Northern Thailand is home to many of the country’s outstanding Buddhist temples, or wats, as they are known here. The architectural skill involved in creating the centuries-old chedis and temples that abound in Chiang Mai alone is a source of wonder in itself. Much of this beauty, however, would have been lost to future generations, but for the dedication and guidance of a man revered by many as the Buddhist saint of northern Thailand, Kruba Sriwichai.
It was in the midst of a violent thunderstorm, that a farmer’s wife in a poverty-stricken village in District of Lee, Lamphun Province (pronounced Lumpoon)gave birth to a son. The year was 1878, and moments after his coming into the world, the skies cleared. The wind gave way to a gentle breeze, and the torrential rain ceased.
The baby was named Inta Fuen, (good sign, or omen) or Fah Rohng (violent thunderstorm). As he grew up, his father gave Fuen responsibility for the care of the family’s livestock. While still but a child, he would take the buffaloes out to pasture while his parents toiled in the rice paddies.
Fuen tended to the beasts’ every need from dawn until dusk each day; showing them kindness and understanding. Shortly after his tenth birthday, he and his animals were caught up in a thunderstorm, and Fuen took shelter beneath a nearby palm tree. As the rain eased off, and the storm moved away, the boy saw a monk approaching. Running to greet the pilgrim with a most respectful wai, Fuen declared that one day he too would join the priesthood.
The monk, sensing that there was something special about this boy, approached Fuen’s parents, and asked them to allow their son to be ordained. The couple explained that life would be so much harder for the family if the boy left home. The monk then went on his way, leaving behind a bitterly disappointed Fuen.
The boy, however, remained persistent; constantly reminding his parents of his burning desire to be ordained. Finally, on his 18th birthday, and despite their poverty, Fuen’s parents allowed their son to be ordained as a novice. The teenager began his studies under the tutelage of Kruba Kattiya; the same venerable monk who, many years earlier, had met Fuen during a thunderstorm, and recognized his special qualities.
Fuen, was ordained, and renamed as Samanera or Samanen (novice) Sriwichai. The novice surprised even his teachers with his enthusiasm for knowledge, and his impeccable behavior. Within two years, he was ordained as a monk with the name of Siri Wichayo Bhikhu and became known to all as Pra Sriwichai.
During the following four years, the young monk earned, through his devotion to the care of all who came in contact with him, the title – Kruba – (someone who is generous, compassionate, and thoughtful to the needs of others). Kruba Sriwichai rose to become abbot of his local wat, and set about designing and building a new temple for the district; the old one having fallen into disrepair.
Kruba Sriwichai wandered the length and breadth of his district, helping the poor and the sick. Being simple, rural people, however, they revered their young abbot to a degree that led to jealousy and malice among local officials, and within the priesthood itself.
False accusations abounded, and on at least two occasions, he was jailed for alleged offences against the community. The accusations ranged from ordaining novices without his superior’s permission, to inciting rebellion among the people of the region.
This persecution of Kruba included reducing him from abbot to ordinary monk, and an order was issued that he should be banned from Lamphun, and given no shelter or sustenance by the monks of any wat in the province.
Kruba refused the order to leave, and remained among his disciples. He was then commanded to appear before the Prince of Lamphun to answer the allegations. But, as he made his way to Lamphun City, his small group grew to several thousand strong as it was joined by fellow monks and villagers from throughout the province.
Fearing the local police would be unable to control such a crowd of, albeit peaceful protestors, the monk’s case was referred to the Prince ruler of neighboring Chiang Mai, for judgement.
It was agreed that Kruba should proceed to Chiang Mai, but with just four of his many disciples to accompany him. On arrival, however, his followers were prevented from accompanying him, and he alone was detained in Wat Sri Don Chai, where he remained for many months.
The people of Chiang Mai flocked to the temple with offerings of food and refreshment for the disgraced monk. The case was proving too controversial for any Chiang Mai officials to handle, and with public sympathy growing for Kruba, his case was referred to Bangkok.
The public persecution of the man had become a matter of national importance. Head of the Buddhist monastic order, the Prince Supreme Patriarch, Somdej Pra Maha Samana Jao, would make the final judgement.
In the summer of 1920, Kruba was found not guilty, and at the age of 42, still clear of eye and mind but physically frail, he left Bangkok by train for his homeland in the North.
When his train pulled into Lamphun station, Kruba Sriwichai was met by a large crowd of people from across the social spectrum. It appeared that the rich and powerful had joined the poor in their adulation of the monk.
Throughout the years of his public abuse by officials, Kruba never once lost his serenity; remaining calm and dignified. Admiring these qualities, and recalling the monk’s talent for restoration, the Prince of Lamphun province invited Kruba to take up residence in Wat Jamathaewee, an ancient temple that had fallen into disrepair. Accepting the invitation, the monk set about restoring the wat to its former glory, and began a program of reconstruction throughout Northern Siam that would earn him the title of “the developer monk.” Within 19 years, Kruba renovated and built 105 old and new temples altogether in the provinces of Lamphun, Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Payao, Lampang, Sukhothai, and Taak.
Kruba’s work was not confined to the rebuilding of temples. Under his guidance: schools, bridges, government buildings, and roads, most notably the road from Chiang Mai to Wat Pra Thart Doi Suthep, were constructed.
Construction on the Doi Suthep road got underway in 1934, and took almost six months to complete 11.5 Kilometers. Prior to this, none but the hardiest of pilgrims made the five hour climb up the densely wooded mountainside to visit, what is still today one of Thailand’s most sacred Buddhist temples. (The Pilgrim’s walking path is still in use today by the faithful and those looking for a good workout.)
Five years after the completion of the Doi Suthep road, Kruba fell ill, and was taken back to the village of his birth, Ban Paang, in Lumphun province, where he died in his 61st year.
His funeral was attended by thousands; royalty to rural workers came from across the nation to pay homage to a simple farmer’s son who grew to become the Buddhist saint of northern Thailand.
Kruba Sriwichai’s monument lies at the foot of Doi Suthep beside the road he created, allowing millions of pilgrims and tourists access to Wat Pra Thart Doi Suthep.
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