The Emerald Buddha

The Emerald Buddha

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Luang Prabang Temples

The Emerald Buddha, or Phra Kaew, is the royal palladium of Thailand. The Emerald Buddha, which resides at Wat Phra Kaew at Bangkok's Grand Palace complex, may be most closely associated with Thailand, but it has a long and winding history that weaves through the history of Laos as well.

The Emerald Buddha is considered to be a very holy artifact in both Thai and Lao Buddhism. It is said that whatever country possesses the powerful holy artifact will be protected from evil and can never be conquered by a foreign power. Indeed, Thailand is the only country in Southeast Asia that was never colonized by a European country nor conquered by a foreign army. It's no wonder that both Thailand and Laos would like to claim rightful ownership to the Emerald Buddha. But who really lays claim to the Emerald Buddha

several replicas of the Emerald Buddha at a temple in Luang Prabang, Laos

Emerald History and Lore

The 75.47-carat Hooker Emerald was worn by Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II, the last sultan of the Ottoman Empire. Photo by Chip Clark, courtesy Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History. Emerald&rsquos lush green has soothed souls and excited imaginations since antiquity. Its name comes from the ancient Greek word for green, &ldquosmaragdus.&rdquo Rome&rsquos Pliny the Elder described emerald in his Natural History, published in the first century AD: &ldquo&hellipnothing greens greener&rdquo was his verdict. He described the use of emerald by early lapidaries, who &ldquohave no better method of restoring their eyes than by looking at the emerald, its soft, green color comforting and removing their weariness and lassitude.&rdquo Even today, the color green is known to relieve stress and eye strain.

There are other green gems, like tourmaline and peridot, but emerald is the one that&rsquos always associated with the lushest landscapes and the richest greens. Ireland is the Emerald Isle. Seattle, in the US state of Washington, is the Emerald City. Thailand&rsquos most sacred religious icon is called the Emerald Buddha, even though it&rsquos carved from green jadeite.

The first known emerald mines were in Egypt, dating from at least 330 BC into the 1700s. Cleopatra was known to have a passion for emerald, and used it in her royal adornments.

Emeralds from what is now Colombia were part of the plunder when sixteenth-century Spanish explorers invaded the New World. The Incas had already been using emeralds in their jewelry and religious ceremonies for 500 years. The Spanish, who treasured gold and silver far more than gems, traded emeralds for precious metals. Their trades opened the eyes of European and Asian royalty to emerald&rsquos majesty.

Emerald is the most famous member of the beryl family. Legends endowed the wearer with the ability to foresee the future when emerald was placed under the tongue, as well as to reveal truth and be protected against evil spells. Emerald was once also believed to cure diseases like cholera and malaria. Wearing an emerald was believed to reveal the truth or falseness of a lover&rsquos oath as well as make one an eloquent speaker.

Legend also states that emerald was one of the four precious stones given by God to King Solomon. These four stones were said to have endowed the king with power over all creation.

Its color reflects new spring growth, which makes it the perfect choice of a birthstone for the month of May. It&rsquos also the gemstone for twentieth and thirty-fifth wedding anniversaries.


The Temple of The Emerald Buddha - (Wat Phra Kaew) Bangkok is purpose-built to house a figurine of the meditating Buddha seated in a yogic posture, made from a solid one piece of green jade, clothed in gold and diamonds and elevated above the heads of the worshippers and tourists, as a sign of respect.

This is Thailand's most important sacred temple housing the utmost precious religious icon.

The Emerald Buddha Temple is beautifully surrounded by courtyards of countless majestic, all inspiring examples of exquisite Royal architecture through the millennia. A must visit and pilgrimage.

*Keep in mind to act with reverence and courtesy on your visit.


For more than 244 years The Emerald Buddha, has resided at the The Grand Palace, Bangkok . However its lineage expands beyond Bangkok and even Thailand.

Religious scholars conclude with its particular pose of meditation, The Emerald Buddha resembles images of Southern India and Sri Lanka. Moreover this pose is not prominent in traditional Thai sculptures.

Historians know that The Emerald Buddha has travelled to numerous areas in Asia. Various armies and kingdoms battled for the ownership of The Emerald Buddha, as:

It is strongly believed to bring prosperity and good fortune to a country in which it resides.

