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  • Writer's pictureAmmar, R. & Izzaty, N.

Wat Mai Suwankhiri - Tumpat's Dragon Boat Temple


Wat Mai Suwankhiri Dragon Boat Temple in Tumpat, Kelantan

The state of Kelantan, despite rhetoric and popular opinion, has always been an enclave of diversity in the East Coast. While its urban areas are clearly dominated by Malays and Islamic orthodoxy, its rural districts are dotted with vibrant Siamese communities that remain strongly tied to their Thai heritage and way of life. This is exemplified most clearly by the presence of numerous outstanding and prominent Theravada Buddhist Wats in the state's hinterlands. To delve deeper, we decided to visit one of these marvelous gems; the Dragon Boat Temple of Tumpat.

Naga gateway in Wat Mai Suwankhiri

Two Naga tails forming an entrance archway to Wat Mai's Chedi.


Our visit to the northernmost Jajahan (district) of Tumpat took place in 2019. Driving about 15 kilometers from the state capital, we saw our surroundings change from village houses punctuated by occasional mosques, to sudden appearances of golden temples and giant statues on the roadsides.


For those who are not familiar with the state of Kelantan, the vibrance of Theravada Buddhism and Thai culture here might be surprising. Despite being a tiny minority and making up only 1% of the population, the Siamese has long been established as one of the core ethnic groups in the state. In fact, some of its communities has existed for centuries before the 1909 Anglo Siamese Treaty which saw the secession of Kelantan, Terengganu, Perlis and Kedah from Thailand’s sovereignty. Being so close to Thailand, these charming pockets of Siamese villages could easily make one mistake for being across the border instead of somewhere a few minutes away from Kota Bharu. After much deliberation, we picked one of the four 'main temples' in Kelantan for the visit - the famous Wat Mai Suwankhiri in Kampung Bukit Tanah.


Fortunately, we reached our destination when parts of the buildings were still brilliantly glowing under the evening sunset.

Map Wat Mai Suwankhiri from Kota Bharu Kelantan

Map of Wat Mai Suwankhiri from Kota Bharu.

Wat Mai Suwankhiri viewed from Jalan Terbok

The temple complex viewed from Jalan Terbok. The main vihara building can be seen at the back with its tall Prasat (roof spire) and standing Buddha. The building in the foreground is the pavilion that houses the body of the late abbot Phor Than Di.


The official name of this temple is Wat Mai Suwankhiri (Thai: วัดใหม่สุวรรณคีรี, Chinese: 迈苏旺基里佛寺). Fellow Kelantanese call it Wat Mai or Ketik Perahu / Bot Naga (ketik being the local word for temple) while some Thais call it by its other name; Wat Khao Din (วัดใหม่สุวรรณคีรี). For everyone else, the wat is simply known as the Dragon Boat Temple / 龙船佛寺.


Like many other Theravada Buddhist monasteries, Wat Mai is a religious complex made of numerous buildings situated closely within the same compound. The famed Dragon Boat Vihara (Shrine Hall) itself is not the main religious building - that role falls on the largest building in the complex; a three-story Main Vihara. Around the exceptionally large 4-hectare site lies many smaller buildings with their own religious functions, such as an Ubosot (Ordination Hall), pavilions, chedi, shrines, library, etc.

Ho Rakhang bell tower in Wat Mai Suwankhiri

The foreground depicts a simple building that functions as both a Ho Rakhang (bell tower) and Ho Klong (drum tower) (Foreground). Behind it is a building that contains the library for the temple. In the far back is the Somdej Toh pavilion with bells lining its staircase.


Based on an on-site plaque, Wat Mai is thought to be established more than 400 years ago, centuries before many of the buildings on site was constructed. The oldest existing structure is believed to be the Chedi located at the rear section of the compound. From this area, the temple in time expanded to include many other elements and their respective functions. Throughout the years, the initially Thai-influenced Buddhist temple adapted to the demographic of its local devotees and integrated numerous Chinese elements as seen on its compound and buildings today.

Chedi in Wat Mai Suwankhiri

The white Chedi of Wat Mai. Beside it is a small wooden shrine for the figure Tok Chai Nor Den. A wide paddy field can be seen in the background, a familiar sight in Tumpat.

Tiger statue and cave in Wat Mai Suwankhiri

A small man-made cave beside the Chedi. This section contains the shrines Phra Sivali, Phra Sang Ka Chai and Phra Lersi.

Naga head in Wat Mai Suwankhiri

Three-headed Naga guarding the staircase to the Chedi's compound.


