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The spires that inspire
Publication Date : 29-10-2012
Why would an insurance company publish a book about phra prang, the soaring temple spires? South East Insurance has done so because the phra prang at Bangkok's Wat Arun is seen in its logo, and repairing the storm-damaged structure is costing a lot of money.
So "The Evolution of Phra Prangs in Siam" is a fund-raiser that coincides with the firm's 66th anniversary.
The Nation last week covered the repair work being done to the sculpted yaksa demons at Wat Arun, one of Bangkok's most revered temples and most famous landmarks. A lightning strike earlier this year sent several of the wat's venerable creatures tumbling from the top, surely a bad omen according to some devotees.
Ill tidings or not, the government's Fine Arts Department has made haste in mounting a salvage operation.
A phra prang is a conical or polygonal tower at the centre of a Hindu temple or Buddhist monastery, where a likeness of the deity is ensconced.
The insurance firm's bilingual book traces the 800-year evolution of the Thai prang from its origins in concept and design among the ancient Hindu temples that dotted the Khmer Empire when it sprawled into what is now Northeast Thailand. Siamese ingenuity not only adopted but adapted and further developed the prang.
The authors - all Silpakorn University scholars - acknowledge that the prang at all Thai Buddhist temples are intrinsically Khmer, a now-cherished legacy of Khmer domination from the seventh to the 13th centuries.
The original wat in the Northeast structures were brick, sandstone and laterite blocks, bore Khmer royal symbols and served as community centres as well as religious sanctuaries. Among the most beautiful still standing are Prasat Phimai in Korat and Prasat Panomrung in Buri Ram.
When Ayutthaya became Siam's capital in 1350, its architects drew on their admiration for Khmer religious art forms. Corncob towers adorned the early temples, though they tended to be slimmer, as if more austere. They were gradually superseded by the classical Siamese prang, only to return to popularity in the late Ayutthaya Period, albeit no longer regarded as temples' main structures.
In Bangkok, King Rama III again gave prang place of pride as the main temple buildings, but then their significance declined once more. The next three reigns marked the final period of prang construction as wealthy Siamese traded spiritual devotion for material pursuits in the grand quest for modernity. The validity of Buddhist cosmology - so central to the concept behind prang - even came into question.
Many of the old Khmer prang still stand among the dilapidated temples of Ayutthaya, but none compares in scholars' eyes with the lovely Phra Prang of Wat Arun, which was built while Ayutthaya was still the capital. It's regarded as the pinnacle of Thai architectural design.
Wat Arun - otherwise known as Wat Chaeng and the Temple of the Dawn - served as the monastery within King Taksin's palace during the Thon Buri Period from 1767 to 1782. As such it was the original repository in Bangkok for the beloved Emerald Buddha, before the statue was moved across the river to Wat Phra Kaew.
The book highlights Buddhist and Khmer monasteries around the country that boast elegant, classic prang, including some of the major Bangkok temples. There is much Thai and Khmer art history as well.
The Evolution of Phra Prangs in Siam is written by Assistant professor Santi Pakdeekham, Peerapal Samran and Pastraporn Keanporn.