The complete story behind the very early history of The Emerald Buddha remains somewhat a mystery, it&rsquos alleged that from India the statue was moved to Sri Lanka and from there was taken to Cambodia where it was kept at Angkor Wat.

Ultimately arriving in Thailand to reside in various temples located in provincial kingdoms that quickly rose in prominence, including Ayutthaya, Lopburi and Kamphaeng Phet provinces.


Reliable chronicles from historical records indicate, The Emerald Buddha was kept in Chiang Rai from 1391-1436. It was here that a chance act of nature transpired, adding to the intrigue of the talisman. Lightning struck a Buddhist shrine in a temple called Wat Pa Yeah. The lightning exposed what was thought to be a plaster Buddha, the Abbot of the temple noticed that the stucco on the nose had subsequently crumbled away. Revealing the precious Emerald Buddha which had been camouflaged to prevent it being pilfered by invaders.

As a result of this discovery, the temple of Wat Pa Yeah was renamed Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of The Emerald Buddha). *Please note: In Chiang Mai the Buddha Statue that resides there or the Temple name is not to be confused with the Temple or Emerald Buddha in The Grand Palace, Bangkok.

In this period the municipality of Chiang rai was under the rule of the King Samfangkaen. The Emerald Buddha soon became exceptionally revered , it was thought to be moved to the larger city of Chaing mai where it would be readily accessible to a greater number of worshippers to give homage. It was sent out on a convoy upon an auspicious rare white elephant to a neighbouring city . However on three occasions, the elephant on its own accord hurried to another location instead, to the city of Lampang province (2/3 thirds the way to Chaing mai). The King believing that spiritual entities safeguarding The Emerald Buddha deemed it auspicious to stay in Lampang, to where it remained until 1468.

In the mid-16th century, The new King Tiloka, of Chiang Rai, had The Emerald Buddha transported to Chiang mai, where it was appointed in the eastern niche of a large stupa (a dome-shaped Buddhist shrine) at Wat Chedi Luang.

The King had no heir to the throne. The Kings daughter subsequently wed the King of Laos and born one son, prince Chaichettha. After King Tiloka passed away in 1551 the fifteen year old prince was invited to become the successor of the throne in Chiang mai. However In 1552 Prince Chaichettha preferred to return to Luang Prabang, then the capital of Laos , taking The Emerald Buddha with him. Promising the ministers he would one day return to Chiang mai, however this never transpired nor did he return The Emerald Buddha. In 1564 the now King Chaichettha was chased out of Luang Prabang by the army of the Burmese King Bayinnaung, who in turn removed The Emerald Buddha and took it with him to the new capital of Vientiane.


I n 1778, King Taksin of Thailand, went into battle with Laos and retrieved The Emerald Buddha which he enshrined in Wat Arun, in Thonburi province, on the outskirts of Bangkok.

The new capital of Thailand was established in Bangkok in 1782 under King Rama I. A magnificent new t emple was built to house The Emerald Buddha and was then transferred to The Grand Palace in 1785.


According to the legend, the Emerald Buddha was created in India in 43 BC by Nagasena in the city of Pataliputra (today's Patna). The legends state that after remaining in Pataliputra for three hundred years, it was taken to Sri Lanka to save it from a civil war. In 457, King Anuruth of Burma sent a mission to Ceylon to ask for Buddhist scriptures and the Emerald Buddha, in order to support Buddhism in his country. These requests were granted, but the ship lost its way in a storm during the return voyage and landed in Cambodia. When the Thais captured Angkor Wat in 1432 (following the ravage of the bubonic plague), the Emerald Buddha was taken to Ayutthaya, Kamphaeng Phet, Laos and finally Chiang Rai, where the ruler of the city hid it. Cambodian historians recorded capture of the Buddha statue in their famous Preah Ko Preah Keo legend. However, some art historians describe the Emerald Buddha as belonging to the Chiang Saen Style of the 15th century AD, which would mean it is actually of Lannathai origin.

