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Marvels Of Bangkok's Metal Castle


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Marvels of the metal castle

By Khetsirin Pholdhampalit

The Nation on Sunday


The museum in the newly refurbished Nitasrattanakosin Building on Rajdamnoen Klang Avenue is a gateway to the past - specifically the history and culture of the Rattanakosin Era - but it's also a modern wonder.

Not only does the museum boast state-of-the-art technology, it's got a fascinating exhibition at the moment about the Lohaprasada - Thailand has only had one "metal castle", and it's the only one still standing of the three built in the world.

The Lohaprasada itself, with 37 copper spires, one for each of Buddhism's 37 virtues required to attain enlightenment, is at nearby Wat Ratchanaddaram.

The museum, opened earlier this year by the Crown Property Bureau, is made for interactive learning, with multimedia presentations, so the story of the metal castle - all the way back to the Buddha's day - is retold in engaging fashion.

Visitors can even use a touch-screen to hear the temple's abbot, Pariyat Molee, explain the 37 virtues.

Visakha, a contemporary of the Buddha and one of his female disciples, built the first Lohaprasada in India as a monastery. No trace of it remains today.

King Dutugemunu, who ruled what became Sri Lanka, built the second Lohaprasada circa BE 382. It was destroyed by fire, though the ruins can still be seen - the so-called Brazen Palace, with its 1,600 stone columns in 40 rows of 40 that once supported a nine-storey structure with a bronze roof.

King Rama III inaugurated Thailand's only Lohaprasada in 1846, the design based on descriptions of the Lankan edifice but utilising Siamese motifs.

It alone in the world survives.

Work continued on and off for 150 years, the succeeding monarchs adding their own contributions. Many Bangkokians didn't notice it - until the Chalerm Thai Theatre was demolished in 1989.

The astonishing "castle" had been largely concealed for generations behind the popular playhouse.

His Majesty King Bhumibol finally oversaw the Lohaprasada's completion in 1996.

Historian Paothong Thongchua notes that Rama III was a devout Buddhist who built many temples, but for Wat Ratchanaddaram he strayed from tradition to give it a metal "castle" in place of the usual chedi.

"The main Buddha statue in the Lohaprasada - called Phra Setthamuni - was cast in copper that was mined in Nakhon Ratchasima," Paothong says.

"Copper was normally used in making weapons, and this was the first time it was used in a demonstration of Buddhist faith. The King built two copper Buddhas, one for Wat Ratchanaddaram and the other for Wat Chalerm Phrakiat north of Bangkok."

Museum visitors don special glasses in a small cinema to watch a 3D video about the castle.

Then they're treated to a life-size hologram of Air Vice Marshal Arwut Ngernchuklin, a National Artist and former director general of the government's Fine Arts Department, talking about the Lohaprasada's construction and the finishing touches applied in 1996, of which he was in charge.

"Viewed from afar, it looks like three storeys," Arwut points out, "but go inside and you'll see there are actually seven storeys. This is one of the masterpieces of Thai architecture.

"The top of the structure houses the relics of Lord Buddha, placed there in a ceremony at which King Rama IX presided in 1995, on the 50th anniversary of his accession to the throne."

"These are real relics of the Lord Buddha," says Paothong. "They were bought to Thailand from India during the reign of King Rama V and divided among this place, the Grand Palace and the Golden Mount."

The land occupied by Wat Ratchanaddaram was once a fruit orchard on the capital's outskirts, he notes.

"King Rama III built this place to honour his beloved orphaned granddaughter, Princess Soamanat Vadhanavadi, who lost her father, Prince Lakhananukun, when she was only a few months old.

"He took her in at the Grand Palace and placed her in the care of her aunt, Princess Vivas."

When Rama IV was enthroned, Soamanat became his first queen, but while she was pregnant she developed an abscess in her navel and survived only long enough to give birth - alas, her baby, a son who would have become Rama V, also died.

Rama IV built Wat Soamanat in her memory, close to his own monastery, Wat Mongkut.

"Although she's not well known, Queen Soamanat was the only member of the royal family to have two temples built for her," says Paothong.

The Lohaprasada has an astonishing spiral staircase at its centre, all 67 steps rendered from a single piece of timber. At the top is a mondop with a panoramic view of old Bangkok, including the Mahakan Fort and the Golden Mount.

"King Rama III actually intended for the site where the Golden Mount now sits to have a phra prang like the one at Wat Arun that Rama II built, but it would have been three times bigger. He envisioned the Lohaprasada and the phra prang close to each other."

The plan was deemed unfeasible, though, because of the soft soil at the site - which Rama V subsequently piled up into the artificial hill we see today, topped with its massive chedi in which the Buddha's relics rest.

History in 3d

>>The exhibition "Lohaprasada: The Grace of Ratchanaddaram Temple" continues until Thursday.

>>The Nitasrattanakosin Building on Rajdamnoen Klang Avenue is open daily except Monday from 11am to 8pm, from 10am on weekends.

>>Find out more at (02) 621 0044 and www.Nitasrattanakosin.com.

>>Guided tours in English and Thai, lasting 45 minutes, are conducted daily at 5, 6 and 7pm. You can reserve a spot on the tour at (080) 913 3600.

>>Today at 3pm there's an hour-long talk on the dharma in Wat Ratchanaddaram's multipurpose pavilion.


-- The Nation 2010-09-26

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