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"Phra That Phanom" is located within the walled compound of the "Temple of Phra That Phanom" in Nakorn Phanom Province, Thailand, about 600 meters west of the Mekong River. Believed by the people in the region to have been built by Monk Maha Kassapa, a chief disciple of Buddha, to enshrine the Buddha's breastbone relics 8 years after Buddha's Nirvana, this Stupa is regarded as the most ancient Buddha's Relics Stupa in the Northeast of Thailand and in the Middle Mekong River Basin. Throughout the millennia, Phra That Phanom has been steadfastly venerated by the multi-ethnic and multi-national populations living in all directions of the region.
Phra That Phanom, as revealed by archaeology, was first constructed as a square brick structure with intricate carvings reminiscent of the Cham or ancient Khmer style sanctuary. This was further built upon, embellished, and restored over multi-generations by different groups of devoted personalities from both sides of the River. In August 1975, the high and top-heavy Stupa, seated on the ancient crumbling brick base, collapsed in the week-long rainstorm. Multi-disciplinary examinations and scientific tests, including soil tests and archaeological excavations, were undertaken which dated the innermost brick chamber at the ground level of the Stupa to about AD 7- 8.
Among the debris of bricks, a big bronze casket was miraculously recovered, inside of which was found a multi-layered set of gold cases containing and protecting the sacred Relics. A joyous celebration was held by the government, attended by the Prime Minister of Thailand and crowds of people from all areas, before the Relics were later ceremoniously re-enshrined in the Stupa.
The 1975-1979 restoration was conducted under the supervision of the Prime Minister of Thailand, and with the full blessing of His Majesty the King and the Thai Supreme Patriarch. It enjoyed the widest support and cooperation from the people at all levels. By using the original material as much as possible, but having its base strngthened by modern technology and its regional symbolic ornamentation made by arts and crafts experts, the newly restored Phra That Phanom was thus returned to its previous majestic perfection.
The restoration project was not only about the physical reconstruction, but more importantly it was a delicate response to the spiritual and religious needs and sensitivity of the people who had, for many past generations identified, with Phra That Phanom as their sacred property and a representation of the intangible Buddha. The restoration was also a historic undertaking involving the commitment and collaboration of multi-ministerial committees of advisors, experts, and technicians in all related fields, as well as artisans, craftsman and volunteered workers. Funding for the restoration came from the government's budget and from the benevolent donations of individuals and agencies at the national and international levels.
Phra That Phanom was registered in 1935 as an ancient monument by the Fine Arts Department of Thailand for conservation and protection under the Ancient Monuments Act. To further safeguard its site, a boundary of about 4 hectares around the Monument within the front part or the "Buddha was Area" of the Temple of Phra That Phanom, was added to the registration in 1979.
The ancient origin of Phra That Phanom is described in the palm leafed Chronicle of "Tamnan Urankathat" which refers to the Buddha's visit to the Mekong region in his lifetime and his prophecy that Buddhism would greatly flourish in this land. Despite its semi-mythical nature, the Chronicle has been acknowledged by modern scholars for its useful and realistic accounts of ancient geography and social and political history of the Mekong Region.
The date of its first construction, as documented in the Chronicle to be 8 years after the Buddha's passing, was not supported by the archaeological findings which indicated the earliest structure, excavated only at the ground level, to be about 7-8th Century AD; but this dating was a not relevant issue to the worshippers of Phra That Phanom. What matters most to the peoples in the region is that Phra That Phanom is now standing as a glorious and living sacred monument in its original setting and cultural environment, well protected within the precinct of the Temple and being celebrated regularly in accordance with the age-old traditions. The Stupa has thus continued to serve the function and purpose as a centre of spiritual inspiration for the promotion of harmony and peace among the people in the region. Furthermore, the architectural form and style of Phra That Phanom has become the prototype of numerous other relics’ stupas in the outlining districts of Nakorn Phanom and in the nearby provinces. The image of Phra That Phanom has also inspired many folk arts and contemporary designs.
Criterion (i) : Phra That Phanom represents the noblest and the most conscious form of Buddhist architectural and artistic expressions in the Mekong region, in Thailand, and especially in the Northeast region of the country. The Monument embodies the essence of Buddhism as interpreted and embraced by the people in the region since time immemorial.
A creative architectural response to the undying faith and spirituality of the people, Phra That Phanom Stupa exhibits a unique achievement, combining the traditional grammar of sacred representation of the ancient Chams and Khmers, with the traditional elements of Buddhist Relics Stupa architecture and symbolism from India, while also blending in the Mekong regional spirit as well as the local artistic ornamentations.
