When Cultures Collide

by Ian Douglas, Aug 30, 2001 | Destinations: Thailand / Ayutthaya
Buddha Under a Bodi Tree at Niwet Dhamma Prawat

Buddha Under a Bodi Tree at Niwet Dhamma Prawat

Buddha Under a Bodi Tree at Niwet Dhamma Prawat

A magic chariot awaits you. Simply step onboard and soar up, into the air, with the grace of an angel. As you leave the land behind, a river passes beneath. Glance upstream to see an old ruined lighthouse. Like the lamp-post of Narnia it heralds your arrival to an enchanted kingdom. In the twinkle of an eye you've landed and are now free to discover an island of small wonders. In fact, you've reached the Temple of Stained Glass.

The historic Wat (temple) Niwet Dhamma Prawat, famous for its unique European architecture in the heart of Thailand, occupies a tiny scrap of land in the Chao Praya River, a brief distance north of Bangkok. Although a well traveled route, as tourists come to see the legendary Bang-Pa In Palace, many miss this enchanting isle, snugly tucked behind the Palace's car-park. Which is rather like going to Rome and missing the Coliseum.

Follow the signs down to the river, where that magic chariot purrs on the breeze. Well, not a real magic chariot, but an amazing, (and free) cable car, a small open-air basket ready to whisk you across the river to the temple. He?s difficult to see but if you look keenly you can glimpse a young monk in his tower high above, operating the pulleys and levers.

Once upon the terra firma of the islet, the path leads into the Niwet Dhamma Prawat Temple. Looking ahead you may blink in disbelief. Did some wizardry take place between the shores of the river? Has the cable car transported you across the globe to gothic Europe? A small collection of spires and steeples, of arched windows and pointed gables lies ahead!

In fact you are still firmly rooted in Thailand. The buildings of the Niwet Dhamma Prawat Temple were designed on the instructions of the great reforming King of Thailand, Rama V, as an homage of appreciation of Christian architecture. Work began in 1876, and unbelievably was finished within two years. It provided the Royal Family with a place of worship during the summer months of residence at Bang Pa In palace. Moreover as the temple's own guidebook explains, the Kings intention was "...to pay homage to Buddhism by offering something extraordinary..." (Guide to Wat Niwet Dhamma Prawat, by Saroj Dhitikiattipong, page 8)

Extraordinary it is! As you walk the thread of paving stones, flanked by trees, potted plants and follies, take a closer look. Although the temple appears at first glance to be a church, the image and icons of the Buddha serenely stand where you may have expected the Christ. With the sweep of the river never out of sight, the way continues past pastel-colored pavilions and shrines, a sundial, and a rock garden.

The Chulachomkao museum stands just before the church, housing a charming and unique collection of historical and decorative curios: Buddhist paraphernalia, figurines, porcelain and other antiques. Although the museum is not open every day, don't miss this unforgettable display if you get the chance. On the other hand don't let the luster of these valuables eclipse the hand-painted stained windows around you. These French-made masterpieces in glass depict not the lives of the saints but the ten incarnations of the Buddha. A wonderful synthesis of two religions and their artistic traditions!

After the museum, the church-like temple towers impressively overhead. A monument in white, complete with spire, turrets and porticos, it seems more reminiscent of Italy than South East Asia. Walk through the hallowed doorway into an interior that is simultaneously the nave of a chapel and a Buddhist hall of worship. The room is dominated by the King Rama V's Royal Sala. This delicate structure of ebony and gold is where the great King sat while presiding over religious ceremonies.

Several priceless bronze and gold casts of the Buddha watch you impassively from around the room, including the Unharmable Buddha (Phra Nirantarai). This image with legs crisscrossed and in meditative position, sits in the middle part of the glass arch. It was the king himself who gave this famed statuette its name. A farmer unearthed it in 1854 and presented it to the King. Later a thief left it behind while making off with less precious treasure. Hence it survived burial, a farmers? plough and even a burglary!

Over the doorway you can see a stained-glass window bearing the likeness of the King in ceremonial dress. Perhaps this is a good time to ponder on his many achievements. Sadly he is best known in the West as the first-born son of King Mongkut, figuring in the Anna Leowens book later made into two Hollywood movies. Sad because the notorious book is widely considered a work of fiction. In reality, the King, like his father, was a tremendous pioneer and reformer, responsible for ending slavery and founding many important organizations and state institutions.

Before leaving the church, enjoy the vaulted ceiling, the exquisite plastering, and, most of all, its spiritual atmosphere. An elderly nun or monk in the corner will be happy to sell you postcards or a guidebook. Donations are gratefully accepted.

Once outside, please take the opportunity to rest on the seats provided. Sit quietly and absorb the sheer beauty of the grounds. Mango, Banyan and Bodi trees link their limbs together to shelter you from the harsh sunlight. The slight river breeze plays through their canopy with a gentle whistle.

A large stone Buddha sits underneath a Bodi tree believed to have been grown from the original. It is easy to relax and imagine the real Buddha two and half thousand years ago entering a state of enlightenment, such is the tranquility of this garden. A jasmine vendor is usually at hand to sell you a cheap bouquet, an offering to lay at the Buddha?s feet. Make a wish, say a prayer or chant a mantra. Whatever your religious leanings, you'll feel this plot of paradise has the power to realize dreams.

Beyond the iron-wrought gates stand the schools, dormitories and an herb garden. Indeed young novices in their saffron robes are usually making their way to or from class. They are often keen to practice a few words of English so don?t be shy!

By now you are running out of island. The perfect blend of architecture and horticulture is at an end. It's time to heave a sigh and say farewell to the silence and the harmony. Re-trace your steps back to the pier and that magic chariot. One more flight across the river and you may feel you've woken from an enchanted dream. Perhaps you have.

How To Get There

Train: There is a frequent daily service from Bangkok's Central Station to Ayuthaya. Disembark at the station and enjoy a tricycle ride to the Wat Niwet Dhamma Prawat.

Bus: Buses depart regularly from Bangkok's Northeastern bus terminal to Bang Pa In station. Again take a tricycle.

Car: With the new expressway Ayuthaya is an hour's drive from Bangkok. Bang Pa In Palace is clearly sign-posted after taking the exit onto road 308.

Boat: Boats depart from Maharaj Pier at 8.00 a.m. and return at 5.30 p.m.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: Guide to Wat Niwet Dhamma Prawat: Saroj Dhitikiattipong. Copyright 1999. Bangkok ; M&E Co Ltd.