When Phra Ratwachiramolee, the abbot of Wat Suan Phlu, wanted to renovate his temple last year, he felt he didn't have much choice but to demolish old wooden buildings to pave way for a new multi-purpose concrete building. But his plan was opposed by groups of conservationists.
ILLUSTRATION: TANAPORN AUTTHAPORN
Two of the seven 78-year-old wooden buildings, with beautiful fretworks, had already been torn down when the conservationists managed to convince the abbot to abandon the plan in exchange for a new construction blueprint that will add two more floors to the new building, which will serve as a residence for monks and novices.
"Don't you see how cramped the place is?" the abbot asked as he walked out of his residence to the five-rai temple dwarfed by high-rises in Bang Rak district, showing the remaining old wooden buildings which were granted a Conservation Award by the Association of Siamese Architects in 2002. The new blueprint is being worked out by architects from three organisations _ the Association of Siamese Architects (ASA), Icomos Thailand, and Art and Environment Conservation Club _ to ensure it accommodates all the necessary functions.
While following the call by the conservationists, Phra Ratwachiramolee maintained that an abbot had the right to make the decision as to whether a structure in the compound should be kept or not, if it was meant for good deeds. Most abbots are educated and experienced enough to make a sound decision to clear the temple grounds for new structures.
The new multi-purpose building will enable more boys to be ordained in the summer and for more people in general to practise meditation at the temple.
"If we were to keep these old buildings as suggested by the Fine Art Department, will anyone help us to renovate the building?" asked the abbot since most parts have been damaged by termites.
"It's the rules of the universe. Nothing lasts forever. I don't want people to attach to [these old buildings]," said Phra Ratwachiramolee.
Wat Suan Phlu isn't the only city temple that faces space limitations. Sharing the problem is Wat Hong Rattanaram Voraviharn in Bangkok Yai district. With a plan to build a multi-purpose building to house a museum, an educational and meditation centre, a number of big trees on the temple premises were bulldozed.
One of the monks’ residence, Wat Suan Phlu, in Bang Rak. PHOTO: SOMKID CHAIJITVANIT
Wat Suphlu and Wat Hong were among the old temples that are struggling to adapt to modern changes that cause the monks to think of constructing new, mostly bigger, buildings. Other temples, especially those built when water transportation was the city's main transportation mode, have to cope with new demand _ space for parking lots as people now travel by cars and in many cases, most abbots sacrifice the trees on the premises to answer to the rising demand for large parking spaces.
And that trend worries conservationists in the Big Trees Project and Quiet Bangkok Group, both advocating for tree and old building conservation. Less trees and more concrete structures only heat up the temperature in the area.
"Big trees are supposed to be a symbol of peace and serenity," said Oraya Sutabutr, a member of both groups.
Big Trees Project earlier this year tried without success to convince the abbot of Wat Hong to save the trees in the vicinity. They had offered to revise the blueprint for the new multi-purpose building, to minimise the loss of trees. Unfortunately, the abbot still maintained his original plan and cut down some trees.
Somsak Hemapanpairo, a community leader who also leads the temple renovation work, said those trees were blighted by termites and not worth keeping. And the temple grounds will be replaced by bush plants, to give a more pleasant look.
Somsak's stance was questioned by the conservationists who instead stress the need for natural shade from big trees, without which the temple will be full of heat-absorbing concrete structure.
''If the atmosphere and temperature in a temple doesn't differ from the outside, why bother coming to a temple?'' said Oraya.
In fact, that is a dilemma of temple visits nowadays. While visitors have ample parking space, they have to put up with the heat as the trees that can provide the shade are gone. Such an environment makes it hard for the visitors to seek a peaceful moment _ the ultimate goal of temple visits.
Now temple goers pay a short visit to the place of worship only to perform a ritual _ a very quick one. Particularly at a time when the sangha promotes the so-called ''nine-temple visit'' campaign that is believed to bring luck to those who can complete the required visits in one day.
''Most people only want to finish all the visits to nine temples as soon as possible because the weather is too hot to be out in the sun,'' said Chutichai Klinsuea, a tour operator in Bangkok Yai area.
He noted that touring nine temples in a day has become an extremely popular package in the past five years. ''Car parking, especially for big coaches and buses, has become a must in most temples and the parking has to be close to the ubosot (ordination hall) as much as possible, to facilitate visitors.''
The unsuccessful attempt to save trees at Wat Hong does not dishearten Quiet Bangkok Group and Big Trees Project activists. Instead, they are determined to make more efforts to maintain the disappearing peaceful greenery in the city, by encouraging people to help save and plant more trees and also to find individual peaceful corners to share with others. The two activities are part of 26 resolutions in a new Tumma Project (Let's Do Project), which will be launched on June 5 with support from the Thai Health Promotion Foundation. Those wishing to join the project are asked to keep one or more resolutions between June 5 and 30.
During the 25-day campaign, a registered applicant needs to update a photo of the chosen resolutions on www.tum-ma.com. The 25-day project aims to encourage the general public to start doing something for society, without waiting to be led.
The campaign doesn't encourage people to turn any temple into a green corner, but to point out places where people can spend a peaceful moment without being burned by the sun. And a peaceful corner doesn't have to be one in a temple.
''But such a corner should be easily found [in the temple],'' said Oraya.
However, Oraya doubts if it's best for one to be able to seek a peaceful moment in a temple, under a tree, with a calm and still mind, during the day. ''If it's calm enough and still enough for us to hear the sound of the leaves scraping, that's a peaceful moment.''
It's great to have such a moment every day.
About the author
- Writer: Sirinya Wattanasukchai