The Red Chapel (La Chapelle Rouge, Haw Tai Pha Sai-Nyaat), or the Chapel of the Reclining Buddha, is one of the most photogenic and important buildings of Wat Xieng Thong. The exterior is covered with a red, sometimes fading to pink, stucco inlaid with brightly colored glass mosaics that illustrate both religious activities and everyday Lao life. The mosaics were added, during the major restoration of the chapel in 1957, to commemorate the 2500th anniversary of the Buddha's death and achievement of nirvana. The original date of the construction of the chapel is uncertain to this writer; its important Buddha sculpture dates from the 16th century. It has a three layer roof with eighteen ceremonial naga brackets supporting the lowest roof, and four delicate cho fa, ornamental finials, at the ends of the upper two layers
The bronze reclining Buddha about two meters long, is one of the most valuable of Lao Buddhist images. It fashioned in the classic Lao style (rather than Thai or Lanna) and clad in flowing robes. The Buddha is lying on its right side with the right hand supporting the head. The inscription on its base indicates it was crafted in 1569 on the order of King Sai Setthathirat. The figure was taken to Paris in 1931 and placed in a prominent position in the Indochina Pavilion at the International Colonial Exposition. Upon its return to Laos it was placed in the parlor of a French official in Vientiane and then in 1949 was transferred to Wat Phra Keo, also in the capital. The flame unisha (hair knot) was added at Phra Keo. Three years later it was returned to Luang Prabang. Framed tapestries depicting a stupa and the Buddha flank the altar. The interior of the chapel is decorated with gold stencils on red or black walls, and there are numerous small gold Buddhas attached to the walls. They represent the miracle at Savatti, where the Buddha radiated fire and water from his body and emitted multiple projections of his form.
The charming, noteworthy and primitive-style exterior mosaics describe a variety of scenes of traditional village life: trees, boats, carts, elephants, houses, hunting and fishing, working and playing, as well as ethereal religious scenes set higher on the walls. The mosaics also relate the fictional story of Sičo (or Siaw) Sawat, a commoner and son of a rich merchant, who used his wit and common sense to become an important minister of the king. Louis Finot, in his research on Lao literature, called it "a judicious tale." The name of the author is unknown, but it was probably written during the reign of Soulignavonsa (Surinyavongsa, r. 1637-1694), who ruled longer than any Lao king. The story presents a period of prosperity, religious ardor, peace and grandeur. It also describes people coming from great distances to consult the wise and clever counsel of the commoner minister. Though the mosaic depicts a cheerful era of religious faith, prosperity, peace and good government, subsequent Lao reality, unfortunately, has not necessarily matched the era of that happy period. The Red Chapel, however, convey a harmony of the sacred and the secular in its structure and in its interior and exterior ornamentation.
Text by Robert D. Fiala, Concordia University, Nebraska, USA
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