Wat Chiang Man, the First Royal Temple

Wat Chiang Man, the First Royal Temple

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Wat Chiang Man, Chiang Mai’s oldest temple

Phaya (King) Mangrai, the founder of Chiang Mai, established Wat Chiang Man in 1296 with Phaya Ramkamhaeng of Sukhothai and Phaya Ngam Mueang of Phayao. King Mangrai stayed at a place called “Baan Chiang Man”. The three kings ordered to build a chedi at this location and they called it Wat Chiang Man, according to information at the temple. The three kings monument in front of the Arts and Cultural Center commemorates the three founding fathers of Chiang Mai. Wat Chiang Man is one of the more popular temples in the old walled city of Chiang Mai. It doesn’t attract as many visitors as Wat Chedi Luang and Wat Phra Singh, which are much larger complexes as well. I like this temple because of its historical significance and the chedi with the protruding elephants.

Buddhist temple Wat Chiang Man
The viharn and chedi of Wat Chiang Man

The Chedi of Wat Chiang Man

From information at the temple it appears the Chedi is the first and oldest structure at this location. The design of the chedi is a mixture of Lanna and Sinhalese (Ancient Sri Lankan/Indian) influences. During the reign of King Tilokaraj (1441-1487), the 9th king of the Mangrai dynasty, the chedi collapsed. The name of the chedi is Chedi Chang Lom. The word “Chang” means elephant and “Lom” means around: the chedi with elephants around. There are similar chedis in Sukhothai and Si Satchanalai. Fifteen elephants protrude from the chedi.

Stone elephants at a temple Wat Chiang Man
Elephant statues at Chedi Chang Lom

Viharns and Buddha images

The Wat Chiang Man has two viharns with historic Buddha images of great importance. The large and beautiful big viharn (Viharn Luang) houses the Buddha called Phra Prathaan. It also houses the oldest Buddha image of Chiang Mai: a standing Buddha, holding an alms bowl. The image dates back to the year 1465. According to a booklet for sale at the temple, the Viharn Luang has underwent many renovations over the years.
Buddha statue in temple
Buddha statue in the Viharn Luang of Wat Chiang Man

The Phra Sila and Phra Sae Tang Khamani Buddha Images

The smaller viharn houses two important historic images. Both these images are very small and hardly visible for the visitor. They are both located behind a bigger statue. The Phra Sila Buddha image is a bas relief stele, sculpted from stone depicting a standing Buddha. It is believed to be from Sri Lanka and more than a thousand years old. People believe that this statue holds the power to bring rain. Therefor people pay hommage to it during the Songkran festival in april before the rainy season starts.

The Phra Sae Tang Khamani is known as the Crystal Buddha because it is made from quartz crystal.It might have belonged to Chamathewi, the queen of the Hariphunchai kingdom. The story goes that when King Mangrai conquered the kingdom of Hariphunchai in 1281, this little Buddha statue was not damaged. Because of that people attribute special protective powers to the statue.

Buddha statue Wat Chiang Man
The Phra Sila and Phra Sae Tang Khamani Buddha Images at Wat Chiang Man
Buddha statue Wat Chiang Man
Phra Sila at Wat Chiang Man. Photo by Edward Walter Hutchinson, 1930s. Source: Photograph Collection 28 of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland.

The ubosot of Wat Chiang Man

The ubosot or ordination hall of the Wat Chiang Man dates back to the period of the Mangrai dynasty, according to information at the temple.  It mentions that the ubosot was restored in the year 1571. In 1805, during the reign of King Kawila they constructed the current building. The ubosot is usually closed for visitors.

On the front porch of the ubosot  is located a stone stele with information about the foundation of Chiang Mai. The inscription on the stone stele at the ubosot of the temple, dating back to the year 1581, identifies April 12, 1296, as the foundation date of Chiang Mai.

Temple building Wat Chiang Man
The ubosot of Wat Chiang Man.
Stone plaque with inscription

The Ho Trai or scripture library

A photograph taken in the 1960s shows that the Ho Trai or scripture library was located between the ubosot and the chedi Chang Lom. It has been moved to the back of the complex. I have spoken to a monk at the temple, who told me that the scriptures on palm leafs were under threat to be damaged by insects. That is the reason temple authorities moved the library to its present position, on stilts in a pond. The monk didn’t know when they moved the library. On one of the photographs Dick van der Spek took in the early 1970s the library is not visible but it still might be there.

Buddhist temple
Wat Chiang Man in the 1960s. Source unknown.
Buddhist temple
Ubosot and chedi of Wat Chiang Man 2021. Where is the library?
Small temple building on stilts
The Ho Trai at its present location

Wat Chiang Man through the ages

Just as most temples in North Thailand Wat Chiang Man suffered from poor maintenance and neglect during the Burmese occupation of the Lanna Kingdom (1558-1774). My little booklet mentions several renovations even in this period. The prestige of the temple and its location within the city walls probably saved it from serious damage.

Apparently major renovation of the ubosot and the Viharn Luang took place during the reign of King Kawila (1782-1816). The booklet mentions the “monk engineer” Kruba Srivichai being in charge of renovation of the temple in 1932. In a small pavillion next to the Viharn Luang the monk is commemorated. There are not many old photographs of the temple but the pictures that Dick van der Spek took in the early 1970s give a good idea. They show how the temple looked before the economic and tourism boom of the 1980s.

Wonderful video from the Fine Arts Department

References for this article

I visit Wat Chiang Man regularly during my bicycle rides.

These are some of the sources I have used for this article:

Information on plaques and boards at the temple.

My own Facebook group Chiang Mai Memories

Sarassawadee Ongsakul, History of Lanna, Chiang Mai, 2005

Michael Freeman, Lanna, Thailand’s Northern Kingdom, Bangkok, 2001

Hans Penth, A brief history of Lanna, Chiang Mai, 2000

David K.Wyatt and Aroonrut Wichienkeeo, The Chiang Mai Chronicle, 1998

A booklet in Thai language that is available at the temple: วัดเชียงมั่น, วัดเเห่งเเรกของนพบุรีศรีนครพิงค์เชียงใหม่. Chiang Mai, 2017.

Man with bicycle helmet at a temple Wat Chiang Man
Frans Betgem at Wat Chiang Man
Monk walking in front of Buddhist temple Wat Chiang Man
The ubosot in the early 1970s. Photo courtesy of Dick van der Spek.
Buddha statues with tower Wat Chiang Man
Buddha statues with chedi at Wat Chiang Man
Chedi with elephants at Buddhist temple Wat Chiang Man
The Chedi Chang Lom in the early 1970s. Photo courtesy of Dick van der Spek.

Facts about Wat Chiang Man

The temple is open daily from 0600 until 1800. There is no entrance fee but a donation is appreciated. The temple is located within the old walled city.

This is the location of Wat Chiang Man:

Frans Betgem, June 2021

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