Mother of us all
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Mother of us all

The statue of the Goddess of Earth near Sanam Luang turns 100 years old today

Mother of us all
Worshippers pay respects to the Uthokkathan, or statue of the Goddess of Earth, near Sanam Luang.

A century ago today, one of the country's first drinking-water dispensers for the general public came into existence near Sanam Luang.

It came in the form of religious art: the statue of the Goddess of Earth squeezing water out of her hair bun. The place is officially named Uthokkathan, meaning "giving water as merit-making", and popularly called Mae Phra Thoranee Beeb Muay Phom. It was a present from Queen Saovabha Phongsri, wife of King Rama V, for the people to commemorate her 54th birthday.

According to art historian No Na Pak Nam (Prayoon Uruchada)'s book Questions & Answers About Thai Art, the opening ceremony was held on Dec 27, 1917. A day earlier, Queen Saovabha Phongsri, who was then the Queen Mother of King Rama VI, wrote a letter to Chao Phraya Yommarat (Pun Sukhum), then minister of the Metropolitan Ministry, as follows:

"Tomorrow, I shall make merit on my birthday. I command you to arrange for the opening of the statue of Goddess of Earth Uthokkathan built with my money at the foot of Phan Phiphop Lila Bridge. I wish to donate this Uthokkathan for public benefit so that all the people and fellows can drink water for thirst-relief and comfort."

Later, Chao Phraya Yommarat wrote to Mom Chao Thani-niwat, chief of the Office of Secretary for Queen Saovabha Phongsri, about the history of this statue.

"A long time ago, the Queen Mother told me about her wish to make merit by building Uthokkathan for the public on a previous birthday of hers. Hence, His Majesty the King suggested that it would be beautiful if the object was constructed at the foot of the Phan Phiphop Lila Bridge at the Rajini and Ratchadamnoen intersection in the form of the Goddess of Earth squeezing water from her hair bun.

"After receiving the royal commands, I tried to figure out the design for a long time before finding persons to design it, and then asked an artisan at Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall to create a model."

After that, King Rama VI ordered Chao Phraya Thammathikorn, chief of the Palace Ministry, to have the model improved. Eventually, Chao Phraya Yommarat asked Chao Phraya Thammathikorn to give the new version to him, and construction began. Chao Phraya Yommarat wrote a memo, published in the book Wat Suthat, that the sculptor was Master Roen of Ban Chang Lo in Phran Nok. The statue was designed by the celebrated royal artist Prince Narisara Nuvadtivongs, and the pavilion called soom ruan kaeo by artist Phraya Chindarangsan (Phlub). The cost of construction totalled 16,437 baht.

However, economic hardship during World War II prompted some to steal water pipes and equipment from water dispensers for resale. After the statue was repaired during the tenure of Prime Minister Field Marshall Sarit Thanarat (1959-1963), it was no longer a water dispenser. It has become a shrine for people to worship the Goddess of Earth as a symbol of fertility.

The ground around the statue used to house numerous book stalls, where many came to buy a variety of books, textbooks and magazines. This hub of books was relocated to Chatuchak Market in 1985.

The Goddess of Earth is revered as the Mother of the World, benevolent to all living things. Worshipping the Goddess of Earth dates back to at least 3,000 years ago before the times of the Lord Buddha. In ancient times, people worshipped spirits, including the "spirits of water and soil", later renamed the Goddess of Water and the Goddess of Earth.

According to Buddhist literature, the Goddess of Earth squeezed water from her hair to drive away the Army of the Mara and demons who tried to distract and lure Prince Siddhartha, who was practicing meditation and dhamma on his way to enlightenment.

The name of the goddess appears in several Thai works of literature, such as Pathom Somboddhi Katha (the book of sermons about the Lord Buddha's 10 previous lives) and Lilit Taleng Phai.

Centuries ago, Thais started to pay respects to the Goddess of Earth, or Mae Phra Thoranee, to ask for peace and happiness. An old book from the Ayutthaya Period mentions the construction of a statue of a deity in the form of the Goddess of Earth, for people to worship and ask for protection from evils.

In the North and Northeast, there are numerous rituals related to the Goddess of Earth, including the North's Bon Nang Thoranee ritual and the Northeast's amulets, called the Heart of the Goddess of Earth, and a magic spell for capturing wild elephants.

The Goddess of Earth is portrayed in Thai art as a beautiful woman kneeling or standing, holding the bottom of her hair bun with her right hand and squeezing the hair with her left hand. The styles and details of her attire vary.

The Goddess of Earth, which also represents fertility, is portrayed on the symbolic logos of several organisations in Thailand, including the Metropolitan Waterworks Authority, the Provincial Waterworks Authority and the Democrat Party.

If you visit the Uthokkathan, you may want to see a bridge and another statue to celebrate the birth of Queen Saovabha Phongsri, born in the Chinese Year of the Pig. Both the bridge and statue are located over and near Klong Khu Muang Doem, in front of Wat Ratchabophit and the Interior Ministry.

The bridge was commissioned by Queen Saovabha Phongsri to commemorate her 48th birthday in 1911, while the sculpture of a pig was built by Prince Narisara Nuvadtivongs, Phraya Phiphatthanakosa and Phraya Ratchasongkhram to celebrate Queen Saovabha Phongsri's 50th birthday. The Uthokkathan and the bridge reflect the royal family's kindness for the people.

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