This achievement is mainly evidenced in:
a) the respect for the original natural setting of Phu Kampra, situated at the crossroads of the Mekhong, considered sacred since ancient time;
b) the east-west orientation of the Stupa facing the Mekong River in the east with an ancient promenade linking the Stupa to the River;
c) the preservation of the square brick base structure and its ancient decorative details including the regional heroic carvings;
d) the adherence to the ancient Buddhist architectural tradition and the religious decorum by retaining the key architectural parts and symbolism of the ancient Buddhist Relics Stupas, including the circumambulation space, the dome or the bell or the vase part (even though this part is designed with a new style of interpretation), the throne, the Chattra or the umbrellas, as well as the enclosure walls with decorated gateways at the cardinal directions;
e) the high degree of local imaginative interpretations in the restorations and embellishments of the Stupa.
This Stupa has thus become the most distinguished and tangible symbol of the spiritual identity of the region, an inspiration too many other Buddhist Stupas constructed later in Nakorn Phanom as well as in the greater Northeast of Thailand. Phra That Phanom has furthermore inspired the design and creation of many local folk arts and crafts, such as the "ancestor's relics shrine" commonly produced and used by the village folks in this region, and souvenir stupas and motive for individual veneration. It has also been adopted as the major design of the Khon Kaen University's Emblem and in Thai national stamps.
Criterion (ii): The tradition of building a stupa to posthumously honour a great personality at a crossroads was a common practice among the ancient Hindus in India, and as such predated the Buddha's time. Following the Buddha's advice, as cited in Mahaparinibbhana Sutta, his disciples represented by Brahmins and kings, as well as Naga race and deities, divided the Great Teacher's relics and ashes among them after the cremation at Kushinara. Each group built a stupa to enshrine the relics at a crossroads so that all people could access and worship. The purpose, as foreseen by the Buddha, was to promote "the feeling of peace and calmness, happiness and wellbeing in the minds of those who see them for a long time to come" (www.accesstoinsight.org › tipitaka ›, Mahaparinibhanna Sutta, 27-31, translated from Phra That Phanom Stupa, together with the related religious buildings and its associative ancient natural setting of Phu Kampra near the bank of the Mekong River, exhibit the interchanging of values between the ancient Mekong's ethnic practices of nature and ancestor worship and the Hindu and Buddhist beliefs that spread from India. This interchanging prolonged over a period of more than a millennium, starting from about the 7th or 8th Century AD, and continues until today. It has resulted in the evolution and development of a distinct regional style of architecture and arts in connection with "Pra That", or the Relic Stupa, within the middle region of the Mekong Basin. The continued use and function of the Phu Kampra location as the sacred area related to Phra That Phanom as well as its sociocultural linkage with the Mekong River and the communities who originally were the designated "servants of Phra That Phanom" also testify to this important interchange.the Pali by Sister Vajira & Francis Story© 1998)
Unfortunately, Buddhism declined in India around the 13th Century A.D, leaving a great number of Stupas as ancient monuments to be later excavated by British officers and archaeologists. The seeds of Buddha's teachings, however, were sown and blossomed wide and far, especially in the Mekong River Basin, as tangibly testified by a wealth of sacred stupas in the area.
The splendid architecture of the Phra That Phanom and its style of ornamentation distinctly exhibit both the regional traditional spirit of Mekong and the Buddhist values from outside. The architectural design form of Phra That Phanom has in turns exerted extensive influences over the form and style of many contemporary relic s stupas in the Northeast of Thailand, and has become a prototype of some contemporary Pra That or Relics Stupas in this area. Many forms of folk arts and crafts and contemporary sacred designs in Thailand have also been inspired by the image of Phra That Phanom.
The location of Phu Kampra, from geographical, socio-cultural and historical considerations, is certainly conducive to the promotion of the interchanging of ideas and values of diverse groups of people since ancient time. The site of Phu Kampa which is now about 200 m elevated area (Phu meaning a mound or a hill), was once a natural mound where three of the Mekong tributaries used to meet before flowing into the sacred mother river, Mekong. This was where people, especially travellers, merchants and local people from several ancient townships and kingdoms could converge to trade and barter, interact and exchange ideas and beliefs, as mentioned in the Chronology of Urankathat. The location was therefore unsurprisingly the chosen site of an earlier Cham-style Hindu sanctuary and was subsequently transformed into the place of enshrinement of the Buddha's Relics which eventually evolved into a uniquely regional style Stupa of Phra That Phanom.
Criterion (vi): Phra That Phanom is directly identified with Buddhist Literary work of the Maha Parinibbanna Sutta and the ancient but living concept and practices concerning the veneration of the Buddha's Relics Stupa as a representation of the Buddha and his teachings.
