In a Buddhist monastery, atop a low, wooded hill, in a far-flung corner of Chanthaburi Province, a venerable old monk guards a mysterious ancient carving. He says he’s been protecting it day and night for some 30 years now; guarding it with his life for half a lifetime.
This is not a script for the latest Indiana Jones sequel – it’s all true and Abbot Phrakru Pimolkittisarn is delighted to receive the rare visitors who make it to the monastery and proud to show them his precious relic.
Wat Bon Bo Phu, an active Buddhist temple in southeast Thailand’s Chanthaburi, close to the Cambodian border, is neither the kind of place you’d come across by accident nor one that would feature on any tourist itinerary of this scenic province, located in southeastern Thailand.
Although the sprawling monastery is relatively recent, an extraordinary find in the grounds indicates that the hill-top site has been occupied for the best part of 1500 years. Around a century ago, during construction or restoration work undertaken on the main hall – ubosot – a carved block of sandstone was unearthed. After removal and cleaning it revealed itself to be a priceless ancient lintel, dating back to the pre-Angkor, Chenla period.
Archaeologists identified the relief as belonging to the distinctive 6th-century Thala Borivat style, named after a small group of similar lintels uncovered in far-off Stung Treng Province in northern Cambodia. (Most of the latter are now housed in Phnom Penh’s National Museum of Cambodia.) This particular example is split into 2 pieces, although otherwise is in remarkably good condition, and displays a pair of mythical makaras from whose mouths an arch emerges which in turn is divided by a small image of the god Surya. (You can just make out the figure characteristically holding a lotus flower in his right hand.)
Despite the true value and historical importance being revealed, the carving – no doubt initially considered as just a curio – was surprisingly allowed to remain in Wat Bon. Rare pilgrimages by archaeologists and amateur historians like ourselves have been made over the years and the abbot proudly displays a photograph of himself as a young monk during a 1991 visit by Professor Jean Boissellier of the École française d’Extrême-Orient.
Today the lintel is kept in a shrine within a more secure, private area of the monastery with the abbot proudly claiming that he has since guarded it “with his life, day and night, for 30 years.
Unfortunately, but rather inevitably, nothing was conserved of any brick or laterite structure that may have been associated with the lintel although a damaged sandstone plinth – housing a statue or perhaps linga – was also unearthed and lies in the wat grounds.
While finds in this style are very few and far between (even in Cambodia itself) another, similar-period lintel was also unearthed in Chanthaburi Province during more recent investigations at the site of Muang Paniet. Situated just east of the present-day provincial capital the site represents an important early trading port on the route from India to Southeast Asia which inscriptions indicate was in use from at least the 6th-century through to the early 10th. The relief has a near-identical split although in this case half of the lintel remains displayed at a nearby monastery, Wat Thong Tua, while half is now housed in Bangkok’s National Museum.
More on the fascinating archaeological site of Muang Paniet and the extraordinary finds displayed at Wat Thong Tua in an upcoming blog post and for now we’ll leave you with a photo of the dedicated guardian of the stone himself, Phrakru Pimolkittisarn with one very happy visitor.
Many thanks to the abbot for his congenial welcome and wonderful tales.