PHRA PHUTTHA SIHING (พระสิงห์)
Text & photographs by Tricky Vandenberg - September 2011
(Phra Phuttha Sihing of Chiang Mai)
(Phra Phuttha Sihing of Chiang Mai)
(Vihan Lai Kham of Wat Phra Singh)
(Phra Phuttha Sihing of Nakhon Sri Thammarat -
Picture courtesy of http://www.buddhanet.net )
The Phra Phuttha Sihing or Phra Sing is one of the most important Buddha images of
Thailand still today. Much of its history fades into legend and its facts became clouded
with a lot of doubt and controversy. The Phra Phuttha Sihing has a complicated history of
travel, hijacking and replication. [1]

Practically identically to the construction of great monasteries in where the divine king
accrued religious merit; it was important for his legitimacy, to demonstrate he possessed
great merit, acquired in previous lives. The possession of certain Buddha statues was
interpreted as conferring legitimacy and power to kings and rulers, because these statues
were treated as the palladia of their kingdoms and principalities; sacred objects believed
to have the power to preserve the city or land. [2]. These Buddha images, still today, are
attributed great virtues and powers. The possession of important Buddha statues played
an important role for the Ayutthayan king’s political legitimation; at par for example as the
possession of white elephants. As thus we will see in the Phra Phuttha Sihing’s history,
the image moving from one great city to another.

The Phra Sihing statue is seated in meditation (virasana posture) and has a mudra
commonly associated with Sri Lankan images. The hand gesture performed by the Phra
Phuttha Sihing deviates from the Bhumisparsha (Maravijaya): the hands are quietly folded
in meditation, an attitude commonly associated with the Sri Lankan Buddha statues. [3]
Other aspects are the rounder face (Gampola style 14th C.) and the legs folded flat
against the plinth. [1]

The origin of the word “Sihing” is based on myths: the myth that the Sinhala speaking
people in Sri Lanka are descendants of Prince Vijaya (c. 543-505 BC?), the first King of
Sri Lanka and that their original ancestor was a Lion; or the myth that Prince Vijaya
arrived in Sri Lanka with a lion flag and that since then the Lion symbol played a
significant role in the history of Sri Lanka.

Stanley Tambiah wrote that the word “Sihing” has been interpreted in one case, as
referring to Sinhala, because of its alleged Sinhala or Sri Lankan origin; and in another
case as meaning “lion” because of the statue's metaphorical resemblance to the lion. The
Sinhalese do call themselves the "lion race" and trace their origins to Prince Vijaya (c.
543-505 BC) whose paternal ancestor was a lion, so both meanings converge. [2]

In fact there have been many Phra Phuttha Sihing, as it is generally a Sukhothai-styled
Buddha with a typical Sinhalese mudra. (1) At least three cities claim to have the original.

Nakhon Sri Thammarat has a Phra Phuttha Sihing (the Phra Singh Peninsula) housed in a
hall bearing the same name, near the Provincial Hall, originally the Buddha image hall of
the Palace of Chao Phraya Nakhon (Noi).

The capital of Bangkok houses a Phra Phuttha Sihing in the Phutthai Sawan Chapel of the
National Museum; and finally Chiang Mai has a Phra Phuttha Sihing housed in the Vihan
Lai Kham of Wat Phra Singh (Voramahavihan).

Leaving the legend for what it is, the Phra Phuttha Sihing, according to its style, might
have been made in the Lan Na period, perhaps during the fifteenth century. [1].

The history of the Phra Phutttha Sihing

I found the mentioning of the Phra Sihing only two times in the Royal Chronicles of
Ayutthaya, in the reigns of King Naresuan and King Narai. These chronicles were written
after the fall of Ayutthaya. The legend/history chronologically goes as follows …

The Phra Phuttha Sihing was cast in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) early in the Christian Era. [4]
The statue is said to have been made by three Buddhist priests in 157 AD. [5]

Either King Sri Indraditya (r. 1239?-1259?) or King Ramkhamheng (r. 1279?-1298?) of
Sukhothai sent an envoy to Ceylon to obtain it in the second half of the 13th century. [4]
This envoy is said to have been the governor of Ligor (present Nakhon Sri Thammarat).
(2) [5]