Phra That Phanom is also firmly associated with many mythical and historical beliefs inspired by the Buddhist literary work of Tamnan Urankathat which is distinct to the Mekong region. One of these includes the credence that the enshrinement of Buddha's breast bonerelics at this location was the expressed wish of the Lord Buddha who visited the place in his lifetime and made many impressions of his footprint on certain areas he visited. The fact that Buddha's will was carried out by Maha Kassapa Monk from India and resulted in the building of the first Stupa by the 5 regional kings significantly symbolizes the importing of the Indian concept and it being embraced by the regional peoples as well as their ownership of the sacred Stupa from the beginning. This credence has led to many subsequent restorations over generations out of faith and dedication of the regional people to the Buddha.
Phra That Phanom, being a living and potent Stupa, is also actively associated with many sacred Buddhist traditions.
After the collapse of this Stupa in 1975, for example, due respect was paid to the sacred nature of the Monument and to the people's sense of ownership and their spirituality attached to the Stupa. Ancient sacred ceremonies were held to ask for forgiveness from Buddha, to give spiritual support to the people working in the restoration project and to promote calmness among the throngs of peoples who came to mourn the physical collapse of the Stupa. When the sacred Relics were recovered, protected in layers of cases placed inside a bronze casket, a great celebration was organized for 7 days and 7 nights by the government and the Temple, with the widest participation of the people in the Mekong Region.
Phra That Phanom is also part of the worldwide Buddhist community and regularly hosts the universal Buddhist celebrations according to the Lunar calendar. For example, the Makha Puja is annually held for three days and three nights at Phra That Phanom on the full moon of the third lunar month (February or March), to commemorate an important event of the "Four Assembly" occurred early in the teaching life of Buddha. This commemoration, comprising both socio- cultural and religious activities, is attended by a multitude of devotees fluxing into the temple area from all parts of the Mekong River Basin and the world. During this event, many Buddhist activities as well as regional cultural expressions were organized, including meditation and observation of the 8 precepts, and the ethnic dances and music in honour of Phra That Phanom by the villagers and local students.
Especially important and unique to the region are the celebrations related to the Buddhist myth and Mekong regional interpretation. For example, an official invocation of "Phra Upakut" is organized every year by the Provincial Authorities. Pra Upakut, a monk in the Buddhist legend, is highly venerated in the Mekong River Basin where he is believed to be a living and practicing meditation under the River. The invocation is therefore to pay respect to him and to invite him to come to the Temple to continue giving his protection to the Phra That Phanom Stupa. The tradition is participated by the leaders of the communities of Nakorn Phanom, represented by the Governor himself.
Another traditional celebration, called the "Sattanaga Memorial", is annually organized by the Temple of Phra That Phanom to make merit for the benefit of the 7 Nagas who faithfully protect the Phra That Phanom, from the time of its first construction. This Sattanaga celebration, held on the 5th moon of the 11th month, before the breaking of the Buddhist Lent, is specifically connected with the belief about the Nagas, a mythical multi-headed serpent mentioned in many Buddhist scripts, and also in "Tamnan Urankathat". Being the world's 12th longest river with its source in the high plateau of the Himalaya, the torrential Mekong River is believed to be the home to the wild and untamed Nagas, who became a believer of Buddha’s teaching upon meeting the latter in this area,. This has given rise to many cultural expressions on the theme of the Nagas, as seen in the rich ornamentations of architecture, as well as in many intangible social cultural expressions of the region.
Floating of the lit-up boats is another important artistic expressions of the people of the Mekong River Basin. It is related to the ancient Hindu practice of offering lights to the river and asking the sacred beings to protect the travellers and the people living in the river basin. In Buddhism, the ceremony is held on the 15th moon of the 11th month, to commemorate the return of Buddha from his journey to heaven to preach to his Mother. On this occasion, all the gates of the three worlds are open so that all beings can listen to his Dharma. The activities for the ceremony on this occasion at Nakorn Phanom include alms giving to the monks in the morning, food feast to the relatives at noon, folk games and sports in the afternoon, chanting of mantra in the evening, and the colourful "Lai Rua Fai", or the lighting of the boats and floats that are creatively built for the occasion, at nightfall.
Sanchi Monument has been inscribed as world heritage under the criteria (i), (ii), (iii), (iv), and (vi). Its stupa no. 1 in particular was first built as a modest baked brick stupa, half the size of the present one, and subsequently enlarged in the centuries later. The sanctuaries comprising several stupas and temples within the compound, located on a hill visible from afar, were associated during its first phase with emperor Ashoka and his missionary son and daughter.
Built, restored and embellished further during many different periods from the 3rd century BC to the 1st century AD, it was believed to contain the relics of the Buddha's disciples, and not of the Great Teacher himself, yet it received generous individual donations for the many historical restorations.
The Stupa and the compound were later deserted for so many centuries, and its history of religious use and function was long broken. There is at present no Buddhist spiritual connectedness with the communities around it, except for the recent effort by the Sri Lanka Society. Without the community's genuine and constant use in accordance with the original purpose, the sanctuaries and the Stupa now stands only as great archaeological remains, reconstructed into impressive form and style by teams of British and Indian archaeological experts in modern time. Though it now serves as a pilgrimage destination for Buddhist scholars and visitors from all over the world, it is a reconstructed deserted site, and probably cannot in a foreseeable future return to its original function as in the past.
