วันพฤหัสบดีที่ 25 มีนาคม พ.ศ. 2553


well. In a state of disrepair, the 19th-century teak structure on the north side of Northern Thailand's Wang River in Lampang looks nothing if not forlorn. And it's looked worse. It has been cleaned up recently and some immediate structural problems have been repaired, though there is much work still to be done. Early in the 21st century, the mondop — a pavilion used
to house a sacred relic or an image of Buddha — is no longer only relevant to the surrounding community and with history buffs but to the country as a whole given its now one-of-a-kind status. Its tiered roofs are reminiscent of similar buildings as far away as Nepal, its overall design a delicate mix of Burmese and Lanna styles. Four seated images of Buddha face in each of the cardinal directions, while a tin bodhi tree, inexplicably sprouting pinecones that are found nowhere else in Thailand, rises in the middle to the roof. On the ceiling are images of animals, again facing each of the four compass points, and floral carvings. All of this had been encircled by 1,080 Buddha votive tablets, most of which went missing during the Second World War when Japanese soldiers occupied the temple. But the exterior of the tiered roof is now layered with misguided preservation efforts: originally a tiled roof, cement has been haphazardly spread on top of these tiles adding too much weight to the structure. Today this is cracking off.
The structure is built on a man-made hill that represents Mount Meru, the sacred mountain central to the Buddhist cosmic universe. At ground level, each of the mondop's four corners is graced by a teak image of a lotus, a symbol of purity leading some to speculate that maybe the temple is floating. Problems with drainage have made that more of a literal possibility, with the viham surrounded by concrete and cement tiles instead of simply by sand. It's difficult to say what has been more detrimental to the viham over the years, time or man.
LATE IN THE 19TH CENTURY, SIAM WAS CONCERNED WITH FENDING off European interests in the region. Using a more flexible approach to international relations than its immediate neighbours, the nation kept both French and British interests at bay, largely by playing one off of the other but also through compromise and by conceding territory along the Mekong River to the French and in the south of the country to the British. While difficult to appreciate at the time, this is something it accomplished with considerable success.

by the volunteers. Above: Two priceless Lanna-era manuscripts.
This was the era of King Mongkut and, later, of his son Chulalongkorn, both of whom provided Thailand with a strong guiding force. While opening up to the world beyond its borders, the nation took a balanced approach both at home and abroad, its strength domestically thanks to its devout Buddhist roots as well as the monarchy. Into this setting, Wat Pongsanuk was built likely in 1886. Then as now, Buddhist temples were the centrepiece of any community, being places of worship, education, healing and simply as meeting places.
What's more this region had been repopulated by the Tai Lu centuries before, originally from Yunnan Province in China, a people noted for social cohesion and for maintaining their traditions, including the distinct architectural style incorporated into their temples. Some of this spirit remains today.
AS IN THE WEST, RESTORATION WORK ON HISTORICALLY IMPORTANT sites in Thailand often has been haphazard. Not enough research precedes most projects. Getting back on the right track is often a combination of timing, the energy of a handful of individuals and sheer luck. Determining where all of this coincided as far as Wat Pongsanuk is concerned is as difficult
as predicting the specific origins of the temple itself. One starting point is October 2004 when Angela Srisomwongwathana, a Chiang Mai-based photographer who shot the images accompanying this story, saw an opportunity to properly preserve

