Phra Saen Swae is a massive bronze Buddha head unearthed from Wat Yang Kuang, an ancient Chiang Mai temple abandoned for centuries.
Name: Phra Saen Swae
Culture: Thai (Lanna Kingdom)
Age: 1350-1450 CE
Origin: Wat Yang Kuang, Chiang Mai, Thailand
Location: Chiang Mai National Museum, Chiang Mai, Thailand
What it is: The head of a cast bronze Buddha image in the Phra Singha (Chiang Saen) Style. This statue was once the largest in the Lanna Kingdom. Only the 1.82 m head remains, suggesting the full image was nearly 6 meters tall in a seated position..
The Story of the Phra Saen Swae Buddha Image
What is the Phra Saen Swae Buddha Image?
The Phra Saen Swae (also Phra Saenswae) Buddha image was once the largest cast bronze Buddha statue in the Lanna Kingdom. The head alone measures 1.82 meters (~6 feet) tall. This suggests the entire statue (in a seated position) would have been nearly 6 meters (~19.7 feet) tall.
The Phra Saenswae image is considered a prime example of the Phra Singha Style, named after those images characteristic of Wat Phra Singha Worawihan, the second most revered temple of ancient Chiang Mai and the holiest within the city proper. This style, also commonly called Chiang Saen Style, is descended from the Lanna Kingdom’s origins in Chiang Saen, where Mengrai began his campaign to establish a new dynasty. The Chiang Saen style is characterized by:
“…fullness of the body, the smiling face (no teeth shown), the round, bud-like halo, the spiral hair-style (showing no hair-line), the arched eyebrows, small aquiline nose, seamed robes, ‘lion-curved’ torso and seating in the lotus posture.”– Chiang Mai National Museum
Later in the kingdom’s existence, Chiang Mai and Lanna’s art and images grew increasingly influenced by artistic styles from neighboring cultures, such as the Dvaravati Hariphunchai Kingdom, which had been conquered by Lanna’s founder King Mengrai, as well as that of Sukhothai, another prominent Thai kingdom to the south.
Origin of the Phra Saen Swae Image
There is no official account of the creation of the Phra Saenswae image. However, Thai art historians have generally agreed that the Lanna King Tilokaraj is the most likely patron to have commissioned the statue. As the 9th king of the Mengrai Dynasty, Tilokaraj reigned over a stable and prosperous era of the Lanna Kingdom, in which its influence spread over neighboring Nan and Phrae and even resisted an attack from Ayutthaya, which had allied with Tilokaraj’s brother (and rival to the throne) in an effort to resist Lanna’s expansion.
After a peace treaty with Ayutthaya, Tilokaraj focused inward and reinvigorated much of Chiang Mai’s infrastructure. As an ardent proponent of the Sri Lankan school of Theravada Buddhism, this period saw several major additions to temples throughout the kingdom, including renovating Wat Chedi Luang Worawihan to house the legendary Emerald Buddha Image.
The statue was cast using a lost-wax casting technique, a method commonly used during the era of King Tilokaraj’s reign over the Lanna Kingdom.
Rediscovery of the Phra Saen Swae Image
The broken face of the Phra Saenswae image was unearthed at Wat Yang Guang, a temple established in the time of King Mengrai, the founder of Chiang Mai and the Lanna Kingdom. Wat Yang Kuang was later abandoned during the Burmese occupation of the Lanna Kingdom. However, I was unable to find the specific year in which the Phra Saenswae image was recovered from the forgotten temple.
By the time of its rediscovery, the Lanna Kingdom has long since united with the other Thai kingdoms in Sukhothai and Ayutthaya under the nation-state of Siam. The Phra Saenswae image was subsequently moved to Bangkok and housed at Wat Benchamabophit Dusitwanaram, the city’s renowned Marble Temple. In 1953, the relic was moved from its temple home to the Bangkok National Museum to be displayed to all as part of the country’s important national heritage.
Current Location of the Phra Saen Swae Image
The Phra Saenswae image finally returned home to Chiang Mai in 1973 with the completion of the Chiang Mai National Museum. The impressive sculpture is now the prize exhibition of Lanna artwork within the newly renovated Chiang Mai National Museum. The exhibit includes numerous smaller artifacts accompanied by a lengthy display on the bronze casting process used to create the Phra Saen Swae statue.
City in northern Thailand and historic capital of the Lanna Kingdom founded by King Mengrai in 1293.
Thai kingdom based in northern Thailand and northwestern Laos. Its capitals included Chiang Rai, Wiang Kum Kam, and Chiang Mai.
Final ruler of the Ngoenyang Kingdom (Chiang Saen) and founder of the Lanna Kingdom from 1291-1311 who established Wiang Kum Kam in 1286 and its successor Chiang Mai in 1293.
Phra Kaew Morakot
The legendary “Emerald Buddha” image carved from a single piece of jade which is currently housed in Bangkok’s Wat Phra Kaew.
Cast bronze Buddha image from the Lanna Kingdom.
Thai kingdom and successor to the Thonburi Kingdom. Based in Bangkok and founded in 1782, the Rattanakosin era lasted until 1932, when political reforms transformed the kingdom into the modern nation of Thailand.
Lanna king from 1441-1487. An ardent patron of Sri Lankan Theravada Buddhism, he renovated many temples and artworks during his reign.
The historic successor of the Ayutthaya Kingdom founded in 1767 in modern Bangkok. It was succeeded by the Rattanakosin Kingdom in 1782.
Wat Benchamabophit Dusitwanaram
Temple in Bangkok famously known as the Marble Temple.
Wat Yang Kuang
Temple in Chiang Mai where 500-year-old ruins were discovered under the existing buildings.
- “Discovery of the Head of Phra Saenswae” display. Chiang Mai National Museum, Chiang Mai, Thailand.
- “King of the Mangrai Dynasty: King Tilokaraja.” E-Lanna, Chiang Mai University, http://www.sri.cmu.ac.th/~elanna/elanna_eng/public_html/history/history7.html.
- “Phaya Tilokkaraj” display. Chiang Mai National Museum, Chiang Mai, Thailand.
- Svasti, Pichaya. “A new Lanna gem”. Bangkok Post, 27 Jul 2017. https://www.bangkokpost.com/life/arts-and-entertainment/1294819/a-new-lanna-gem.
- Williams, Benjamin. “Wat Yang Kuang: Digging Up Chiang Mai’s Buried Past.” Paths Unwritten, 27 Sept. 2019, https://pathsunwritten.com/ancient-chiangmai-wat-yang-kuang/.