The tale of the ugly duckling Buddha

Wat Traimit is home to a mystery. A very old, heavy and valuable mystery. The world’s largest solid gold Buddha statue resides within the top floor of this modern temple, valued at around US$300 million. It weighs in at five and a half tons and stands (well sits) at three metres in height. The history of Wat Traimit’s Golden Buddha remains shrouded in the mists of Thailand’s turbulent past; only in 1955 was the secret surrounding this 700 year-old statue even discovered.

Golden Buddha, Wat Traimit, Bangkok, Thailand

Golden Buddha, Wat Traimit, Bangkok, Thailand

Golden Buddha, Wat Traimit, Bangkok, Thailand

Golden Buddha, Wat Traimit, Bangkok, Thailand

In the classic Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, The Ugly Duckling, an ugly baby ‘duckling’ transforms into a beautiful swan. For nearly three centuries the gleaming, golden brilliance of the Golden Buddha was hidden to the world by an exterior designed to make it look very ordinary. As the song goes, “A head so noble and high. Say who’s an ugly duckling? Not I!”

It is believed that for hundreds of years the Buddha statue resided in a temple in Thailand’s ancient capital, Ayutthaya. No doubt still a dramatic sight, by 1767 it was one of dozens of unremarkable statues plastered in a brown-grey stucco. The disguise was effective. When the Burmese captured and destroyed Ayutthaya in 1767 they melted down anything of value and took it to Burma, but they didn’t find the Golden Buddha.

Golden Buddha, Wat Traimit, Bangkok, Thailand

Golden Buddha, Wat Traimit, Bangkok, Thailand

Golden Buddha, Wat Traimit, Bangkok, Thailand

Golden Buddha, Wat Traimit, Bangkok, Thailand

Perhaps the Burmese killed the only people who knew the truth about the statue amidst the slaughter of the attack on Ayutthaya, because it remained abandoned amongst the ruins until 1801. The statue was then moved from Ayutthaya to the newly constructed Wat Chotanaram in Bangkok. No one seems to have known about the extraordinary golden statue inside the stucco exterior.

Golden Buddha, Wat Traimit, Bangkok, Thailand

Golden Buddha, Wat Traimit, Bangkok, Thailand

Donations at Wat Traimit, Bangkok, Thailand

Donations at Wat Traimit, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Traimit, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Traimit, Bangkok, Thailand

In Wat Chotanaram the statue stayed for one hundred and thirty years, silently contemplating the changing world and keeping its secret to itself. Wat Chotanaram fell into disrepair and in 1935 the statue was relocated again, to the nearby Wat Traimit. There wasn’t enough space inside Wat Traimit, so it was kept outside under a tin roof. Only in 1955 when the statue was being moved into a new building was its true identity revealed.

Even then it was only by chance that the truth came out. Workmen were using ropes to move the statue when one broke sending the statue crashing to the ground. A chunk of the stucco broke off and, presumably to the amazement of everyone who witnessed it, the bright gold of the statue was revealed. The rest, as they say, is history.

Wat Traimit, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Traimit, Bangkok, Thailand

Donations at Wat Traimit, Bangkok, Thailand

Donations at Wat Traimit, Bangkok, Thailand

Offerings, Wat Traimit, Bangkok, Thailand

Offerings, Wat Traimit, Bangkok, Thailand

Not the Golden Buddha, Wat Traimit, Bangkok, Thailand

Not the Golden Buddha, Wat Traimit, Bangkok, Thailand

Today a new and glitzy, some might say ostentatious and tasteless, temple houses the statue, which has become something of a cash cow. The irony of asking people to make donations for the upkeep of a statue valued at US$300 million can’t be lost on the many visitors; then again it doesn’t seem to deter people from handing over their hard earned cash. The surrounding area is home to an appropriate amount of kitsch.

While no one really knows why the Golden Buddha was covered in stucco, it’s assumed it was to hide its true value from invading armies, most probably the Burmese who regularly attacked Thailand in the 18th Century. To that end it worked so well that absolutely everyone forgot what lay beneath the stucco. The rediscovery of the Golden Buddha is considered a miracle by many Thai Buddhists, not the accident it really was. After all, had it not turned out to be a gold buddha encased in stucco, I doubt the workmen who dropped it would have been received much praise.

Minature Monk, Wat Traimit, Bangkok, Thailand

Minature Monk, Wat Traimit, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Traimit, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Traimit, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Traimit, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Traimit, Bangkok, Thailand

The statue’s origins are also something of a mystery. It was probably made in India in the 14th Century before being shipped to Ayutthaya. The craftsmanship was of the highest quality; the statue is formed of nine pieces, which join seamlessly together. A key found beneath the stucco allows the statue to be assembled and disassembled.

The body of the statue is 40 per cent pure gold, between the chin and forehead 80 per cent pure, the hair 99 per cent pure. With so much gold on display I should probably have felt a little more in awe, but there was something underwhelming, slightly sterile about the temple that left me feeling oddly indifferent to it.

Wat Traimit, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Traimit, Bangkok, Thailand

5 thoughts on “The tale of the ugly duckling Buddha

    • After seeing so many golden Buddhas (literally hundreds) in just a few days, I could barely remember the difference – this one was only really memorable thanks to its history, and the fact that I got lost trying to find it and walked around for ages in the heat.

    • You’re right Brian, I’ve been ignoring my adoptive country. Between work, travel (more work) and terrible weather I’ve neglected all things Orange…not for much longer. I’ve been out and about in this early summer we seem to be having at the start of spring. Although I’m off to Spain for a couple of weeks soon…

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