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Project Profile


2008 Award of Merit

Wat Pongsanuk

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Project TitleWat Pongsanuk

LocationLampang City, Lampang Province, Thailand

Size1,145 square metres

CostUS$ 85,714

Responsible PartyPongsanuk Community

Heritage ArchitectWoralun Boonyasurat and Anukul Siripun

ContractorBenjimin Suta

Date of Completion: February 2008

Project Synopsis

Viharn Phra Chao Pun Ong is a highly revered sacred site within Wat Pongsanuk in Lampang Province of Thailand. Historians estimate that the construction of the viharn (temple hall) took place in 1888, through the joint initiative of Chao Worayanrangsiratchatham, the King of Lampang, and Kru Ba Anochidhamma Jindamuni, the head of the sangha (Buddhist monastic community) in the four northern provinces. Although the present building has a late nineteenth-century origin, it is likely that an earlier viharn stood on the site, perhaps for as many as 500 years.

The present Wat Pongsanuk, of which the Viharn Phra Chao Pun Ong is an important element, is situated at the centre of the Pongsanuk community. This neighbourhood is comprised of 151 households and at last count included 838 residents. The name “Pongsanuk” is derived from another place of the same name in Chiang Saen District of Chiang Rai Province. Residents from that northern area migrated to Lampang and Chiang Mai around 200 years ago, where they continue to constitute a significant local presence.

The viharn displays mixed Thai and Burmese features and holds a great number of sacred images. It is the only viharn in Thailand built in cruciform plan with a three-tier roof. This style of roof represents the holy Mount Meru of Hindu and Buddhist tradition. Art historians consider Viharn Phra Chao Pun Ong a unique jewel of Mahayan Buddhist architecture in the Lanna Kingdom, a kingdom that once encompassed most of northern Thailand. Wat Pongsanuk remained an important element of community life from the time it was constructed until the mid-twentieth century. Unfortunately, during the Second World War the site experienced damage and subsequently went through long periods of neglect. During this time, two bronze Buddha images and several Buddha votive tablets were stolen. Over the decade following the war, the roof was in a frequent state of disrepair, causing the deterioration of wooden elements within the structure. At some point someone removed four roof brackets and in the succeeding years the decorative roof and gutter decayed. Furthermore, rainwater and rising damp caused the concrete foundation and platform for the Buddha images to crack. A renovation in 1957 sought to address these issues but introduced inappropriate changes, many of which further threatened the structure. These changes included a concrete coating for the roof and other unsuitable and poorly executed repairs. Over the next four decades Wat Pongsanuk suffered a continuing deterioration of its historic fabric and a gradual loss of community interest and support. Moreover, many of the traditional northern Thai houses that had once surrounded the Wat disappeared and were replaced by modern buildings.

The project to restore the viharn began in November 2004. The conservation effort sought to draw attention to the overall loss of the structure’s character and meaning, while also aiming to generate a new sense of community among the local residents.

Experts from Chiang Mai University were instrumental in the preparation of the conservation plan. From the start, they enlisted local residents in the effort, realizing that a successful project could never be completed in a vacuum. The conservation team organized the project into four stages. The first was to build community awareness, while the second was to secure funds for the project. This was followed by historical research, including the thorough documentation of remaining building fabric. Finally there was the conservation intervention, which included both experts and community members in a joint effort to restore the modest building to something of its original character. With the construction phase initiated in 2006, the project was completed in early 2007.

Conservation Approach

The project team recognized that a central impediment to the conservation effort was the lack of skilled personnel to take charge of work. This problem extended both to knowledge of traditional construction in all its aspects and the particular skills involved in restoring Buddhist arts. After six months of searching, the projects sponsors discovered a team of artisans in Chiang Mai with sufficient understanding and experience to undertake the Wat Pongsanuk restoration. With a considerable record of work on other temples, the team was familiar with the special characteristics of traditional Lanna architecture knowledge essential to the completion of the work in Lampang.

From the beginning, the guiding principle of the project was “to conserve most of the original elements and add new ones only as necessary”. The project’s designers emphasized the use of traditional materials, including teak wood, satay chin (lacquer work) and gilding. Following tradition, the craftsmen prepared their own satay chin at the work site. Ancient materials and preparation techniques added greatly to the quality of the work and helped ensure a sense of authenticity. Unfortunately the artisans were not able to recreate the traditional techniques to produce kaew juen (colourful tin mosaics) that were originally used on the temple. Lime plaster was applied on the masonry posts and other elements. Aluminium sheet lining and new flashing was added to the tile roof to enhance waterproofing.

Cinnabar was used for the final finish, conveying the historic red glossy appearance of the surfaces. The interior and exterior decorative work may appear garish, but in fact the final finishes clearly express the aesthetic values of both the original builders and the present-day community, demonstrating the continued relevance of the religious structure in modern society.

Conservation and the Community 

While seeking to restore a significant heritage structure, the main purpose of the project was to revive the traditional sense of cooperation inherent in the community way of life of northern Thai people. The participation of community members in the maintenance and repair of religious structures has a long history in northern Thailand. The Wat Pongsanuk project helped to revive these practices and to instil a new sense of responsibility in the hearts of local residents. The project also represented a coalescence of expertise and local enthusiasm.

The project sponsors saw this exercise as heuristic as well. In 2006, the project team created the first of several travelling exhibitions designed to help engender a sense of awareness of heritage value among local communities, Buddhist leaders and other organizations. The first exhibition was called “Pongsanuk, the Jewel of Lanna Architecture” and featured the work of a dedicated professional photographer who had long been a champion of the restoration project. Workshops at three universities led to the second travelling exhibition, “The Little People in Conservation”. Lectures by leading experts and the distribution of books and postcards played a central part in these efforts. Those attending attested to a new sense of awareness about heritage and its place in the community. Many also were impressed by the special qualities of Lanna architecture and its significance in the region’s culture.

The techniques and strategies applied at Viharn Phra Chao Pun Ong have formed the basis of other projects as well. The most notable example is the Mae Ta Archaeological and Conservation Project, also in Lampang Province. This project also applies the concept of community cooperation, enlisting volunteers in the process of protecting, conserving, presenting and managing the historic site and its artefacts, much as the community did at Wat Pongsanuk. This is a positive development for future projects in the region, as well as for the preservation of Thailand’s fast disappearing heritage assets more generally.

Quote from the Project Team

“While the building had been restored and the four Buddha images were covered with monk robe, monks and locals come and make merit at the building as usual.”