VIDEO/PICTURES

State of emergency? All Zen at the Temple of Dawn

Example of porcelain relief work at the 17th century temple Wat Arun. -- ST PHOTO: NIRMAL GHOSH
Example of porcelain relief work at the 17th century temple Wat Arun. -- ST PHOTO: NIRMAL GHOSH
The 17th century temple Wat Arun is a unique temple, with its Khmer style prang and four smaller prang athit encrusted with porcelain. -- ST PHOTO: NIRMAL GHOSH
The 17th century temple Wat Arun is a unique temple, with its Khmer style prang and four smaller prang athit encrusted with porcelain. -- ST PHOTO: NIRMAL GHOSH
The view of Bangkok from the second level of the Wat Arun temple. -- ST PHOTO: NIRMAL GHOSH
The view of Bangkok from the second level of the Wat Arun temple. -- ST PHOTO: NIRMAL GHOSH
One of the faces of the 17th century Wat Arun temple. -- ST PHOTO: NIRMAL GHOSH
One of the faces of the 17th century Wat Arun temple. -- ST PHOTO: NIRMAL GHOSH
Mr Chitipat Chotirak at work, chipping away for long hours every day at the old lime around the ceramic relief works of the 17th century Wat Arun temple. -- ST PHOTO: NIRMAL GHOSH
Mr Chitipat Chotirak at work, chipping away for long hours every day at the old lime around the ceramic relief works of the 17th century Wat Arun temple. -- ST PHOTO: NIRMAL GHOSH

Mr Chitipat Chotirak, perched high above the river, chips away with delicacy and precision for long hours every day at the old lime around the ceramic relief works of the Temple of Dawn.

“This is good for the mind, it is like meditation,” he says.

From his position the former student of sculpture, 45, looks down at a bend of the Chao Phraya river, and sees the tall spires of downtown Bangkok rising on the horizon.

Long tail boats ply the river. Barges lumber slowly, ponderously. Sometimes Mr Chitipat can hear their engines. But that is all.

Bangkok and some adjacent provinces including Thonburi are under a state of emergency because of Thailand’s political crisis. But there is no sense of it here at the 17th century Wat Arun.

Here, monks chant in one of the buildings. Others sit outdoors at their desks in the spacious leafy compound, studying. And there are tour groups who come around, many gamely climbing the almost vertical steps to the second level, where a gold cloth band is draped around the prang – the tall, finger-like spire of the temple - to discourage people from writing their names on it.

Wat Arun is a unique temple, with its Khmer style prang and four smaller prang athit at the four corners of the base, encrusted with porcelain. The unique decorative style utilised plates and bowls that were carefully broken and then used to make patterns and embedded into the lime. King Rama III (1787-1851) added large cowries or sea shells to the embellishments. The porcelain is said to have been used as ballast by boats arriving to Bangkok from China.

Wat Arun – named after the Hindu god Aruna, chariot driver of Surya, the sun god, hence the Temple of Dawn - is older than Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok, where the famed “Emerald Buddha” is installed.

The sacred Emerald Buddha, which is actually made of green jade, was once here in Wat Arun - until King Taksin (1734-1782), regarded by many nationalists as a great historical hero for his wars against the Burmese, and his subjugation of the northern Lanna kingdom, was deposed and executed and the current Chakri dynasty took over.

Rama I, the first king of the Chakri dynasty, moved the emerald Buddha across the river to Bangkok’s Wat Phra Kaew in 1785. But Wat Arun continued to be used, and its features embellished by subsequent kings.

It also needs constant maintenance because of the exposure of the porcelain to the weather. Fine cracks in the lime on the surface of the structure, into which the porcelain pieces are embedded, have taken in rain water and mould has developed. In 2012, the government’s Fine Arts Department launched a three year, 100 million Baht restoration plan.

The porcelain or ceramic pieces and panels to be restored or replaced, are first cleaned with ordinary water to wash off dirt and mould, and then left to dry. They are catalogued and the patterns traced, and the drawings, photographs and sometimes the original pieces sent with dimensions to a ceramics factory to have exact replicas made. Where the lime base is mouldy or brittle, it is chipped away and will be replaced.

A private company is doing the work, contracted by the Fine Art Department. The work has started on the four smaller spires or prang thit that surround the main structure.

”This is one of the most interesting projects I have worked on,” said Ms Sakuntala Attapotjanee, 59, a veteran restorer supervising the artisans patiently chipping away at the prang thit, perched on aluminium scaffolding erected in such a way so as not to touch the structures.

She points to some of the flowers fashioned out of ceramic pieces. Petal by delicate petal, they will be cleaned and if found faded or broken they will be painted or replaced. The relief work is diverse and depending on the type of ceramics used, in various stages ranging from pristine to bad disrepair and discolouration.

Wat Arun looks grey from a distance, and is often best known to the world by its view from across the river, where it stands out in silhouette against the setting sun and is lit up at night. Up close in the daytime because of the porcelain relief that covers it, the temple is a riot of colour and reflecting light.

“I’ve been working on restoration projects for 30 years,” Ms Sakuntala said, “and this is the most interesting, because every panel, every piece is different.”

There is no big city din here, only the murmur of occasional tour groups and the steady tapping of hammers and chisels. Their work started last May and will finish in August this year. It will not be interrupted by political battles; there is no place for that here.

nirmal@sph.com.sg