Rarely heard bell to ring for New Supreme Patriarch

Rarely heard bell to ring for New Supreme Patriarch

Sweetest chime: The majestic bell rings on Sunday for the new Supreme Patriarch.
Sweetest chime: The majestic bell rings on Sunday for the new Supreme Patriarch.

This evening, at the end of a solemn investiture of the new Supreme Patriarch, bells will ring at temples all around the kingdom. This includes the bell at the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, or Wat Phra Kaew, where the actual investiture will take place, presided over by King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun.

The bell at Wat Phra Kaew is said to have the sweetest chime one could ever hear, but it is a sound that is rarely heard. The bell, which hangs at the top of a high tower south of the main chapel in the temple, is only rung on special royal ceremonies, such as the investiture of a Supreme Patriarch, for which the previous ceremony took place in 1989.

The bell tower was originally built by King Rama I at the same time as the temple and Grand Palace compound. The bell that hung in the original tower was said to have come from Wat Rakhang Khositaram, an ancient temple formerly named Wat Bang Wa Yai, dating back to the Ayutthaya period.

During the Thon Buri period, the temple was designated a royal temple and also became the residence of the Supreme Patriarch. While digging a pond during the restoration of the temple, a bell was found, which King Rama I removed and placed in the bell tower at the Temple of the Emerald Buddha.

Another theory, however, states that the bell at Wat Phra Kaew came from Wat Saket. It was said that King Rama I, when he was still titled Somdet Chao Phraya Maha Kasatsuek under the reign of King Taksin, had led troops to Cambodia, but was called back due to political unrest within the capital of Thon Buri.

Upon approaching the capital, he stopped to bathe and rest at Wat Saket for a few days before entering Thon Buri to quell the riots and eventually be installed as the new king. He moved the capital across the river, built the Grand Palace and temple, and moved the bell from Wat Saket to its new location.

During the reign of King Rama IV, a major restoration took place. The original bell tower was torn down and replaced with the present ornate one that follows traditional Thai architecture. The bell tower was finished during the reign of King Rama V, in time for the centenary celebrations of Bangkok as the capital. The new tower, as we see it now, was designed in the traditional Thai style on a square base with 12 corners. It was decorated with pieces of Chinese porcelain.

Whether King Rama IV replaced the original bell with a new one is not clear. One theory is that the present bell is the same one discovered at Wat Rakhang Khositaram, while another theory is that a new bell was cast during the reign of King Rama IV.

There are various pieces of evidence from which these theories are based, from poetic excerpts to historical chronicles which make references to the bell, indicating different periods in which a bell was cast.

However, MR Suriyavudh Sukhasvasti, an expert in Southeast Asian and Thai art history, advocates the first theory that the bell came from Wat Bang Wa Yai.

"When King Rama I moved the bell to the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, he had five new bells cast to be presented to Wat Bang Wa Yai as a replacement. The temple was then renamed Wat Rakhang Khositaram," he said.

But the true origin of the bell aside, all records agree on one point: the bell has the most beautiful chime one could ever hear. This evening, those lucky enough to be in the range of the bell tower will bear witness to this fact.

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