Wat Suthat: the temple of the red giant swing

Bangkok 1000 temples. Wat Suthat
Viharn of Wat Suthat. Photo by Dharma from Sadao, Thailand [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Wat Suthat Thepwararam ( วัดสุทัศนเทพวราราม) is among the most extraordinary temples in Thailand. The temple is identified by the red Sao Ching Cha ( เสาชิงช้า) or Giant Swing that stands at its entrance and was used as part of a ceremony throughout the Brahman Festival.

The temple is located inside Rattanakosin Island ( เกาะรัตนโกสินทร์), the historic center of Bangkok in Phra Nakhon District ( เขตพระนคร). Wat Suthat has a total surface of around 250 rais, equivalent to 40 hectares, and it’s one of the most extensive temples of Bangkok.

Bangkok 1000 temples. Wat Suthat. The Giant Swing
Phra Si Sakyamuni is enshrined in the Viharn, also known for its exquisite murals. By Supanut Arunoprayote [CC BY 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Its construction was initiated by King Rama I, in 1807, with the purpose of sheltering Phra Sri Sakyamuni ( พระศรีศากยมุนี), the 13th-century bronze Buddha image transported by boat from Sukhothai ( สุโขทัย), the first capital of the Reign of Siam.

This impressive Buddha image is an eight-meter-tall bronze statue in Subduing Mara Posture (Buddha is seated; the right hand is leaned over the right knee and the fingers meet the Earth; the left-hand rests in the lap of the Buddha) and it’s one of the biggest metal Buddhas in Thailand. 

Bangkok 1000 temples. Wat Suthat. The Giant Swing
A mural depicting a preta and procession of monks in the ordination hall. By กสิณธร ราชโอรส [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Phra Sri Sakyamuni was brought over to Bangkok from abandoned Wat Mahathat in Sukhothai province. The intention of King Rama I when constructed this temple in 1807 was indeed to install this Buddha statue at Wat Suthat. The ashes of King Ananda Mahidol, Rama VIII, the uncle of the current King, Rama X, are buried under the statue. Because of this Wat Suthat is considered the royal temple of King Rama VIII.

At the time of its foundation, it was called Wat Maha Sutthawat ( วัดมหาสุทธาวาส) and settled inside the combretum forest. Further expansion and enhancements were afforded by King Rama II who helped in modeling the wooden doors. The temple was concluded later in 1847, at some stage in the reign of King Rama III.

Bangkok 1000 temples. Wat Suthat. The Giant Swing
Buddhas in the cloister. By Henning Blatt [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The temple’s ordination hall, that is located on an elevated platform, is supported by 68 pillars. Its measures are 23 meters by 70 meters, which makes it the largest ordination hall, aka Ubosot, in any Thailand’s temple.

Other relevant Buddha statues that also can be found in Wat Suthat are Phra Buddha Trilokachet ( พระพุทธไตรโลกเชษฐ์), in the Ubosot, which was molded on orders of King Rama III, and Phra Buddha Setthamuni ( พระพุทธเศรษฐมุนี), in the Viharn, also ordered to be shaped by King Rama III in 1839.

Bangkok 1000 temples. Wat Suthat. The Giant Swing
Phra Buddha Trilokachet, Presiding Buddha of Ordination Hall at Wat Suthat. By Supanut Arunoprayote [CC BY 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The Giant Swing was built in 1784 facing the Devasathan shrine by way of King Rama I. Devasathan shrine or Brahmin Temple ( เทวสถานโบสถ์พราหมณ์) is a Hindu temple close to Wat Suthat, which name signifies “the residence of the gods”. The temple is the official center of Hinduism in Thailand, especially Brahmanism and also the home of the Court Brahmins, who are descendants from antique ancestors of priests from Rameswaram inside the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. The Brahmins conduct numerous significant royal and religious rituals every year for the Monarchy of Thailand.

During the reign of Rama II, the swing ceremony was interrupted because a bolt of lightning damaged the swing. In 1920 it was restored and transferred to its current situation. The ceremony was again performed until 1935 when it was discontinued, during the reign of King Rama VII, after several fatal accidents.

Participants in this ceremony would wave in increasing higher arcs trying to reach a bag of gold dangled from a 15m-high bamboo pole. Whoever grasped the gold had the benefit to keep it, but deaths were as common as successful attempts, so it was abolished for security reasons.

Bangkok 1000 temples. Wat Suthat. The Giant Swing
The Giant Swing. By IPhi044 [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

At different Giant Swings of significant cities, was handled a yearly swinging ceremony known as Triyampavai-Tripavai, until 1935 when it was abolished. The name of the celebration originated from the names of two Hindu chants in the Tamil language: Thiruvempavai and Thiruppavai. Among Thai people, the ceremony was commonly known as Lo Ching Cha ( โล้ชิงช้า), which means “pulling the swing”.

This spindly red arch, which is a symbol of Bangkok, previously hosted a Brahmin festival in honor of Shiva, in which according to an ancient Hindu chronicle, after Brahma created the world he sent Shiva to take care of it. When Shiva descended to the earth, he settled Naga serpents encompassing around the mountains to keep the earth in place and after he found the earth solid, the Nagas moved to the seas in recognition.

The Swing Ceremony was a personification of this. The columns of the Giant Swing described the mountains, while the round base of the swing represented the earth and the seas. In the ceremony, Brahmins would wave, trying to grasp a bag of coins set on one of the pedestals.

Bangkok 1000 temples. Wat Suthat. The Giant Swing
The Giant Swing in front of Wat Suthat. By NastybankOwn work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

The last restoration of the Giant Swing was completed in 1959, and after 45 years of weathering to the elements, the wooden columns were manifesting symptoms of severe deterioration. In April 2005 began a significant rehabilitation using 6 teak tree trunks, where the two applied to the main structure of the swing are over 3.5 meters in perimeter and over 30 meters in height. The other four are applied for support and are 2.30 meters in perimeter and 20 meters in height. 

The swing was demolished in October 2006 and the work was concluded in December of the same year. The reassembled swing was dedicated to the royal ceremonies presided over by King Bhumibol Adulyadej in September 2007. The logs of the original swing are conserved in the Bangkok National Museum.

The temple along with the Giant Swing was presented for consideration to UNESCO, in the year 2005, as a future World Heritage Site.