Among the newer buildings on site is the beautifully decorated Ubosot. Commissioned in 2013, the holy ordination hall is closed off from the public and only serves as a venue for monk ordination ceremonies and rituals. Walking around the building, one can observe a typical exterior feature of an Ubosot; eight Bai Sema (holy boundary stones) surrounding the hall on the ground level, indicating a separation border for the religious area and the public realm. Beneath these, cannonball-shaped Luk Nimit stones were buried after undergoing golf leaf gilding ceremony - and another one buried in the center of the hall inside. The Ubosot in Wat Mai is raised on a platform and appears to be built in the pure Siamese style instead of an eclectic mix as seen on the Viharas in Wat Mai. Its external walls, roof and columns are embellished in red and gold, a standard aesthetic of Thai religious monasteries.

Ubosot in Wat Mai Suwankhiri

Ubosot entrance and staircase guarded by two wavy Naga sculptures with their heads raised up, similar to that of a cobra.

Ubosot in Wat Mai Suwankhiri

The windows and doors are framed by Mondop-style surrounds. The column capitals and bases can be seen decorated by lotus-like motifs. The bottom of the photo shows one of the 8 Bai Sema around the Ubosot.

Ubosot roof in Wat Mai Suwankhiri

The Ubosot's roof gable is decorated by traditional Thai ornaments reserved for temples and royal buildings; Nak Sadung serpentine shapes on its bargeboards, Chofa finials, Hang Hongse antefixes, and Bai Raka roof comb. Gold and green-colored glass mosaic creates a sparkling effect under the sun.

Bai Sema stones in Wat Mai Suwankhiri

Leaf-shaped Sema stones around the Ubosot. The left stone depicts a Garuda motif while the right one shows a 16-spoked Dharma wheel. Both stones are framed by Nagas with headdress-like crests.


Just across the Ubosot lies the principal building of Wat Mai. The three-story Shrine Hall, titled with the name of the past abbot Phor Than Di (วิหารพระครูบวรญาณประสิทธิประชาธรรม), is the Vihara that houses the main Buddha image of the monastery. The statue is in the form of the classic Phra Cinnaraj attitude - a sitting Buddha surrounded by a flame-like aureole in the form of two Nagas. Close to the altar lies the life-sized wax statue of the revered late abbot Phor Than Di (งพระครูบวรญาณประสิทธิ์). A few steps away, numerous robes and daily necessities are laid out for donations and paying merit among devotees. The first floor of the building presents a fine example of mixed Thai-Chinese religious architecture, a common feature of Thai temples in Kelantan.

Wat Mai Suwankhiri Main Vihara Shrine Hall

The main Vihara for Wat Mai.

A traditional lamp in the form of Kinnaree can be seen in the foreground, a half-human half-bird mythical creature.

Wat Mai Suwankhiri Main Vihara Shrine Hall

The Vihara's roof features a 5-tier Mondop-styled Prasat and a 10-meter tall standing Buddha. One can see the influence of Chinese elements on the first floor below; Chinese-style Dragons, Xiangyun clouds, Stone Lions, and red lanterns.


Around this building are various other notable pavilions for devotees to offer prayers and obtain blessings. Between the Main Vihara and the gateway of the temple lies a glass-covered hall. Inside this raised building, the body of the late Chief Abbot Phor Than Di is displayed within a glass casket. On the other side of the Vihara is another hall that contains the bronze statues of the past abbots of Wat Mai. One could also find smaller structures that houses the Phra Phrom (four-faced Brahma) and Kuan Yin shrines just a few meters away from the Main Vihara's entrance.

Shrine hall Wat Mai Suwankhiri

The shrine that houses statues of past Wat Mai abbots features a Chedi-styled Prasat on its rooftop.


Another interesting pavilion is the 2-story Somdej Toh Prom Rang Sri (หลวงพ่อโต) shrine near the entrance of the Main Vihara. Consecrated in 2014, the building's open-air hall features a 3-meter-tall bronze statue of Somdej Toh. The late monk is one of the most famous religious figures in Thailand that lived during the 1800s, often addressed by locals by the honorific title Ajahn (teacher). The building can be recognized from afar by its many large 'Dhamma bells' on its staircase and hall perimeter.

Ramakien plaster art in Wat Mai Suwankhiri

Ramakien epic plaster relief of the fight between Thotsakan and Hanuman.


Located beside the Ubosot lies the Wat Mai's most well-known component, the 60-meter-long barge-shaped Vihara popularly known as the Dragon Boat Temple. This building is considered by some to be a Vihara Nam or Nawatham - a Shrine Hall surrounded by water. This concept is made made more pronounced by its boat-like design, the moat that surrounds it, and the water-related mythical beings that accompany the building. The prow of the boat is beautifully styled into the head of a Hongsa with a tassel attached to its mouth. Underneath it sits the goddess Phra Mae Thorani, while mermaid statues appear to swim freely in the moat below.


Perhaps the most outstanding features in Wat Mai are the four large golden Nagas in the form of water serpents guard the Vihara from outside. Clad in golden scales, their long bodies intertwine to form a near continuous barrier across the exterior of the boat. On the symbolic boat deck, ornamental Chatra (parasols) are fixed on both in front and behind the shrine hall. A Garuda can be seen sitting in front of the roof gable above, while the roof edges on each site sport smaller versions of the serpentine Naga. An elegant Mondop-styled Prasat sharply rises above the roof profile at the far back of the hall.