Historical sources indicate that the statue surfaced in northern Thailand in the Lannathai kingdom in 1434. One account of its discovery tells that lightning struck a pagoda in a temple in Chiang Rai, after which, something became visible beneath the stucco. The Buddha was dug out, and the people believed the figurine to be made of emerald, hence its name. According to a less fanciful explanation, "emerald" here simply means "green coloured" in Thai. King Sam Fang Kaen of Lannathai wanted it in his capital, Chiang Mai, but the elephant carrying it insisted, on three separate occasions, ongoing instead to Lampang. This was taken as a divine sign and the Emerald Buddha stayed in Lampang until 1468, when it was finally moved to Chiang Mai, where it was kept at Wat Chedi Luang.

The Emerald Buddha remained in Chiang Mai until 1552, when it was taken to Luang Prabang, then the capital of the Lao kingdom of Lan Xang. Some years earlier, the crown prince of Lan Xang, Setthathirath, had been invited to occupy the vacant throne of Lannathai. However, Prince Setthathirath also became king of Lan Xang when his father, Photisarath, died. He returned home, taking the revered Buddha figure with him. In 1564, King Setthathirath moved it to his new capital at Vientiane.

In 1779, the Thai General Chao Phraya Chakri put down an insurrection, captured Vientiane and returned the Emerald Buddha to Siam, taking it with him to Thonburi. After he became King Rama I of Thailand, he moved the Emerald Buddha with great ceremony to its current home in Wat Phra Kaew on 22 March 1784. It is now kept in the main building of the temple, the Ubosoth.

The Chronicle of the Emerald Buddha

A mythical account of the statue known as the Emerald Buddha has been translated from Pali from palm-leaf manuscripts. The Wikipedia summarizes it as follows:

According to legend, the Emerald Buddha was created in India in 43 BC by Nagasena in the city of Pataliputra (today Patna). The legends state that after remaining in Pataliputra for three hundred years, it was taken to Sri Lanka to save it from a civil war. In 457, King Anuruth of Burma sent a mission to Ceylon to ask for Buddhist scriptures and the Emerald Buddha, in order to support Buddhism in his country. These requests were granted, but the ship lost its way in a storm during the return voyage and landed in Cambodia. When the Thais captured Angkor Wat in 1432 (following the ravage of the bubonic plague), the Emerald Buddha was taken to Ayutthaya, Kamphaeng Phet, Laos and finally Chiang Rai, where the ruler of the city hid it. Cambodian historians recorded capture of the Buddha statue in their famous Preah Ko Preah Keo legend. However, some art historians describe the Emerald Buddha as belonging to the Chiang Saen Style of the 15th Century AD, which would mean it is actually of Lannathai origin.

In size, the Emerald Buddha is approx. 66 cm tall by 42 cm wide, and is adorned with garments made of gold. There are three sets of gold clothing, corresponding to Thailand's three seasons—hot (March–June), rainy (July–October) and cool (November–February). The changing of garments is performed personally by the King in a ceremony of great pomp and grandeur.

While there are various suggestions that the the statue is made of jasper or even jadeite, the reality is that the Emerald Buddha has never been tested and thus its exact composition is as great a mystery as its origin.

Thailand's Wat Phra Kaeo (Temple of the Emerald Buddha) is the most sacred in the Kingdom. It is said that the older a Buddha image is, the more power it has. With its long and storied history, Thailand's Emerald Buddha is a powerful force indeed—a symbol of both kingdom and people.

A close up of the Emerald Buddha in summer attire. Photo: Wikipedia

References & further reading

  • Anonymous (1932) The Chronicle of the Emerald Buddha. Translated from Thai by Camille Notton, Bangkok, Bangkok Times Press.
  • Narula, K.S. (1994) Voyage of the Emerald Buddha. Kuala Lumpur, Oxford Univ. Press, 88 pp.
  • Roeder, Eric (1999) The origin and significance of the Emerald Buddha. Explorations in Southeast Asian Studies, Vol. 3, Fall.
  • Suphamard, Thongsib (n.d.) Phra Kaeo Morakot. [in Thai], Silapakorn University, Bangkok.

