wat po

History of Wat Po

The instructor who taught our group Thai massage was educated at Wat Po in Bangkok.  From what I read before I went, Wat Po is the oldest and largest temple complex in Bangkok… it is also the first place in the country to teach Thai massage.  It wasn’t until I went to Bangkok that I realized the magnificence of not only the buildings themselves, but the history behind them. 
The story of Wat Po begins in Ayudhaya, a magnificent city of tremendous size and beauty that was the national capital of Thailand for over four centuries.  Ayudhaya, which housed art, architecture, and an elaborate assortment of healing modalities passed down for over two thousand years, fell to an invading Burmese army in 1767.  Apparently this battle was the culmination of decades of armed conflict between the two countries. The once glorious city was destroyed.  The king and his army fled from the ruins, traveling south where he declared the site of the new Royal Palace and capital city to be built adjacent to the temples of Wat Po.  King Rama I then ordered the renovation of Wat Po or Wat Potharam and renamed it "Wat Phra Chetupon Wimonmangklaram"… though it is still called “Wat Po” possibly to make it easier to print on souvenir items.  Wat Po then became the center for learning Thai massage.  This was the information I gathered from various web pages and history segments in my “National Geographic Thailand Travel Guide”.  It wasn’t until I went to Bangkok during my second week in Thailand that I realized the depth of the history behind the creation of Wat Po and its dedication to the survival of Thai Massage.  

What the brief histories and travel guides failed illustrate was the immense loss of knowledge caused by the savage and violent massacre of Ayudhaya by the Burmese army.  At the time of the attack, Ayudhaya was an enormous city with beautiful architecture, Buddhist temples, art, and eastern medical knowledge absorbed and expanded on for over twenty-five hundred years.  Apparently, the Burmese were not taking over the city to take its land and assume power, their only interest was to loot the temples and palaces for gold, killing thousands upon thousands of men, women, and children along the way… taking others as slaves back to Burma as the city burnt to the ground behind them.  The Buddhist monks, a peaceful people, who studied and practiced the traditional Thai healing arts, fled their temples as the fires erupted around them, though thousands were slaughtered before they could escape.  It was apparent by the shear devastation of the entire city that the Burmese wanted to wipe out the city, its culture, its knowledge, and its people.


(Wat Lokaya Sutharam)

I saw the severity of this attack when I visited the ruins of Ayudhaya.  I figured it would be like going to the ruins of an old temple or civilization covered in overgrowth from years of being abandoned.  What I found was much different.  Two of my friends and I traveled to three different sites.  The first temple, Wat Lokaya Sutharam, housed a sixty seven foot reclining Buddha.  Now white and open to the elements, it was once covered in gold and housed in a beautiful temple.  It was here that I realized that these were not runes from a long lost civilization… they were what remained of a massacre that occurred only two hundred year ago.  The fallen brick and ruined temples looked like pictures I had seen of Warsaw after the Germans invaded in WWII.  When we reached Wihan Phra Mongkhon Bophit, I just sat down and started crying as I looked over the acres and acres of scattered foundations, crumbling walls, and broken footpaths.  I have never seen anything like this except on television or in old war movies.  I have never witnessed the result of a war in person.  Pictures and brief travel log descriptions can’t describe how it feels to look over the ruins of what must have been a catastrophic and horrifying experience for the peaceful people of that city. 
4(Wihan Phra Mongkhon Bophit)
As the fires continue to burn, the story goes on to tell of how the king and his army fled Ayudhaya, traveling south until they reached Wat Po.  The king declared this site to be the new national capital.  Tired and recovering from the devastation of their capital, the Thai people began the construction of the new royal palace and restoration of Wat Po as the new center for the healing arts.  Only fragments of Ayudhaya’s medical texts survived the Burmese invasion.  It wasn’t until years after the attack that King Rama II and King Rama III tried to collect what information they could find on the lost healing arts from scattered documents and knowledge passed down between family members and monasteries.  This knowledge was then cataloged and housed at Wat Po were it became the only remaining source for the Ancient Thai healing techniques.

King Rama III used what knowledge he gathered to create the most important information on these techniques in a series of sixty stone carvings that line the temple walls diagramming the “sen lines”.  Before his death he opened the temple doors for public learning so the information he gathered could be passed on through generations, guaranteeing that it would never be lost again. 


Today, the Thai massage school has outgrown the temple and was moved across the street.  I took the picture below from the roof of the school where you can see the tops of the original temples.1

nside the temple grounds are paintings, statues, and inscriptions that deal with varied subjects like yoga, herbal remedies, and murals depicting the life of Buddha.  Though it is full of tourists, it is still an active monastery where monks come to worship and commune with each other.  Two of which asked to have their picture taken with my friends and I.
I visited the grounds twice.  During my first visit,  I was a bit overwhelmed by all the tourists and didn’t really understand the history behind what I was walking through.  I took pictures of a few Buddha’s and left feeling like I had experienced all there was for me to learn.  After I came back from Ayudhaya, after learning the history of these proud people, I went back to Wat Po with some friends of mine and walked through everything a second time.  This time I felt more connected to the history behind what I was seeing.  This time I walked through the halls, past the statues, monuments, and temples with great respect for the events that lead toward their creation.  2
It is from my experience at Wat Po and Ayudhaya that I am able to appreciate the effort, sacrifice, and determination it took to keep the healing art of Thai massage alive.  Thai massage is not just an important part of the history and heritage of the Thai people, it is an indispensable part of their current medical practice and has grown considerably since the 1950s when it was realized that western medicine was not as superior as they once thought. 






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