Orange. And through the haze of orange a stern face looking down upon me. Red walls gilded with golden patterns enclosed the space, protecting an enormous buddha. The face was shining though there were no windows. The corners of its lips cracked upward. Its gaze was unwavering.
The orange fabric over my head shifted and quivered as though it were alive. I was nestled within a group of worshippers. Their hands reached overhead to long strips of fabric.Within seconds they had created a tent. I was as enclosed in orange fabric as the buddha was sheltered by the red walls. I didn’t really understand what was going on. But for a moment—a moment within the uncertainty, I felt blessed.
Then the fabric retreated and I was exposed to the world once more.
The following is the story of the things that led up to that moment.
I was travelling with my faculty from Thammasat University. Wat Phanan Choeng was one of the places on the list of areas they wanted us to see in Ayutthaya. Ayutthaya is special because it was once the capital of Thailand in 1350.
When I entered the temple I didn’t know what to expect, I had heard that it housed the largest ancient buddha image in Thailand but how big would that be?
A sign gave me the low-down of the history surrounding “Luang Po To” the buddha image. Seems it was once out in the open. The Chinese revere it as one of their gods, a protector of sailors.
The image then held witness to a steady flow of worshippers and visitors ever since.
I passed a group of small statues and then caught my first glimpse of the giant in residence.
Moving away from elegant speech for a second.
It. Was. Huge. And I mean. HUGE.
When it was out in the sunlight it must have shone like a supernova. Then again maybe it wasn’t always covered in gold. In that case it would have been the only mountain in the vicinity.
Gijsbert Heeck, a Dutch doctor from 1655 provides a rich description of the buddha image in his journal:
Outside the famous, well-known old royal capital Ayutthaya in the Siam River, not far from the Dutch lodge one sees a very old and exceptionally high temple with a double roof one above the other.
“Let in (by one of the talapoins, priests, or guardians) we saw a frightfully high, large, and heavy image, (we estimated) some twenty times larger than the largest image we had seen anywhere. It sat cross legged, but even so one looked up to him as at a tower. From one knee to the other measured a width of 42 of our feet, and his thumb thick in circumference, l9 inches wide, and as long as a common rattan.
The fingers and nails were exceptionally long and broad relative to his hands and feet. His knees seemed like small mountains, and the back was so broad that it looked like the wall of a lofty church.
His mouth, nose, eyes, and ears were all matching and so well proportioned that we could see little or no reason to judge it too thick or too thin, too long or too short, too broad or too narrow.
This astonishingly large image was richly gilded from top to bottom, looking more a golden mountain than a human figure.”
My eyes must have been the size of saucers as I tried to take it all in. I wandered to the left and admired the detailed patterns that marked the walls and pillars. From the enormity of the statue to the finesse of the surrounding patterns I couldn’t look anywhere without being awed.
At the image’s back I found a wall of little inlets. Each inlet housed a small buddha image.
Along the walls average sized buddhas greeted me with every step. When I finally emerged by the left knee of the buddha I found myself staring across a floor of people seated on the ground.
Curious to see what would happen next I settled myself at the edge of the crowd. As more people joined I found myself pushed into the mass. There was no escape. From whatever was to happen next.
A group of men dressed in white appeared. They split into two groups. One half climbed into the giant buddha’s lap and the second began collecting bundles of orange cloth from silver trays held up by the seated worshipers.
Each bundle was tossed to the men in the buddha’s lap. Two caught the fabric and unravelled it before they passed an end to a man who tied it to a rope slung over the buddha’s shoulder.
After all the bundles had been collected I though it was over as the rope was pulled and the fabric began to snake up the buddha’s shoulder. But there was more to it. The men grabbed the other ends of the fabric and tossed them down to the seated crowd.
The people at the front quickly snatched up the fabric and began passing it back to those behind them. The fabric wove through the group. It passed through my hands and onward. Then when it had reached the back everyone with their hands on the fabric lifted it over their heads and spread it wide.
The different trails the various pieces of fabric had tracked met and became one. A prayer—I think—was shouted out and the people repeated each line.
Were they promising? Praising? Praying?
I don’t know.
When they were finished the fabric continued its climb up and over the buddha’s shoulder.
The fabric retreated from the hands of those around me. Some people reached after it as though they didn’t want it to go. As though they were sending off a good friend.
I asked a staff member of my faculty what the ceremony had been about after we left the temple and she told me that it was for merit making (since worshippers were offering a robe to Phra Luang Por Phanancheong—the statue) and receiving blessings.
After that day I learned that it is called a Robe Offering (go figure) and found a video so you can get a better idea of the experience.