About the author

Richard W. Hughes is one of the world’s foremost experts on ruby and sapphire. The author of several books and over 170 articles, his writings and photographs have appeared in a diverse range of publications, and he has received numerous industry awards. Co-winner of the 2004 Edward J. Gübelin Most Valuable Article Award from Gems & Gemology magazine, the following year he was awarded a Richard T. Liddicoat Journalism Award from the American Gem Society. In 2010, he received the Antonio C. Bonanno Award for Excellence in Gemology from the Accredited Gemologists Association. The Association Française de Gemmologie (AFG) in 2013 named Richard as one of the fifty most important figures that have shaped the history of gems since antiquity. In 2016, Richard was awarded a visiting professorship at Shanghai's Tongji University. 2017 saw the publication of Richard's Ruby & Sapphire: A Gemologist's Guide, arguably the most complete book ever published on a single gem species and the culmination of nearly four decades of work in gemology.

The Emerald Buddha - History

In 1551 the king of Chiangmai, who had no son,died. One of his daughters was married to the king of Laos. She had borne one
son, name Prince Chaichettha. When the king of Chiangmai
died the ministers of Chiangmai invited the prince, who was
fifteen, to become king and he accepted. However, when his
father, the king of Laos, passed away, King Chaichettha wanted
to go back to Laos. So he returned to Luang Prabang, the then
capital of Laos, taking the Emerald Buddha with him, and
promised the ministers of Chiangmai to come back. But he
never returned nor send back the Emerald Buddha, so the
image remained in Luang Prabang for twelve years.

In 1564, King Chaichettha could not resist the Burmese army
of King Bayinnuang thus he moved his capital down to
Vientiane and the Emerald Buddha remained there for 214 years.

In 1778, during the Thonburi period, when King Rama I of
Bangkok was still a general, he captured Vientiane and brought
the emerald Buddha back to Thailand. With the establishment
of Bangkok as the capital, the Emerald Buddha became the
palladium of Thailand and has been ever since. The image was
moved from Thonburi to the Temple of the Emerald Buddha in
Bangkok on March 22, 1784.

The Emerald Buddha's Eventful History

Visiting Thailand, a country where Buddhism has flourished for more than one thousand years, you will not be astonished to see a large number of Buddhist monasteries and Buddha images. In lists of tourist attractions in Bangkok, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha (Wat Phra Kaeo) is the most prominent place where all tourists must pay a visit because it houses the Emerald Buddha, the most sacred Buddha image of Thailand.

In spite of the Buddha image's significance, very few people, even the Thais, know about its long eventful history. The image had gone through long journeys before being enshrined in the Temple of the Emerald Buddha in Bangkok. Those journeys give explanations why there are several temples with the same name Wat Phra Kaeo in the North of Thailand.

For travellers who are interested in history or Buddhism, paying homage to historical sites or temples housing or involved in the journeys of the Emerald Buddha is well worthwhile. Moreover, going to these ancient temples will allow you to appreciate the splendour of their ancient architecture, sculpture and paintings as well.

About the Emerald Buddha

The image is carved from a fine block of jade, not emerald which refers to its colour only. In the usual cross-legged sitting posture, the statue measures 48.3 cm (1ft. 7in.) across the lap and 66 cm. (2ft. 1.98 in.) high from base to top.

The journeys of the Emerald Buddha

Historical evidences of the Emerald Buddha have been discovered in both written records and archaeological facts. As for the written records, there are several ancient documents mentioning the Emerald Buddha. From these, historians drew conclusions that the image was built in 43 B.C. by Phra Nagasena Thera in Pataliputtara Town (today's Patana State of India). After that, Phra Kaeo was moved to be enshrined in numerous significant cities as will be described below.

In A.D. 257, a war broke out in India, so the Emerald Buddha found his way to Ceylon. Then in A.D. 457, King Anurut the Great of the Pukam Kingdom dispatched a group of high-ranking Buddhist monks to Ceylon to ask for the bestowal of the image. The request was granted and the image was transferred in a junk. On the way, a storm drove the junk to Kamphuchea (today's Cambodia). A flood hit the town afterwards, thus Phra Kaeo was moved to Inthapat town in Angkor Wat. Later on, Phra Kaeo was brought to Ayutthaya (the former capital of Thailand A.D.1350-1767) in the reign of King U-thong (1350-1369).

