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 .
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 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 )
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 .
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 .
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 )