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Wat That Luang (built 1818)

Wat That Luang (Tat Luang) Rasamahavihane, the "Monastery of the Royal Stupa" has long been associated with the royalty of Luang Prabang, but there are interesting stories about the site even before the construction of the present wat. Although there is no supporting historical evidence, legend suggests that an early monastery on the site originated from a visit by Buddhist missionaries sent by Asoka, the third century B. C. proselyzing Indian king. Relics from the early 12th century have been uncovered, though they may have originated from a site in modern-day northern Thailand. Some of the town's earliest monasteries, including Wat Pasamamm (the first wat built in the kingdom) and Wat Keo Fa, no longer extant, were located in this area. The prestige of That Luang thus may have been enhanced from its location near these earlier Buddhist sites or perhaps even from its elevated location on a rise overlooking the esplanade.

The present sim or vihan, facing to the northeast, was constructed on a small hill south of the city in 1818 during the reign of King Manthaturat (r. 1817-1836). It perhaps was built partially from branches of a bodhi tree located near Wat Keo Fa. The style of the sim is related to that of wats Wisunalot and Mai with a central two-sided roof above the nave and another lower roof encircling the entire building. The sim has gables on both the northeast and southwest sides. There are three entry doors at the front, and the large main hall is divided into three corresponding parts by a double row of large squared stenciled columns with flaring gilded lotus capitals. There are no porches or verandas; nor are there the swooping rooflines that are common to many wats in Luang Prabang. The large bronze and gilded Buddha in the nave is a focal point. It was transferred from the now defunct Wat Aham Mungkhun, located a short distance from That Luang. It weighs approximately 600 kg.

That Luang has long been one of the important ritual sites for Buddhist, folk and royal ceremonials. The Festival of the 12th month, or Tat, blends these three elements. In the past it was formally presided over by the king, who sat on a special elevated platform overlooking the esplanade. This open field historically was used for royal cremations. One cremation, that of King Oun Kham in 1896, proved the marvels of new technology. It was tradition that the pyre be lit with fire from the capital city, which with the new French colonial government, was then Paris. A generator installed at the wat received a spark from the telegraph wires that connected it to Paris. The ceremony was held.

There are two large stupas on the grounds. The golden funerary stupa in front of the sim contains the ashes of the popular and last crowned Laotian king, Sisivang Vong (r. 1904 -1959). It is the site of annual memorial commemorations. The Grand Stupa, which towers over the rear of the sim, dates from 1818 and is said to contain relics of the Buddha. The Wat also contains a number of smaller stupas that contain ashes of kings, other members of the royal family and a variety of other dignitaries. The wat has one of the city's larger communities of monks and novices, and there are a number of traditionally styled living quarters (kuti) on the grounds.

Text by Robert D. Fiala, Concordia University, Nebraska, USA


All images copyright 2005 by Robert D. Fiala, Concordia University, Nebraska, USA.

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