memories of family outings.....


The Strange tale of Indra's Pillar

It came as a surprise . 

" Men only " said a forbidding signboard  at the entrance to the first shrine  inside the Wat ChediLuang Varaviharn complex in Chiang Mai  . Why was Buddha  being uncharacteristically partial here ?

It turned out that the shrine was not for Buddha , but for The Pillar of Indra !  ( Sao Inthakin ) ; also called The City Pillar. An object so very holy that the biology of women is seen as  a problem in keeping that holiness intact . See signboard . 

But  no ,woman, no cry ! We are not missing much. Indra's Pillar is  secured in an underground vault below the alter , with only the Buddha installed above it  accesible even to the men who enter  ! 

What is a City Pillar ? And what is Indra's role in it ? 

It took some reading in the hotel's excellent library  , some  running around minor Wats and  a serendipitous  visit to a not so popular museum to get the full picture. 

Today's Chiang Mai region was once the independent Kingdom of Lanna ( Anachak Lan Na = Kingdom of a Million Rice Fields ) Before Lanna originated in 1262 CE , the land was inhabited by  The Lua : An indianised tribe , following animistic beliefs , living in one with Nature . 

( Indra , outside the vihara , under the protective tree. )

A Lua Legend : Indra , the king of heaven , gifted three wells , a well of gold , a well of silver and a well of crystal to The Lua ,who had pleased him with their virtuous living . They were instructed to help themselves to only so much of the treasures from the wells as was required for their needs and to continue leading virtuous lives . The Lua followed the dictum and were happy. But their prosperity drew the attention of  the  neighbouring lands and those tribes attacked The Lua to seize the Wells .  Indra, their saviour ,  hurled down a Pillar  from heaven , dispersing the enemies . 

But  contact  with evil minded people had wrought undesirable consequences .  Evil ambition started rearing its ugly head  among some Lua and soon there was strife within the community . Whereupon , two Giants ,  Indra's minions , took away the magical , protective Pillar,  and with that,  the wells lost their magic too . 

When people realised their folly , they begged Indra for mercy and return of the Pillar . He refused . But relenting a bit , he instructed them to make their own City Pillar  -which he would bless- and erect it over a mound , under which they were to bury " an iron wok containing clay  images of all life forms ( a male and a female each  ) " . That done , the tribe  prospered again . The end. 

What  became of this tribe is not known . But when King Mangrai , who established the Lanna Dynasty , chose a  place to build his new capital , Chiang Mai , in 1296 , an old sage from the Lua tribe told him about the Pillar , which was The Guardian Spirit of the land . Being respectful of the local tradition , The King commissioned a new City Pillar  and had it consecrated  in a shrine , with all due honours , at a point calculated to be the Navel of the Kingdom . This site is now The Wat Inthakin Sadue Muang . 

(The Chedi of Sadue Muang )

The fortune of The Kingdom of Lanna was riddled by frequent strife with neighbours , Burma , Laos and Siam . It eventually  fell to the  Burmese and went to ruin . Some wise traditionalists attributed this downfall  to disrespect shown to Indra's Pillar ! 

A little before 1800 , King Kawila wrested the kingdom back and became a vassal to the Kingdom of Siam, later integrating into it too. 

As the Sadue Muang shrine was ruined, he shifted the City Pillar to a new (present) shrine in the Wat Chedi Luang complex. He surrounded the shrine with shrines to the Guardians of the pillar viz, the Giants and Airawat . He also planted three huge trees by the shrine , as talismans . It is believed to this day that if one of them were to crash down , that would be  the end of Chiang Mai ! The trees are enormous , standing proud and erect , with prayer - infused  support poles, offered by generations of ardent worshippers,  surrounding the trunks at the  base .  They are not going to fall anytime soon.......

( Guardian Tree )

( Guardian Giant) 

Back to Indra's Pillar ......what is it ? A pole , an oblisk , a stele, a totem , a phallic symbol ? 

The replica kept in the Sadue Muang shrine ( accessible to all , by the way ! ) looks like this -below ......A four faced shaft . Very reminiscent of the Pashupatinath icon . 

(Replica of Indra's Pillar in Wat Sadue Muang ) 

An old oral legend of the Lua mentions that when Indra granted the three magical wells to the tribe , he created a town named Jaturmook for them. 

Thats Chatur mukh ! 

Then a visit to a quiet " Folklife" museum , housed in a handsome early 20 th century building , reveals tidbits of interesting info.  The idea of a City Pillar, it turns out , is not unique to Chiang Mai after all ! All important  cities of all dynasties in and around Siam have always had a  sacred City Pillar !  The Lanna people had the tradition of erecting  a tall pole with The Hawk Eye symbol at town gate and sometimes their homes too as an auspicious or protective talisman .

( the Hawk Eye pole of the ancient Lanna , in the FolkLife museum) 

Though not all City Pillars  are as famous as The Inthakin of Chiang Mai or the colourful 8 day Inthakin Festival honouring it . 

A tradition is shared by many eastern cultures whereby a Pole  , symbolising an Umbelical cord  connecting Heaven and Earth , is erected to inaugurate any building enterprise - be it a temple or a new  city......

It brings to mind the Pandal kaal ceremony that inaugurates all preparation for a wedding in tamil land . This is also a ceremonial  pole , sanctified , that will become one of the supports for the wedding pavilion to be erected . 

In the meanwhile , Indra continues to enjoy much respect and worship among Thais . He adorns the Official Seal of Bangkok . His images, big and small ,  are enshrined all over the place .....and in Chiang Mai , his Pillar forms centerpiece of a huge, splashy Festival that has become a crowd puller and Tourist attraction. 

Indra on Airawat seen on the official seal of Bangkok .

A copy of the " Map of Lan-Na " ( 8 th Century ) 

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