There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

The Story of the Emerald Buddha

Attempting to talk of the joys of mathematics usually produces quizzical, if not downright unbelieving, looks. During thirty-six years teaching the subject I never stopped learning and I always took delight in the surprising links between apparently separate ideas. Everybody knows that π is the number obtained if the circumference of a circle is divided by its diameter, ‘A level’ mathematicians should also know that the same number is obtained by working out one, minus a third, plus a fifth, minus a seventh and so on for an infinite number of terms and then multiplying by 4. Of course you cannot calculate it to an infinite number of terms - not in one lifetime anyway - but π is well known to be an unending decimal, so in practice you merely use enough terms to reach the required degree of accuracy*.

The joys of travel are more widely – and perhaps more easily - appreciated. Occasionally we find the same name or idea popping up in different and sometimes widely separated locations and those unexpected links give me the same pleasure as their mathematical analogues.

This post is about the Emerald Buddha, a fifty centimetre tall piece of carved jade ('Emerald' referring to its colour rather than the gemstone) that we encountered for the first, but by no mean last, time in Bangkok in 2012.

The Emerald Buddha, Wat Phra Kaew

Bangkok, though, is the end of a story that starts in legend in 43BC when the Buddhist sage Nagasena carved the image in the northern Indian city now called Patna. There is a problem, though: modern scholarship dates the writings that concern Nagasena to a hundred years earlier and none mention his skills as a sculptor.

The statue remained in Patna for 300 years until civil war necessitated moving it to a place of safety and the Buddha was taken to Sri Lanka. Moving important objects a short distance for safekeeping occurs regularly throughout history (see the Book of Kells for one example), but Sri Lanka is a very long way, and the Sri Lankans, who are happy to claim any Buddha connections they can, fail to mention this one.

In 457 the Burmese King Anuruth requested the Emerald Buddha to enhance the development of Buddhism in his country. There are many stories of bits of the Buddha - hairs of which there were, presumably, plenty and odd body parts that survived his apparently inefficient cremation - being sent around Asia for this purpose, but giving away the Emerald Buddha sounds like uncommon generosity. According to legend, the vessel carrying the Buddha to Burma was shipwrecked on the coast of Cambodia and it fell into the hands of the Khmer emperors.

The Thuperama Dagoba, Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka
The Buddha's right collarbone is believed to be beneath this dagoba

The great days of the Khmer empire ended in 1432 when Angkor Wat was sacked by the Thais. The Emerald Buddha was carried off and after visiting several locations settled in Chiang Rai in the northern Thai kingdom of Lanna.

Angkor Wat, Cambodia
Wat Preah Keo, (The Silver Pagoda) adjacent to Phnom Penh’s Royal Palace contains a 17th century replica known as the 'Emerald Buddha of Cambodia'. Although, according to the legend, the Emerald Buddha was in Cambodian keeping for almost a thousand years, it was only ever theirs because they found it. Cambodia in general - and Phnom Penh in particular - have little claim on the original but they seem happy enough with their replica and an almost life size solid gold Buddha figure made locally in 1908.

Wat Preah Keo, The Silver Pagoda, Phnom Penh
I failed to take a satisfactory picture of the Silver Pagoda so I have borrowed this one from Wikipedia

Another legend states it was found in Chiang Rai in 1434 inside a stupa that was split by a lightning strike. Whatever the truth of the lightning story, the first incontrovertible evidence for the Emerald Buddha’s existence is in Chiang Rai in 1434.

Chiang Rai was a major city in Lanna, but the capital was the confusingly similarly named Chiang Mai, 150km away. Objects like the Emerald Buddha gravitate towards capital cities, and it reached Chiang Mai in 1468.

South East Asia

In 1546 the throne of Lanna became vacant and Prince Setthathirath, heir to the Lao kingdom of Lang Xan, was invited to sit on it. In due course he became king of Lang Xan as well and in 1552 he moved the Emerald Buddha to the Lang Xan capital of Luang Prabang, where he built Wat Xieng Thong.

Wat Xieng Thong, Luang Prabang

In 1564 he moved his capital to Vientiane, taking the Emerald Buddha with him. We first encountered Setthathirath dressed like a big boy scout, sitting in front of That Luang in Vientiane.

King Setthathirath in front of That Luang, Vientiane

 He built his personal temple, Wat Pha Keo, to house the Buddha

Wat Pha Keo, Vientiane
In time Vientiane became a vassal state of Siam. In 1779, the Thai General Chao Phraya Chakri put down an insurrection and carried off the Emerald Buddha. General Chakri later became King Rama I of Thailand (the current king is the ninth of the Chakri dynasty) and in 1784 installed the Emerald Buddha in Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok where it remains to this day.

Wat Phra Kaew, Bangkok
Anyone (or at least anyone who can afford the entrance ticket) may go and see the image. They must behave respectfully and sit quietly on the floor, remembering to arrange themselves in the eastern fashion with legs folded backwards. To point your feet towards the Buddha is extremely ill-mannered and will quickly earn an unobtrusive but nonetheless stern rebuke from one of the stewards.

And so the Emerald Buddha is in Bangkok, which is where, mathematics apart, this post started. The Thais consider it the palladium of their country and it is touched only by the monarch when he changes the Buddha's vestments three times a year. The sage Nagasena, who (allegedly) made, it (allegedly) said the Emerald Buddha would bring "prosperity and pre-eminence to each country in which it resides." Laos would like it; Wat Pha Keo, destroyed in 1828 has been rebuilt and awaits its return, but is doomed to remain a museum that is missing its main exhibit. The Cambodian are sentimentally attached to it but are content with their replica, while the Sri Lankan are hardly aware they ever had it – if they ever did.

Finishing where we started with the Emerald Buddha in Bangkok
This is the unclipped version of the photograph at the start, taken, of course, from outside the hall of the Emerald Buddha. Taking photographs inside would bring down the wrath of god - or at least of the stewards 
Yet to be established is where in the long journey from 50BC Patna to modern Bangkok does legend turn into fact. Art historians say the carving style is that of 14th century Lanna, suggesting India, Sri Lanka and the Cambodian shipwreck are firmly in the realms of myth and legend. Whether it was ever in Cambodia is problematic and it may well have originated in Chiang Rai, though the lightning strike story is unlikely. It was, it seems, made in northern Thailand and now resides in southern Thailand, and that is where it is going to stay.

*There are actually a number of infinite sequences which converge to π. This one, known as the Gregory-Leibniz series, is the simplest of them. It converges painfully slowly; after 5 terms you get to 3.396…. (π = 3.1415….), others can be much quicker.

1 comment:

  1. Lots of nice stuff to go through. Thanks. We are just back from Thailand and have too many images to sort - we saw the Emerald Buddha after all the hype I expect something bigger! Thanks for the reminder of our earlier visits to Cambodia and Laos.