21 May 2024

Four years ago, a century of dirt, black mold and bird poop covered the archaeological treasures at Mon Cham Sin Buddhist temple in Lampang province in Thailand’s North. Now, the nineteenth-century monastery has been restored, revealing the beauty of the Burmese architecture that its builders would have seen hundreds of years ago.

The temple of Wat Mon Cham Sin is perched on a hill overlooking downtown Lampang. It has served as a spiritual centre for ethnic groups who were originally from Myanmar. Between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, their forefathers migrated south from Myanmar to establish their families and businesses in Lampang Province and temples were later built in Burmese style so the people could reconnect with their homeland.

The Buddha hall restored to all its glory with ornate ceilings. (Photo by the Fine Arts Department)

There are no records of Wat Mon Cham Sin’s origins before 1850. The temple was built on the site of an ancient monastery, according to the legend, when a Burmese warlord (who happened to be a friend of the ruler of Lampang) left the military after a defeat and became a priest to atone for the deaths of 500 troops. From time to time, the temple was restored by the Burmese descendants. In 1881, the wooden monastery – or “Kyaong” in Burmese – was built and added a bold statement on Burmese architecture to the temple compound.

Time flies and the temple falls

The monastery certainly survived more than a century, but it was in poor condition. The multi-tiered roof had been ripped apart, and wood panels and windows had been broken or coated with a century’s worth of bird poop and grime. It was difficult for the untrained eye to discern what was once beautiful. But the archaeologist could make out why the ruined Kyaong, the Burmese monastery of Wat Mon Cham Sin Temple, is significant.

The monastery had survived for more than a century, but was in a state of rack and ruin. (Photo by the Fine Arts Department)

“When I arrived at Wat Mon Cham Sin Temple for the first time, the monastery was in a state of ruin. I couldn’t stand on the upper floor because there wasn’t even a single floorboard left. The wood planks had gone for good, leaving only bare floor joists to hold the building in one piece,” Therdsak Yenjira, chief archaeologist at Chiang Mai’s Seventh Regional Office of the Fine Arts Department (FAD), said of an observation trip he made in 2018. “I remember climbing over the poles to get a clear picture of the restoration.”

The monastery restoration began in 2018. It took about four years of painstaking work, including recreating lost parts, preserving historic pieces, and bringing it up to current architectural standards. However, the restoration has been well worth the effort. Not only does the monastery represent the pinnacle of Burmese architecture, but it’s also a testament to the Burmese who settled in Lampang between cross-border trading in the eighteenth century and the boom of teak industry in the nineteenth. And not only the flooring and roofing have been restored, but the nineteenth-century monastery of Wat Mon Cham Sin has now had new life breathed into it.

Restoration of the nineteenth-century monastery of Wat Mon Cham Sin has breathed new life into it. (Photo by the Fine Arts Department)

Hierarchy in the monastery

The Burmese monastery, known as “Kyaung” in Myanmar or “Chong” in northern Thailand, is similar to a vihara at a Buddhist temple in Thailand. The Kyaung is made up of the domestic quarters and workplaces of Buddhist monks, nuns, and lay attendants. The monastery makes the hierarchy very clear. At Wat Mon Chong, the monastery is spectacular with multi-tiered roofs in pyramidal shape. The highest roof is directly above the Buddha image, and the second is well above the monk’s space. The general public, on the other hand, would have been under the single-tiered roof. The floorplan, too, follows a hierarchy, with the Buddha at the top part. The monk quarters are on the second, while the lay people are on the lowest part.

After a century of ruin and four years of restoration, the newly restored Kyaung of Wat Mon Cham Sin is open to visitors, revealing the beauty that people 142 years ago may have seen. On one hand, you have the heritage building, artwork, traditional woodcraft and glass decoration and statutes, and on the other, you have the story of the Burmese in Lampang.

By VeenaThoopkrajae

The monastery restoration took four years of painstaking work including recreating lost parts and bringing it up to current architectural standards. (Photo by the Fine Arts Department)