Thursday, 25 November 2010

Wat Long Khoun, Luang Prabang


The sim, or congregation hall, of the monastery

On a wooded hill across the Mekong from Luang Prabang, in northern Laos, stands Wat Long Khoun, the Monastery of the Blessed Song. This spiritual retreat, founded in the eighteenth century, is closely associated with the city's and country's history. Indeed it was customary for the future kings of Luang Prabang to come here and spend three days in meditative retreat and ceremonial bathing before descending the long flight of steps leading to the river and boarding a boat to cross the Mekong to Wat Xieng Thong, the city's most prestigious monastery, on the eve of their coronation.

View across the Mekong towards Luang Prabang

Several guide books on Laos claim this tradition dates back to the rulers of the kingdom of Lane Xang Hom Khao (literally 'One Million Elephants under a White Parasol'). However this is not the case as the kingdom of Lane Xang, which was established in 1354 after Fa Ngum put an end to Khmer domination over the middle Mekong valley, collapsed following the death of King Suriyavongsa in 1695. Internal feuds over the succession and successive Burmese invasions led to the breaking up of Lane Xang and in 1707 Luang Prabang became the capital of one of three rival kingdoms, the others being Vientiane and Champassak. As there is no evidence that a monastery existed on the site of Wat Long Khoun before that date, the custom must have been established by the first ruler of that new kingdom, King Kitsarat (1707-1713) or, more likely, one of his succeessors. Albeit formally independent the Kingdom of Luang Prabang was forced to pay tribute to its more powerful neighbours, be they Chinese, Siamese or Burmese, until 1887, when it became a French protectorate within French Indochina. The French maintained the monarchy and kings-to-be continued to retreat to Wat Long Khoun to meditate before their accession to the throne.

The original part of the sim with two of the monastery's that or stupas

The oldest structure of the monastery, dating back to the eighteenth century, is the rear part of the sim or congregation hall, where monks, laymen and members of the public meet and meditate. It faces east in the auspicious direction of the rising sun. The rather small structure was enlarged in 1937 by King Sisavang Vong, who added a front porch. This porch rests on eigth black and gold columns with capitals in the shape of lotus petals. Its red ceiling is covered with stencilled dharma wheels, lions, monkeys, peacocks, butterflies, bats, birds and mythical animals.


The porch now shelters two unusual Chinese bearded figures in elaborate military outfits who stand guard by the sculpted entrance to the sim proper. The hilt of their sword rises above their shoulders, ready to be drawn. However their severe appearance is softened by the elegant position of their hands, one of which holds a handkerchief. The subtle folds seem to indicate these were made of silk rather than cloth. It has been suggested they could represent Haw warriors but one would expect to find protective figures rather than bandits that brought devastation to the region. Coming from Yunnan in China, much-feared Haw forces reached Luang Prabang in the mid-1870s and again in the early 1880s.


The interior of the sim is dominated by the monastery's main image of the Buddha. Here he is represented in the posture of Calling the Earth Goddess to Witness or Bhumisparsamudra. The west wall, behind the statue, is decorated with images of the Buddha, lotus flowers, and a frieze stencilled in silver on a red background. On the upper part of the wall, rows of niches containing small gilded images of the Buddha have been carved.


However it is the beautiful Lao style jataka murals that decorate the north and south walls that really catch one's imagination.


The jataka tales relate the 547 previous lives of the Buddha, before he was born as Prince Siddhartha Gaumata and achieved enlightment. They capture the moral evolution, inner strength and pursuit of virtue of the Buddha and emphasize the importance of the act of giving, the most important virtue in Buddhism. As it is often the case in Laos, the murals also incorporate local legends and folklore.


Vandalism by revolutionaries in the mid-1970s and then dampness caused extensive damage to the murals. Indeed following the victory of the Pathet Lao and the proclamation of the Lao People's Democratic Republic in 1975, Wat Long Khoun was abandonned for several years and fell into disrepair. Monks were allowed to return only after the Communist regime re-embraced Buddhism in the 1980s.


The murals, together with the rest of the monastery, were carefully restored in 1994 by the École Française d’Extrême Orient and the Lao Department of Museums and Archeology. Yet the high degree of humidity during part of the year takes its toll and the murals would require almost constant attention.


The elaborately decorated window shutters, with gold figures on black, suffered even more than the murals. The one below could represent Rama, the prince from Ayodhya and hero of the Ramayana. This Hindu epic story reached Laos via Siam and was adapted to the local context. Many figures from the Ramayana are represented in Lao sims. Similar shutters can be found at Wat That Luang on the other bank of the Mekong.


Apart from the sim, Wat Long Khoun includes a whole variety of buildings spread over 1.5 hectares. Most were restored if not partly rebuilt in 1994. Six are kuti or living quarters for the monks, where the veranda and rooms on the upper levels are reached by earlier masonry stairs.


These wooden structures, built in different styles, rest on brick pillars.


Luang Prabang has many fantastic monuments but with its amazing sim, serene atmosphere, and beautiful views over the Mekong and surrounding mountains, Wat Long Khoun is certainly one of my favourites.

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