I remember exactly when I heard the story when and how the solid Gold Buddha image was discovered at Wat Trimitr for first time. I was in the 5th grade. It was a beautiful spring day back in April 1962. And I was reading about how and when the priceless statute was found in a world geography textbook that had interesting vignettes from countries around the world, including Thailand.
The story went that an old temple in Bangkok was being moved to new quarters in the mid 1950s. Among the items to be moved was an old, large plaster or stucco-covered Buddha statue. It was late in the day when the workers hooked the statue up to a crane and tried to hoist it up onto a truck bed, but the restraints unexpectedly broke. The statue was dropped, being too heavy to lift and the covering was cracked. The workers just left the statue where it was since it as getting too dark to work any longer. However, that night there was a terrific rainstorm.
When the workers returned, the next morning, they saw something glittering beneath the cracked covering which had been partially washed away in the rainstorm. Upon further investigation it was discovered that inside the outer covering was a gold Buddha image. The rest of the covering was quickly removed. They found it was a solid gold Buddha worth millions of dollars that had sat on the temple grounds for several decades, unbeknownst to everyone. The explanation said that the Buddha statue was covered up to prevent it from being melted down during the Burmese invasion of Ayutthaya in 1767. I was fascinated to hear about this very exotic land.
The solid gold Buddha is known in Thai as Phra Phuttha Maha Suwan Patimakon. This Gold Buddha statue is the world’s largest. Like almost all of Thailand’s history, the solid gold Buddha’s origins are obscured in myth or legend. As the Thais left no written records, what records they did have were religious tracts. Almost all of them were burned, did not last or lost in centuries past. Art historians and experts believe that the statue dates from the 13th or 14th century being crafted during the Sukhothai period. The statue shows Indian influences from the egg shaped head that was typical of the statues made at the time.
Most probably the statue was moved from Sukhothai to Ayutthaya in 1403 when Thailand’s seat of power was moved. Art scholars believe the statue was covered in either stucco or plaster, painted over and then inlaid with coloured glass to disguise it when Burmese invaders attacked and overran Ayutthaya in 1767. So, it escaped the fate of all the other gold and gold covered statues that were melted down and taken away when the city was sacked.
After moving the capita to Bangkok in 1782, King Rama I started to construct many temples in Bangkok. He ordered any Buddhas that still could be found in the ruins of Ayutthaya to be brought to Bangkok for installation. During the reign of King Rama II, the solid gold Buddha was first installed at Wat Chotanaram in Bangkok and later moved to Wat Trimitr when Wat Chotanaram was closed down. Originally called War Sam Chin Tai, Wat Trimitr and is one of the oldest temples in Chinatown. There were three Chinese men who were friends that helped construct this temple for the purpose of merit making. In 1939, the temple was renamed Wat Trimitr Witthayaram literally means three friends.
When the big Gold Buddha statute was moved to Wat Trimitr, the grounds were small and there was no place to display it. So, it as kept under a simple tin roof in storage and forgotten about for some 20 years. About 1954 a Viharn building had been constructed to house the big Gold Buddha. It was moved on 25 May 1955, then the Gold Buddha was discovered. It was found there were actually nine parts that could be disassembled using a key hidden in the base to allow for easier transport.
The statue is 3.01 metres wide, 3.91 metres in height and weighs 5,500 kilograms. On 14 February 2010, a large new building was opened at the Wat Trimitr Temple to house the Gold Buddha. The image remains one of Bangkok’s most visited tourist sites. It remains very fascinating.