Opposite Mahakan Fort, surrounded by thick, immaculate white walls at the intersection of Mahachai and Ratchadamnoen roads, stands one of the capital’s most historic and well preserved 19th-century Buddhist monastery complexes.
Though many will have caught glimpses of Wat Ratchanatdaram (sometimes spelt Wat Rajanaddaram) in passing, my general impression is that few foreigners, even among long-time residents, can claim to have passed through its massive gates. The name means ‘Monastery of the Royal Niece’ and is so named because King Rama III ordered the temple built in 1846 to honour his beloved niece Sommanas Wattanavadi, who he took into the Grand Palace after the death of her father, Prince Lakkhananukul.
What seems to be less common knowledge is the fact Rama III’s successor, King Mongkut, married Princess Sommanas when he ascended the throne. Like her father, Sommanas suffered an untimely death when, in 1851, at the age of 18, she died after giving birth to a boy, who also died within hours.
The wat is most well-known for Loha Prasat, a huge tiered stupa which for much of the 20th century lay hidden behind the Chalerm Thai, a large Thai Art Deco cinema on Ratchadamnoen Road. In an effort to improve scenery along Ratchadamnoen Road and to preserve the temple, and much to the chagrin of vintage cinema buffs, the theatre was demolished in 1989.
Loha Prasat consists of an imposing system of huge laterite columns which support five concentric square towers that diminish in size as they ascend. These columns and towers collectively form an interior labyrinth that were once used for meditation. The outer, middle and centre towers, 37 altogether, are crowned by iron spires.
During the day the labyrinth is open to the public. A spiral stairway leads to the top of the central tower, which offers impressive views of the surrounding cityscape, including the glittering Golden Mount and Wat Saket. Night-time views are particularly striking, but unfortunately nowadays the building is closed to visitors after 5pm.
Numerologically the 37 towers represent the 37 factors of enlightenment cultivated by bodhisattvas (Buddhist saints or Buddhas-to-be). Thai myth says that Loha Prasat means ‘Iron Castle’ in Sanskrit (it actually means Iron Temple), and claims the monument was modelled after pre-existing examples in India and/or Sri Lanka. In fact, the ruins of these similarly named buildings, which were rectangular rather than square, bear little relation to the structure at Wat Ratchanatda other than the name and the fact that parts of the structures may have been made of metal. Anuradhapura’s Lohaprasada, for example, was a typical vihara with a copper roof, not a stupa.
A closer resemblance can be found in the larger, 14th-century Thanboddhay Stupa in Monywa, Myanmar, northwest of Mandalay, which comprises a similar grouping of ascending, hollow towers arranged on concentric square floor plans. Some written Thai sources do note Burmese influence on Loha Prasat.
Thanboddhay was said to have been inspired by still-larger Borobudur Stupa, a ninth-century Tantric Buddhist monument in central Java. In fact, the list of 37 factors of enlightenment is more at home in the Tantric Buddhist (Vajrayana) school of Buddhism than the Theravada school, a fact that may or may not have been known to the Thai temple architects who built Loha Prasat. Loha Prasat is smaller than Thanboddhay, which is in turn much smaller than Borobudur.
The monastery’s ubosatha (ordination hall), standing parallel to Khlong Phadung Krung Kasem, was added by King Rama III in 1864 and contains a highly revered copper Buddha image called Phra Setthamuni.
Behind the temple complex, a tented area of vendor stalls offers an unusual collection of occult objects for sale. Although often referred to as an amulet market, Buddhist amulets in fact make up only a small proportion of the items on display here. If you wander through the maze of cabinets, cases and tables you’ll come across legions of khon masks – particularly those of Pho Kae Ta Fai (Fire-Eye Old Father, mythical forest sage who is believed to be the wellspring of Thai occult systems) – Brahamnist deities for office building shrines, full-size Buddha images for the home and tiny plastic deities for Thai spirit houses.