The ship with the Buddha image on board was shipwrecked, but floated ashore at Ligor.
(3) [4]

The Phra Sing was housed in Chainat or at least, this was the place where King
Borommaracha I removed the statue in 1378 to Ayutthaya - after the capture of
Chakangrao - and installed it at
Wat Phra Sri Sanphet. [4] [5]

The mother of the governor of Chakangrao was one of King Borommaracha I’s favorite
wives. She requested her husband a Buddha image for her son in Kamphaeng Phet,
which the king agreed upon. She chooses, without the knowledge of the king, the Phra
Phuttha Sihing and sent the image to Chakangrao. The king found out and claiming not
knowing the statue was so famous, his wife promised it to return, after a replica of the
statue was made for her son. [5]

After Ayutthaya meddled in the throne dispute of Lan Na (1386-87) and withdrew from
Lampang, the brother of the deceased King Kü Na, Prince Maha Phrom with his army
took refuge in Chakangrao. He relinquished his ambitions to the Lan Na throne, pilfered
the original Phra Phuttha Sihing and in a reconciliatory gesture offered the Buddha image
to the new King of Chiang Mai, Saen Müang Ma (r. 1385-1401). [4] The Phra Sihing
was installed at Wat Singh in the city of Chiang Mai in 1388. [5]

In 1547, the ruler of Chiang Mai, King Setthathirat (r.1546 - 1547) left Lan Na to
assume the throne of Lan Chang after the sudden death of his father [6]. The Phra
Phuttha Sihing was removed to Luang Prabang, together with the Emerald Buddha, the
Crystal Buddha of Lamphun and other particularly sacred images. [4]

In 1556, in the reign of Phra Mekutawisutthiwong (r. 1551 - 1564) the Phra Sing was
returned to Chiang Mai. [4]

In the Royal Chronicles of Ayutthaya we read that shortly before the death of
King
Naresuan
(r. 1590-1605) in the municipality of Hang Luang in 1605, he and his brother
Prince
Ekathotsarot (r. 1605-1610/11?) venerated the Phra Sihing in Chiang Mai. [7]

In 1661 [1662?]
King Narai (r. 1556-1688) took the image back to Ayutthaya. [4] [8]

After the fall of Ayutthaya in 1767, the invading army returned it to Chiang Mai. [4]

King Phra Phuttha Yotfa (Rama I of the Chakri Dynasty) (r. 1782-1809) brought the
image to Bangkok from Chiang Mai in 1795. The image is at present in the National
Museum. [4]

Footnotes:

(1) At least six images with their legends are called Sihing Buddhas. Five images Phra
Sihing (at Hor Phrabhut Sihing), Nakhon Si Thammarat; Phra Sing (at Wat Phra Sing),
Chiang Mai; Phra Sihing (at Wat Phra Chao Mengrai), Chiang Mai (dated 1470); Phra
Sihing (at Wat Khok Kham), Samut Sakhon (dated l689): and Phra Sihing at Trang
(stolen). [3]
(2) Ref [5] states that King Ramkamhaeng during a visit, requested the governor of Ligor
a beautiful statue for his capital. The governor left for Sri Lanka.
(3) Magic comes in. Here we may be simply suppose that the governor of Ligor
succeeded in his mission in bringing the Phra Phuttha Sihing to Sukhothai.

References:

[1] Buddhist sculpture of Northern Thailand - Carol Stratton, Miriam McNair Scott -
page 185,186, 269 & 275.
[2] Famous Buddha images and the legitimation of kings - The case of the Sinhala
Buddha (Phra Sihing) in Thailand - Stanley J. Tambiah - Rem 2.
[3] Buddhist manuscript cultures: knowledge, ritual, and art By Stephen C. Berkwitz,
Juliane Schober, Claudia Brown (2009) - page 187 & 275.
[4] A History of Siam - W.A.R. Wood (1924) - page 74.
[5] History of Laos - M.L. Manich Jumsai (2000) - page 53-55.
[6] Thailand, A short history - David K. Wyatt - page 71.
[7] The Royal Chronicles of Ayutthaya - Richard D. Cushman (2006) - page 194 /
Source: Phan Canthanumat, British Museum, Reverend Phonnarat, Phra
Cakkraphatdiphong & Royal Autograph.
[8] Ibid - page 250.