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History and Origins of The Emerald Buddha

Original Emerald Buddha Bangkok

  • A very good account of the Origins and Significance of the Emerald Buddha in Thailand is written by Eric Roeder in '' Explorations in Southeast Asian Studies '', a Journal of Southeast Asian Studies Student Association, Vol 3, 1999, which for your convenience we reprint here for study purposes only.

  • '' The Emerald Buddha is known as 'the palladium of Thai society'. Located on the grounds of the Grand Palace and situated within Wat Phra Keo, The Emerald Buddha watches over the Thai nation. Yet the image's history continues to reveal very little. Fable, myth, legend and fact intermingle, creating a morass for those who study the Emerald Buddha. While the Buddha is often mentioned in texts about Thailand, surprisingly little is written about it in great length. Beyond the image's origins in documented history, the Emerald Buddha has traveled widely.
  • This paper will look at the mythical origins of the Emerald Buddha as recorded in The Chronicle of the Emerald Buddha and other sources, then trace its history in Thailand beginning from its first appearance in the town of Chieng Rai. Upon its discovery in Chieng Rai, the Emerald Buddha became much coveted. The image moved throughout the region, from Chieng Rai to Lampang, Chieng Mai, Luang Prabang, Vientiane, Thonburi, and finally, to its present location in Bangkok. More than just a spoil of battle, the Emerald Buddha was believed to bring legitimacy and prosperity to all those who possess it. Thus kings throughout the region have desired to have the Emerald Buddha preside over and bring good favor to their capitals.
  • The arrival of the Emerald Buddha in Bangkok marked the beginning and the rise of the Chakri dynasty. The first king of the Chakri dynasty Rama I validated his reign by moving the seat of his government to Bangkok and further strengthened his position through his possession of the Emerald Buddha. Rama I constructed a magnificent temple to house the Buddha, and today the image serves as a potent religious symbol for the majority of the Thai Buddhists in the region.
  • A study of the iconography of this image may provide clues to its origins, and the stone used to create it--jasper, not emerald--may also suggest the original craftsmanship of the Emerald Buddha.
  • The older a Buddha image is, the more power it is believed to have. The Emerald Buddha has a long history, possibly reaching back to India. Early in the Bangkok period, the Emerald Buddha was taken out of its temple and paraded in the streets to relieve the city and countryside of various calamities. The image also marks the changing of the seasons in Thailand, with the king presiding over the seasonal ceremonies.
  • The power of the Emerald Buddha gives legitimacy to the king and protection to the nation. The image's significance is built upon its long history and symbolism as an object of power for those able to possess it. During the Bangkok period not all who desired the Emerald Buddha were of royal lineage. The political significance of the Buddha also marked Thailand's legitimacy during World War II. The image serve to mark political legitimacy outside the royal family.
  • Today, King Rama IX, still wields considerable power and influence in Thailand. Some believe he is the second to the last king of the Chakri dynasty, with his successor marking the Tenth and final rule of the Chakri. Of the King's children there are two candidates from whom he must choose, a prince and a princess. After Rama X who will be the caretaker of the Emerald Buddha? While the Emerald Buddha has had a murky past, its future is even less clear.
  • A Fable. Five centuries after the Buddha's passing into Nirvana, there lived in India an ascetic named Nagasena. Nagasena was deeply devoted to the teachings of Buddha. His dedication directed him toward becoming a monk at Wat Asokarem in the city of Padalibutra. In Padalibutra, Nagasena's devotion and love for the Buddha intensified. Confident in his abilities, Nagasena's unwavering devotion and words sparked renewed interest for the people of the city who had forgotten Buddha's teachings. Yet confidence and devotion aside, Nagasena's heart grew heavy due to his daily mental and physical exertion. His sharing the Buddha's teachings with the growing numbers of devotees in the city began to take its toll. Nagasena's sadness soon reached the slopes of Mt. Meru and the powerful god Indra. Alarmed and concerned, Indra and Visnu descended from the mountain to lift the heavy burden from Nagasena's heart.
