A stupa (Sanskrit for “heap”) is an important form of Buddhist architecture as a place of burial or a receptacle for sacred religious objects, which has its origins in the pre-Buddhist burial mounds of ancient India. The earliest stupa contained portions of the Gautama Buddha’s relics, and as a result, these monuments began to be associated with the body and energy of the historical Buddha.

In Thailand, the term chedi (from Pali: cetiya) is more commonly used to refer to stupa as objects and places that keep the memory of the Buddha and his teachings alive. According to the Thai Buddhist cosmology, Traiphum Phra Ruang, a celestial stupa with the name Chulamani Chedi (Pali: Cūḷāmaṇi Cetiya) is situated in the Tavatimsa heaven where the god Indra (Sakka) and 32 deities reside.

The Chulamani Chedi (left), the pāricchattaka tree, celestial umbrella and Sudhamma assembly hall (right) in the Tavatimsa heaven, illustrated in a Buddhist cosmology, Traiphum, from Thailand, 19th century. Photo credit: British Library, Or 15245, ff. 7-8

Tavatimsa heaven

The Chulamani Chedi is mentioned repeatedly in the story of the life of the Buddha. When Prince Siddhattha renounced worldly life, he cut off his hair which the god Indra placed in the celestial stupa. Long after his enlightenment, the Buddha ascended to the Tavatimsa heaven – where his mother had been reborn as a deva (deity) – to deliver his wisdom or Dhamma.

This occurred during one rainy retreat (the period of the Buddhist Lent), in the celestial Sudhamma assembly hall, next to the celestial pāricchattaka tree and the Chulamani Chedi. Finally, after the Buddha’s attainment of pari-nibbana and the cremation of his physical remains, Indra descended from Tavatimsa heaven to fetch a relic of the Buddha and deposit it inside the Chulamani Chedi.

Symbolising the Tavatimsa heaven, the Chulamani Chedi plays an important role in the popular story of the monk Phra Malai, who, as a result of his accumulated merit, was able to travel to the Buddhist hells and heavens. The creatures reborn in the hell realm asked him to urge their relatives in the human world to make merit.

Phra Malai revealed his encounters to the laity and received eight flowers from a poor man as an offering, given with the hope of making merit and being reborn into a more fortunate existence. Phra Malai then travelled to the Tavatimsa heaven, where he met the god Indra to discuss ways to gain merit, including the accumulation of merit through listening to recitations of the Vessantara Jataka, the last Birth Tale of the Buddha.

This scene is shown in the illustration above from a Thai folding book in which Phra Malai is seen in front of Chulamani Chedi while conversing with the god Indra and his spouse, Indrani, both depicted with a red aura. Below is the same scene from another Thai folding book containing the story of Phra Malai, but here the monk is conversing with Indra and another male deity.

Phra Malai, Indra and a male deity in front of the 'Chulamani Chedi', illustrated in a folding book with extracts from the Tipitaka and the story of Phra Malai, Central Thailand, 1875. Photo credit: British Library, Or 6630, f. 43

Although the composition of this prominent painted scene in Phra Malai manuscripts is quite standardised – always showing the monk and the god Indra with green skin in front of the celestial stupa – additional figures and objects can be included, like for example Indra’s spouse or, alternatively, a male deity, or several male and/or female deities.

Thai tradition

Chulamani Chedi is most frequently depicted as an emerald stupa with gold decorations on a white base. Sometimes the stupa is shown before a lavishly decorated background as in the example above.

Often included are also the monk’s alms bowl, the poor man’s lotus offering, candles, incense, containers for pouring water for the transfer of merit to the deceased, as well as funeral banners. The latter can be either white or gold, with images of crocodiles or centipedes.

In the Thai tradition, such banners are hung outside the home when someone has passed away, and they are carried in a procession to the Buddhist temple on the occasion of the cremation of the deceased’s body. Occasionally, the banners can be in the shape of crocodiles and centipedes as in the manuscript below.

These elaborately decorated funeral and commemoration books with the story of Phra Malai were commissioned as an act of merit, sometimes on behalf of a dying or deceased relative, with the hope of rebirth in a heavenly realm.

In the colophon of the manuscript above it is mentioned that the patron’s wish was to be reborn in the heavenly realm of Phra Si An (Thai name for Buddha Metteyya) and to attain nibbana. It is believed that on each Buddhist holiday all celestial beings gather at the Chulamani Chedi, circumambulating it with lit candles to venerate the Buddha and his teachings.

The 'Chulamani Chedi' is depicted as a gold stupa in a Thai folding book containing extracts from the Tipitaka and the story of Phra Malai, dated 1837. Photo credit: British Library, Or 14710, f. 76

Protected realm

The illustration above shows the Chulamani Chedi in gold on a heavily decorated white base. It is situated in a walled compound with amber floor tiles. According to Pali Buddhist scriptures, Indra built walls around the Tavatimsa heaven so that mischievous or evil-minded asura, inferior deities, could not enter this realm.

While Indra is shown kneeling in a respectful pose facing the Chulamani Chedi, Phra Malai is seated behind the stupa, pointing towards the entrance of the Tavatimsa realm through which Buddha Metteyya later joined the two of them to give predictions about the future of mankind.

Above the entrance is a white banner with the crocodile image (Thai: makara) which in Thai Buddhist mythology functions as a guardian of gateways. Occasionally, one can see in these illustrations from the story of Phra Malai plain white banners and lanterns hanging from large poles with tiered umbrellas as in the example below. All these details reflect Thai funeral traditions.

Two illustrations of the 'Chulamani Chedi' with white lanterns (left), white funeral banners (right), tiered umbrellas on top of poles and worshippers in a Phra Malai manuscript from Central Thailand dated 1857. Photo credit: British Library, Or 14732, f. 45

Another feature that frequently appears in illustrations of the Chulamani Chedi are images of hong (from Mon language: hongsa, and Sanskrit: haṃsa), mythical swan-like birds that represent the release of the deceased from the cycle of life. These images, usually in gold, are also attached to the poles that hold the funerary banners and/or tiered umbrellas (below).

In the Thai Buddhist tradition, it is advised to reflect on the Buddha and to visualise the Chulamani Chedi when someone is approaching death, with a banana leaf envelope containing a white flower, incense and a beeswax candle in their hands.

This is called “creating one’s own image”, with the aim of creating an atmosphere of tranquillity and peace in the mind. When a person is going to complete their present existence all attachments, loves and hates must be cut in order to enable a fortunate rebirth in the future and, eventually, attainment of nibbana.

Emerald Chulamani Chedi with images of gold hong birds and tiered umbrellas before a background with flower decorations in a 'Phra Malai' manuscript, Central Thailand, 19th century. Photo credit: British Library, Or 16007, f. 48

This article first appeared on British Library’s Asian and African studies blog.