An aside: I apologize for the lackluster photos. The day I took them was uniformly overcast, so what’s a girl to do? I do have the perfect excuse, however: TOURIST. You pays your money and you takes your chances. The next day was off to the next place on the (overly large) to-do-list. They perform the job asked of them in this post well enough, however, so I won’t beat myself up. I’d only do that if I were discoursing on medieval Flagellants associated with European cathedrals 🙂
The first two photos in the top row are of the Maha Chedi, the stupa built in the 1470’s for the Buddhist conference. Since it takes its aesthetic impetus from Indian architecture and symbology, it’s unlike any other stupa I’ve seen in temples in Chiang Mai. The name of the temple comes from the seven spires of the Maha Chedi, since Jed Yod means “seven spires.” The Maha Chedi is precious particularly for its sculptural details, of which the first two pics give examples. There are 70 stucco relief figures like the one in the second pic, representing divas (thewada) of Indian Buddhist origin, but the story runs that the faces of the figures were modeled on relatives of the founding King, Tilokarat. Only their hairdresser knows for sure these days whether there’s any truth to the tale. The ashes of King Tilokarat repose in the largest of the historical stupas, so he chose to go into history within the temple complex he brought to realization. And a lovely place it is to spend eternity, so well done, King T.
The third pic in the top row is a Lanna-style historical stupa. It uses brick for the major structural portion of the building and stone for the architectural details. The Buddha figure in the narrow vaulted space struck me as dwarfed by the pile of masonry around and atop it. Nothing in such buildings is done just for fun, however, everything — I mean everything — means something, so the disproportion between statue and stupa was somebody’s intent to express something meaningful to Buddhists of the day. I can offer no insight into that meaning, however, and my search to find something has left my hands woefully empty. May someone wiser and more erudite than I fill them and cover the shame of their nakedness.
The last pic in the top row is quite familiar to anyone who has wandered at length around Chiang Mai, because one comes across such stupas wrapped in orange cloth fairly frequently, and in places one would least expect to find such a thing. The very first time I visited Chiang Mai there stood across the street from the entrance to my hotel a small brick stupa of the same type, or rather the remains of one, since only about 3 feet of crumbling brickwork remained above street level. It, too, was wrapped in orange cloth and had on its undulating ledges offerings of food and flowers. Religious life in the Buddhist lands escapes the boundaries of a single day or a single hour as is the wont in the Protestant Lands with their Sunday services. Buddhist religious life spreads out across the day and the week just as life itself does. Rather a sensible approach to things, I find.
The first pic of the bottom row is a study in contrasts. In the foreground are two of the historical stupas in Lanna style, which frame the Maha Chedi with its spires of Indian inspiration. The difference between the two architectural traditions is thus put to a point. Both traditions are lovely in their own way, of course, it’s not a question of making comparisons and taking sides. Everything counts, it’s all brilliant. Just as Nature doesn’t make all leaves to the same pattern, so should we vary the shape and form of our buildings. It’s the natural thing to do.
The next pic was done with a photographic purpose in mind, I will confess. It’s a study in old and new, a juxaposition of Haven and Chaos (apologies to modern Chiang Mai). It’s the South Gate of the temple complex, obviously in Lanna style from the period of original construction. Look beyond it and there you see modern Chiang Mai glaring at you, powerlines cutting your line of sight at every turn, multistorey buildings squashed up against each other for kilometers on end, the highway separating them from you as you lurk behind the security of the gate like some kid hiding behind his mom’s apron. As I said, the temple complex offers haven from the city. It’s peaceful, has beautiful architecture, beautiful gardens. You’ll find none of that within easy reach on the other side of the gate, so for heaven’s sake let’s turn around and head back in the other direction.
I’m a rank amateur photographer so don’t ask me how I managed to get the stupa in the next pic at an angle to ground level. I’ll take the easy way out and blame the camera — bloody stupid thing, so glad I got rid of it … This stupa is in classic Lanna style: bell-shaped, fitted with a needle spire, as classically Lanna as you please. If you look at the stonework around the lower drum you’ll notice that it features next to no decoration on its surface. When you consider the riot of ornament that covers Lanna-style temple buildings, it becomes clear that Lanna Thais were not very keen on carving in stone. That fact makes the Maha Chedi all the more remarkable and justifies its unique place in the temple repertoire of the city.
The last pic is of the spires of the Maha Chedi — from fairly close range, mind you. As I said earlier, it’s but a doff of the hat to the Mahabodhi Temple in Bodh Gaya, which is ENORMOUS. I was fully aware when I visited Ched Yod of its history, but I found the relationship to Mahabodhi informational, nothing more. The charm of the Maha Chedi works its own magic, there’s no need to compare it to anything else. Even had it been proven by subsequent scholarship that the design derived from a visit to Chiang Mai in the 1470’s by extraterrestrials from the Pleiadian constellation, I’d emit an “ah, really …” and just keep looking. The proportions are lovely, the shapes pleasing on their own account without any reference to anything else, and it’s beautifully quiet in the vicinity. Who needs anything more? And look at those trees! All that beautiful stonework and handsome trees to frame it … my knees are getting weak, let’s move on to the modern architecture, shall we?