Wat Phra Kaew: History, Architecture & Emerald Buddha

Instructor: David Juliao

David has a bachelor's degree in architecture, has done research in architecture, arts and design and has worked in the field for several years.

In this lesson, we will explore the Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok, Thailand. Discover the history and main architectural characteristics of this beautiful religious temple. Also learn about the artwork in it, including its most relevant relic, the Emerald Buddha.

The Wat Phra Kaew Temple

In the 18th century, world architecture had pretty much become European architecture. But there was a wonderful exception and that was the Wat Phra Kaew in Thailand. As an independent kingdom, called Siam back then, this nation combined traditional and foreign elements, creating a unique building of astonishing beauty. Let's find out more.

The Wat Phra Kaew is a Buddhist temple located in the center of Bangkok, the capital of Thailand. It was built by the end of the 18th century, inside the grounds of the Royal Palace close to the banks of the Chao Phraya river and it consists of a series of structures, all enclosed by a perimeter wall.

Exterior view of the Wat Phra Kaew
Exterior view of the Wat Phra Kaew

History of Wat Phra Kaew

The Kingdom of Siam emerged in the 14th century when most of the area covered by today's Thailand was controlled by King Sukhothai. The former capital was located about 60 miles north of Bangkok. In 1782 King Rama I succeeded to the throne and he decided to move the capital down the river to Bangkok. He ordered the construction of the new Palace.

The Royal Palace along with the Wat Phra Kaew was built to be the heart of the new capital and they were located close to the river, on a strategic ground that was previously inhabited by the Chinese community. The Wat Phra Kaew was completed in 1784. The temple has maintained its general appearance since its construction and only minor renovations have been made, mostly to the paintings on the perimeter wall, which are restored regularly.

Architecture of Wat Phra Kaew

The temple ground is formed by different structures and elements, all enclosed inside a perimeter wall. Each structure of the temple was constructed and decorated with an individual character. The interior side of this wall is decorated with large murals that go all the way around the compound. The motifs are representations of the Hinduist and Buddhist beliefs.

The Building of the Emerald Buddha
The Building of the Emerald Buddha

In the southern part of the complex, we see the temple where the Emerald Buddha is. It is a rectangular building with an ornate roof, which has painted tiles and plenty of golden embellishments. The interior space is a single undivided room. The Buddha is located at the end, on a very elaborate golden setting.

The Royal Pantheon of Wat Phra Kaew
The Royal Pantheon of Wat Phra Kaew

In the center of the compound, there is large marble platform working as a pedestal for three smaller constructions. These are a library, a temple called the Royal Pantheon, and a golden stupa, which is a rounded pointed structure used for meditation. These three buildings were intentionally located close to each other so that they could be seen as a continuity, as different elements of a bigger whole. This had much to do with Buddhist philosophy about the cosmos and reincarnation.

The Golden Stupa in Wat Phra Kaew
The Golden Stupa in Wat Phra Kaew

All the structures of the compound have an elaborate decoration. There are plenty of golden elements throughout the different areas. The golden stupa is covered in golden stucco. The building for the Emerald Buddha and the Pantheon have a wooden roof covered with orange, green and dark blue polished tiles on the outside. These two structures, as well as the library, are very ornamented. The columns and the outer walls of the buildings are covered with a combination of mosaics, golden reliefs and inserts of glass and mirror.

The library inside Wat Phra Kaew
The library inside Wat Phra Kaew

Throughout the temple, many mythological creatures were placed. They are a delicate combination of realistic human figures and the mythical beings. The Kinara are among those creatures. They are half man, half bird and are believed to come from the Himalayas and watch for people in times of danger. There are also statues of giant demons, known as Yaksha who guard the exit of the temple. These figures have a green body and golden clothes and ornaments.

Statue of a Kinara in Wat Phra Kaew
Statue of a Kinara in Wat Phra Kaew

Thailand was never a colonial country, which was rare in this part of the world. Thus, the local rulers had the freedom to explore and incorporate contemporary architectural ideas in a more diverse way than colonies experienced. Therefore, we see a fusion of different elements coming from diverse European and Asian styles and local traditions. The tiles outside of the building were done in Persian style, the mosaics were made by Byzantine craftsmen and the golden structure of the Buddha looks almost Baroque.

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