2 March 2014
The long walk of the white elephant
The white elephant had been released into the jungle. Yes, a white elephant – with a relic of the Buddha attached to its back. We’re in the 1370s of this era, times when Islam reached Malaysia, the Ming dynasty just started in China and Scotland won back its independence after two long wars against England. King Nu Naome of the Lanna Kingdom, of what is part of Thailand today, was looking for a sign, some kind of revelation.
The elephant marched on for weeks, in the jungle, before it slowly climbed up a mountain west of Chiang Mai. I gather the long and winding road that was first built half a millenium later probably wasn’t too far off from the elephant’s own path. I wasn’t on an elephant when I went up that same mountain, but on a scooter, so elephant jokes naturally come to (my twisted) mind, such as “how do you put five elephants on a motorcycle?”.
Back to my white elephant. When it reached the peak of the granite mountain, perched at 1,676 metres, it trumpeted three times, laid down slowly, closed its eyes – and expired its last breath. “Eureka!”, exclaimed the King, “this is where I shall build a temple”. And that’s how the Doi Suthep temple was born, bearing the name of the mountain it was constructed upon, becoming one of northern Thailand’s most sacred temples.
In July every year, ten thousand students retrace the elephant’s footsteps and its long walk on foot so they can embrace the spirit of the city, believed to reside in the mountain, pay their respects to the Buddhist relic, and on the way introduce themselves to each other.
On that new year’s eve when I was there, the sound of music could be heard from the entrance of the temple grounds – an entrance that is reached after climbing the 300 steps of a naga-balustrade staircase. Costumed children were dancing (check out a previous story), temporary monks were playing with big bells, and pilgrims continued their way towards the main cloisters, attracted to the gold-plated chedi (or stupa) in which the Buddhist relic is enshrined. Can you notice the five-tiered cylinders at the top of the chedi? They were erected to honour Chiang Mai’s independence from Burma and its union with Thailand. And what about those delightful tinkling bells with heart-shaped metal inscriptions? Fair enough, those little statues of laughing monks are terribly kitsch…
I tried to find a spot where I could stand and discreetly photograph the pilgrims, disciplined in how they entered and exited the loop of other pilgrims walking around the chedi, flower in one hand and sometimes the lyrics of their prayers in another. Seeing them going around wasn’t without reminding me of the circumambulation of Muslims around the Kaaba in Mecca (which is unfortunately not open to non-worshippers). It’s interesting to note that the act of moving around a sacred object is somewhat common to most religions.
I however didn’t get to verify the relic’s magical powers, being apparently able to glow, vanish, move itself or even replicate itself – in fact, the relic at Doi Suthep is supposed to be the smaller duplicate of the original. What? Of course this is true! Okay, I’ll admit another king back in the days wasn’t convinced either and let the monk, who claimed the relic came from the Buddha’s shoulder bone, bring it to the aforementioned king. And the elephant being white? Come on, there’s even a statue to prove it! Tsk tsk.