The Thai Buddhist iconography we are accustomed to usually offers brightly-coloured temples and sacred images covered in gold. This is not the case of Wat Rong Khun, known to most as the White Temple, one of the most unusual sacred buildings in the world, located 15 kilometres outside the city of Chiang Rai in Northern Thailand.
Designed by visionary Thai artist Chalermchai Kositpipat, the half Buddhist half Hindu temple is made of white plaster – symbol of Buddha’s purity – and numerous tiny fragments of mirrored glass, which create unique light effects thanks to the reflection of the sunbeams on them.
Although it can be traced back to the Thai sacred tradition, this work of art stands out not only for its unusual whiteness but also because it is very reminiscent of a famous example of Western monumental architecture: the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. The construction of Wat Rong Khun, in fact, began in 1997 but, exactly as for the Catalan basilica, whose realization should end in 2026 – 144 years after the laying of the first stone – the work is scheduled for completion by 2070. So, it’s very much a work in progress and it will be interesting to observe all the possible modifications to the original project it will undergo over time.
The deviation from Thailand’s traditional sacred architecture, usually very static and solemn, in the case of the White Temple also has effects on the way Buddha’s teachings are expressed inside the temple.
As a matter of fact, all the sculptures outside the Temple have a symbolic meaning that invites reflection and the bridge that leads to the entrance symbolizes the passage from the world of temptations to the Buddha’s kingdom and therefore to liberation: Nirvana.
All around, images of old and hideous creatures remind of the impermanence of life; brilliant statues of Yama (the god of death) and Rahu (the god of darkness) instruct men to decide their own destiny so that they can be granted access to the realm of the Enlightened, while threatening them of being rejected in the never-ending cycle of reincarnations.
Then again, all the way across the bridge, images of the Buddha welcome us at the entrance of the temple: at least an hour could be spent observing the myriad of extravagant details that scatter each corner and being charmed by the reflections of the thousands of mirrors that make the pure white of the plaster used in its construction look even more bright.
But it is the interior that provides a measure of the psychedelic imagination of Kositpipat. Indeed, here we do not find mere reinterpretations of Buddhist or Hindu icons, but rather murals that depict the idea of ??the eternal struggle between good and evil.
The protagonists of these apocalyptic scenes, however, are not those of ancient religious parables, but rather come from the modern world. Populating the murals, as a matter of fact, we find characters from movies and cartoons such as Spiderman, Superman, Kung Fu Panda, Doreimon, The Matrix’s Neo, Elvis, and even Michael Jackson, as well as the emblem of contemporary barbarity: the attack on the Twin Towers. The outcome is definitely kitschy, but at the same time also surprising. In fact, the familiarity these figures transmit to us, in that surreal context, tremendously amplifies the effectiveness of the warning about the evil that poisons the world.
Kositpipat declared that the project is a tribute that he has been wanting to pay to the Buddha and that he is convinced that this will grant him eternal life. So, the artist is a true believer and there is no provocative intent in his work. On the contrary, he believes that using these characters instead of resorting to centuries-old figures helps to feel closer to religion.