There we were in Chaing Rai, a rather nondescript town in northern Thailand, with an afternoon to spare. Paul said, “Why not take a tuc-tuc to go and see the White Temple?” Why not? So off we went 12km. out of town. We had read about it in our guide book. Construction still in progress since 1997, it is the brainchild of Thai artist, Chalermchai Kositpipat. The exterior is white-painted stucco with shards of clear mirror inset.
(Click on the image to see it enlarged) In the first moments we realize that we have stumbled into something special. This is inspired art and skilled artisanship. The first thing we come across is sculpted heads hanging in a small tree trailing beards of lichen.
The entrance to the temple is a small arched bridge between two reflecting pools. Before the bridge the way crosses a sea of hands reaching up. They are bordered by a fence of skulls and grotesque heads entwined in vines. The handrails of the bridge are Nagas: snakes eating snakes eating snakes. Here the heads of the nagas are human form, male on the left, female on the right. The male has a penis with a face on the tip. All is glittering as the sun is reflected in the mirrored edges. We pass between two giant tusks covered in mirror mosaic. The front of the temple itself is covered in scrolls and dragon heads, glittering but not gold like other temples.
We enter the temple with no great expectations: the outside, so amazing, must be where all the creative energy is spent. My assumption seems to be confirmed as we see before us a mural of Buddha meditating. But then we turn around to face the door we entered and see the mural of Samsara, the world of illusion, the world of good and evil and the cycle of death and rebirth.
The whole is the face of a demon. His round eyes reveal shadowy images of George Bush on one side and Osama bin Laden on the other. The devils here are in the details. There is an image of the twin towers, one exploding as a plane hits. From them comes a hose curling round to a nozzle dripping oil into the mouths of addicts. This inspired creator of a new sort of Buddhist temple understands global politics and how the reactive ego of nations and their leaders leads to trouble in the world. (Two days after 9-11 I knew that we were entering an era of darkness when Bush said, “We have the right to retaliate.”)
We move on from the temple and find two opportunities to donate/participate. One is to buy a pendant, write our names on it and hang it on a pole with thousands of others. The other is a sort of wishing well where coins in a pool shimmered in gold and silver under bright lights.
We visit two galleries. The first is full of paintings and sculptures of Ganesh, the Hindu elephant god. In Thailand, Ganesh is regarded as a remover of obstacles, the god of success. The second gallery, entitled ‘Master works” is filled with fantasy paintings. It leads into a gift shop where we find a booklet telling the story of the artist and his work. He has funded the project himself through sale of his paintings and small donations. He is not beholden to any wealthy backers, aware that only this way can he have artistic freedom. He is surrounded by a team of volunteers/apprentices.
I see this man is a hero for our times, an enlightened master of our generation showing us what is possible. There is neither entrance fee nor push for donations. This comes as a gift from the artist, who has dedicated his life to this project, offering beauty and harmony in response to violence. Thank you so much.