Arriving at the rudimentary bus depot, you hire a samlor (tuk-tuk) to take you on to the object of your intentions. While Saraburi holds some interest as a strategic city founded in 1549 by King Maha Chakkraphat of Ayutthaya, there is not much keeping you there and it is outside of the town that a real gem awaits your arrival. The Samlor putters along the dusty highway and the wind whistles through your hair. On the outskirts of town, you draw closer to your destination. After a short while longer, the three-wheeled jalopy slows down, allowing your body to heat up with the lower wind speed. Soon you come to a stop and you disembark at the beginning of a market on the frontier of the temple complex. Walking past stall-holders, a golden spire juts upward into the sky, cutting it like a stiletto. The market ends and a pathway through the temple gates begins. The threshold of Wat Phra Phuttabat, an important Thai pilgrimage site, welcomes you with open arms.
In the early 17th century a hunter called Pram Bun was out in the forest following a wounded deer. As he moved in for the death blow, the deer ran into a hollow and came out completely healed. The astonished Bun went into the hollow himself and discovered a puddle in a rock in the shape of a footprint. The water from the depression cured him of his long-standing skin ailments, a miracle that he quickly reported to others. King Songtham of Ayutthaya excitedly heard the news and quickly came to inspect the footprint. The deeply religious and pro-foreigner king had previously sent a mission of monks to Sri Lanka to view the Sumankut Buddha footprint (Samanala Kanda – now Adam’s Peak). The delegation had returned with the news that the Sri Lankan monks told them of an ancient scripture stating that there was a footprint in Siam also. As Songtham had been searching for a while, the news of the discovery was very welcome to him. Upon seeing the footprint, the king declared it to be the one he had been searching for and a temple was constructed at the site. The original temple built by King Songtham was destroyed by the marauding Burmese forces in the mid-eighteenth century. What you see before you today was built during the Rattanakosin Period of the current Chakri Dynasty and has been expanded many times over the last two hundred years.
You walk past two giant Yak (Yakṣas – ogre-like demons) that guard the gate to the temple compound, and take the path towards famed golden spired Mondop (square ceremonial building). As you walk past him, a monk splashes you with holy water. You stop for a moment and receive a blessing from him before proceeding up a set of steps to the main platform. To the right of the steps is a gallery of bells and you make a note to revisit them on your descent. Thousands of pilgrims flock to the temple every year to cure their ills and make merit: not just Theravāda Buddhists. There is a strong Chinese Mahāyāna Chinese Buddhist presence, and at the top of the steps you enter into a Chinese shrine hall on the left. You see for sale a number of pa yant (magical cloths) and prayer flags with both Pāḷi script and traditional Chinese characters on them. This is an unusual fusion and witnessing it, you feel the pan-Buddhist importance of the sacred place.
Leaving the hall, you climb another small set of stairs and land on the main platform of the temple. Before you is the iconic glittering mondop. The building id the symbol of Saraburi and it is the single most important structure in the province. The mother of pearl inlaid doors, made during the time of King Bormmakot of Ayutthaya, were added later when the mondop was reconstructed after the Burmese invasion. They are majestic protectors of the sacred footprint contained within. Circling the marble platform, you look up at the seven-tiered spired roof. It is a beautiful and intricate mix of green tiles, gold and glass form the end of 18th century. Entering the building, you find yourself in a small space that is dominated by the shrine in the centre of the room. The golden casing is covered with glass and peering in, you see a recess that is gilded and filled with bank notes and coins. This is the sacred footprint that bore 108 holy aspects attesting its authenticity to King Songtham. It is one of the five footprints the Sri Lankans said existed in the world. Although obscured by money, you can make out some of the 150 by 50 cm footprint. The layers of gold applied over the years give it an even higher spiritual feel. The presence of the footprint is palpable and you drop a few baht into the casing. After a few healing moments in the sacred enclosure, you leave and explore some of the other halls.
Close to the platform, is an area that has some Brahmanic gods. Particularly compelling is the statue of Phra In (Indra). Also known as Śakra, the Lord of the Devas (gods) has a close relationship with Buddhism and vowed to protect the faith in the second 2,500 after Buddha’s passing to Parinirvāṇa. The green-skinned god sits astride his mount, the elephant Erawan (Airavata), and carries his magical weapon, the vajra (thunderbolt). Worshippers show respect to the powerful weather god. After looking around the various halls, you decide to descend from the heavenly abode that has been recreated here. The Buddhist texts tell the story of Buddha going to the Tāvatiṃsa (Trāyastriṃśa) Heaven to see his mother. He teaches the Dhamma (Dharma) to the thirty-three devas and converts them to the way. The temple aims to recreate that story and does so in a spectacular fashion in the wonderful nāga staircase that leads down from the mondop.
The descent of the Buddha from the Tāvatiṃsa is a famous piece of Buddhist iconography and the nāga staircase represents that. The form of the steps looks very much like what you would see in paintings and, as you slowly emulate the Buddha in returning to earth, you feel as if you have come down from a very special place. Looking back up to the glittering mondop, you note the four Naga bannisters enclosing the three paths up the staircase. The three represent the gold ladder of Indra, the silver ladder of Brahma and crystal (jeweled) ladder of the Buddha down from the Tāvatiṃsa Heaven.
Back on the earth, you return to the bells you saw before your ascent. Picking up a hammer-like stick, you make a circuit. It is said that if you ring all 93 of them, you will be granted 93 years of life. You feel you have made the most of your visit. Although one visit may not be enough, as it is also said that three visits to the temple will ensure a celestial realm rebirth. Leaving Wat Phra Phutthabat, you feel a sense of elation and general happiness that even the dusty, noisy samlor ride back to the bus depot can’t diminish.