The last evening we were in Fang in July 2011 we went to Wat Chedi Ngam, one of the oldest wats in the city, and quite unexpectedly found some of the finest modern murals I have seen, attractively painted and full of life and character.
We could see that they were illustrating the Life of King Mangrai, the 13th century founder of Lanna (modern day Chiang Mai province), but more than that was difficult as, although the murals had inscriptions on them, they were written in old Lanna, and very few people can read the script these days.
We didn’t have much time: it was evening and the light was failing, I was tired and we were on our way to Wat Sri Boon Ruang to meet with Phra Greg and Phra Fred. I took as many photos as I could and hoped we would have some time the following day.
On the ‘morrow we did in fact call in, but it was on the way to the bus stand. I managed to get a few more photos, but couldn’t possibly cover it all as there were around 45 murals in all, and some were inaccessible behind bric-a-brac that had been piled up in front of them.
When I eventually got back to Vivekavana a few days later and could look at the photographs on a big screen I realised what a real treasure they were, and regretted even more that I had run out of time.
Phra Mangrai became King of Muang Ngoen Yang in 1261, the 25th King of the Lao dynasty
Fortunately on that first evening I had met Phra Fred Blandford in Wat Sri Boon Ruang, and had found out he had worked as a professional photographer before ordaining, so I wrote asking whether he could go to the temple and try to get better photographs than the ones I had, and he readily agreed.
He went within the week, and got some really excellent photographs, both of whole panels, and also of details within them, and within a month of leaving a DVD had arrived with all his work on it.
King Mangrai Building Fang in 1273
The problem then was trying to find someone who could interpret the writing, so I could get them translated and into chronological order.
I contacted someone who has a good website on old northern Thai scripts, and asked if he could help. He was willing, but still being a student, he asked me to wait until his exams were out of the way … until his application for grad school had been posted … and so on and on … and well, it is difficult for a student to find time, and so even after a year they never came.
Later I mentioned this to Mrs. Chanya P. Depaul, who had been very kindly helping me with my work in Chiang Mai, and she said she would try and find someone who could translate the writing on the murals. Later she contacted an artist friend, Phongphan Ruannanchai, who worked together with Ajahn Jampong Tangtrakul, and between the three of them they translated the inscriptions first into modern Lanna, then Thai, then English, which I abbreviated and sometimes corrected working from various histories of the kingdom.
It sometimes takes a lot of work to get material published! But now we have 136 photographs of these murals on the site, and a written history to accompany them. A lot of work put in by very many people, and as there is no comparable work on the Net at present, I am hoping this will be of use to people interested in Lanna and, indeed, Buddhist culture.
Here you can find the album The Life of King Mangrai; and Phra Fred also took some very good photographs of the temple while he was there, including some great panoramas, and they are published in the Guest Section on the Wat Chedi Ngam page.
A big sādhu to all the people who worked so hard on this project to make it a success!
Panorama Inside the Shrine Hall