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The Major Chiang Mai Temples (Wats)

  • Chiang Mai City was constructed originally by the Tai Yuan (Khon Muang People) led by King Mangrai in 1296. The temples in the region prior to this where Mon Buddhist and not Tai Buddhist. The difference between the Mon style and the Tai style is explained here.
  • The key dates of the construction of the Chiang Mai temples are listed in the North Thailand History Chronology.
  • To plan a tour visit to Chiang Mai temples we have divided temple sites within the original city walls (and moat) and those to the immediate north, west, south and east and within a 10 kilometer radius. There are at least 12 major Temples to visit.
  • Chiang Mai City is in the center of the Ping Valley in the Chiang Mai Province so trips to the North and South of the Ping Valley should not be ignored. Temples in Lampang, Lamphun and Chiang Rai are highly recommended tourist sites.

Viharn Lai Kham at Wat Phra Singh

  • Chiang Mai Temple (Wat) art and architecture follows themes for each ethnic group or empire, these are of the Mon people and the Haripunjaya Empire (8th to 13th centuries) of the Tai Yuan (Khon Muang) Lan Na art style in Upper North (13th to 19th centuries) and the Burmese and Shan. The differences in this art and architecture are illustrated in images of Buddha, bas-reliefs, Wat and Stupa construction. In all cases these were influenced by the prevailing Indian concepts, cosmology and mythology.
  • Later, for 218 years (mid 16th century to mid 18th century) Lan Na was occupied by the Kingdom of Pegu from Burma (now Myanmar) during which period all art works and building design were influenced by their views.
  • In the 19th century the Shan people (Tai Yai) arrived from Burma bringing with them their northern Burmese Shan styles of art and architecture.
  • These various styles are demonstrated in terracotta and bronze figures (particularly Buddhist themes), temple and Stupa design, woodcarvings, stucco, gilt and lacquer. 

The art objects in Buddhist Temples in Chiang Mai which reflect universal beliefs or mythological symbols.

The Mythical Lions guarding the entrance to the Temples or on the corners of the Chedi.
  • There were no lions in Asia except in Asia minor (now extinct) and west India. However in Thailand and Cambodia these lions are mythical solar lions. They stand guard together with the lunar mythical animal, the Naga. Their presence has a deeper meaning.
  • Motives and statues complimented the architectural homage and in doing so, all had meaning. Vishnu is an Indian God, which first appeared in the ancient Vedas, the 4 books sacred to Hinduism. Vishnu took 3 steps to encompass the earth, air and heavens. These steps symbolise the sun's point of rising, its zenith and its point of setting. Vishnu has a mount, a Garuda, a rapacious looking bird, which resembles an eagle. Vishnu is also connected to the constellation Aquila, the Eagle. This constellation goes back to the days of ancient Mesopotamia and the Great Spirit Alala, in the form of an eagle. These cultures worshiped the Sun and the eagle.
  • These cultures had a belief in the eye of the Sun during the day and the eye of the constellation at night. Vishnu manifested this in the solar system of the zodiac signs as the constellation Leo and was also manifested in the lunar system under the constellation as Aquila. Vishnu is one god, the ultimate creator of time who is manifested in both the lunar and solar constellation systems, whether seen as Aquila or as Leo the lion.
  • This solar guardian is inseparable from the lunar guardian, the Naga.
  • In Lan Na the Singh is distinctive with a Burmese flair. The artisitc design can be compared to the Lion Guardians of Khmer style found in Northeast Thailand such as at Phimai and at Angkor in Cambodia. The guardian Lions in Bangkok, such as at Wat Phra Kaeow are Khmer in design.

The Naga stairways leading to the Viharn.
  • Just as the Lion and the Constellation Leo signify the Sun and the day, the Naga represents the night, the Luna world.
  • Nagas can be seen on all Thai temple balustrades and gables and are always there coming down the stair ways. Nagas can be one headed, three headed or five headed. The lower levels or subterranean portions of Mount Meru do not have the concept of hell below and the Naga is portrayed as a benefactor not an emblem of fear.

The Makara
  • The Makara, again usually on the balastrades leading the the front door of the Viharn.
  • The Makara is another Hindu monster which in Thailand comes from Khmer symbolism. Again this iconic monster can be seen on all ancient Khmer monuments in Northeast Thailand and Angkor in Cambodia.
  • The Makara is also to be found in ancient India and Sri Lanka.
  • The Makara is a mixture of known animals including having claws, a crocodile's body, the nose of an elephant, scales and a large jaw which is always portrayed devouring the Naga [ or disgorging it ] on the entrance balustrades lining the entrances on the steps to temple buildings.

The Kala devouring itself on the mantle above the front doors.
  • The face of Kala is positioned always above the door entrance to temples in Lan Na , as was previously the case in lintels above stone door ways with Khmer temples in Angkor and Northeast Thailand.
  • Kala is the demon with barred teeth and no lower jaw looking down on those who enter the temple.
  • Kala is portrayed devouring himself. Legend holds that Shiva was offended such at the demon's demand to eat a victim that Shiva commanded him to devour himself. However the portrayal can also been seen as a metaphor to remind those entering a Buddhist Temple how we humans destroy or devour ourselves, our minds, bodies and spirit through thought, contact etc which creates bad Karma, or causes from the effect of our thoughts and actions or non actions.

The image of Buddha inside the Viharn to the rear of the building.
  • Images of Buddha throughout Lan Na (Chiang Mai) are either, Sri Lankan, Mon, Shan or Lanna style, being that of the Tai Yuan.

Mural Paintings in Chiang Mai Temples
  • Not only do the Hindu and Buddhist beliefs influence the architecture and decorative art of a temple complex but so to the elaborate paintings on the internal walls of the complex. In Thailand the manuscripts and scriptures of Theravada Buddhists were in Pali [ an Indian language ] which could only be understood by the educated elite.
  • The purpose of the Thai mural is to expand the scope of the audiences, ensure easy recognition of events and facilitate the understanding of history and moral lessons. Therefore the more frequent subject matter in Thai murals are depictions from the life of Buddha and stories from the Jakata Tales. Also depicted are Buddhist concepts of cosmology dealing with the universe, the nature of time and the concept of rebirths into progressively higher spiritual planes of that Universe.
  • In earlier times in Thailand, manuscripts were also illustrated in the emerging Thai style. In murals the artists followed certain traditions and form to assist the generally uneducated audience to appreciate and recognize certain events or beings.
  • The western concept of originality did not exist and whilst there was no self expression in design and concept some variations in style are evident. However for the most part we see through out Thailand familiar  celestial beings, stylized imaginary creatures, some part human and part animal or bird, all inhabitants of the idyllic Himaphan Forest, the mythical region of the Universe associated with the Himalayas.

Mon Temples in Chiang Mai
  • In the Mon controlled Thailand there was the Dvaravati Kingdom of the central Chao Phra Valley and to its north the Mon Kingdom of Haripunchai, the capital of which was the town Haripunchai (now called Lamphun). Mon Haripunchai architecture is distinct in form and serves Buddhist functions.

The Better Paces To See Mon Hariphunchai Chiang Mai Temples Are:

  1. Wat Chamatewi in Lamphun
  2. The Chedi of Wat Phya in Nan
  3. Wat Chedi Ched Yot in Chiang Mai
  4. Wat Chedi Si Liem built in Wiang Kun Gam (1300)
  5. The Suwanan Chedi at Wat Phra That Haripunchai in Lamphun (9th century), and
  6. The brick Chedi of Chiang Saen's Wat Pasuk (1295)