commonly known as simply Wat Doi Suthep,) is a Theravada sect Buddhist temple, located on Doi Suthep mountain, about 15 kilometres west of the city of Chiang Mai.

Wat Doi Suthep is considered to be one of the most sacred pilgrimage spots in Thailand, due to the fact that it houses a sacred relic, a bone of the Buddha.

Chiang Mai was the center of the influential Lanna Kingdom, back in the 14th century.

The temple gets 120,000 visitors per month.
During the holidays, especially on Songkhan and Visakha, the number of visitors is much higher.
Local people climb the mountain and sleep sheltered by its pagoda, to celebrate the birth of the Buddha.

Most of the visitors are Buddhist pilgrims from Thailand, Singapore, China, and India, and they consider themselves “tourist-pilgrims,” because they combine a pilgrimage to pay homage to the Buddha with enjoying the surrounding mountain with its palace and villages.

The temple is said to have been founded in 1383, in a much smaller version.
Over time, the temple has expanded, and been made to look more extravagant with many stupas and holy shrines added.
A road to the temple was built in 1935.

According to legend, a monk named Sumanathera from the Sukhothai Kingdom had a vivid dream.
In this dream vision, he was told to go to Pang Cha to look for a relic.
Sumanathera went to Pang Cha and found a bone.
Many said that it was Gautama Buddha’s shoulder bone.

The relic displayed magical powers.
It glowed, it was able to vanish, it could move and perhaps most amazing, the bone was able to replicate itself.

Sumanathera took the relic to King Dhammaraja, who was the ruler of Sukhothai at that time.
The king made offerings and hosted a ceremony when Sumanathera arrived.
However, the relic displayed no supernatural characteristics.
It looked like an ordinary dry bone.

The king, doubtful of the relic’s authenticity, told Sumanathera to keep it.
King Nu Naone, the ruler of the Lanna Kingdom, heard of the relic and asked the monk to bring it to him.

In 1368, with Dhammaraja’s permission, Sumanathera took the relic to the Lanna king in northern Thailand.
The Lanna kingdom was a rival to the Ayutthaya and Sukhothai kingdoms.
The name Lanna means, “The Kingdom of a Million Rice Fields.”
Once there, the relic broke into two pieces.
The smaller piece was enshrined in Wat Suan Dok, the “flower garden temple” in Chiang Mai.

The larger piece was placed by the king on the back of a white elephant which was then released in the jungle.
The elephant is said to have climbed up Doi Suthep mountain, that at that time, was called “The Sugar Elephant Mountain.”
About a third of the way up the mountain, the elephant stopped, trumpeted three times, and then dropped dead.

This was apparently interpreted as a good omen, and the Lanna kingdom ruler, King Nu Naone, immediately ordered the construction of a temple at the site.

The full name of the Temple (Wat Phra That Doi Suthep,) is actually a descriptive name.
“Phra” means an honorific Buddha image, and “That” means a relic.
Combining the two phrases, it means that there is a relic of Buddha’s in the sanctity of the Wat, and in this case, it is half of Buddha’s shoulder bone.

The location of the shoulder bone relic is inside the rounded portion of the Chedi stupa.

The wat can be reached by a long day of hiking along the Monk’s Trail, or by taking a shared open red taxi or a private taxi from Chiang Mai.
Many people also sign up for a day tour, that takes visitors to other sites on Doi Suthep mountain.
Taking a scooter up the steep road can be difficult and along the way, we saw many cyclists who ended up pushing their bikes up the winding road.
The steep road is also very crowded with many minibuses and cars.

From the car park at the temple’s base, we climbed up 309 stone steps on the beautiful serpentine staircase.
Two massive dragons, each with four heads, line both sides of the long staircase.
Crocodiles and dragons decorate the entrance to the staircase, called the “Naga Staircase.”
It is the longest Naga staircase in Thailand.

Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is beautifully designed and decorated.
Once at the top, you can see a White elephant statue, commemorating the story behind the founding of the Wat.

A golden stupa or Chedi is 79 feet (24 meters) high and is located in the main courtyard.
We had to remove our shoes to enter this courtyard.
This gold plated spire is a characteristic design of a Northern Thailand chedi, with its heightened octagonal base, ringed spire, smooth spire, and the tiered umbrella at the top.

The buildings and halls are influenced by Sukhothai art, with some aspects of design that came from two centuries of Burmese occupation.

The tiers and spires of the architecture represent the level of heavens that one must ascend in order to achieve Nirvana, as well as the hierarchy associated with a monarchy.

In Theravada Buddhism, the main focus of daily practice is to rid oneself of impurities like anger, jealousy, possessiveness and all the ego attachments.
To do that, there is a focus on inner peace, lightness of being, and becoming light filled and almost floating.

This philosophy is also reflected in the architecture of the stupas.
The design of the chedi is not shaped as an octagon or a triangle, that would appear dense and static.

The stupas are parabolic, reflecting light and energy, and the gilded gold cover of the Chedi creates a feeling of weightlessness.
This same concept can be seen in the angular uplifts of the roof lines, creating a sense of weightlessness instead of a pulling down.

There are amazingly detailed wood carvings at the temple, depicting animals, flowers and elephants, as well as Buddhist stories and teachings.

The interior of the main hall is beautifully decorated with murals all over the walls.
The murals depict the story of Buddha’s life and his journey towards enlightenment, as well as Hindu stories and myths.

The interiors at Wat Phra That Doi Suthep contains a myriad of Buddha statues that come in all different styles and materials, just like the outside courtyard.

The layout of the complex shows bi-axial symmetry around the chedi with the main and small wihans slightly off the east-west cardinal plane.

The cardinal directions are very important in Buddhist design.
Since this is a mountain temple, it is a common practice that if there is no body of water around, like a river, ocean or lake, then the main hall should face towards the rising sun.

Back down at the base of the temple, there are many small shops and a very busy market of stalls selling Buddhist amulets, statues, bowls and souvenirs.
There are also places to eat and drink, and shared taxis back down to the city, or up to the hill tribes.

From Doi Suthep, wishing you a beautiful and happy New Year and much love,

Photos by Jules Landsman

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