By KUPLUTHAI PUNGKANON
FOR VISAKHA BUCHA DAY tomorrow, marking the anniversary of the Lord Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and death, The Mall Group has brought to Bangkok replicas of the deeply symbolic phra that pagodas for which northeastern Nakhon Phanom province is famous.
The faithful are invited to make merit at the displays at The Mall Ngamwongwan anytime through Sunday as the shopping centre celebrates “Visakha Bucha Day: Maha Mongkol 84th Birthday of Her Majesty the Queen Worshipping Phra That from Two Lands”.
The “two lands” includes Laos, where fortune-teller Katha Chinabanchorn and the group’s executives also took clients and reporters on a recent merit-making tour of Nakhon Phanom.
The tour party paid respects at the various phra that and collected replicas, blessed by monks, to bring back to Bangkok.
Visakha Bucha Day is customarily observed by walking in circles around a temple or chedi, stupa or pagoda while holding lighted candles, incense and flowers. Residents of Nakhon Phanom prepare markbeng – beautiful, green, cone-like offerings made of banana leaves and flowers, with which they circumabulate the temples. Nuns and elderly people bestow blessings by tying cotton string around the wrists of the faithful.
Nakhon Phanom has more phra that than any other province, each pagoda representing one of the “eight days” – the seven days of the calendar and an extra one for Wednesdays, since Thai astronomy distinguishes between Wednesday daytime and night. Worshippers find the phra that ascribed to their day of birth, or in the case of Wednesday’s children, to their time of birth.
“According to the legend of the Urangkathat Chronicle, a relic of the Buddha was taken to the Khotraboon empire in what is now the Thai Northeast, along the Mekong River,” Katha told the tour group. The empire covered present-day Udon Thani, Nong Khai, Nakhon Phanom, Mukdahan, Amnat Charoen, Ubon Rachathani and Vientiane in Laos. “So this area is the centre of Isaan Buddhism, and each pagoda’s location was chosen according to astrology.”
That Phanom district has the Phra That Phanom, a 53-metre-tall squared pagoda of Laotian influence. What we see today is a copy of the original, which was erected sometime prior to the 12th Buddhist century but collapsed amid drenching rains in 1975. The current structure matches the original, though it has a 110-kilogram solid-gold spire at the pinnacle.
Phra That Phanom is dedicated to people born on a Sunday and – like Her Majesty the Queen – during the Year of the Monkey.
In Tha Uthen district, the Phra That Tha Uthen, erected in 1912, houses relics of a disciple of the Buddha that were brought here from Burma. Laos is clearly visible across the Mekong, which flows alongside the temple. There were few tourists around, so the scene was peaceful, conducive to prayer, especially for people born on a Friday, as was the Queen.
Phra That Renu, made from a lovely light pink stone, welcomes those born on a Monday to Wat Phra That Renu Nakhon. Built in 1918, again in the Laotian style, it overlooks a community of ethnic Phu Tai, a people gifted at weaving and happy to present their traditional dances.
Crossing the river from Mukdahan province to Savannakhet in Laos, we next visited the temple of the Phra That Ing Hang, which purportedly contains a shard of the Buddha’s spinal column. In style the pagoda is the twin of the Phra That Phanom, beautifully carved and decorated and about nine metres tall. Worshippers are required to dress respectfully, women in long skirts.
The replicas brought back by The Mall Group are miniature marvels and make worship convenient for Bangkok residents, but nothing can possibly compare to seeing the actual pagodas in person.
If you happen to be at the shopping complex, the display is fine for a quick round of making merit, and related activities and talks are also being held. Still, you should plan to visit Nakhon Phanom and see the phra that as they were intended to be seen. Whether you’re a believer or not, you’re apt to get much more out of it.