White is the dominant colour at Wat Mahathat, a welcome contrast to the colourful splendour of the nearby Grand Palace and one of the few Old City temples where worshippers outnumber tourists. Like many it’s said to house a Buddha relic (it’s actually known as the Temple of the Great Relic), but more intriguingly for foreigners Wat Mahathat is a great place to glimpse Thai beliefs and spirituality, as it serves as the headquarters of the Mahanikai school of Buddhism and is also home to a well known centre of Buddhist meditation. Also, just outside it, a sprawling daily amulet market does a brisk trade.
It was built during the Ayutthaya period, before the Rattanakosin area, where it is located, became the capital of Old Siam. Originally named Wat Salak it has undergone numerous name changes and renovations over the years – the latest being a renovation of the central viharn building where the main Buddha image is enshrined.
In Thailand’s strict hierarchy of wats, this is one of the most revered, belonging to the category of first class royal temples. Important royal ceremonies and funerals took place here, and its site houses the oldest theological university for Buddhist monks in Thailand, the unutterably named Maha Chulalongkorn Rajavidyalaya University.
A shady arcade along the walls enclosing the temple compound houses hundreds of Golden Buddha images. Peace and serenity prevail, even the construction work being no more than a distant noise. In the corner of the compound, the walkway opens up to a quiet white courtyard that houses a pagoda. Right behind it are the two almost identical main ceremonial halls, the ubosot and viharn buildings sitting side by side.
The temple complex extends further into an array of alleys and smaller buildings that serve as the living quarters of the up to 200 monks who live here. Don’t feel like you’re intruding – you are most welcome, as this is where the International Meditation Center teaches Thai and Foreign visitors alike in vippassana (insight) meditation.
Roughly 800 to 900 visitors stay at the Meditation Study and Retreat Center each year. “Insight meditation can be practiced by anyone,” explains the venerable Phra Suputh Kosalo, a senior monk and meditation instructor who has over the past thirteen years introduced many an inquisitive soul to the practices of meditation and the teachings of Lord Buddha.
A stay at the meditation retreat is recommended for those who have practiced meditation before. However, if meditation is new territory for you, following the strict all day routine might be a challenge. Instead, consider attending one of more of the open daily meditation classes first. Less intense, these sessions take place three times a day, in the morning, midday and evening. Drop in for any of these and monks will instruct you in the basic principles of sitting and walking meditation.
Adjacent to the temple grounds, stretching along Tha Phrachan Road, is one of Bangkok’s most famous markets for amulets – much loved for their powers to protect the wearer from mishap and mischief (and ranging in price from B20 to tens of thousands). It’s well worth a little stroll down the road to gaze at these and other good luck charms, for people-watching or to pick up some unique souvenirs.
International Meditation Center and Retreat
Wat Mahathat (Section 5) | Maharat Rd | 02-222-6011 | Contact: venerable Phra Suputh Kosalo
Walk-in meditation classes are available three times a day | Morning session: 7 – 10 am; Midday session: 1 – 4 pm; Evening session: 6 – 8 pm
Tha Prachan, Maharat Rd | Phra Nakorn district | 02-221-5999 | 9 am – 5 pm | admission free
By Annette Heile