Yesterday’s Wordless Wednesday post was a photo of the Golden Buddha known as Phra Phuttha Maha Suwana Patimakon or Phra Sukhothai Traimit for short. I visited this famous statue in 2013 at Wat Traimit temple in the Chinatown District of Bangkok. After doing a bit of research on the buddha for yesterday’s post, today I felt compelled to share the story of this incredibly beautiful and nearly priceless statue. It is a story shaped by mystery, conquest, and fate. This saga reminds me of the Humphrey Bogart movie The Maltese Falcon.
There is no mystery as to the Golden Buddha’s impressive physical properties. It stands three-meters tall, weighs 6.1 tons (short tons), and is made of solid gold. It is the largest solid gold buddha statue in the world. At today’s prices, the gold in this statue is worth nearly $350,000,000.
The origin of the Golden Buddha is unknown. Some scholars claim that a verse from the Ram Khamhaeng stele, the oldest record of Thai script, indicates that the statue was designed between the 13th and 14th centuries, during the Sukhothai Dynasty. The Buddha’s egg-shaped face and other features are also typical of or influenced by the Sukhothai period. However, the statue could also have been cast during the following Ayutthaya period.
We know that the Golden Buddha was located in Ayutthaya sometime after it became the capital of Thailand in 1403 A.D. During that period, Burmese warriors invaded Thailand several times. Burmese invaders were notorious for sacking temples and removing the items of value. In 1767, during the Burmese-Siamese War, the Siamese covered the Golden Buddha with terracotta and colored glass to hide its true value.
The disguise worked and the Golden Buddha survived when the Burmese destroyed Ayutthaya and its temples and made off with any valuable items they could find. The golden statue, however, stood hidden and anonymous among the ruins of Ayutthaya for many years. The world would not learn of the existence of the Golden Buddha for centuries.
In 1782, King Rama I established Bangkok as the new capital city of the Ayutthaya Kingdom. He ordered that old statues of Buddha from around the country be moved to the new capital. And so at some point in the early 1800s, the ordinary looking statue that contained the Golden Buddha was moved 60 miles (96 km) south to Bangkok via the Chao Phraya River .
Still disguised, the statue served as the primary Buddha statue in Bangkok’s Wat Chotanaram. The temple gradually fell into a state of disrepair and disuse and was closed. The statue was moved to its present location at the nearby Wat Traimit in 1935. At the time, Wat Traimit was a pagoda of minor significance. Since the temple didn’t have a building big enough to house the statue, the Golden Buddha statue was kept for 20 years under a simple tin roof. The true identity, value and importance of this Buddha statue had been forgotten long ago.
Eventually, a new building was constructed for the statue at Wat Traimit. It was to be moved to its new location on May 25, 1955. During the attempt to lift the statue from its pedestal, the ropes broke and the statue fell to the ground chipping off a portion of the stucco and revealing the gold underneath.
After carefully removing all of the plaster, it was found that the Buddha statue actually consisted of nine solid-gold sections that fit together perfectly. A key was also found at its base. The key “unlocked” the statue to allow disassembling the sections for easier transportation.
The Golden Buddha’s true nature was revealed at the beginning of the year 2500 of the Buddhist calendar — the 25th Buddhist Era — which started on the day of Siddhartha Gautama passing. News reporters and pious Buddhists flocked to the Golden Buddha to marvel at the discovery.
The timing of the discovery combined with the fact that such a valuable artifact survived invaders and managed to remain a secret for so long led many Thai Buddhists to view the Golden Buddha as miraculous.
In February 2010, a four-story building was opened at the Wat Traimit Temple to house the Golden Buddha. The building also contains the Bangkok Chinatown Heritage Centre and an exhibition on the origin of the Gold Buddha.
The temple is open to the public. Visitors from all over the world can examine the statue and experience this astonishing treasure. There are very informative exhibits on the history of the statue and how its secret was discovered.
It is a miracle that such a valuable statue was not discovered when the Burmese sacked Ayutthaya and managed to remain hidden for almost 300 years. If you visit Bangkok, be sure to pay a visit to Wat Traimit to see the Golden Buddha and learn about its amazing story. And fans of snappy dialogue, detective stories, and fast moving plots should also check out the movie The Maltese Falcon.