  • Waiting in the lush garden of Wat Asokaren, Indra and Visnu, surrounded by peacocks and the scent of jasmine, approached Nagasena as he entered the garden. Upon seeing the two deities, Nagasena dropped to his knees with his hands and face close to the ground. Indra asked Nagasena to stand up and share his troubles. Nagasena explained to the gods that Buddha's teachings should be shared with all and that a image of the Buddha be created so that all could worship and pay reverence. The Buddha image had to be made to last forever, the likeness of the Buddha chiseled from precious stone.
  • Compelled to help Nagasena, Indra instructed Visnu to go to the dreaded Mountain of Velu and seek out the most precious of all gem stones to be used for the image of Buddha. Staring at the ground, Visnu refused to budge, seeming to ignore Indra words. Indra's patience quickly waned and he demanded that Visnu obey his request. Visnu dropped to his knees and told Indra of his fears of the dark demons filling the slopes of Mt. Velu. Speaking in a voice choked with fear, Visnu told Indra that those who try to remove the precious gems from the mountain would be turned to vapor by the demons. Indra calmed Visnu's fears and offered to accompany him to Mt. Velu. In Marian Davies Toth's version of this tale, she notes that "the demons and giants of the mountain guard its treasures as carefully as the kings of Siam guard their white elephants."[1]
  • The great leap in time between the creation of the first Buddha image and the kings of Siam noted in Toth's version foreshadows the eventual resting place of the Emerald Buddha in Thailand. This time gap is not important, however; only the reference to Siam is relevant. In this case, the Hindu deities Indra and Visnu show their respect to the kings of Siam by acknowledging the difficult task of retrieving a stone great enough to produce the first image of Buddha.
  • As the story continues, both Indra and Visnu confront the demons of Mt. Velu. Recognizing Indra, the demons drop their aggressive posture and bow to him, asking how they can be of service. Indra explains that a most precious stone is needed to create an image of Buddha that will inspire all who gaze upon it. Displeased with Indra's request, the demons respond that they serve as guardians of the precious gems for King Isvara, a ruler living high up in the Himalaya Mountains. The demons note that the most precious of all these gems is a rare chunk of jade. Indra and Visnu are allowed to view the stone, and they marvel at the luminous green glow emanating from it. Convinced that this is the stone they must have, Indra asks if he might give the stone to Nagasena. In reverence of the Lord Buddha, the demons agree to Indra's request.
  • Indra and Visnu returned with the precious stone to the gardens of Wat Asokarem and presented it to Nagasena. At that point, Indra sensed that Nagasena heart was no longer burdened with grief. While Indra returned to Mt. Meru, Visnu stayed with Nagasena, taking on the form of a sculptor who created the likeness of the Buddha. Thus was the luminous chunk of jade transformed in the gleaming image of the Emerald Buddha. The Emerald Buddha was placed in a beautiful new temple with a roof of gold and attracted thousands of people from every corner of the land.
  • This popular fable serves as the birth story of the Emerald Buddha. An image retrieved and sculpted by gods in honor of Buddha. An image well suited to serve as the palladium of Thai society.
  • The Chronicle of the Emerald Buddha is a text tracing the mythical origins and travels of the Emerald Buddha. As yet there has been little attempt to determine what is factual and what is mythical in this account. The chronicle is generally considered to be a morass of information: it includes instances in which the Emerald Buddha is in two places at once, significant time discrepancies, and descriptions such as the king who could fly through the air to reach his desired destination in a short period of time. It would be easy to disregard the contents of this chronicle as mere fable, ignoring the possible merits hidden within it. At this time it is safe to say that there has been little academic research regarding The Chronicle of the Emerald Buddha.
