EXPLORING THE ORDINATION HALL OF WAT SUTHAT
Speaking of Wat Suthat Thepphawararam, also known as Wat Suthat, most people would think of the Giant Swing near the northern entrance of the temple, located on Bamrung Mueang Road, or some would think of the delicately carved wooden door panels of its royal monastery. Today, the original door panels are kept at the Bangkok National Museum.
People come to Wat Suthat to make merit, pay respect to the Buddha, or pray, and they would usually limit their visit to the royal monastery and cloister, decorated with hundreds of Buddha statues. If you were to venture further in, you would find other incredible artefacts inside the temple, which is now overseen by its current abbot Phra Thammarattanadilok (Cherd Jittakutto), a revered monk. There are many items with historical value, befitting its status as a royal temple which has been around since the Early Rattanakosin Era. Wat Suthat is home to various exquisite arts. In terms of architecture, Wat Suthat is known to have among the best architectural layout in the Early Rattanakosin Era. Its ordination hall is not only large but also lavishly decorated, making it worth a visit once in a lifetime.
Wat Suthat Thepphawararam is a royal temple of the first grade in Ratchawaramahawihan category. Construction was begun by King Rama I (20 March 1736 – 7 September 1809) in February 1807 in an area at the heart of the city, following the city pattern from the Ayutthaya Era in which a temple must be at the centre, a belief carried on from the Sukhothai period. Its location was imagined to be on Mount Meru, the centre of the Buddhist universe. Originally, King Rama I named the temple Wat Maha Suthawas, and brought in Buddha image Phra Sri Sakyamuni from Sukhothai to be housed inside this temple. During his reign, only the platform and the plaster base of the Buddha image were built, and shortly after Phra Sri Sakyamuni was placed inside, the King passed away. Further construction and decorations were carried out by his son King Rama II (24 February 1767 – 21 July 1824), but the new King also passed away before the construction was completed. King Rama III (31 March 1787 – 2 April 1851) continued the construction, and finally the royal temple was completed. With his strong faith, King Rama III offered his personal fund and ensured that Wat Suthat was as magnificent as it could be. The King also ordered the construction of the ordination hall and sermon hall, and named the temple Wat Suthat Theptharam. Later, King Rama IV (18 October 1804 – 1 October 1868) changed its name to Wat Suthat Thepphawararam, which is its present name.
The ordination hall of Wat Suthat is a large building in brick and mortar, located from east to west. The front of the main Buddha image faces east, following Thai traditions, perpendicular to the royal monastery on the north. The temple’s ordination hall is located on an elevated platform, supported by 68 pillars. The size is 23 metres by 70 metres, making it the longest ordination hall in Thailand. It takes about four minutes to make your way around this building.
As you enter the hall, you will pass an arch which fuses Thai and Western arts beautifully. The top of the arch is a delicately carved pointed spire, a design of which comes from Thai royal headdress (chada). The green door panels are decorated with an oil painting of garuda and naga, and above the door is a delicate wood carving decorated with gold. Guarding the door are two stone sculptures dressed in Western style. There are eight such entrances on the four sides. On the wall surrounding the ordination hall, there are eight marble platforms with steps, located at the eight sema structures (boundary stones). In the past, the platforms were used by the King to make donations to his people in royal merit making ceremonies.
The gable on the eastern side shows the Sun-god Suriya riding on his lion-drawn chariot, while the one on the western side shows the Moon-god on his horse-drawn chariot. They reflect the position of the Sun and the Moon (day and night). At the front, a replica of the main Buddha image is placed for people to pay respect. Phra Buddha Trilokachet is the main image, the creation of which was ordered by King Rama III. It was made inside the Grand Palace, and the name was presented by King Rama IV, who named the main Buddha image in the royal monastery, the ordination hall and the sermon hall with rhyming names — Phra Sri Sakyamuni, Phra Buddha Trilokachet and Phra Buddha Setthamuni.
Phra Buddha Trilokachet is a metal image in subduing Mara posture, 10 sok 8 inches in width. It was the biggest Buddha image of its time and had ideal features — oval face, narrow forehead, arched eyebrows, eyes looking downward with kindness, lips forming a slight smile, back straight and body slender, the fingers on the right hand slightly spread, all in the same length. These were signature elements of Buddhist art in the reign of King Rama III. At the front of this bronze cast Buddha Statue, there are around 80 colourful plaster statues of Buddha disciples, built in the reign of King Rama IV. The King himself designed the size of these statues.
After paying respect to Phra Buddha Trilokachet, take your time and explore the beauty of mural paintings by masters from the reign of King Rama III. It is considered one of the best and biggest mural painting sites in Thailand. The mural paintings are done with tempera colours on smooth cement wall, depicting the life of the Buddha from birth to enlightenment, from his teachings to his passing at 80 years old.
Beneath the doors and windows are paintings of lives of paccekabuddha, or enlightened beings in Buddhism. This is different from typical Buddhist paintings which commonly portray lives of Buddha in previous incarnations. Above the doors and windows are scenes from Ramayana. The double panel windows are decorated with gold details on the outside, and on the inside are paintings of divine beings, each window with its own unique image.
While Wat Suthat is a popular tourist destination, it remains serene and incredibly peaceful. Inside, there are many other interesting sites worth visiting, such as the sermon hall, which is an ancient Thai building where the brass Phra Buddha Setthamuni is located, and the residence for the Supreme Patriarch, former residence of supreme patriarch Somdet Phra Ariya Wongsa Khottayan (Phae Tissadeva Mahathera), who was the 12th supreme patriarch of the Rattanakosin Era. The residence was built in the reign of King Rama III at the same time as the ordination hall. Another highlight is Satta Maha Sathan, showcasing small images representing the Buddha on various occasions of enjoying the bliss enlightenment for seven days.
King Rama III ordered these objects built instead of the chedi. They are located near the wall on the eastern side of the temple, by Unakan Road, stretching from north to south. During the reigns of King Rama III – King Rama V, it was used for candlelight procession on Visakha Bucha Day. The Bell Tower is an octagonal building in brick and mortar with a European style ceiling. Inside the Bell Tower is spiral stair, while the top has openings for the bell to be seen from the outside.
Wat Suthat is considered the royal temple of King Rama VIII (20 September 1925 – 9 June 1946). When the King paid his first visit to Bangkok, he came to this temple and felt it was such a serene place. When the King took his Buddhist oath at the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, then the supreme patriarch, Somdet Phra Ariya Wongsa Khottayan (Phae Tissadeva Mahathera), was his master. Throughout his life, the King often came to meditate at Wat Suthat, and when he passed away, his ashes were enshrined at Wat Suthat under the basement of Phra Sri Sakyamuni. A monument was built in remembrance of him to the northwest of the royal monastery, and a ritual is conducted on 9 June every year to commemorate the late King.
Wat Suthat is home to Thailand’s valuable arts and architecture, so if you want to fully immerse yourself in its glory and beauty, a long visit is required. Visitors can enter the temple from morning to 9pm every day (the ordination hall and sermon hall close at 4:30pm) and listen to the daily prayer at the royal monastery at noon and 7pm, with additional morning prayer session on Buddhist holy days at 9am. For more information, call 0 2222 3539 or 0 2622 2819.