‘HEAD MASSAGE’ by Rosalind Widdowson & Swami Tantramurti Saraswati
‘Head Massage’ was another of our Hamyln commisions. This coincided with our first trip to Thailand on behalf of Skyros Holistic Holidays – a proving run for their proposed venue at the excellent Ao Prao Resort on Koh Samed. In the centre of Bangkok lies the justly famed Wat Pho Temple Complex, home of the Jade Buddha & the Reclining Buddha and Wat Pho School for Traditional Medicine and Massage. Ros and I visited and explored Wat Pho and found lots of inspiration.
A Bit of History (wikipedia)
Wat Pho is named after a monastery in India where Buddha is believed to have lived. Prior to the temple’s founding, the site was a centre of education for traditional Thai medicine, and statues were created showing yoga positions. An enormous Buddha image fromAyuthaya’s Wat Phra Si Sanphet was destroyed by the Burmese in 1767; KingRami I (1782-1809 A.D.) incorporated its fragments to build a temple to enlarge and renovate the complex. The complex underwent many changes in the next 260 years. Under King Rama III (1824-1851 A.D.), plaques inscribed with medical texts were placed around the temple.These received recognition in theMemory f the World Programme launched by UNESCO on February 21, 2008.Adjacent to the building housing the Reclining Buddha is in a small raised garden, the centrepiece being a bodhi tree which is propagated from the original tree in India where Buddha sat while awaiting enlightenment. The temple was created as a restoration of an earlier temple on the same site, Wat Phodharam, with the work beginning in 1788. The temple was restored and extended in the reign of King Rama III, and was restored again in 1982.
The Temple Complex
Wat Pho is one of the largest and oldestwats in Bangkok (with an area of 50 rai, 80,000 square metres),and is home to more than one thousand Buddha images, as well as one of the largest single Buddha images of 160 ft length: the Reclining Buddha (Phra Buddhasaiyas, Thai พระพุทธไสยาสน์). The Wat Pho complex consists of two walled compounds bisected by Soi Chetuphon running east–west. The northern walled compound is where the reclining Buddha and massage school are found. The southern walled compound, Tukgawee, is a working Buddhist monastery with monks in residence and a school. Outside the temple, the grounds contain 91 chedis (stupas or mounds), four viharas (halls) and a bot (central shrine). 71 chedis of smaller size contains the ashes of the royal family, and 21 large ones contain the ashes of Buddha.The four chedis are dedicated to the four Chakri kings. The temple has sixteen gates around the complex guarded by Chinese giants carved out of rocks. These statues were originally imported as ballast on ship trading with China.
The outer cloister has images of 400 Buddhas out of the 1200 originally bought by king Rama V. In terms of architecture, these are varied in different styles and postures, but these are evenly mounted on matching gilded pedestals.The main temple is raised in marble platform punctuated by mythological lions in the gateways. The exterior balustrade has around 150 depictions of the epic. Ramakien, the ultimate message of which is transedence from secular to spiritual dimensions.
The Reclining Buddha
The image of Reclining Buddha is 15 m high and 43 m long with his right arm supporting the head with tight curls on two box-pillows of blue, richly encrusted with glass mosaics.The 3 m high and 4.5 m long foot of Buddha displays are inlaid with mother-of-pearl. They are divided into 108 arranged panels, displaying the auspicious symbols by which Buddha can be identified like flowers, dancers, white elephants, tigers and altar accessories. Over the statue is a seven tiered umbrella representing the authority of Thailand.There are 108 bronze bowls in the corridor indicating the 108 auspicious characters of Buddha. People drop coins in these bowls as it is believed to bring good fortune, and to help the monks maintain the wat. Though the reclining Buddha is not a pilgrimage centre, it remains an object of popular piety.
