Wat Phra Kaew – The temple of the Emerald Buddha

The Wat Phra Kaew, also known as “the temple of the Emerald Buddha” located within the grounds of the Grand Palace in Bangkok is Thailand’s most sacred temple and an important pilgrimage site for Thai Buddhists.

The temple enshrines Thailand’s most highly revered Buddha image, the Emerald Buddha. The image is housed in the ubosot (ordination hall), a very ornate building constructed during the second half of the 18th century after King Rama I had established Bangkok as the new capital of Siam. The walls of the Rattanakosin style building are adorned with murals.

A copy of the Emerald Buddha is enshrined in the Wat Phra Kaew in Chiang Rai, where the image resurfaced in the 15thcentury.

The Emerald Buddha image

The Emerald Buddha image or “Phra Kaew Morakot” wearing an attire of gold and precious jewels is seated on a very ornate raised alter in the ubosot. The 66 centimeter tall image inmeditation mudra is carved from a single piece of dark green jade. Three times per year, at the start of the summer, rainy and cool season the King changes the attire of the Emerald Buddha during an impressive ceremony.

History of the Emerald Buddha

It is not known with certainty when the Emerald Buddha was carved and from where it originates. Several legends tell different stories about the image’s history.

One legend says that the image was created around 50 BC in India, some 500 years after the Buddha passed away. According to the legend several centuries later a Burmese King who wanted to spread Buddhism in his country requested an Indian King to be given copies of the Tripitaka (the Buddhist teachings) and the Emerald Buddha image. The King granted his request and send a ship carrying the image. A violent storm caused the ship to loose its way and the image ended up in Angkor, the capital of the Khmer empire.

Centuries later when the Thais invaded Angkor in 1431, they captured the image and brought it back to Siam. After having been enshrined in several temples across Siam, the image ended up in Chiang Rai. A local ruler had the image covered with stucco to hide its value and hit it in a chedi of the Wat Phra Kaew, then called Wat Ya Pier. When lightning struck damaging the chedi in 1434 the Emerald Buddha was rediscovered. Some of the stucco came off revealing the image.

After hearing of the discovery, Sam Fang Kaen, King of Lanna ordered the image to be taken to his capital Chiang Mai. The image was placed inside a shrine on the back of an elephant. The elephant however had a mind of his own and brought the image to Lampang instead on three different occasions. The King regarded this as a divine sign and decided to leave the image in Lampang, where it was enshrined in the Wat Phra Kaew Don Tao, which was build to house the image. In 1468 the image was finally brought to Chiang Mai, where it was enshrined in the Wat Chedi Luang.

Halfway the 16th century the image was in the Haw Phra Kaewtemple in Vientiane, Laos. In 1778 Taksin the Great conquered Vientiane and moved the image to Thonburi. When Taksin’s reign ended, King Rama I established Bangkok as the new capital of Siam and enshrined the Emerald Buddha in the ubosot of the Wat Phra Kaew on the Grand Palace grounds, where it still remains today.

Other legends tell different versions of the story. Given the style of the image, some historians believe that it was created in Lanna in the 14th or 15th century.