It’s likely that Buddha would shake his head in disbelief if he visited Thailand today, where he would find nearly 30,000 Buddhist temples, many of them magnificently gilded or adorned with colourful mirrored stones. The country is thus dotted with twinkling rooftop landscapes, as practically the entire population of Thailand is Buddhist.
Buddha probably had something different in mind when he, a prince from northern India, renounced all luxury more than 2,500 years ago, moved out of his father’s palace, and began a life as a wandering ascetic, before becoming enlightened after years of deprivation. Those who followed his path as mendicant had to lead a life of no possessions and few needs, carrying with them nothing more than a robe, a begging bowl, a water filter, a sewing needle, a razor, some medicine, and a toothbrush. Accepting gifts of gold was forbidden, of course, and such a monk could only remain in one place during the rainy season.
Turning yellow-brown into gold
The needs of lay people — and of monks — turned out to be a little different, however, and just a few centuries after the death of the founder of Buddhism, one could find not only meditating monks living in isolation in forests or caves, but also urban scholar monks who lived in monasteries, scribed texts, and taught the people Buddhist principles. Meanwhile, the lay people were plagued by a very human problem that still exists today, namely the view that achieving the great objective of Nirvana was a difficult undertaking. As such, many Thais still consider a reincarnation into better circumstances to be a sufficient and more realistic goal. Such an “upgrade” requires one to perform religious service, however, and for many centuries Thais have carried out this service by, among other things, honouring Buddha through supporting the gilding of temples or statues of the Buddha.
A type of dirty yellow-brown was actually the original colour of Buddhism because Buddha himself instructed his followers to dye their clothes in that tone. However, by associating this yellow with gold, the lay people lent the colour a certain loftiness. What’s more, the region of what is today Burma and Thailand was already well-known by ancient India as Suvarnabhumi (“Golden Land”), due to its deposits of the precious metal. Along with its actual value, gold continues to possess symbolic significance in Thailand, as it does all over the world. As a substance, it stands for imperishability, as a colour for mystical illumination.
Buddha’s body is also said to have shimmered in gold, making the material that much more important. All of this is now manifested in the tendency of individual believers to spend just a few baht (the Thai currency) to purchase a tiny scrap of gold leaf, which they then apply to their favorite Buddha statue as an offering, usually accompanied by an appeal. As a result, the contours of some particularly benedictive Buddha statues practically shimmer. On a larger scale, such practices have led to Thailand’s harbouring wonderful treasures, such as a three-meter high Buddha statue from the 14th century, which is made from five tons of massive gold and stands in the Wat Traimit monastery in Bangkok. The statue is worth approximately 13 million euros.