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MEETINGS 2006


280th Meeting - Tuesday, November 21st 2006 

'The Jewel of Suvannaphoum: 

Unraveling the Mystery of the Emerald Buddha' 

A talk and DVD video presentation by Reinhard Hohler

Present: Horst Schneider, Ray Kaulig, Louis Gabaude, Michael Tuckson, Bonnie Brereton, Gary Suwannarat, Bodil Blokker, Renee Vines, Dianne & Mark, Barber-Riley, Marilyn Karr, Janey Bennett, Ken Dyer, Siripan & Tony Kidd, William Lee, Glynn Morgan, Christina Fink, Aileen Roantree, Hedy Jentsch, Jay Rabin, Guy Cardinal, Ratchada Koovuthyakorn, a Thai person, Jim Goodman, Oliver Hargreave, John Cadet, Khin San Hiwe, Maybel Htoo, Toe Toe, Dang Jar, Simone Buys, June Sperring, Bea Camp, David Summers, Shane Beary, Thomas Ohlson. An audience of 37.

Introduction

The documentary was produced in 1989, when Reinhard Hohler led a German ZDF television channel film team across Thailand to unravel the mystery of the Emerald Buddha. The film Reinhard showed this evening was a recently released American edition, with an English language narrative. Reinhard was the author of the film and was responsible for putting together the story and choosing the different shooting locations. The production team traveled thousands of kilometres across Thailand, visiting such places as the Spirit Cave in the North, Ban Chiang in the Northeast, and Nakhon Si Thammarat in the South. The highlight at the end of the one-month journey was to film the ceremony in which H.M. King Bhumibol Adulyadej changed the robes of the Emerald Buddha in Bangkok's Wat Phra Keo.

The film examines some of the speculations about where the Emerald Buddha came from and the history of the stone used to create it. This year, H.M. King Bhumibol Adulyadej celebrates the 60th anniversary of his accession to the throne. The film "The Jewel of Suwannaphum" clearly establishes the relationship of the King with the Emerald Buddha, which is the spiritual source of power to his reign. The film will be a valuable historical document for many generations to come.

Reinhard's introduction to the film was drawn from two magazine articles that he has recently had published.

The History of Suvannaphoum

By Reinhard Hohler, Chiang Mai (August 8th 2006)

In ancient times, merchants and Brahmins from the Indian Subcontinent sailed to a destination called "Suvannaphoum" to explore and trade with the people in what is today's South East Asia. They brought with them aspects of Indian civilisation, which blended well with local cultures and beliefs. The long-term impact of these voyages resulted in the acceptance of philosophical thoughts, religions, political and administrative systems, concepts of law, arts and most important of all, Sanskrit language and literature.

India's contact with Suvannaphoum (Suvarnabhumi in Sanskrit) or "Land of Gold" goes back 4,000-5,000 years. Legends tell that merchants had visited the Buddha after his enlightenment in India and brought back lockets of his hair as relics to enshrine in pagodas. Some stories also suggest that the Buddha travelled the world and reached areas in today's China's Yunnan Province, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. The communication increased when Buddhist missionaries travelled to Southeast Asia to spread the Buddha's teachings.

During the 3rd century B.C. King Ashoka had sent the missionary monks Sona and Uttara to Suvannaphoum. It is assumed that they landed in the ancient city of Thaton, a city of the Mon people in the southern part of Burma. That is why Burmese historians claim that Burma was Suvannaphoum. Most modern scholars agree that Suvannaphoum was a loose confederation of kingdoms, stretching from the land of the Mon people in Southern Burma to areas in present-day Thailand and Vietnam.

In Thailand many historians believe that Nakhon Pathom, west of Bangkok, ought to be the capital of Suvannaphoum. They point out that Nakhon Pathom was then nearer to the sea than it is now, thus rendering communication easy with distant lands. Actually many relics have been found there, such as wheels-of-law in stone and inscribed votive tablets. Furthermore, the original Nakhon Pathom Chedi was restored several times and resembled the great stupa at Sanchi in India, which dates back to Ashoka's time. A thousand years later, when Chinese scholars visited the place in the 7th century Nakhon Pathom was part of Mon Dvaravati.

