A photo of the White Temple, Chang Rai, Thailand

Nothing Else Like It! Ancient Meets Modern in the White Temple of Thailand

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When the rebirth of an ancient building is assumed by a modern thinking artist, strange elements might appear. This is what has happened at the site of Wat Rong Khun, now the White Temple, Thailand. The Thai artist in question, Chalermchai Kositpipat, includes amongst the more traditional Buddhist symbolism, some images from the modern world, such as The Terminator, Michael Jackson and Harry Potter. The resulting work-in-progress is an absolutely fascinating creation.

The White Temple is a Buddhist temple complex located in Chiang Rai, a city in the northern part of Thailand. The construction of the current complex only began around the end of the 20 th century, after the original temple was completely demolished. Whilst the White Temple is not yet complete, it has already become a tourist destination, due to its uniqueness and difference from most of the other Buddhist temples in Thailand.

The Saviour of Wat Rong Khun

The original White Temple, also known as Wat Rong Khun, was in a decrepit state as the 20 th century neared its end. Whilst restoration works began in order to save the temple, they had to be stopped as a result of a shortage of funds. This temple was ‘rescued’ in a way, when Chalermchai Kositpipat, a local artist, decided to demolish the old structure, and to build a new one in its place, with funds for the project coming out of his own pocket. Kositpipat is perhaps best known for heading the team of Thai artists who painted the walls of the Wat Buddhapadipa, the first Thai Buddhist temple in the UK, which was constructed in Wimbledon in 1982. His murals in that temple are somewhat controversial, as they contain images of secular figures, including Muammar Gaddafi, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Regan, in that sacred space.

Thai artist Chalermchai Kositpipat at Wat Rong Khun in Chiang Rai, Thailand.

Thai artist Chalermchai Kositpipat at Wat Rong Khun in Chiang Rai, Thailand. © BrokenSphere / Wikimedia Commons ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

An Unorthodox Blend of Modern and Traditional Symbolism

Kositpipat’s unique style of blending the sacred and the profane is also seen in the White Temple, but a little bit more of that in a moment. Apart from its murals, the White Temple contains other elements which are rich in meaning and symbolism. First of all, the ubosot (or ordination hall), which is the most important building in the temple, is entirely white in colour, with fragments of reflective glass embedded in the plaster. The white colour of the ubosot is meant to represent the purity of the Buddha, whilst the glass is meant to symbolise his wisdom.

Classical, three-tiered roof of the all-white ubosot

Classical, three-tiered roof of the all-white ubosot ( Public Domain )

In terms of architectural design, the ubosot contains some classical elements from Northern Thai temples, including its three-tiered roof, as well as the stylised Nagas on the barge boards. On the back wall of the ubosot, one will find a golden mural of the Buddha, and several more images of him in front of it. In addition, it is within this hall that Kositpipat’s distinct style can be seen. Apart from images of the Buddha, this hall also contains a mural depicting well-known figures, both real and fictional, including Michael Jackson, Harry Potter and the Terminator. Other elements in this mural include spaceships, an oil pump, and the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center. The melange of images makes it difficult to provide a definitive interpretation of the mural, though in general, it is meant to symbolise the struggle between Good and Evil.

The Path to the Ubosot

Another feature of the temple complex worth mentioning is the bridge leading to the ubosot, which is known as the Bridge of the Cycle of Rebirth. In front of this bridge is a circular area containing many hands reaching out of the pit. These are meant to symbolise a person’s worldly desires, such as greed and lust, which one would need to overcome in order to achieve enlightenment. After this bridge is crossed, one reaches the Gate of Heaven, which is guarded by two figures representing Death and Rahu. After these are a few images of the Buddha in meditation, after which one would reach the ubosot.

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