The Emerald Buddha: A Tale of Travel around Southeast Asia

The Emerald Buddha in its three dresses. 
By <a href="" title="User:Sodacan">Sodacan</a> - <a href="" class="image" title="By Supanut Arunoprayote: Original file: File:Summer - Emerald Buddha.jpg"></a>By <a href="" title="User:Supanut Arunoprayote">Supanut Arunoprayote</a>: Original file: <a href="" title="File:Summer - Emerald Buddha.jpg">File:Summer - Emerald Buddha.jpg</a><a href="" class="image" title="By Gremelm: Original file: File:Emerald Buddha.jpg"></a> By <a href=";amp;action=edit&amp;amp;redlink=1" class="new" title="User:Gremelm (page does not exist)">Gremelm</a>: Original file: <a href="" title="File:Emerald Buddha.jpg">File:Emerald Buddha.jpg</a><a href="" class="image" title="By กสิณธร ราชโอรส: Original file: File:วัดพระศรีรัตนศาสดารามและพระบรมมหาราชวัง เขตพระนคร กรุงเทพมหานคร (31).jpg"></a>By <a href=";amp;action=edit&amp;amp;redlink=1" class="new" title="User:กสิณธร ราชโอรส (page does not exist)">กสิณธร ราชโอรส</a>: Original file: <a href="" title="File:วัดพระศรีรัตนศาสดารามและพระบรมมหาราชวัง เขตพระนคร กรุงเทพมหานคร (31).jpg">File:วัดพระศรีรัตนศาสดารามและพระบรมมหาราชวัง เขตพระนคร กรุงเทพมหานคร (31).jpg</a>, <a href="" title="Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0">CC BY-SA 4.0</a>, <a href="">Wikipedia</a></span>
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Written by Davide Crestini

April 01, 2023 5 min read

The Emerald Buddha is a sacred and highly revered image of Buddha that has been kept in different locations across Southeast Asia for centuries. In this article, we aim to trace the history and journey of this holy relic, highlighting some of the most significant events that have shaped the history of Southeast Asia.

The Emerald Buddha, also known as Phra Phuttha Maha Mani Rattana Patimakon, has journeyed through the ages, leaving behind a trail of mystery and awe. At just 26 inches tall and 18 inches wide, this intricately detailed statue is a marvel of ancient craftsmanship. Its stunning green jade glows with spiritual energy, drawing millions of Buddhists and tourists to admire it at the Wat Phra Kaeo temple in Bangkok.

Throughout history, the Emerald Buddha has been believed to confer legitimacy and prosperity to those who possess it, making it a coveted prize for kings and rulers across the region.

As with many ancient artefacts, the age and history of the Emerald Buddha only add to its importance and aura. Buddhists believe that the older a Buddha image is, the more powerful it becomes, and the Emerald Buddha's long journey impregnates it with a potent spiritual energy that continues to draw visitors from around the world.


The exact origins of the Emerald Buddha remain shrouded in myth and legend, but its journey is a testament to the enduring power of spirituality and the human quest for divine connection.

Its travels have taken it from the ancient city of Pataliputra in India, where it was said to have been sculpted by the sage Nagasena in 43 BCE, to Sri Lanka and Cambodia, where it may have been kept in Angkor Wat temple.

When the Thais attacked Angkor Wat in 1432, the Emerald Buddha was taken to Ayutthaya before eventually reaching Chiang Rai, where it was hidden by the ruler of the city until its discovery in 1434.[1]

Initial journey through Northern Thailand

Legend has it that in 1434, a lightning strike at a temple called Wat Pa Yeah caused a plaster Buddha to become dislodged. As the plaster flaked off, a Buddha statue made of emerald green was revealed, which was discovered by a monk named Phra Keo. Thus, the Emerald Buddha was brought to life once again. Upon hearing the news, King Samfangkaen of Lan Na, who ruled the northern region, desired to bring the emerald statue to Chiang Mai. He sent an elephant to retrieve the statue and bring it to Chiang Mai. However, on its way back, when it reached the crossroad leading to Lampang, the elephant turned towards Lampang. After three attempts, it was decided to let fate take its course, and the statue was brought to Lampang.[2] The statue was housed in Wat Phra Kaeo Don Tao for 32 years

In 1468, the king of Chiang Mai died and his successor ordered the Emerald Buddha to be brought to the capital city. This time, it seems the guardian spirits were agreeable, and the statue was successfully brought to Chiang Mai and installed at Wat Chedi Luang.[3]

View of Wat Chedi Luang from one of the corners. The temple is partially in ruins, but you can still make out elephant statues on the sides and the corner. The temple is mainly made up of red bricks. On the upper part, there are two arches, one on each side, of a white-grayish color. In front of the temple, there is a kind of white fence, in front of which there are pots with small plants.

