The History of the Temple of the Emerald Buddha

          The tradition of constructing a Buddhist temple in the precincts of the Royal Palace has existed in Thailand since the Sukhothai period (1240-c.  1438 A.D.).  When King Rama I (1782 – 1809) of Bangkok established the city of Bangkok, or Ratanakosin, as his capital in 1782 A.D., he had the Temple of the Emerald Buddha constructed in the eastern section of the Royal Palace in order to install the Emerald Buddha, which he had obtained from the city of Vientiane in Laos.  The construction took two years to finish and the famous image was transferred from Thonburi to the present site in 1784.


            The construction of the Temple of the Emerald Buddha in the First Reign can be divided into two periods.  During the first the boundaries of the Temple on the north and the east were even more limiting than at the present time.  The temple compound was enclosed by galleries (no. 22 on the plan, at the back), and in the south was built the ubosoth (the ordination hall, no.1) enshrining the Emerald Buddha as its main image.  Other construction, as we shall see, was to follow.


            The History of the Emerald Buddha.  The Emerald Buddha is in reality carved from a large piece of green jade.  According to a reliable chronicle, in 1434 A.D. lightning struck a chedi in Chiengrai in northern Thailand and a Buddha statue covered with stucco was found inside.  The image was brought into the abbot’s residence and one day he noticed that the stucco on the nose had flaked off and the image inside was green in colour.  He removed all the stucco and found the Emerald Buddha.  (The word emerald here only means “green coloured” in Thai.)


            People then flocked to worship this precious statue.  At that time the town of Chiengrai was under the rule of the king of Chiengmai.  The latter, King Samfangkaen, sent an elephant to bring the Emerald Buddha to Chiengmai, but each time the elephant arrived at the junction with the road to the city of Lampang, it ran to that town.  The king sent an elephant out three times and each time the same incident occurred, so he thought that the spirits guarding the Emerald Buddha wanted to stay in Lampang.  Thus the Emerald Buddha was allowed to remain in Lampang for 32 year, until 1468, when Chiengmai had a powerful king, King Tiloka.  He had the Emerald Buddha brought to Chiengmai and, according to one chronicle, installed the image in the eastern niche of a large stupa called Chedi Luang.


            In 1551 the king of Chiengmai, who had no son, died.  One of his daughters was married to the king of Laos.  She had borne one son, named Prince Chaichettha.  When the king of Chiengmai died the ministers of Chiengmai invited the prince, who was fifteen, to become king and he accepted.  However, when his father, the king of Laos, passed away, King Chaichettha wanted to go back to his own country, so in 1552 he returned to Luang Prabang, the then capital of Laos, taking the Emerald Buddha with him, and promised the ministers of Chiengmai to come back.  He never returned nor did he send back the Emerald Buddha, so the image remained at Luang Prabang for twelve years.


            In 1564 King Chaichettha could not resist the Burmese army of King Bayinnaung; thus he moved his capital down to Vientiane and the Emerald Buddha remained there for 214 years.


            In 1778, during the Thonburi period, when King Rama I of Bangkok was still a general, he captured Vientiane and brought the Emerald Buddha back to Thailand.  With the establishment of Bangkok as the capital, the Emerald Buddha became the palladium of Thailand and has been ever since.  The image was moved from Thonburi to the Temple of the Emerald Buddha in Bangkok on 22 March 1784.


            King Rama I had two seasonal costumes made for the Emerald Buddha, one for summer and one for the rainy season.  King Rama III (1824 – 1851) added another one for winter.  The ceremony of changing the costumes of the Emerald Buddha takes place three times a year.  In the old days the king would spray lustral water only on the princes and officials who were attending the ceremony inside the ubosoth.  But during the present reign, His Majesty the King also sprays lustral water upon his subjects who are waiting outside the ordination hall.  It can be regarded as a new tradition inaugurated in this reign.


            The lap of the Emerald Buddha is 48.3 cm. Wide and the height, including the base, is 66 cm.  The image is in a seated position, with the right leg resting on the left one.  Judging from this iconographic factor, one could conclude that it was carved in Northern Thailand not much earlier than the fifteenth century A.D. and belongs to the late Northern Thai, that is to say, the late Chiengsaen or Chiengmai school.  If this is so, it must have been made not long before its discovery in the stupa in Chiengrai.


            On the other hand, the Emerald Buddha, which is in the attitude of meditation, looks much like some of the Buddha images of Southern India and Sri Lanka, especially those in this same attitude.  The attitude of meditation has never been popular in Thai images of the Buddha.  Thus one might assign the origin of the Emerald Buddha to one of the aforementioned countries.