an important and now rare piece of Thailand's past. At first, few understood her concern. "I realised there were other agendas in other projects," she recalls of her previous forays into restoration work in Thailand. "Most of those I've seen I could not do
anything about. This was a good chance to put some thought into such a project."
There was a second aim: to invite Thai university students interested in restoration work to take part; to see why previous conservation attempts around the country have not been successful. Currently, three universities — Chiang Mai, Silpakorn in Bangkok and Rajabhat Chiang Rai University — are involved with the project. A group totalling 44 students are cleaning the mondop, taking stock of its features and measuring it for restoration work. Three-dimensional architectural detailing on computers, hand sketches and even the photography by Khun Angela all contribute to the research now being done.
Yet all of this influence is coming from the outside. Given that, to this day, a Buddhist temple in Thailand is the focal point of the community it serves, what do those people want to see done to their wat? Last March, Woralun Boonyasurat, a researcher and lecturer in Lanna architecture at Chiang Mai University's Faculty of Fine Arts, along with Khun Angela addressed just this issue with the community. Today, that means about 800 households in the immediate area but given the temple's historical importance, with the population from the surrounding provinces there are about 10,000 people who have a direct interest in the plight of Wat Pongsanuk. Of course, the community was in favour of the much-needed restoration work. What they didn't understand was the amount of time, effort and funding it would take.Convincing them was no easy task. One thing Acharn Woralun did was to show interested locals a 2001 book by British photographer Michael Freeman in an effort to underscore the historical relevance of Wat Pongsanuk. What they began to see is truly astounding.
Typical for a Lanna-style temple, Wat Pongsanuk uses motifs from the forest in its teak carving. Despite the strength of this hardwood and its ability to resist termites, most such woodwork in Northern Thailand has been lost to the ravages of time. The teak in the mondop is intricately coloured, though much of this might simply be from previous restoration work.
It's likely that craftsmen from Keng Tung in Burma or from Phayao built the original temple, with its mix of Lanna and Burmese styles. This area of what is now Thailand was noted in the 19th century for its Burmese teak merchants and some of the designs were copied from earlier Lanna styles.
The viham boasts three roof tiers topped with a spire and hti, a Burmese-style umbrella. The intervals between the two upper tiers of the roof are treated as false stories and are decorated with paintings, fretwork and windows. Among the detailed carving are kinnara, half-human, half-bird figures; and, on the upper levels, hongsa, a mythical animal that in this case resembles a sacred swan, and again is a symbol of purity as well as a link between the aquatic and heavenly worlds. Large gabled porches, each with its own detailed woodcarving, project out on each side to give the entire structure its cruciform shape.
Yet serious problems abound. Major among these, aside from the leaking roof and the moisture from the ground surrounding the viham, is that there are metal bars surrounding the four seated images of Buddha, an attempt to keep them secure.
Even so, convincing others of the need for restoration work was a hurdle. "At first, many people didn't understand the project," admits Khun Angela. Eventually, with monthly visits to Lampang, people saw how determined these two were.
Slowly, a bit too slowly at times, support began to fall into place, a turning point taking place a full year after the duo's initial forays into restoring Wat Pongsanuk. On one trip to Lampang, the head abbot casually mentioned the hundreds of Buddha images he had placed in the mondop's ceiling. The photographer and professor, of course, were both intrigued. They were then shown 280 images of the Buddha that were taken down from the ceiling of the structure. The abbot was convinced that these images, which he had been placing inside for 35 years, should be cleaned and kept under lock and key.
After the time-consuming process of cataloguing and photographing, with everyone from the monks to locals to university lecturers and their.students involved, these priceless images now sit in protective glass cases along with a series of hand-painted scrolls kept locked in a room adjoining the monk's quarters. Within the confines of this small, dusty room was enough imagery and records to fill a small museum but more importantly, a clue as to the area's past.
Among the figures are reclining, walking and seated images of the Buddha, some adorned with the circular script of Lanna that has as much in common with Burmese script as it does with Thai. Some are estimated to date back several hundred years. Another find is a wooden votive tablet that was likely removed from the mondop as well. Among the colourful scrolls, which are drawn on both sa paper and what is likely imported cloth, is one colourful scene where precious stones fall from the heavens. There any indications that this could be 100 years old, yet just as astonishing is that the abbot admits that no one has likely laid eyes on these scrolls depicting Jataka tales for 50 years or more.
Outside the temple grounds, things have been gaining pace. For starters, the Lampang municipality has granted a modest budget for restoration work. Just as importantly, the local community has recognised that, done properly, such work takes time. Now a December exhibit is planned tentatively for
Silpakorn University in Bangkok. "I think this is a conservation project that started with the locals," says Acharn Woralun. "We've tried to create awareness among them." Anyone wanting to contribute to the restoration fund can do so through the Boonyawat Branch of the Siam City Bank (account name: Wat Pongsanuk Nua; account number: 502-2-22269-3).
The project has taken on a life of its own and has become more than the simple restoration of a temple. The answer to any one question those involved ask is likely to also bring about further queries, to the point that the latest is gauging exactly how old Wat Pongsanuk is.
As the project moves into another stage, it's also apparent that there's more to this than the preservation of a single structure. "Many communities have old temples but they don't know how to preserve them. So this is the leading example of how to do this," says Acharn Woralun, even though she readily admits that this is a learn-as-you-go project.It only seems fitting then, given the role of meditation in Buddhism, that the temple can put anyone into a reflective mode. As the midday sun peeks through the clouds, Acharn Woralun squints at the mondop and attempts to figure out her own role in the preservation work to be done at Wat Pongsanuk. There's much to be done. "The history of Lanna," she says, "has been lost to a degree but we're trying to put all the pieces back in this jigsaw.