The northern Thai city of Chiang Mai has larger and grander temples than Wat Sri Suphan. However, this particular one, which is located a little way south of the city centre, down a lane off Wualai Road and in the district containing Chiang Mai’s silversmith trade, is my favourite temple there. That’s because of its key building, the ubosot (the ordination hall). Since 2008, the neighbourhood’s silversmiths have worked on the decoration of its exterior and interior, fashioning adornments for them in silver, aluminium and nickel, so that today it stands as a spectacular, gleaming showcase for their talents.
The building is encased in concave slabs of silvery-tiled roofing and it bristles with serpentine blades (bai raka) and barbed sculptures. A multiplicity of engravings cover its outside walls. There are emblematic images for Asian nations like Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand itself, though as a resident of Sri Lanka I was a little perturbed not to find my current country of abode represented there*.
Also adorning those outside walls are pictures of iconic historical landmarks from around the world like the Great Wall of China, the Leaning Tower of Pisa and the Roman Colosseum; of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World; of the animals of the Chinese Zodiac; and, weirdly and totally unexpectedly, of the Hulk, Spiderman, Captain America, Iron Man and other characters from the Marvel superhero universe. Actually, this was a pre-taste of the surprises that awaited me when I entered the building.
As a place of ordination, the inside of the hall is off-limits to women. So, armed with my better half’s camera, I ventured in and snapped as many pictures as I could for her. The gorgeous, shining Buddha at the far end of the room gives the interior a feeling of levity and serenity, but if you turn around to the walls and study some of their details, the effect is rather different. It’s gloriously, at times crazily baroque and over-the-top.
Among the silvery adornments are a huge, intricately inscribed sword; a creepy-looking garuda (a part-human, part-human creature of Buddhist mythology, much featured in Thai religious architecture); a huge gaping maw rimmed with needle-like fangs and containing a whole crowd of ghouls and demons; and a couple of crowned and bearded Thai mermen. Indeed, the amount of blades, shields, skulls, devils and monsters on display made me feel that I wasn’t so much inside a temple as inside a silver reproduction of a heavy metal fan’s bedroom.
Finally, outside again, you’ll see seated under a big shiny parasol a statue of the elephant-headed Hindu god Ganesh, looking resplendent amid copious yellow garlands. In Thailand, Ganesh is known as Phra Phikanet and among the qualities he’s associated with are creativity and success. No wonder they have him decorating the insignia for the country’s Department of Fine Arts.
*And talking of Sri Lanka, as today is April 14th, a Happy Sinhalese and Tamil New Year to you all.