Buddha images, large, small, or ruined, are sacred objects and in Thailand. Reverence of those ancient or broken Buddha extends to the making of Buddha images and I’m searching for a Buddha maker.
Following leads up side streets, I find denture-makers, massage schools, Buddha’s for sale and dead ends, but no artisans making the Buddha’s I see everywhere. Giving up on this search, I head for the ancient capital, Ayutthaya, on yet another wild goose chase.
However, while there I hear Thailand’s biggest Buddha is being built an hour away so hop on a local bus and head for Wat Muang Monastery in the tiny Ang Thong province. I’m told a very rich man was so upset that some Taliban had destroyed the sandstone Buddha statues in Afghanistan (2001) that he was funding the building this huge one to replace them.
It is enormous and, one-handed, from the back of a motorbike, I take my first photos of it and the monsoon-flooded fields that surround it. The seated Phra Buddha Maha Nawamin statue towers over the temple of Wat Muang. A Theravada Buddhism cement statue, it is 92m high, 63m wide and the top half has already been painted gold. I’m fascinated at the huge crane, the scaffolding, and ant-like people as they clamber over their divine being’s arms and legs.
Despite not being a (western) tourist area, the temple has several places of interest. A shiny, silver temple, and the Ubosot (ordination hall) is surrounded by enormous lotus petals, the largest in the world I’m told: this temple likes big.
It also has a Buddhist theme park full of chilling and warning scenes of mutilation, death, of a Buddhist heaven and hell. One depicts the result of adultery: they’re doomed to climb, naked, a cactus type tree while crows attack from above and it looks bloody and painful.
Finally, when I had given up all hope of discovering any craftsmen, a Swiss tourist told me that six months earlier his cyclist sister had found such a place. The next day, after a journey of some hours on a motorbike, train, and then cyclist rickshaw, I found Sgt. Major Thawee and his Buranathai Buddha Image Foundry in Phitsanulok. He doesn’t speak English – my Thai minimal but I spend a week watching the process (lost wax) from early morning until they stop at dusk.
On an a day and time considered to be auspicious, I finally watch as bronze was poured into the Buddha. Phra Pairoj, the head monk, and people from the temple which had commissioned the image were there for the blessings and culmination of the work. The ceremony finished with a shared meal and, as with many events I’ve attended in Thailand, I was the only ‘farang’. (Foreigner) My searching for Buddha was complete.
Some years later I get off a train at a stop too soon, but after a few hours, finally get to Wat Muang to see the competed giant Buddha. The theme park has grown, the food stalls multiplied, and I even saw one Western family as I photograph the finished work.
As for those ruined Buddha in Afghanistan – someone must have heard the oft-quoted Mark Twain saying about not letting the truth get in the way of a good story. Construction of the Phra Buddha Maha Nawamin statue had commenced in 1990 – eleven years before the dynamite had exploded.