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A wooden art gallery and Ganesh shrine in Chiang Mai’s northwest manifests an artist’s vision blending Hindu, Buddhist, & Thai art traditions.

Fast Facts

Name: Roitawarabarn Baan Devalai | ร้อยทวารบาล บ้านเทวาลัย

Where: Chiang Mai, Thailand

Location: 18.793583, 98.947485

What to do: View a collective art endeavor depicting a variety of Asian spiritual traditions.

Getting there: The Shrine is biking or walking distance from Chiang Mai University.

Cost: Free (donations suggested)

What appears to be a modest shrine hiding in the forest backstreets at the foot of Chiang Mai’s Doi Suthep is actually a masterpiece of traditional wooden artistry. Carved collectively by many artists over a decade, this property hosts an intricate amalgam of Hindu, Buddhist, Chinese, Thai, and several other mythological elements. It also boasts the world’s largest wooden carving of the Hindu god Ganesh.

The Story of Roitawarabarn Baan Devalai

The wooden Ganesh dominating the property of Roitawarabarn Baandhawalai.
The wooden Ganesh dominating the property of Roitawarabarn Baandhawalai.

Roitawarabarn Baandhawalai (ร้อยทวารบาล บ้านเทวาลัย) is an art museum and religious shrine owned by Khem Marukapitak. The shrine’s name translates as: “100 holy gatekeepers, living manor of the Deities”. This name is transliterated in several ways throughout its own documentation — so, for lack of a direct translation, is referred to here as Baan Devalai or “House of the Gods”.

The project was envisioned as a unique blending of artist space, holy sanctuary, and artistic endeavor. This places Baan Devalai in good company alongside Chalermchai Kositpipat’s world-famous Wat Rong Khon (the White Temple) in Chiang Rai and Bunleau Sulilat’s Sala Keoku and Buddha Park in Nong Khai and Vientiane, respectively.

The Artist’s Mission Statement

In an interview with the founder and lead artist Kem Maruekapitak, he describes finding a large, buried piece of wood when scouting locations to build a home. In a dream, he saw the halo of a full moon shining over the spot where the iconic Ganesh statue now stands, leading to that piece of wood becoming the first piece in the construction of the work of art standing on this location today.

The artist's statement inscribed in English on the front gate.
The artist’s statement inscribed in English on the front gate.

A personal statement from Mr. Kem Maruekapitak is inscribed on the ornate gateway which leads to Baan Devalai. The inscription is translated into English, Thai, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, and French, and reads:

Declaration of Intention

Built in 1998, the building was constructed with the aim of being:

1) An Art Center of Thai Paintings,
2) A Learning Center,
3) A Shrine for the gods and goddesses.

This building has 100 holy-gatekeeper doors that gave the name:
‘100 holy gatekeepers, living manor of the Deities’

All art pieces are hand crafted by more than 50 artists and craftsman,
taking more than 10 years to complete.
I hope all these art works come Siamese art heritages for eternity.

Having travelled here to worship the Deities and to cherish art,
may all of you enjoy and satisfaction, wealth and abundance, as well as
a special blessing of a clear mind and healthy body.

Declared on the 19th of October, 2011.
Respectfully,

Mr. Kem Maruekapitak
Born on Sunday, 19th of October, 1952,
Deceased on ____
At the age of ___ years ___ months and ___ days.

Kem Maruekapitak

Artwork at Baan Devalai

Baan Devalai’s unique art style spans over multiple structures on the property. This includes statues, murals, and and an entire teak home built in a traditional northern Lanna Thai style. These items have all been crafted by hand from individual artists.

Carvings in the yard of Roitawarabarn Baandhawalai.
Carvings in the yard of Roitawarabarn Baandhawalai.

The subjects contained in Baan Devalai’s artworks depict not only Ganesh, the iconic, elephant-headed Hindu god of prosperity, but many aspects cultural traditions stemming from South Asia, China, and several Southeastern Asian countries. These traditions include images from the broader scope of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, as well as many depictions of Chinese, Thai, and Khmer art.

