Oh come on now. You really fell for that one? Sometimes you guys are just too predictable.
On my most recent trip to Chiang Mai, while visiting a handful of wats I ran across something new. At least new to me: humongous stone balls all lined up in a row, many sporting squares of gold leaf . They looked like oversized bowling balls sitting on the ball return rack at your local bowling alley.
The first set appeared at Wat Monthien, the temple on Sriphum Road just down the street and around the corner from the Tha Pae Gate that I call the chocolate wat because of its color and that the details on its exterior look like piping on a chocolate cake. I like chocolate cake. I like balls too. I’m not sure why beyond the obvious, but the shape attracts me. So I took a photo, one that would eventually go into the ‘eh’ file except that the next day at a totally different wat I ran across a second set of balls. The balls in the second set were even larger. I guess even to Buddhists size matters.
Google usually does a pretty good job of settling matters of curiosity for me. But even though now that the world’s #1 search engine makes suggestions for what you are searching for, it’s still a case of garbage in garbage out. When I tried to find out why Buddhist temples in Chiang Mai all of a sudden had an affinity for large balls, Google decided my mind was filled with garbage and refused to play. Damn. That Google is a pretty sharp cookie.
My second favorite search engine when I’m in Thailand is my friend Noom. He’d probably agrees with Google about the state of my mind, but armed with photos I figured I stood a decent chance of getting an answer out of him. And just hoped it would be one that I could understand. I didn’t expect a full discourse on the subject, but rather just enough info that I could go back to Google and be deemed worthy of some applicable search results. Be careful of what you wish for. Even when it has to do with a large set of balls.
Turns out the ‘what’ was pretty simple. They are called luk nimit. They are balls buried under the boundary markers found at all wats (well, at the ubosot at each wat). Not that I’d ever particularly noticed those architectural details before. In Thai wats, there are eight markers, called bai sema, one at each corner, and one at each midpoint of the bot. Under each is one of the balls. There is a ninth ball placed under the main Buddha statue within the structure too.
Noom can never quite decide if I’m really, really smart, or really, really dumb. This time around he went with the latter and after explaining what the balls were, turned back to my photos and slowly counted out each ball for me. Okay. Got it. And then, in case I’d missed the lesson, at every wat we hit on the rest of the trip – which was a lot – he’d point out the bai sema to me, and count them out too. And all you get is a single blog entry to deal with.
The bai sema, which have never been grand enough to attract my attention before – but which I now fear will be pointed out to me for eternity – are usually leaf shaped. The flat stoned semas are representational of the leaves of the Bodhi tree, the tree under which the Buddha sat while achieving enlightenment. Some bai sema, from the Ayutthaya period, have eyes and are decorated with crowns.
Normally you don’t see the luk nimit since they are buried beneath the bai sema. Those I saw up north were for new bots that were to be built at their respective wats. While the luk nimit are on display, locals offer prayers and place gold leaf on them, a form of merit making. Once the ground where the ubosot is to be built is consecrated, a ceremony is held to bless the temple and the balls are buried.