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Rocks of worship

Mar 01. 2015
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By Phatarawadee Phataranawik

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The Culture Ministry takes diplomats, art experts and the press to Phu Phrabat Historical Park, recently nominated for World Heritage Site status
Since its nomination by the Thai Culture Ministry to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation’s World Heritage head office in Paris at the beginning of the year, the prehistoric site of Phu Phrabat Historical Park in Udon Thani has seen a massive surge in visitors. 
Among the most recent visitors was a group of some 50 diplomats and art experts from 26 countries, including foreign ambassadors and their spouses, who were invited by the ministry to take part in a cultural trip to both Phu Phrabat and Vientiane, the capital of Laos.
Located on a mountain in Ban Phue district and surrounded by lush forest, Phu Phrabat Historical Park dates back to the prehistoric era. The area is home to hundreds of unusual rock formations left behind by a slow-moving glacier millions of years ago. Many of the ruins and objects have been fashioned from materials found locally and include, for instance, a rock decorated as a stupa and another chiselled into the shape of a foot. Prehistoric rock paintings, sandstone images and idols abound. The site was declared a historical park by the Fine Arts Department in 1991 and in 2004 was put on the “tentative list” for World Heritage status.
“If the historical park is granted World Heritage Site status, it will definitely benefit the country, because not only will it make us proud of our nation, we will also earn respect from other nations. Also it will boost tourism and increase the earnings of the local people,” noted Culture Minister Veera Rojpojanarat
According to Unesco’s Bangkok office, the site was proposed by the responsible Thai government agency based on its meeting four of the 10 selection criteria of Outstanding Universal Value (OUV). For any site to be nominated to World Heritage status, they must match at least one of the10 criteria.
Phu Phrabat is considered to meet criteria (ii), (iii), (iv) and (vi). 
Under criterion (ii), the site must “exhibit an important interchange of human values, over a span of time or within a cultural area of the world, on developments in architecture or technology, monumental arts, town planning or landscape design”.
The site is regarded as a sacred mountain as verified by archaeological evidence from various periods running from the prehistoric through the Dvaravati (seventh-12th centuries AD), Lan Chang (16th-18th centuries AD) to the present time.
The oldest evidence discovered in Phu Phrabat is from the prehistoric period, circa the first century BC, and is characterised by numerous rock paintings on the walls of rock shelters scattered throughout the mountain. These paintings depict humans, animals, human hands, geometric designs and freeform delineations.
According to the Culture Ministry’s proposal, they were believably painted in connection with the animistic beliefs of the painters.
“There is no evidences of human settlement on Phu Phrabat, so we believe that the rock painting sites were used either as ritualistic places or temporary dwellings,” says archaeological expert Saviti Suwansathit.
Under criterion (iii), the site must “bear a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilisation which is living or which has disappeared”
That testimony can be found in the dozens of rock shelters and the stone ground as well as the Sema or boundary stones, some of which date back more than 5,000 years old and others to the Rattanakosin period.
“The Sema stones indicate the use of those areas for Buddhist religious functions. Buddhist beliefs were prevalent in the Lopburi period, around the 13th to 15th centuries, when the Khmer influence was most apparent in the design of Buddha image bas-reliefs at Tham Phra. There is further evidence in the Sema stones that were used in the construction of the chamber to enshrine the image of worship at Wat Luk Khoei as well as in the style of carving at the base of some Sema stones,” expert MR Chakrot Chitrabongs explained.
The subsequent Lan Chang period rendered the site with a new form of expression in Buddhist beliefs: worship of the Buddha’s Footprints and the Buddha’s relics, which were enshrined in stupas built in Lan Chang style indicating the close relationship and contact between the two banks of Mekong River.
Category (iv) states that the site “must be an outstanding example of a type of building, architectural or technological ensemble or landscape which illustrates (a) significant stage(s) in human history”, while category (vi) demands that the site “be directly or tangibly associated with events or living traditions, with ideas, or with beliefs, with artistic and literary works of outstanding universal significance.”
Apart from its historical and cultural significance, Phu Phrabat, with its natural features of picturesque rock formations, has inspired local people to link the site with the local legend of Usa Barot and Phra Kued Phara Phan, which have their origins in the Hamabharata. Phu Phra Bat’s rock formations are the setting for a local legend about a king, his daughter and her suitor. The park’s most striking rock formation, Hor Nang Usa, is where the overprotective king forced his beautiful daughter to live. Despite her confinement, she was able to get a message out to her suitor prince and the two were married in defiance of her father.
The aim of the Culture Ministry in organising the visit was to lobby the ambassadors to support Thailand in voting the site as a World Heritage and in that, it seems, it may have succeeded. There was good feedback from many ambassadors, who were also taken to the Bang Chiang Archaeological Site in the same province, itself declared a World Heritage Site in 1992 and to Vientiane in Laos. 
“We live in a global age and belonging to a particular nation state is important. In the prehistoric period, those boundaries and borders did not exist. The historic site does not only belong to Thais but to all of mankind. And the relics of historical value should be cherished, enjoyed and studied by all those interested, regardless of their nationality. That’s why it should be regarded as a ‘world’ heritage,” said South Korean Ambassador Jeon Jaeman.
And with the Asean Economic Community due to take effect later this year, the governments of both Thailand and its neighbour will be hoping that eventual Heritage status will further boosts the tourism business along the border. Lao nationals often visit this historical site, which is just across the Thai-Laos Friendship Bridge that links Vientiane with Nong Khai and onwards to Udon Thani. It takes about one hour to reach the site.
“The site is outstanding in terms of cultural values. If Phu Phrabat is named a World Heritage Site, it’ll help boost the tourism in Thailand as well as along the border Thai-Laos,” said Lao Ambassador Ly Bounkham.
Unesco is set to announce its decision on listing Phu Prabat on June 1, 2016.
Thailand is home to five Unesco World Heritage Sites:
-Three were nominated for World Heritage status in 1991. Two former capitals of Siam – Sukhothai and Ayutthaya – were nominated in the cultural category. The Thungyai-Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuaries, spread over the provinces of Uthai Thani, Tak, and Kanchanaburi, were named in the natural category. It is the largest conservation area in mainland Southeast Asia and is one of Thailand’s least-accessible and least-disturbed forest areas.
-In 1992, Ban Chiang Archaeological Site was nominated in the cultural category. The site in Nong Harn district, Udon Thani, dates back more than 5,000 years and is considered the most important prehistoric human settlement so far discovered in Southeast Asia. 
-In 2005, the Dong Phayayen-Khao Yai Forest Complex, which spans 230 kilometres between Ta Phraya National Park on the Cambodian border and Khao Yai National Park, was nominated in the natural category. It is home to more than 800 species of fauna, including 112 mammal species (among them two species of gibbon), 392 bird species and 200 reptile and amphibian species.
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