JAO PHOR LAK MUEANG SHRINE
Text, maps & photographs by Tricky Vandenberg - March 2012
Along the old Lopburi River, presently called Khlong Mueang or City Canal, just
opposite the river bank of
Wat Kuti Thong stands the shrine of Jao Phor Lak Mueang
(Reverend Father City Pillar) with next to it a strange stone pillar. Boats full of tourists are
daily passing by without giving it any attention. On asking people in its vicinity what this
pillar and shrine exactly stands for, we received different answers going from an old city
pillar until a water gauge. I contacted
Professor Bidya Sriwattanasarn to get his expertise
on the issue [1]

The Chinese shrine contains an altar with on top the remnants of a wooden pole and a
lotus-bud top-end. As the shrine states "Lak Mueang" I presume the wood was
once part of the old city pillar of Ayutthaya. Professor Bidya Sriwattanasarn wrote me
that the Lak Mueang had to be made from a sacred wood such as the Cassia tree or
Cassia fistula. The Cassia fistula is known as the golden shower tree and called
Rachapruek (ราชพฤกษ์)  being the national tree of Thailand; its yellow flowers
symbolize Thai royalty. [2]

On a
mid-19th century map in the northeastern corner of the Grand Palace close to the
premises of
Wat Thammikarat, is a square mark and a point within, indicated "San Lak
Mueang" or "City Pillar Shrine". This city pillar shrine was thus situated only a few tens of
meters of the location of the shrine near the canal today, which leads to the assumption
that the remains of the old city pillar maybe were safeguarded within the shrine of Jao
Phor Lak Mueang as its name indicates.

Here under I cite most out of Quaritch Wales book [3]: The Lak Mueang Shrine or the
"Shrine of the Pillar of the Lord of the Country" (1), is a small brick building crowned
by a Khmer prang. In the small and dark interior there stands a carved and gilded pillar
of wood, draped in red cloth. This pillar is the home of the Guardian Spirit of the City,
and around it are grouped phallic emblems, images of lesser phi, and paper votive
offerings in piles. The person who was sacrificed to make the Chao Lak Mueang was
buried underneath the post. (2)

The guardian spirits of the city are but a development of the same primitive belief as the
San Phra Phum (3) and are the most tangible evidence of the survival of pure animism in
Thailand today. People, who are not in good health, came to pay homage before the
Chao Lak Mueang. It is also still the custom for a person desirous of obtaining a favor
such as a rise in salary to make a mental promise beforehand to the effect that, should he
obtain that which he desires, he will make an offering to the Chao Lak Mueang. This
offering varies from some flowers or food placed in the shrine to a theatrical
entertainment, and the promise is always kept....

The Chao Lak Mueang still receives official sanction today. It used to be the custom, at
least until 1910 A.D., to issue periodical invitation cards by royal command, requesting
the honour of the presence of Chao Ket at forthcoming religious ceremonies. Such cards
were until that year stuck on the door of the shrine. In the oath of allegiance taken twice
yearly by all officials, the Chao Lak Mueang was still invoked, and his vengeance called
down on any traitor. On 8 October 2011, during the massive flood hitting Thailand,
spiritual help was invoked by the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration to save
the capital of Bangkok from the deluge, by organizing a Lai Nam (water dispelling)
Brahman ritual at the City Pillar. [4]

I cite Quaritch again: The Guardian Spirit of the City is as by no means forgotten, that he
still retains a sociological value, and in case of national danger no doubt he would come in
for a considerably greater share of attention, as he did in times past.

The presumption that the wood within the shrine, being the remains of the old
pillar, seems to vanish in the haze. One day a man near the site told me, that earlier there
was only a small San Phra Phum. After an old tree in its vicinity fell, wood was cut out to
set up in a newly built shrine. He added that the stone pole along the river bank stood
already before the shrine was built and dated from the Ayutthaya period. It is a long way
to find the truth...


My interest was sparked by the stone pillar in the vicinity of the shrine. I first identified it
wrongly, after having read Van Beek's book "Chao Phya, River in Transition", as being
the water gauge Rama III erected during the floods of 1831 in Ayutthaya. Apparently this
gauge stood on the Chao Phraya River. What was then finally this strange stone pillar?

The pillar is Chinese-styled and sculptured with what looks like a dragon and
some figures of deities (?). On top of the pillar stands a square stone, a motif carved on
each side. I found in a book a picture similar to the pillar on the left bank of Khlong
Mueang, standing on the premises of a temple. Professor Sriwattanasarn was of the
opinion that the pillar was an old lighting post made from ballast stones with sculptures
related to the Chinese mythology referring to the sky-earth pillars.

