Temple fears losing its Tripitaka Hall

by Subhatra Bhumiprabhas, The Nation, Dec 6, 2006

Chiang Rai, Thailand -- An exquisitely carved, century-old wooden Tripitaka Hall - or "Ho Trai" - is waiting for its long-deserved restoration. There's one little hitch, however. It was registered as a national historical building in 2001.

"If the Fine Arts Department had not registered the building, the temple would have restored it long ago," said Phra Athikarn Banpot Kambiro, abbot of Wat Srisuthawat in Chiang Rai's Wieng Pa Pao district.

The temple's Tripitaka Hall was built in 1913 by Tai Lue craftsmen who were instructed by Nan Khiew, who came from Lamphun province, said the abbot, who was born in the community.

Old business tycoons of Burmese descent were the benefactors of the hall. It explains the architectural mixture that is unique to the building.

The hall served the community as a library for monks and novices for several decades and it contained three boxes of old Tripitaka texts written on palm leaves, the oldest among them being 300 years old, said Phra Kambiro, who used to spend time reading and studying Tripitaka in the old hall after becoming a novice in 1975.

A combination of the passage of time and natural calamities has taken its toll on the structure. The hall has been closed for two decades. Monks and villagers are afraid that the building will collapse and its architectural heritage will be lost forever.

The Tripitaka (Buddhist script) texts were moved to be kept separately in the temple's old prayer hall and then moved to the community's museum that villagers helped to build in 1995.

The museum also contains archaeological evidence uncovered in the community and nearby area of Wieng Pa Pao such as wooden smoking pipes, silver coins, ceramics and shell money.

Museum curator Chuen Khanachaikhan said he had used the old wooden hall since he was a boy. Chuen, now 80, is a grandchild of Phraya Khantha-sema, the third and last ruler of Muang Wieng Pa Pao town.

In their efforts to keep the community's heritage alive, the abbot and villagers have searched for able builders and craftsmen from Burma, along with specific construction materials such as small coloured mirrors (krachok Ava), old carved wood and gingerbread wooden eaves.

"We can also find some elderly people in our community who have a knowledge of Burmese and Tai Lue architecture, and we have already collected Bt400,000 from donations for the restoration," said the abbot.

Unfortunately, the community can do nothing with its own architectural heritage as the hall has been registered by the Department of Fine Arts.

When it heard about the old wooden Tripitaka Hall in Wieng Pa Pao, Fine Arts officials came and inspected it, then registered the community's property as a national historical building in 2001. But the department has done nothing with the crumbling hall since it was registered.

"We have submitted a letter asking the Fine Arts Department to allow the community's participation to restore the hall with our own budget and local craftsmen [who have knowledge of the hall's original architectural style]. We have been waiting for more than two years already," said the abbot of Wat Srisuthawat.