The temple is considered the first public university of Thailand, teaching students in the fields of religion, science and literature through murals and sculptures. In 1962 a school for traditional medicine and massage was established. The temple is home to one of the earliest Thai massage schools. Traditional Thai massage and medicine is taught at the Traditional Medical Practitioners Association Center, an open air hall outside the temple.For Thai massage therapists, the medical inscription inside the temple acts as a base for treatment.
It is popular for visitors to experience a relaxing and beneficial Thai massage when visiting the temple, but there is also the option to learn the techniques that have made Thai massage famed throughout the world. The length and difficulty of your course can vary from a five day introduction to Thai massage, right through to a 30 day professional massage therapy course.
The ancient practice of applying pressure along the muscular and nervous system has been used in Thailand since before the Sukhothai period in the 12th century, but methods and practices were continually improved until finally the centre of knowledge came to rest at Wat Pho (Phra Chettuphon Wimon Mangkhlaram Ratchaworamahawihan) in Bangkok.
In fact, this was the first centre of higher learning in Thailand and within the temple there are many tablets inscribed with instructions for practicing Thai massage and a pharmacopeia with over 1000 herbal cures listed for a range of ailments. Best of all, all the necessary herbs and ingredients were planted in and around the temple and available to everyone.
Following a visit to the temple by King Rama 9, the abbot of Wat Pho was asked to create a formal school from which to teach four traditional courses: Pharmacy, Medical Practice, Midwifery and Massage. In turn, WatPo Thai Traditional Medical and Massage School was opened in 1955. Even though the school has since expanded to four separate locations, Khun Serat, the manager of Wat Pho Massage School, is the grandson of the founder and most of the teachers are second or third generation practitioners of Thai massage. The Chetawan Wat Po Thai Traditional Medical School recently outgrew its premises inside the temple and moved across the road, but still close enough to hear the monks chanting their morning prayers.
The Wat Pho Sen Plaques
60 inscribed plaques (30 each for the front and back of human body), decorate (above head height) in the interior roof line of some of the buildings on the grounds. Therapeutic points and energy pathways known as sen meridians were engraved and the explanations were carved on the walls next to the plaques.
Medicine Buddha Yoga Statues
In the course of our exploration of the grounds of the Wat Po medical school, I spotted this unusual statue and quite a few more. I was informed they were depictions of the Medicine Buddha and each posture was a practical and very visual teaching aid. This Medicine Buddha is demonstrating how to relieve vata that causes migraines. Apparently in the past there had been up to 79 of these fine instructive statues but, over time, visiting villagers were so taken with them they took them back to their villages. Only 24 of the original complement remain intact and on location. The remainder are now depicted solely in drawing form (post to follow).
Final Prayers at the Erawan Shrine (ศาลพระพรหม, San Phra Phrom)
No visit to Thailand would be complete without paying your respects at the Hindu shrine in the middle of Bangkok’s main routes and at a busy intersection. This is one beloved of local Thais who offer aspirant prayers for matters varying through all the wishes of the human heart, from success in exams to intercession for the ill and dying and, with the Thai’s sure compassion, the help and healing of the whole world.
We paid a modest amount for incense and a small troop of tradionally-dressed dancers and musicians to augment our prayers for family, friends and students. For some reason they asked Ros for her name. The band broke into a mad ’dink-dink-donk-boing’ instrumental with great fervour and the maidens began their charming and courtly dance, sinuous bodies adding gold-star extras to our entreaties. Mid-dance we were startled when they started (wailing/singing prettily) . . . “Widdowson, Widdowson . . . Widdowson ”
With the four-faced Brahma (Phra Phrom) statue duly propitiated we made our way home, ready for the pre-shoots. And we made it back safely that only goes to prove our prayers were answered and we owe him a basket of fine fruit or we’ll have to run round the plaza naked like the Thai woman who’d done it the week before we artrived. In prayer lore this shows God how much you were prepared to risk when you made your fervent request.
Our Shibumi-inspired Pre-Shoot by Sammy Southall and Hi-Ki students.