Further to the east there existed the Kingdom of Funan, which was historically known as a powerful trade centre. According to Chinese history, Funan - meaning south of the mountains - was located in the fertile Mekong Delta. Excavations at the site of Oc Eo in Southern Vietnam reveal a rich culture. From 1st - 6th centuries, Oc Eo was part of a larger political entity, with a capital further inland. The sketchy report that has survived mentions walled villages, palaces and dwellings. Mon people made gold rings, bracelets and silver plates. Taxes were paid in gold, silver and perfumes. There were books and depositories of archives and other things.

When trade with China and India declined, the political power shifted to the Tonle Sap Lake in Cambodia, where the Khmer Empire of Angkor arose. In the 15th century, the riches of gold wandered to Ayutthaya in Central Thailand, and finally to Burma, where most of the gold was attached to the famous Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon. The memory of Suvannaphoum faded away with the modern Vietnamese, Khmer, Thai and Burmese people. Only in Laos was there a collective memory of the tradition to preserve and up-keep the name Suvannaphoum into modern times.

Interestingly, there is a district town named Suvannaphoum in Thailand's Isan Province of Roi Et, and just recently H.M. King Bhumibol Adulyadej designated the new International Airport in Bangkok with the name Suvarnabhumi - in memory of the Golden Land. Today, Suvannaphoum will again attract foreign visitors from around the world.

The Emerald Buddha of Suvannaphoum

By Reinhard Hohler, Chiang Mai (September 14th 2005)

Three times a year, at the beginning of each season, King Bhumibol Adulyadej changes the robes of the Emerald Buddha in Bangkok's Wat Phra Keo. While the Emerald Buddha, which is only 66 cm tall, is the most revered religious Buddha image in Thailand, its origin and its sculptor are unknown.

The "green" Buddha image is venerated as the palladium of the Kingdom of Thailand and is believed to bring prosperity and protection to the country. It also believed to guarantee the annual rains needed for the rice growing cycle. Thus, it is intimately connected with Suvannaphoum - the fabulous "Golden Land".

According to one of the Pali palm-leaf manuscripts of the Chronicle of the Emerald Buddha, translated by French Consul Emille Notton in 1932, the Emerald Buddha first appeared in India some 2,000 years ago. Later, its legendary voyage took it to Sri Lanka, Bagan, Angkor, and the ancient Thai capital of Ayutthaya. It miraculously resurfaced in Chiang Rai in 1434 and travelled via Lampang to Chiang Mai. From Chiang Mai, it was transferred to Luang Phrabang and Vientiane, from where, in 1778, it was taken to Thonburi and finally to Bangkok, its present resting place.

There are a myriad of long-time speculations concerning where the Buddha image came from and the history behind the stone that was used to carve it. Since the reign of King Rama IV (1851-1868), it has been acknowledged that the Emerald Buddha was made of jade. Jade is mined in Burma's Kachin State and traded to China even more than gold. It seems that this ongoing jade trade has been one of the sources of Chiang Mai and Thailand's prosperity for centuries.

Jade is called the stone of heaven and has been known for thousands of years, especially in China. It is interesting to note that the Chinese characters for king and jade are identical. Jade comes in two major kinds: nephrite and jadeite, the latter being the harder one to carve. Good jadeite is much rarer than good nephrite and it is called imperial jade by the Chinese to command prices equivalent to those of good emerald in the gem market.

Strangely enough, most of the jade used in China for most of the enormous span of history involved was nephrite and came from the ancient trading centres of Khotan and Yarkand near the Kunlun Mountains in Eastern Turkestan, what is today China's Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. From the trading post of Kashgar, camel caravans made their way eastward along the Silk Road.

Jadeite from Burma's Kachin State did not reach China until the 18th century. Canton was the centre of this new trade, although much of the material was cut in Shanghai and Beijing.

Today, jadeite is transported on elephant and mule caravans through Burma's Shan State to reach Chiang Mai in Thailand. This secretive trade has gone on for a long time and today extends even farther to Bangkok and Hong Kong.

It would be intriguing to know if the Emerald Buddha in the Grand Palace in Bangkok was carved out from a piece of nephrite or jadeite. Or is it made of some other material? No matter how much there is a discussion about it, for the time being, jade is destined to remain a stone of legend and mystery.

Reinhard Hohler is a PhD candidate in ethnology at Heidelberg University in Germany. For further information about "The Jewel of Suwannaphum", please contact Reinhard by e-mail sara@cmnet.co.th

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