Work from artists is always ongoing, as they continue to add to existing pieces and as well as beginning new projects to add to Baan Devalai’s collection. Additionally, some worshippers come to the shrine during both special events hosted at Baan Devalai and as everyday visitors.

Ganesha Chaturthi Festival

An annual festival called Ganesh Chaturthi is one of the largest events hosted at Baan Devalai. The festival takes place in September and commemorates the descent of the god Ganesh from Mount Kailash, the mountain at the center of the Hindu cosmological universe, also known in Buddhism as Mount Meru.

The Ganesh Chaturthi Festival is celebrated throughout a number of southern Asian countries. At Baan Devalai, the festival includes traditional displays of music and dance alongside and prayers, chanting, and other rituals meant to celebrate Ganesh. Ganesh Chaturthi is characterized by exotic colors, music, scents, and tastes. Baan Devalai welcomes anyone to attend their festival, even if they are not adherents to the religions.

Visiting Roitawarabarn Baan Devalai

When setting out to find Baan Devalai, I initially got lost in the maze of narrow and dead-ending streets straddling Doi Suthep mountain. Having seen the photos of Baan Devalai online, I presumed to be looking for some sign of intricate elephantine carvings, causing me to drive right by the building on my first pass.

The front gate of Roitawarabarn Baandhawalai from the street.
The front gate of Roitawarabarn Baandhawalai from the street.

The Baan Devali Front Gate

Standing at the front of Baan Devali is a 3-paneled wooden gate partly obscuring the view of a beautiful all-wooden home. When viewing the gate, you’d be forgiven for thinking you are facing an artistic interpretation of a temple (akin to Wat Rong Khun in Chiang Rai), while the building behind could easily be mistaken for a private home, particularly with the Astroturf and antique Volkswagens parked outside.

Indeed, it was the former.

The gates, built in proportions representing the Trimurti (similar to Khmer and Cham Hindu temples) show Thai depictions of Hindu mythological tales. For example, the central panel shows Phra Phrom, the Thai representation of the Hindu god Brahma, riding on a hams bird amidst flames. Several further deceptions of Brahma/Phra Phrom are to be found in the paintings inside.

The Thai depiction of Brahma riding a hamsa bird.
The Thai depiction of Brahma riding a hamsa bird.

Just as interesting as the paintings themselves, the door is lined with the artist’s inscribed mission statement for the Baan Devali project (detailed above) translated into 6 languages.

The Baan Devalai Sanctuary Grounds

A notable trend I’ve found in temples from the Hindu-Buddhist tradition is the enclosure wall, whereby the entirety of the temple’s sanctuary grounds will be marked off and visibly separated from the outside (or profane) world by a physical wall. This can be seen in modern Thai Buddhist temples, 1000-year-old Angkorian Hindu temples, as well as their ancestral counterparts in the Indian subcontinent.

An Astroturf path passes around the side of the gate into the property's main attractions.
An Astroturf path passes around the side of the gate into the property’s main attractions.
Decals of political revolutionaries decorate the VW Bug.
Decals of political revolutionaries decorate the VW Bug.

While Baan Devalai’s front gate evokes this same sentiment, it also subverts this expectation with the open pathway of Astroturf leading around the right side of this spectacle of a gate. On the other side were parked two antique Volkswagens – a Type 2 van and a pink-and-white VW Beetle with decals of political revolutionaries and activists from throughout the 20th Century.

Dominating the Baan Devalai yard is a 6-meter tall wooden statue of Ganesh, the patron deity of this shrine. According to an interview with Kem Maruekapitak on their Facebook page, this statue is the single largest wooden carving of Ganesh in the world, being hand-carved from a single 6.5-meter piece of wood by artisans in San Pa Tong District in southern Chiang Mai Province.

Guan Yin and Ganesh at Roitawarabarn Baandhawalai.
Guan Yin and Ganesh at Roitawarabarn Baandhawalai.

