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Volunteer temple restorers ignite storm over Ayutthaya sema painting

Oct 16. 2018
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By Kornrawee Panyasuppakun
The Nation

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A recent case of merit-making at a Buddhist temple in Suphan Buri by painting on bai-sema – the sanctuary’s boundary markers – has raised concern among historians who say such acts have damaged the Ayutthaya-era artefacts.

Singer Suthep Prayoonpitak and his associates last week painted yellow colours on the boundary markers that encircle the main hall of Wat Chai-naram in Ayutthaya for their merit making.

Responding to condemnation from a famous historian and some among the public that the group had destroyed centuries-old national heritage, Suthep replied they had first asked for the abbot’s permission before painting the artefacts. 

Abbot Phra Kru Palad Boonyong Tunlapo confirmed that he gave the group a green light to paint the semas. “They came with ardent faith and offered to restore the temple. They did it for free and with good intention,” he explained. 

Apart from the semas, the group also restored the old Viharn, the ordination hall, and put gold leaf on the temple’s Buddha image, the abbot said.

The singer said he was part of a group that calls itself “Puen Ruam Tang” (Fellow Traveller) who help restore old temples that have deteriorated and been neglected by the government’s ancient artefact agency, the Fine Arts Department. The restoration campaign has been underway for a decade, and they have restored about a hundred temples. 

Suthep also said the sema was built only about 40 years ago along with the new ordination hall. “It is not an ancient sema.” 

However, the sema they had painted gold resembles the ancient semas in the photos that Thai famous historian Pitaya Bunnag posted on his Facebook page on Saturday.

According to the photo Pitaya provided, the sema is made of sandstone and dates back to the 16th century, before the First Burmese-Siamese War.

Pitaya, a former lecturer at Chiang Mai University, also posted a photo of the merit-makers painting the sema bright gold. He captioned the photo: “The road to Hell is paved with good intention.”

He also wrote a comment: “It is like coating the Emerald Buddha with gold.”

Many people joined the discussion and condemned the merit-makers, for having possibly destroyed a national treasure. “People don’t understand what heritage is. [They] destroy it all,” commented Nattawoot Meenil on social media. 

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