The Wat Phra Kaew or the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, the full official name Wat Phra Sri Rattana Satsadaram is regarded as the most important Buddhist temple in Thailand. It is located in the historic center of Bangkok, Phra Nakorn district.
The stunning temple was completed two years after the capital was moved from Thonburi to Rattanakosin in 1784 by King Rama I who founded Chakri dynasty. It consists of over a hundred brightly colored buildings, golden spires and glittering mosaics. When you enter the compound, you first of all see Wat Phra Kaew and the nearby attractions, and then move to the Grand Palace afterward.
Wat Phra Kaew itself is perhaps the main attraction. This is Thailand’s most important and sacred temple, so you’re expected to act with due respect inside it. It houses the tiny Emerald Buddha, which is located high above the heads of the worshippers and tourists. Not much is known for certain about the statue, expect that it isn’t actually made of emerald but rather of green jade or jasper. Getting a good look at it is difficult as photography is forbidden inside the temple, and it’s perched so high up inside its glass box that it’s difficult to really see.
The splendid robe of the Emerald Buddha image that it wears is changed 3 times each year by the King himself, at the start of each season : A diamond encrusted gold robe during the hot season, a solid gold robe in the cool season and a gilded monk’s robe in the rainy season. There are also many other Buddha images inside the temple.
The wall surrounding the temple area from the outside only a plain white wall is painted with the murals showing scenes from the Ramakian, the Thai version of the famous Indian epic, Ramayana. Several statues in the temple area resemble figures from this story, most notably the giants five-meter high statues. Also originating from the Ramayana are the monkey kings and giants which surround the golden chedis.
Despite is national importance, Wat Phra Kaew is the only temple in Thailand that doesn’t have any resident monks, and so is not a seat of Buddhist learning in the same way as the likes of Wat Pho and Wat Mahathat.
The earliest legend narrated to the ionic emerald image of the Buddha is that of Nagasena, a saint in India who with the help of Hindu god, Vishnu and demigod Indra got the Emerald Buddha image made, 500 years after Buddha attained Nirvana, from the precious stone of Emerald. Nagasena had, with his psychic powers predicted then that:
The image of the Buddha is assuredly going to give to religion the most brilliant importance in five lands, that is in Lankadvipa (Sri Lanka), Ramalakka, Dvaravati, Chieng Mai and Lan Chang (Laos).
As regards the historical legend of What Phra Kaew, it was originally known as the "Wat Pa Yia", (Bamboo Forest Monastery) in the Chiang Rai province of Northern Thailand. The What was struck by a lightning storm in 1434, when the octagonal Chedi broke up and revealed the Emerald Buddha (made of Jade), locally known as Phra Kaew Morakot. From there it was moved, initially to Vientianne and finally to Bangkok where it was deified in the temple by the original name, What Phra Kaew.
Another legend mentions that attempts made by the King of Chiang Mai to possess the statue after it was found in 1434; these failed thrice because the elephants transporting the statue refused to proceed beyond a crossroad in Lampang. The King of Chiang Mai considered the incident to be a strong divine directive and allowed the Buddha statue to remain in Lampang, where it remained for the next 32 years in an exclusively built temple.
Phra Sri Rattana Chedi in Sri Lankan style
The temple grounds also depict three pagodas to its immediate north, which represent the changing centres of Buddhist influence. One such shrine to the west of the temple is the Phra Si Ratana Chedi, a 19th-century stupa built in Sri Lankan style enshrining ashes of the Buddha.
Phra Mondop, the library
Rama I also built a library in Thai style, in the middle of the complex, known as the "Phra Mondop". The library houses an elegantly carved Ayutthaya-style mother-of-pearl doors, bookcases with the Tripitaka (sacred Buddhist manuscripts), human-and dragon-headed nagas (snakes), and images of Chakri kings.
During the 19th century, the Royal Pantheon was built in Khmer style to the east of the temple, which is kept open for only one day in year, in the month of October to commemorate the founding of the Chakri dynasty.
Model of Angkor Wat
The temple complex also contains a model of Angkor Wat (the most sacred of all Cambodian shrines), that was started by King Mongkut and completed by King Nangklao (Rama III), as the Khmer empire of Cambodia and the Thais' share cultural and religious roots.
A hermit's bronze image, which is believed to have healing powers, is installed in a sala on the western side of the temple. It is near the entry gate. It is a black stone statue, considered a patron of medicine, before which relatives of the sick and infirm pay respects and make offerings of joss sticks, fruit, flowers, and candles.
On the eastern side of the temple premises there are nine towers. They were erected during the reign of Rama I. Each tower is affixed with glazed tiles, with different colours for each tower, supposed to denote colours of the nine planets
Statues of elephants, which symbolize independence and power, are seen all around the complex. As Thai kings fought wars mounted on elephants, it has become customary for parents to make their children circumambulate the elephant three times with the belief that that it would bring them strength. The head of an elephant statue is also rubbed for good luck; this act of the people is reflected in the smoothness of the surface of elephant statues here.