In the reign of King Ramesuan (1369-1370) of the Ayutthaya Kingdom, the Emerald Buddha was moved to the Wachira Prakan Kingdom (today's Kamphaeng Phet). Then in A.D. 1391, the image found its way to Chiang Rai, where it was covered with layers of plaster and was put in a stupa in a temple by Chao Mahaphrom. After that, the stupa was struck by a thunderbolt and Phra Kaeo, mistaken for an ordinary Buddha statue, was placed among many others in a vihara. A few months later, the stucco covering the nose of the statue came off. Seeing that the inside was in bright green, the abbot of the temple had the coverings of the whole object removed. It was then known to everybody that it was made of a single piece of jade pure and flawless. The image became known as Phra Kaeo Morakot, meaning the Emerald Buddha, and the temple housing it was known as Wat Phra Kaeo.

King Samfangkaen of Chiang Mai sent a convoy to bring the Emerald Buddha to his capital in A.D. 1436.

However, when the party came to a junction where three roads met, the elephant carrying the image became excited and ran towards Lampang instead of Chiang Mai as intended. The beast was calmed down but again it became frightened when it was taken back to the junction. It was replaced with a tame one but the same thing happened again. Therefore, the Buddha image was carried to a temple especially built in Lampang named Wat Phra Kaeo Dontao Suchadaram, where the image was kept for 32 years until A.D.1468.

After King Tilokkarat was enthroned in that year, he moved the Emerald Buddha to Chiang Mai. Then in A.D. 1551, the king died without an heir. Prince Chaiyachetta of Laos, whose mother was the daughter of a former king of Chiang Mai, was chosen by the nobles and the high priests to be the next ruler.

The next year Prince Chaiyachetta's father died and the Prince's younger brothers vied with each other for the throne. The prince was called back to Luang Prabang, the capital of Laos, to suppress the strife. Uncertain of his own future, the prince took the Emerald Buddha with him when going back to Laos, on the pretext of providing opportunities for his relatives there to worship it.

Prince Chaiyachetta became King of Laos after reestablishing order in the country. He could not and did not return to Chiang Mai, because the nobles of Chiang Mai had in the meantime invited Meku of Muang Nai, who was of the royal blood, to be their new king, for fear that Chiang Mai would become a vassal state of Laos.

History of the Emerald Buddha

Like many revered Buddha images, the Emerald Buddha has a mysterious past. Nobody knows when or where it was made, although it is stylistically similar to images popular in northern Thailand. The image was discovered in 1434 when lightening cracked open a chedi in a Chiang Rai temple now also known as Wat Phra Kaeo. When discovered, it was covered in plaster and the abbot of the temple kept it in his quarters until the plaster started to flake off, revealing the jade underneath.

Hearing of the discovery, the King of Lanna dispatched some soldiers to bring the image back to Chiang Mai. However, the elephant sent to carry the image refused to take the road back to Chiang Mai (Buddha images are often thought to have such powers over their movement). Seeing this, the escort took it as a sign and re-routed to Lampang.

Eventually, a later king seems to have 'convinced' the image to come to Chiang Mai, where it was enshrined in Wat Chedi Luang. But in 1552 the line of Lanna kings was interrupted and filled by the crown prince of Laos. However, after just a short time he returned to Luang Prabang to take the throne, taking the Emerald Buddha with him. The image was later moved to the new Lao capital of Vientiane, where it stayed for more than 200 years.

In 1778, while in the process of reuniting Siam after the sacking of Ayutthaya, King Taksin dispatched General Chakri on a punitive expedition to Laos, where he took Vientiane in 1779. Chakri bought the Emerald Buddha back with him, and when he later became King Rama I, he built the temple to house the image.

The only illumination in the room is from the green lights around the edge. The lights are essentially mosaic picture frames, which house beautifully drawn Thai paintings.

Artwork inside the Temple of the Emerald Buddha

The effect was very cool, though. I liked this temple a lot. The green illumination made it feel almost otherworldly.

This temple had a very different mood from some of the others I’d visited. Perhaps because the Buddha felt small. Perhaps because there were fewer tourists, so it was quieter and more sombre. Many temples have enormous Buddha statues, or even multiple statues in the centre. Contrast this one, which is small but incredibly ornate and valuable. It forces you to pay attention to it in a way that you don’t necessarily get with some of the huge statues. I also found myself drawn to the artwork around the edge, which doesn’t always happen.

Every aspect of the temple felt detailed, beautiful and valuable. I’m very glad I went.

Watch the video: The Story of Emerald Buddha (July 2022).


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