Also adorning the landscape of the property are additional, smaller carved statues of Ganesh, as well as the Chinese goddess Guan Yin, and what appears to be a monster from some traditional tales, but I was not able to recognize. This creature reappears in other works around the property, and this large depiction held an offering of cash in his mouth.

The Baan Devalai Interior

The rooftop of Roitawarabarn Baandhawalai's main gallery building.
The rooftop of Roitawarabarn Baandhawalai’s main gallery building.

As impressive as the carvings and artworks around the property are, and they are what the owner and lead artist Kem Maruekapitak touts as the main attraction — in my opinion, the true gem is the interior of the main building.

This three story-wooden house is a majestic display of not only traditional Lanna teak architecture but of so many ornate paintings and carvings, both completed and in progress, that I couldn’t hope to discern the meaning of all of them, even with proper English translations.

Either way, the result (if a work in progress can be called that?) is amazing to behold and pictures I’ve taken of the gallery certainly don’t do it justice.

Because the true ground floor on the sloping property is an ope-air shop selling offerings for the pilgrims and worshippers, the actual exhibit begins at the middle floor. The path from the front gate purposefully brings you around past the wooden statues to the rear of the building, where you enter to find a polished wooden floor surrounded by murals and paintings embossed with golden colors.

Unlike the exterior, which blends characteristics of Thai, Chinese, and Indian artworks, everything on the interior is characteristic of Thai art styles — mimicking or even exceeding those you might find in even some of Bangkok’s most prestigious royal temples.

How to Get to Roitawarabarn Baan Devalai

GPS Coordinates: 18.793583, 98.947485

The Baan Devali Shrine is located in the Suthep district of Chiang Mai, straddling the base of Doi Suthep mountain as well as Chiang Mai University. Despite a clear marking on GPS, the roads are a bit confusing to find your way through.

Near the end of Suthep road, there is a sidestreet heading south marked as Soi 9 Chorengdoi. By following this road with 2 right turns (the final directly before a concrete wall separating 2 parallel roads) and then a ride up a short slope will bring you to the wooden gates of Roitawarabarn Baan Devalai.

The attraction doesn’t charge any entrance fee for viewing the premises or entering the main home gallery. However, there are boxes for donation that go toward furthering the work onsite. Also, for obvious reasons, please don’t attempt smoking if you visit.

Fast Facts

Glossary

baan
Thai world meaning house

Brahma
Hindu creator god and member of the Trimurti.

Buddhism
Dharmic religion centered on the the belief of karma and release from the cycle of reincarnation. Based on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama.

Doi Suthep
Revered mountain on the western edge of Chiang Mai. The mountain peak has been used by both the Hariphunchai and Lanna Kingdoms to house sacred Buddhist relic temples.

Ganesh
Elephant-headed Hindu god who embodies prosperity and removal of obstacles.

Ganesh Chaturthi
Hindu festival celebrating the descent of Ganesh from Mount Kailash.

Hinduism
Dharmic religion centered on the belief of karma and release from the cycle of reincarnation. Stems from Vedic teachings and one of the oldest extant religions in the world.

Mount Kailash
A mountain in southwestern Tibet considered the dwelling place of Shiva and associated with Mt. Meru in Hindu-Buddhist traditions.

Mount Meru
The metaphysical mountain said to represent the structure of the universe in Hindu-Buddhist cosmology.

Phra Phrom
Thai representation of the Hindu god Brahma.

Trimurti
The Hindu trinity of Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver, and Shiva the destroyer.

Sources

Benjamin

Benjamin

Hi all, my name is Ben. I’m a native Michigander with a passion for human culture and new places, and more than that, new experiences. I have degrees in archaeology and writing, pursuing a career in the latter. However, I never quite lost that fascination for archaeological theory. For the past 9 years, I’ve been living and travelling in Asia, documenting ancient sites and the peoples who built them, and then adapting them into practical archaeological travel information at PathsUnwritten.com.

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