  • The Nagara Krtagama, the fourteenth-century Javanese poem by Mpu Prapanca, was once regarded by academics such as C.C. Berg as offering little more than an author's flight of fancy. While Berg's criticisms do have merit, since questioning historical authenticity is important, his dismissal of this text should serve as caution to not simply to discredit a traditional history out of hand. Today, the Negara Krtagama is considered an important source of information for scholars seeking to unravel the histories of the Singasari and Majapahit periods in eastern Java. Unraveling The Chronicle of the Emerald Buddha may likely prove a much more difficult task due to its many ambiguities.
  • The Chronicle of the Emerald Buddha was first translated into French, then into English, in 1932 by Camille Notton. Notton translated the Chieng Mai dialect (yuon) text, which was originally taken from a palm leaf manuscript found in Chieng Mai. This original manuscript is in the Pali language. According to Notton, there is no indication of the original author or a date of composition for The Chronicle of the Emerald Buddha. There are also manuscripts about the Emerald Buddha found in neighboring countries. Laos, Cambodia, and the Shan States of Burma all acknowledge their own manuscripts of The Chronicle of the Emerald Buddha.
  • The fact that there is more than one manuscript seems to imply that there had been an older text that existed at an earlier time. Notton notes that S.S. Reinach, a member of the Academy of Inscriptions and Belles-Lettres in Paris supports the idea that the later versions of the Emerald Buddha manuscript reflect some semblance of the original version of the chronicle. Notton further acknowledges Reinach's judgments that there is evidence that the original manuscript must have been an object of particular esteem.
  • The Chieng Mai manuscript came to the attention of a young Frenchman whose interest in Siam took him beyond his daily duties as a servant to the government of France. Camille Notton had a rather undistinguished career as a diplomat. Trained in Thai language at the Ecole des Langues Vivantes in Paris, Notton was appointed in August of 1906 as a student interpreter for the Bangkok legation.[2] He was transferred in 1916 to Chieng Mai and moved back and forth between Chieng Mai and Bangkok for several years. In 1930 he became a First-Class interpreter and was sent back to Chieng Mai from Bangkok in 1932. In 1935 Notton was promoted to Second-Class Consul and remained in Chieng Mai until 1938. According to Kennon Breazeale, there was no central-Thai version of the Chieng Mai annals in Camille Notton's time, Notton must have thus gained a reading knowledge of the northern-Thai script in order to translate the annals. Notton's translation of The Chronicle of the Emerald Buddha marks the first translation of the text by a Westerner.
  • The often reproduced fable noted earlier in this paper clearly received its inspiration from The Chronicle of the Emerald Buddha. The chronicle's first Epoch relates how, from his home in India, Nagasena first conceived the idea of creating an image of the Buddha to encourage the flourishing of Buddhism. Nagasena was aided by both Indra and Visnu, and proclaimed that the newly-produced image would last five thousand years. Nagasena also predicted the Emerald Buddha's future importance in lands located beyond India.
  • Nagasena had through his supernatural knowledge a prescience of future events, and he made this prediction: 'The image of the Buddha is assuredly going to give to religion the most brilliant importance in five lands, that is in Lankadvipa (Sri Lanka), Ramalakka, Dvaravati, Chieng Mai and Lan Chang (Laos).' Moreover, the five images of the Buddha, namely Phra Ken Chan Deng (Buddha-heart-sandal-red), which was made by King Pasena, Phra Bang (Buddha-partly; so-called because as it is said in the chronicle of The Phra Bang, everybody among human beings and angels contributed a small quantity of gold, silver and copper for casting the statue), Phra Keo Amarakata (Buddha-crystal-smaragd), Phra Che Kham (Buddha-pure-gold) will ensure very great prosperity and give preeminence to the countries where they are established; and the kings of these places will excel all other kings. So shall it be.[3]
  • The section of Notton's translation in bold clearly notes the future significance that each image, including the Emerald Buddha, will have in the countries in which each image is established. Beyond being a self-fulfilling prophecy, the significance of the Emerald Buddha will be addressed further on.