I dug in a specialized Thai dictionary and found following description (literally translated
from Thai): Sao Tai (เสาไต้) - A pillar for sticking a torch to give bright light along a
walkway or in a general area outside. The structure is mostly a sculptured stone pole
being a former ballast stone (4) from a junk from China. [5]

Knowing I had to look into Chinese mythology, I tried to find the story behind the
sculpture. What I write here under is purely a tentative explanation and may be far from
the truth; but anybody who has the exact knowledge is always welcome to contact me
and set it right. Here it goes:

The stone pillar is probably related to the Chinese myth of the process of the creation of
the sky and the earth with their respective pillars. The pillars of the sky are huge pillars
that support the sky, keeping it from collapsing or swinging into the earth and separating
the sky from the earth. Their number varies in the different stories from four, five, eight to
sometimes twelve. The pillars of the earth, which function was to protect the earth from
collapsing or swinging, sometimes appeared together with the sky pillars in some myths.
[6]

Nüwa is a mythical figure representing the creation of life and the female fertility symbol
versus the male symbol of Fu Xi, known for repairing one of the pillars between sky and
earth. The myth of the goddess Nüwa in the Huainanzi (2nd century BCE Chinese
philosophical classic from the Han dynasty) states that:

"in remote antiquity, the four poles supporting the sky collapsed, and the land of
the nine divisions of ancient China broke up. The sky could not completely cover
the earth, and the earth could not totally carry the world. Fires raged fiercely and
did not go out. Floodwater ran everywhere and did not subside. The fierce beasts
devoured kind people, and violent birds seized the old and the weak. Nüwa then
melted stones of five different colors to patch the sky, cut the legs off of a huge
tortoise and set them up to support the four extremities of the sky, slaughtered the
Black Dragon to save the people, and collected ashes of reeds to stop the flood.
After that the sky got renewed, the four sky pillars were set up again, the
flood was stopped, and the nine divisions became peaceful.
" [7]

The image of Nüwa is that of a snake with a human face. On some carved stone
sculptures from the Han Dynasty, Nüwa has two legs attached to her snake body,
resembling the body of a dragon. [8] The sculpture on the stone pillar might as thus
be the representation of the goddess Nüwa. The latter is worshipped on the 7th day of
the Chinese New Year (Renri or Human Day), the day she created mankind.

The stone pillar probably once stood on the premises of a monastery and - though being
worshipped - it is today just a decorative part of the Jao Phor Lak Mueang shrine
and not directly related to it.

Footnotes:

(1) Traditionally, a city pillar is of the same height as the founder of the city. Its
diameter is about 5, 7 or 9 times the size of his fist. The pillar is located either in the
center of the city, in the principal temple, near the main water reservoir or in the vicinity of
the ruler's palace. The latter was in Ayutthaya seemingly the case.
(2) Foundation sacrifices - The spirit of the Lak Mueang was created by sacrificing a
suitable individual and burying him underneath the wooden post. The spirit was called
Chao Ket. See Van Vliet's Siam - Chris Baker, Dhiravat Na Pombejra, Alfons Van Der
Kraan & David K. Wyatt. (2005) and Annales de l' Association de la Propagation de la
Foi (Society for the Propagation of the Faith) - Bruguiere (1828) on this issue.
(3) On the verandah of every Siamese house, or in a shady corner of the garden, is set up
a small wooden "doll's house" on a pole, called San Phra Phum, or "Shrine of the Sacred
Grove", corresponding to the Burmese Nat Sin. This is the shrine of the Chao Thi (Spirit
of the Place) and before it the people of the house offer incense sticks, flowers, and rice,
especially when any domestic crisis, such as the birth of a child, is pending. Similar San
Phra Phum are to be seen in every street, every field, even in the sacred precincts of the
monasteries. [3]
(4) Stones were used to keep the center of gravity of the ship low avoiding capsizing in
heavy seas, generally at 25 to 30 per cent of their dead weight tonnage. The stones kept
the ship deep enough in the water to ensure efficient rudder operation and to avoid the
bow emerging from the water. There were two types of ballast; permanent and
disposable. The permanent ballast stones or eventually sand remained in the hold of the
ship, while the disposable ballast was loaded or unloaded in function of the ship's
cargo. If a ship travelled without cargo or had discharged cargo in a port, ballast was
taken into cargo holds and properly secured to achieve the required safe operating
conditions. If cargo was taken in, stones were discarded. Ballast stones were carved by
the Chinese junk crews as a pass time occupation during their long passage on the seas
and they probably earned some extra income in selling their creations.

References:

[1] Mail from Professor Bidya Sriwattanasarn on 21 March 2012.
[2] Derived from Wikipedia on 23 March 2012.
[3] Siamese State Ceremonies - Their history and function - H.G. Quaritch
Wales (1931) - London, Bernard Quaritch, Ltd. - Page 302-3.
[4] Bangkok Post - 8 October 2011 - City Hall to ask Water Goddess for mercy.
[5] พจนานุกรม สถาปัตยกรรมและ ศิลปเกี่ยวเนื่อง - ศาสตราจารย์โชติ
กัลป์ยาณมิตร (2548) - page 502.
[6] Handbook of Chinese Mythology - Lihui Yang, Deming An, Jessica Anderson Turner
- Oxford University Press (2008) - page 181.
[7] Handbook of Chinese Mythology - Lihui Yang, Deming An, Jessica Anderson Turner
- Oxford University Press (2008) - page 11.
[8] Chinese Myths and Legends - Lianshan Chen - page 10.
(View from Wat Kuti Thong Bridge)
(Jao Phor Lak Mueang shrine)
(The old wooden city pillar)
(Sky Earth Pillar in temple premises)
(Stone pillar next to Joa Phor Lak
Mueang shrine)
(Top view of the stone pillar)
(Nüwa was mending the sky. Originally drawn in the
17th century by Xiao Yuncong - Yang Lihui,
Rethinking on the Source Area of the Cult of Nüwa,
Beijing Shifan Daxue Chubanshe, 1999)  
(View from the north bank)
(Jao Phor Lak Mueang shrine)