The Great Cetiya

Located directly behind the Uposatha Hall is Wat Bowon’s golden chedi [Pali: Cetiya]. Chedis are memorial shrines to the Buddha, or distinguished disciples, and usually contain relics or other venerated objects. Therefore, the cetiya, along with the Uposatha hall, form the most sacred part of the monastery. The chedi at Wat Bowon  is comparatively large for a city monastery, measuring over fifty meters high. Originally, the structure was covered with ordinary stuco, however, renovations in 1964 introduced the use of gold mosaic tiles, giving the chedi a massive and shining appearance.

The elevated base, supporting the lower and upper terrace, is decorated with lotus ponds and Chinese statuary, which are believed to have been brought here from the Front Palace. Four Chinese-style structures at each of the four corners host bas-relief panels that relate the story of Fa-hsien, the Chinese monk-pilgrim to South & Southeast Asia (traveling in India 399-414). This story has been made into movies and serials time and again. In English it has been given the title “Journey to the West”, however, Thais would know the celluloid version of this story as “Sai Eu”.

The lower terrace can be accessed by four staircases, two to the east and two to the west. On the upper terrace, housed within an eastern archway is a gilded bronze statue of King Rama IV [King Mongkut (1851-1868)]. At the four corners of this terrace are Khmer-style structures known as Pra Prang, each housing an image of the Buddha in the abhaya mudra; one for each of the cardinal directions.

As one circumambulates the cetiya on the lower terrace, in a clock-wise fashion, turning the first corner one will see the first two of six celestial beings:  Shiva (left) and Narayana (right).

Around the next corner, on the west side, one will see the celestial musicians: Panchasikha (left) and Gandhaba (right).

Turning the next corner, on the north side, one sees the last of the six figures: Brahma (left) and Vissukamma (right).

There are two small, double-sided, staircases, one to the east, the other to the west, by which one ascends to the upper terrace and finds the chedi.

Four entrances lead into the base of the bell-shaped chedi, each facing a cardinal direction, though, only the southern doorway is used. In 1868 King Mongkut visited Wat Bowonniwet and noticed the chedi’s spire was in need of repair. The king removed his ruby ring and had it sold to raise funds for renovations. During that renovation the king had the image of four animals cast and placed above the four entrance ways.  The four animal figures are: North – bird, East – elephant, South – lion, West – horse. The former explanation was that King Monkut had these figures placed here as a type of symbology, or riddle. The animal’s Thai names sound similar to those countries that bordered Siam’s frontier at the time. For example, ‘sing’ (lion) for Singapore, ‘ma’ (horse) for Burma, ‘nok’ (bird) for Yonok (“North”, or Lanna Thai, e.g., Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, etc., before being anexed by Siam) and ‘chang’ (elephant) for Lan Sang (Land of One Million Elephants), or Laos. However, new studies suggest that the king had a more profound meaning in mind. We can now reevaluate the meanings of these animals, in conjunction with the door panels, as follows: lion represents Great Britain, horse represents France, Eagle represents United States of America and Elephant represents Siam. England and France were the superpower colonizers of Siam’s neighbors, while the United States offered technology and science.

Inside the chedi is a small circular room with a domical roof, on a raised square structure in the middle of the room, directly under the spire, one sees five smaller chedi — one in the middle, the others placed one to each of the four minor directions. These chedi contain various sacred relics. This inner vault is usually only open to the public once a year, on the night of entering rains retreat, the day after Asalha Puja. Those fortunate enough to gain access to the inner chamber should notice the fine craftsmanship of the smaller, gold plated chedi, and the main chedi’s square stone base, on which are carved the four most important scenes of the Buddha’s life: the Birth, Awakening, First Sermon and Final Passing, along with the Buddha’s words on those very important occasions.

Also found in an elaborate niche on the upper terrace, facing south toward the cetiya, is a well-known Buddha image by the name of Pra Pairee Pinas [Enemies Vanquished –the name having to do with King Mongkut’s uncle, Prince Pra Ong Chao Kraison (1791-1848), who was later demoted to the non-royal rank of “Mom” prior to his execution]. This Srivijaya-period image was given to the Prince Bhikkhu by an unidentified layman, around 1848. It just so happened that the Prince Bhikkhu was experiencing problems from influential persons bent on ruining him and the new Order. Shortly after this image arrived the prince’s antagonists were caught up in their own plot and punished by King Rama III, thus the name “enemies vanquished”

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