The original founding of the temple remains a legend and there are a few varied versions. The temple is said to have been founded in 1383 when the first stupa was built. Over time, the temple has expanded, and been made to look more extravagant with many more holy shrines added. A road to the temple was first built in 1935.
According to legend, a monk named Sumanathera from the Sukhothai Kingdom had a dream. In this vision he was told to go to Pang Cha and look for a relic. Sumanathera ventured to Pang Cha and found a bone. Many claim it was Gautama Buddha’s shoulder bone. The relic displayed magical powers: it glowed, it was able to vanish, it could move and replicate itself. Sumanathera took the relic to King Dhammaraja, who ruled Sukhothai. The eager Dhammaraja made offerings and hosted a ceremony when Sumanathera arrived. However, the relic displayed no abnormal characteristics, and the king, doubtful of the relic’s authenticity, told Sumanathera to keep it. King Nu Naone of Lan Na heard of the relic and bade the monk to bring it to him. In 1368, with Dharmmaraja’s permission, Sumanathera took the relic to what is now Lamphun, in northern Thailand. Once there, the relic broke into two pieces. The smaller piece was enshrined at Wat Suan Dok. The other piece was placed by the king on the back of a white elephant which was released into the jungle. The elephant is said to have climbed up Doi Suthep, at that time called Doi Aoy Chang (Sugar Elephant Mountain), stopped, trumpeted three times, then dropped dead. This was interpreted as an omen. King Nu Naone immediately ordered the construction of a temple at the site. The name of the Temple (Wat Phra That Doi Suthep) actually explains what the temple has. Phra entails of an honorific Buddha image, and That means a relic.Combining the two tells that there is a relic of Buddha’s in the sanctity of the Wat, and in this case it’s half of Buddha’s shoulder bone. The location of the shoulder bone relic is to be found in the rounded portion of the Chedi right above the octagonal redented section and below the ringed section.
Visiting the temple
The wat can be reached by road from Chiang Mai. From the car park at the temple’s base visitors can climb 309 steps to reach the pagodas or take a tram. Once inside the temple grounds visitors must be appropriately dressed and must remove footwear. The original gold plated chedi is the most holy area of the temple grounds. Within the site are pagodas, statues, bells, a museum, and shrines. Aspects of the Wat draw from both Buddhism and Hinduism. There is a model of the Emerald Buddha and a statue of the Hindu God Ganesh. Views of Chiang Mai can be seen on the far side of the temple.
Architecture of the Site
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is a gorgeously planned Wat with a story to tell about Buddhism. Once the Naga lined steps are surmounted (the longest Naga balustrade in Thailand), the first site one sees is the White elephant statue commemorating the story behind the Wat placement. The closest entrance to the inner ring is to the left, on the North side of the complex. The immediate view is one of the chedi towering 79 feet (24 meters).This gold plated spire is very typical of Northern Thailand chedi with its heightened redented octagonal base, ringed spire, smooth spire, and the tiered chatra (umbrella) at the top.The structure is greatly influenced by Sukhothai art; however, the chatra isn’t a Thai influence, but rather an aspect that came from two centuries of Burmese occupation. The tiered and angular shape of the chedi is found all around Thailand is an aspect of Buddhist architecture. The tiers represent the level of heavens that one must ascend in order to achieve Nirvana as well as the hierarchy associated with a monarchy. The angular shape and sloping appearance are more related to the feeling that Thai architects wished to relate. In Threvada Buddhism, the main focus is to rid oneself of unwholesomeness, and to do that there is a focus on peace, lightness, and floating. If the chedi was just its plain shapes of an octagon and triangle, it would appear dense and static. The redented look, near parabolic slope, and golden cover of the chedi creates a feeling of weightlessness of the structure.
This same concept can be seen with the Wihans. The weightlessness for the wihans and the surround structures comes primarily from the roof aesthetic. The aesthetic that comes into play here is the toying of geometry and separating similar shapes. This particular wihan has a two tiered roof with the different sections being at different angels. The lower tier is at a flatter angle to replicate a stouter more tense look, while the next tier is at a quite steep angle that creates a more elevated and relaxed look. This separation is to represent the freedom from attachment which is the ultimate goal of Buddhism. The white stucco and incredibly ornate pediment greatly assist with this lightweight feel and separation, but the roof provides the most dynamic movement of the building due to its size and composure. The pediments are typically the most decorated parts of the building that express the grandeur and status of the temple. At each corner of the roof tiers there’s a flat ornamental Nagaand the large pointed pieces at the peak of the roof are called chofas.
The same Buddhist theme from the exterior also makes its way to the interior with many different factors. The first is that the walls and columns all slant inward to the center of the building. This is to help with the structural integrity of the building, but to also make the feeling of the room ascending. The interior is also greatly decorated with murals all over the walls. The murals are typically the story of Buddha’s life and travels but also include Hindu aspects as well. The inside is of the building is typically quite dark because the main lighting comes from the narrow vertical windows and the fact that the murals and all of the indoor decoration are darker materials. The narrowness of the windows is for structural concerns, but to also help with the ascension feel because they are actually trapezoids that are wider at the base. The interiors at Wat Phra That Doi Suthep contains myriads of Buddha statues that come in all different styles and materials just like the outside courtyard.
The layout of the complex shows bi axial symmetry around the chedi with the main and small wihans slightly off the east-west cardinal plane. The cardinal directions are important to Buddhism and it is said that if there isn’t a body of water around, like in this case, then the main wihan should face the rising sun. This explains why the main wihan is on the west side of the complex. Outside of the square courtyard the placement and design of the surroundings is due to the topography of the mountaintop. The viewing spot to see Chiang Mai is a propped cantilever with around a 15-foot drop over the edge. Even looking at the wooden Wihan and the monk’s residence further down the hill, they both exist on the north-south plane pointing towards the Chedi. Everything on the site points inward towards the iconic chedi indicating its significance to the Wat.