Named after Aruna, the Indian god of dawn, Wat Arun temple is one of Bangkok’s best-known landmarks. Legend says that King Taksin arrived here from the sacked capital, Ayutthaya, in 1767. He enlarged the temple that stood on the site into a royal chapel to house the most revered image of the Buddha in Thailand: the Emerald Buddha. Rama I and Rama II were responsible for the size of the current temple: the central prang, or tower, is 260ft (79m) high and circumference of its base is 768ft (234m). In the late 19th century, Rama IV added ornamentation created with broken pieces of porcelain. The monument’s style is derived mainly from Khmer architecture.
THE CHAKRI DYNASTY
In 1782, Chao Phraya Chakri (later King Rama I) established the Chakri dynasty in Krung Thep (Bangkok). The reigns of Rama I, II and III were a time of stability. Rama II was a literary man, while Rama III was a staunch traditionalist.
King Mongkut (Rama IV) modernized Siam (Thailand), and opened it up to foreign trade and influences. His son, King Chulalongkorn, or Rama V (r. 1868-1910), was perhaps the greatest Chakri king. He furthered modernization by introducing financial reforms and abolishing slavery. He was idealized by his subjects, and his funeral was a grand state affair. Even today, he is commemorated on Chulalongkorn Day (October 23).
Thailand’s stone temple complexes, or prasats, were built by the Khmers, who ruled much of Southeast Asia in the 9th-13th centuries. Prasats were built to symbolize kingship and the universe. Most have staircases or bridges lined with nagas (a seven-headed serpent thought to be the keeper of life’s force), leading to a central monument. This is usually decorated with carved stone reliefs and topped by a prang (tower). Prangs symbolize Mount Meru, the abode of the gods in Hindu-Buddhist cosmology. Lintels and pediments over the entrances depict Hindu and Buddhist deities.
ARUNA, INDRA, AND VAYU
Worshiped in India from the early Vedic age (1500 BC), the Hindu deities Aruna, Indra, and Vayu personify nature and the elements. Aruna, the god of dawn, is the charioteer of Surya, the Sun god. Red-skinned, he stands on the chariot in front of the Sun, sheltering the world from its fury with his body. Indra, the god of the sky and the heavens, rides a golden chariot drawn by horses and is armed with a vajra, or thunderbolt. Indra sends the rain and rules the weather, and is often depicted sitting on Airavatta, the four-trunked white elephant who represents a rain cloud. Vayu (Phra Pai in Thai) is the god of the winds and messenger of the gods. He is also the regent of the northwest quarter of the heavens and is depicted with white skin, seated on an antelope.
CENTRAL MONUMENT OF WAT ARUN
The monument’s design symbolizes Hindu-Buddhist cosmoloy. The central prang is the mythical Mount Meru, and its ornamental tier are worlds within worlds. The layout of four minor prangs around a central one is a symbolic mandala shape.
Eight sets of steps lead up to the first terrace, and each set is guarded by Chinese figures that were once used as ballast on Chinese trading ships.
Stair on the Central Prang
The steep steps represent the difficulties of reaching higher level of existence.
In the temple complex are the usual buildings found in a wat. This image of the Buddha in the bot (ordination hall) contains the ashes of Rama II.
River View of Wat Arun
This popular view of Wat Arun, seen from the Chao Phraya River, appears on the 10-baht coin and in the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) logo.
The top represents the peak of Mount Meru, rising above four subsidiary peaks. It denotes six heavens within seven realms of happiness.
The central section where all desires are fulfilled, is guarded at the four cardinal points by the Hindu god Indra.
On the second level of the central prang are small coves, inside which are kinnari, mythical creatures that are half-bird, half-woman.
The base represents 31 realms of existence across the three worlds (Desire, Form and Formless) of the Buddhist universe.
Decoration of the Four Minor Prangs
Inside the niches of each minor prang are statues of Phra Pai, the god of wind, on horseback.
Between each of the minor prangs is a square-based mondop (altar). Each holds a Buddha statue.
Around the base of the prangs are rows of yaksha or demons, that lend support to the structure. They are decorated with colorful pieces of porcelain donated by the local people.
ROYAL BARGE PROCESSION
Every five or ten years, the king of Thailand takes robes and gifts to the monks at Wat Arun, traveling inside a splendid royal barge on the Chao Phraya River.
1700s: King Taksin remodels Wat Arun temple to house the Emerald Buddha.
Early 1800s: Rama II restores the temple and increases the height of the central prang.
1971: Wat Arun undergoes minor repairs after lightning splits a section of the spire.