Wat Chedi Luang, Chiang Mai

View of Wat Chedi Luang, Chiang Mai

A long stay in Laos

In 1546, the King of Chiang Mai, who was in possession of the Emerald Buddha, died without an heir to the throne. One of his daughters had married the King of Luang Prabang, in present-day Laos, and bore him a son, Chao Setthathirath. As there was no descendant of the previous king, high-ranking officials and Buddhist monks unanimously agreed to offer the throne to Setthathirath, who assumed the rule of Chiang Mai.[4] In 1551 his father passed away in Luang Prabang and Setthathirath decided to move there, bringing the Emerald Buddha with him. He also claimed that taking it to Luang Prabang would allow his relatives the opportunity to venerate the image and make merit. The statue was only meant to stay in Luang Prabang for a short period, but neither the king nor the statue ever returned to Chiang Mai.

In Luang Prabang, the statue resided in the Royal Palace for only 12 years. In 1563, the king felt threatened after the Burmese took Chieng Saen, northeast of Chiang Mai, and gained the position to make an armed attack down the Mekong River. As a result, he decided to move to Viang Chan (Vientiane), currently the capital of Laos. Setthathirath built a new temple Haw Phra Kaew, which housed the Emerald Buddha for over 200 years. During this time it was considered the most sacred object in Laos. and it became a symbol of Lao independence, often used in the coronation ceremonies of Lao kings.

The photo gives a glimpse of Haw Phra Kaew, a former temple located in Vientiane, Laos. In front of the temple, there's a garden with grass, and here and there, there are also some small trees. In the foreground, there's a hedge with red flowers. The temple is in the background. The temple is viewed from the front, with the upper part colored in gold, and the roof colored in red. Below the roof, there are many golden columns.

Former temple of Haw Phra Kaew, Vientane

The Emerald Buddha reaches its final destination

In 1779, King Taksin of Siam decided to invade Vientiane with an army led by his top general Chao Phraya Chakri. The invasion was successful and the army brought back the Emerald Buddha to Thonburi, the capital of the Siam empire at the time. The Emerald Buddha was kept in a building near Wat Arun until Taksin's death.

In 1782, a coup led by Phraya San took place, resulting in King Taksin's surrender to the rebels without resistance. Chao Phra Chakri was fighting in Cambodia at the time but promptly returned to the capital upon hearing of the coup. He restored order through arrests, investigations, and punishments and then decided to put the deposed King Taksin to death for betraying the kingdom by surrendering without resistance.[5]

After seizing control of the capital, Chao Phraya Chakri declared himself king and assumed the title of King Rama I. This marked the beginning of the Chakri dynasty, which still reigns in Thailand to this day with King Rama X as the current monarch. In 1782, King Rama I moved the capital from Thonburi to Bangkok, across the river, to better protect the city from potential Burmese attacks. He ordered the construction of a grand temple, Wat Phra Kaew (also known as Wat Phra Sri Ratanasasdaram), to house the Emerald Buddha, as well as the construction of the Grand Palace, which became the new residence of the royal family. To celebrate this momentous occasion, King Rama I held a three-day festival, after which he renamed the capital city Krung Thep Mahanakhon Amon Rattanakosin Mahinthara Ayuthaya Mahadilok Phop Noppharat Ratchathani Burirom Udomratchaniwet Mahasathan Amon Piman Awatan Sathit Sakkathattiya Witsanukam Prasit, a name which is still used today in a shortened form as Krung Thep Maha Nakhon (Bangkok).[6]

As the Emerald Buddha reached its final destination, its long and fascinating journey came to an end. From the depths of the jungle to the bustling cities, the sacred image has travelled through time and space, blessing every place it visited with prosperity and grace. The very essence of the Buddha's teachings seems to emanate from the precious statue, filling the hearts of those who gaze upon it with peace and enlightenment. It is a reminder of the spiritual richness and beauty of Southeast Asia, a region where history and legend intertwine, and where the sacred and the profane merge into one. The Emerald Buddha has found its home, and with it, it brings a message of hope and love to all who seek it. May it continue to shine its light on the world for generations to come.

View of Wat Phra Kaew, home of the Emerald Buddha, in Bangkok. The photo hints at the facade of the palace, with a wall of a bright purple, in front of which stand some beautiful golden columns. The roof is triangular in shape with a red color, and behind the roof a wonder is barely visible.
On the stairs of the palace and in front of it, there are many tourists admiring its beauty, some of whom are also taking pictures.

Wat Phra Kaew

View of the Bangkok Royal Palace complex. The photo mainly reveals the roofs of the various buildings. All the roofs have the typical Thai structure with "rising triangles" and are decorated with gold and red edges, and the central part colored emerald green. At the top of each roof, it's possible to admire a golden stupa.

Royal Palace, Bangkok