Phra That Phanom on the other hand certainly received the concept and tradition of the Buddha's Relics Stupa from India, though it also exhibits its own regional creativity and adaptation. The history and records of development of Phra That Phanom show that the people in the Mekong Basin took full ownership of the Stupa very early on, and integrated the external belief concerning the Buddha's relic veneration into their regional cultural identity. The many restorations of the Phra That Phanom Stupa and its compound area were always carried out by regional people from different places in the region who undertook the restoration voluntarily, with the wide participation of the people out of their humble dedication and deep respect to the Stupa that represents the Intangible Buddha. Generous donations out of devotion have been received throughout the years, especially during the 1975-1979 restoration after the collapse of the Stupa in the rainstorm.
Being a living Buddhist monument, its connectedness with the communities in the Mekong region is strongly present.
Religious ceremonies and popular celebrations attended by the people in the regional areas are always a part of the cultural heritage associated with Phra That Phanom. The Stupa is never regarded as archaeological remains.
Renovation and embellishment over the generations were carried out, not only to maintain the architectural form and ornamentation of a sacred Stupa and its environment, but more importantly to render the Stupa its continuous purpose and function as a sacred and potent Stupa, as a place to inspire peace and happiness in the minds of the people, and to serve the spiritual needs of the populations in the region. The Stupa and its related historic buildings, though smaller in scale when compared to the Indian and Sri Lankan style of Buddhist monuments, is however proportionate and in perfect harmony with the geographical and cultural environments of the Mekong region which originally inspired the creation of a relic stupa at this site.
II. The Statue of Liberty, USA, a World Heritage Site.
The Statue of liberty has been inscribed as a world heritage under criteria (i) and (vi).
It is a masterpiece of the human spirit, a physical gift from France to the United States of America, a product of collaboration between the sculptor Frédéric Bartholdi and the engineer Gustave Eiffel. The Statue is not associated with any religious faith but is symbolic of the social and political value of liberty, peace and hope, highly celebrated in France and the USA since the late 19th Century, and as such it is a potent monument.
Phra That Phanom on the other hand is built to honour Buddha and his teaching. The Buddhist values encompass, among many other things, great compassion to all and constant concentration of the mind, which the people of the Mekong region accepted from India more than a millennium ago. Homage to the representation of the Buddha, the Great Teacher, serves to inspire peace and awakening of the minds and to alleviate the suffering of the people, made possible only through their own merit making and good deeds, mindfulness and meditation.
The Stupa also expresses, through its architecture and arts, the very sense of cultural identity of the people in the Mekong Region. The regular celebrations organized for Phra That Phanom relate to the Buddhist fellowship worldwide, and also to the regional popular beliefs and to their intangible expressions. Phra That Phanom, in its current architectural form and artistic style, was not a creation of one or two persons, but a product of regional communities’ collaboration in response to the different situations and needs at the different times over the centuries, leading to a distinct evolution of Relic Stupa architecture. The Stupa's liveliness and its spiritual potency have also been sustained and extended far beyond the area mainly due to the continued steadfastness of the faith of the people.
III. Cologne Cathedral, Germany, a World Heritage Site.
Cologne Cathedral has been listed as the world Heritage under criteria (i), (ii), and (iv).
Built first in the 13th Century and continued in several stages throughout the successive 6 centuries, it has lost the original architectural context, but the faith in Christianity has been retained. It is a masterpiece of Gothic architecture perfectly conceived and executed in all parts so that can be considered "sui generis". An urban ensemble has been created around it since the 19th Century. Pra That That Phnom similarly exhibits the same strength and endurance of faith in the Buddhist tradition. The Stupa is also a masterpiece of a Buddhist Relics Monuments. Built, restored, and embellished over the centuries by devoted personalities if the region, the Stupa has evolved into a unique and distinct architectural and artistic expression of the people in the region. Unlike any other Stupas in other countries in the world, the restorers have shown humble respect to the traditional decorum of classical Buddhist stupas, while they also have successfully combined into the Monument important symbolic regional elements which are the identity of the Mekong River Basin. Having stood the test of time, wars and natural calamities, it has endured and can also be considered a Sui generis. The Phra That Phanom is as living as the Cologne Cathedral and enjoys the supportive association with the communities surrounding it.
In addition, Phra That Phanom has a traditional sacred connection with its natural setting of Phu Kampra situated at a crossroads of the mighty Mekong River. Lastly, the regional form and style as well as the legend of Phra That Phanom has inspired the construction of many relic stupas in the Northeast of Thailand.