Where is Wat Phra Kaew?
Wat Phra Kaew (“Temple of the Holy Jewel Image”), also spelled Wat Phra Kaeo and commonly known as the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, is located on the ground of the Royal Palace in Bangkok. It is the most revered Buddhist shrine in Thailand.
Central to the temple is the Emerald Buddha, a dark green statue standing about 2 feet tall. No one is allowed near the statue except the Thai king, who conducts rituals at the temple throughout the year.
History of Wat Phra Kaew
According to popular belief, the Emerald Buddha is ancient and came from Sri Lanka. Art historians, however, generally believe that it was crafted in 14th-century Thailand.
The much-revered Buddha image has traveled extensively over the centuries. The story goes that the Emerald Buddha was once kept covered in plaster in a monument in Chiang Rai, but a damaging lightning storm in 1434 uncovered the treasure.
The king of Chiang Mai tried very hard to procure the statute, but three times the elephant transporting the statute stopped at a crossroads in Lampang. Taking it as a sign from the Buddha, the statue was placed in a specially-built monumental temple in Lampang, where it stayed for 32 years.
The next king of Chiang Mai was more determined, succeeding in bringing the Emerald Buddha to his city. It was housed in a temple there until 1552, when Laotian invaders took it. The statue stayed in Laos for 214 years, until General Chakri (later King Rama I) brought it back to the Thai capital at Thonburi after his successful campaign in Laos.
In 1784, when he moved the capital across the river to Bangkok, King Rama I installed the precious figure in its present shrine, where it has remained as a tangible symbol of the Thai nation. It is feared that removal of the image from Bangkok will signify the end of the Chakri dynasty.
What to See at Wat Phra Kaew
The Temple of the Emerald Buddha sits within the grounds of the Bangkok Grand Palace, surrounded by walls more than a mile long. Inside, it contains some of the finest examples of Buddhist sculpture, architecture, painting, and decorative craft in Thailand.
The Emerald Buddhasits atop a huge gold altar in the center of the temple. It is a rather small, dark statue, just over 2 feet tall, made of green jasper or perhaps jadeite (“emerald” refers to the intense green color, not the specific stone).
Like many other Buddha statues in Thailand, the Emerald Buddha is covered in a seasonal costume, which is changed three times a year to correspond to the summer (crown and jewelry), winter (golden shawl), and rainy months (gilt robe and headdress).
The costume change is an important ritual and is performed by the Thai king, who also sprinkles water over the monks and the faithful to bring good fortune during the upcoming season. The two sets of clothing not in use at any given time are kept on display in the nearby Pavilion of Regalia, Royal Decorations and Thai Coins on the grounds of the Grand Palace.
The Emerald Buddha is housed in a magnificent bot (the central shrine in a Buddhist temple), which is used by monks for important religious rituals. The interior walls are decorated with late Ayutthaya-style murals depicting the life of the Buddha, steps to enlightenment, and the Buddhist cosmology of the Worlds of Desire, Being, and Illusion.
The cycle begins with the birth of the Buddha, which can be seen in the middle of the left wall as you enter the sanctuary, and the story continues counterclockwise. Also note the exquisite inlaid mother-of-pearl work on the door panels.
The surrounding portico of the shrine is an example of masterful Thai craftsmanship. On the perimeter are 12 open pavilions, built during the reign of Rama I. The inside walls of the compound are decorated with murals depicting the entire Ramakien, the Thai national epic, painted during the reign of Rama I and last restored in 1982, in 178 scenes beginning at the north gate and continuing clockwise.
There are several other monuments on the temple grounds, among the most interesting of which are the three pagodas to the immediate north of the ubosoth (main building), representing the changing centers of Buddhist influence. Phra Si Ratana Chedi, to the west, is a 19th-century Sri Lankan-style stupa housing ashes of the Buddha.
Phra Mondop, in the middle, is a library built in Thai style by Rama I, known for its excellently crafted Ayutthaya-style mother-of-pearl doors, bookcases containing the Tripitaka (sacred Buddhist manuscripts), human- and dragon-headed nagas (snakes), and statues of Chakri kings.
The Royal Pantheon, to the east, was built in Khmer style during the 19th century. It’s open to the public for one day in October to commemorate the founding of the Chakri dynasty.
To the immediate north of the library is a model of Angkor Wat, the most sacred of all Cambodian shrines. The model was constructed by King Mongkut as a reminder that the neighboring state was under the dominion of Thailand.
To the west of the bot, near the entry gate, is a black stone statue of a hermit, considered a patron of medicine, before which relatives of the ill and infirm pay homage and make offerings of joss sticks, fruit, flowers, and candles.
Scattered around the complex are statues of elephants, which symbolize independence and power. Thai kings went to battle atop elephants, and it is customary for parents to walk their children around an elephant three times to bring them strength. You can rub the head of an elephant statue for good luck – note how smooth it is from being touched by millions.