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Great Pagoda in Thailand world's tallest stupa
Prof. Tissa Kariyawasam
Historians are of the view that Buddhism reached Siam (renamed Thailand after 1949) even before ancestors of the present day Siamese migrated to the country. After embracing Buddhism, King Asoka sent Buddhist missionaries to various parts of the East.
This is clearly evident in Sri Lanka's Great Chronicle Mahavamsa written during the 5th century AD, by a Buddhist monk named Mahanama. According to this report Mahinda, the son of the Emperor Asoka was sent to Lankadeepa whilst Sona and Uttara Theras visited Suvannabhumi or present day Thailand where they were confronted with a flesh-eating she-demon who is said to have devoured the newly begotten Royalty.
From that point onwards Buddhism was elevated to the position of the religion of the royal palace and the people of the country accepted Buddhism as their religion. The capital city of Suvannabhumi is now known as Nakhon Pathom. Nakhon is derived from Nagara in Sanskrit and Pali meaning 'city'; Pathom comes from Pathamam in Pali meaning the first; thus giving Nakhon Pathom the meaning First City or the First Capital of Thailand.
Phra Pathom Chedi is the highest stupa in the world and is located in Nakhon Pathom, Thailand. Phra Pathom Chedi means the Great First Stupa. Cetiya in Pali and Caitya in Sanskrit are established in Thai as Chedi.
Scholars of the calibre of M. C. Subhadidas Diskul, have engaged in research on the history of the stupa and have determined the date of erection as being approximately in the period of Suvannabhumi i.e. from 193 BC to 457 AD.
The enlargement of the edifice in size was carried out during the Dvaravati period from 5th century to 11th century AD.
After a period of decadence of more than 800 years in 1853, King Mongkut or Rama IV, whilst residing in the temple as a Bhikku decided to restore the stupa when he ascended the throne. Unfortunately he could not complete the structure before his demise and the present chedi was completed by King Rama VI.
After climbing barely a 100 steps we reach the Phra Narachet where the white stone Buddha image is located. This belongs to the Dvaravati period and had been transported to Phra Narachet from another temple in piecemeal.
The seated Buddha is robed with one shoulder exposed. His feet rest on a lotus blossom. The palm of the left hand turns upward and rests on the knee in Avakasha Mudra and the right hand is in the gesture of discussion or vitarka mudra with the thumb and index finger forming a ring and palm turned outwards.
There are two bigger lotuses on both sides of the statue. Thai Buddhists usually offer the lotus in the bud and do not make attempts to blossom it out like Sri Lankan devotees.
There is a guardian deity standing on the left and a small sitting image of the Buddha on the right.
The Great Pagoda of the First City is bell shaped (Ghanthakara) and consists of viharas in all four directions. The height of the stupa from the ground to the crown top is 120.45 metres, and the circumference of the base is 235.5 metres. In the precincts of the four cardinal directions four images of the Masters are kept.
There are peepal and banyan trees around but Thai Buddhists are unaccustomed to paying homage to the trees unlike Sri Lanka Buddhists. King Mongkut has ordered the planting of trees in the vicinity of the stupa. After the completion of the shrine, the royalty accepted the tradition of visiting the temple to offer candles and joss sticks whenever they pass the chedi.
Around the Garbha of the stupa there are various statues depicting the Master, the deities and episodes connected to the life of the Master. One image represents the birth of the Prince Sithata (Siddhartha) and two Apsaras paying homage.
Statues depict the Master's Enlightenment, His days of endurance, the acceptance of eight handfuls of grass from a Brahmin, the offering of milk rice by Sujata, the defeat of Mara, the delivering of the First Sermon and the stay in the Parileyya forest where the Master was cared for by an elephant and a monkey.
There is a colossal reclining image of the Master recast in the reign of King Rama IV and a few Dhammacakka carvings that belong to the Dvaravati period. A very special image and a rarity in the Buddhist world is the image of the walking Buddha here.
The image of Mucalinda Naga with nine hoods too is located in the area. The victory over death is depicted by a statue of Yama upon whom the Master is seated. Yama here rides a bull and is horned in keeping with its tantric representation.
The last is a scene of the Master at his deathbed (Parinirvana) where the disciples are seen listening to his final discourse.
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Namo Tassa Bhagavato Arahato Sammāsambuddhassa.
Buddha sāsana.m cira.m ti.t.thatu.