  • Sri Lanka. The second epoch of the Chronicle of the Emerald Buddha notes a civil war in Pataliputra. Concerned about the safety of the Emerald Buddha, the ruler of Pataliputra sent the image to the King of Lankadvipa for safe keeping, intending to restore it to his kingdom once the fighting has ceased. The account continues by noting that the ruler of Pataliputra likely never journeyed to retrieve the image from Lankadvipa. Therefore, the image is said to have remained in Lankadvipa for two centuries.
  • With the Emerald Buddha in Lankadvipa, Buddhism flourished. Lanka emerged as a stronghold of Buddhism and upon his death the Buddha himself sought celestial protection for Sri Lanka and its faith. According to Karen Schur Narula, "the belief in the Buddha's statement upon his death would form the basis of Sri Lanka's concept of itself as a place of special sanctity for the Buddhist religion."[4]
  • The style of Buddha images appearing in Sri Lanka reflect a characteristically Sri Lankan craftsmanship, according to Dorothy Fickle. The most common pose of Sri Lanka's seated images of the Buddha is that of virasana (yogic) position, the position that the Emerald Buddha of Wat Phra Keo shares. Yet based on these features alone, it is not possible to determine whether the Emerald Buddha originated in Sri Lanka.
  • Burma. The Chronicle of the Emerald Buddha continues, noting that monks from Burma, dissatisfied with Buddhist scripture from India, ventured to Lanka to make transcriptions of texts there. The monks believed that the scriptures found at Lanka were the purest scriptures of the Buddha. Finishing their tasks in Lanka the monks made arrangements for their return to Pagan. Two boats set off for the return voyage, one carrying scriptures written by Sri Lankans, and the other carrying teachings for the people of Pagan as well as the image of the Emerald Buddha. As fate would have it, the boat carrying the Emerald Buddha never arrived in Pagan. Narula notes:
  • Recorded history pays homage to King Anawratha as the legendary and historical ruler who united peoples and places under the banner of a Theravada Buddhist Burma. The fact that this king ruled some six hundred years after the date attributed to him in The Chronicle of the Emerald Buddha should be laid aside. The earliest recorded religious contacts between Burma and Sri Lanka date to the eleventh century. Indeed, the priest known in the chronicle as Silakhanda may well be the Mon monk Shin Arakan whom according to tradition, worked under King Anawratha to convert the Burmese to Theravada Buddhism.[5]
  • The Chronicle of the Emerald Buddha records that Anuruddha flew back to Pagan, weary with the length of time it was taking for the boat carrying the scriptures (Tripitaka ) and the Emerald Buddha to arrive in his kingdom. It is worth noting that the term 'flying' often symbolizes divinity, therefore its mention within the chronicle may be much more than literal. Upon his arrival, Anuruddha received word that the long missing boat had arrived in Indrapatha Nagara (Angkor).
  • Such a journey is possible but the likelihood of the boat being blown off course and arriving at Angkor would entail more skill than fate. If one did not want to travel over land and abandon his ocean-going vessel, one would have to navigate the Straits of Melaka and then head north to reach the coast of Cambodia avoiding possible mistaken landfalls all along the journey.
  • While not mentioned in The Chronicle of the Emerald Buddha, the Emerald Buddha could have traveled over the Isthmus of Kra, close to the site of Ligor. In this case it would be a short journey to the Gulf of Thailand with a continuation on to Cambodia. The film Emerald Buddha, Seat of the Center of the Earth,[6] comments in passing about the myth of the Emerald Buddha being left at Ligor (Nakhon Si Thammarat) for 1,700 years. The film suggests that the Emerald Buddha was brought to Ligor by a ship carrying a princess. The film does not mention where the ship came from or who the princess was; it also fails to offer a time frame for this tale.
  • Today, there is a wat located in Nakhon Si Thammarat that is said to contain a relic of the Buddha. One of the most revered temples in southern Thailand, Wat Phra Mahathat is a prominent landmark, its original pagoda said to have been built some 1700 years ago to house the relic brought from Sri Lanka. Yet whether or not the Emerald Buddha followed the same path as the relic at Nakhon Si Thammarat is unknown and speculative.

Emerald Buddha