Similar to the Main Vihara, the columns around the entrance of the Shrine Hall are occupied by Chinese-style Dragons (figures made distinct from the Thai Nagas by their whiskers and legs). Inside the hall is the Vihara's main Buddha image in the form of Naga Prok - an attitude of a meditating Buddha being sheltered by a multi-headed Naga. Parts of the ceiling are adorned by murals depicting the past life stories of Buddha in intricate detail.

Dragon Boat Temple in Wat Mai Suwankhiri

Dragon Boat Vihara surrounded by golden Nagas. Another two occupies the rear end of the boat. The 'hull' is heavily decorated by flame-like Kranok motifs, a staple of Thai architecture.

Wat Mai Suwankhiri Dragon Boat Temple entrance

The body of the Nagas curling up to form the entrances of the Vihara. Winding Chinese-style Dragons can be seen around the shrine hall entrance (Right-Background).

Wat Mai Suwankhiri Dragon Boat Temple exterior

The tails of the Nagas links around the midpoint of the temple exterior (Foreground).

Shrine hall windows can be seen utilizing a simple version of the Lion's Throne design (Background).


In Thailand, water temples are part of a long religious tradition. A Water Vihara / Vihara Nam (โบสถ์น้ำ), for example, is a type of Ubosot hall that is surrounded by water as a form of sacred boundary. There is also the ancient practice of constructing stilted Ho Trai (temple libraries) on man-made ponds to protect sacred scriptures from the elements.


In terms of design, the Dragon Boat Vihara - despite its nomenclature - is far different from the 'Dragon Boat' competitive vessels depicted in popular culture. Instead, the shape of the exterior boat-like structure was made to resemble the Thai King's ceremonial Royal Barge. Specifically, the design echoes one of the four main barges; the great Suphannahong (เรือพระที่นั่งสุพรรณหงส์) - the only Royal Barge that has the mythical Hongsa on its prow. Known as the 'Holy Swan' or 'Phoenix', the barge plays a major role in the 700-year-old Royal Procession ceremony introduced during the ancient reign of the Sukhotai Kingdom. Because of this, the Dragon Boat Vihara is referred by some as the Swan Boat Temple (โรงธรรมรูปเรือหงส์ท).


Similar Shrine Halls built in the likeness of Royal Barges can be found in Thailand today, such as the Viharas in Wat Saprasansuk (Isan), Wat Nong Hu Ling (Maha Sarakham), Wat Tha Makok (Rayong), and Wat Chalo (Nonthaburi).

Wat Mai Suwankhiri Dragon Boat Temple

The serpentine body of the Naga forming a protective shield around the temple.

Wat Mai Suwankhiri Dragon Boat Temple

The statue of Phra Mae Thorani in front of the temple's 'bow'. The earth deity is believed to have protected the meditating Buddha against the forces of evil by bringing forth torrents of water by wringing her hair.


Wat Mai's architecture tells of its multi-faceted cultural and communal influences. As a Thai Theravada Buddhist temple, the facade and decorations are the result of meticulous studies done by its abbots on the many references in Thailand, especially the ones located in Tak Bai, Narathiwat. Its newer buildings are said to have been constructed in a span of 50 years, and much of its design can be described as adhering to the well-established Rattanakosin style; specific roof forms, materials, bright colors, and an extensive use of golden ornaments.


On the other hand, the balance between preserving Thai culture and adapting to local demographics has been something that is continuously considered by the Buddhist temples in Kelantan. The peripheral Chinese elements of Wat Mai's architecture speaks on how the temple adapted and responded to its devotees. Through donations and drive to attract visitors, Wat Mai has integrated many Chinese imagery in its Viharas; Chinese Dragons, guardian stone lions, decorative Xiangyun clouds motifs, etc. This integration can further be observed in Wat Mai by the modest presence of traditional Mahayana Buddhist religious structures in its compound - a Kuan Yin Pavillion and a small Tua Pek Kong Shrine.

Wat Mai Suwankhiri Tua Pek Kong shrine

Near the center of the photo, a Tua Pek Kong (祠德福) shrine can be seen with green roof and wooden Dharma wheels built into its perimeter wall.


Foremost, a Wat is a venue for monastic and religious activities, i.e., Holy Ordinations (for both long-term monkhood and short periods of paying merit), rituals and ceremonies. In extension, the Wat is a center of preservation of the Siamese identity in Kelantan. This is done through hosting Buddhist festivals, cultural art performances (such as the Menora dance), and other community programs. In Kelantan, its common to see Wats organizing gatherings during Visakha Bucha, Makha Bucha, Asahna Bucha, Loy Krathong, and Songkran festivals - among others. Wats are also important venues of education. Aside from Dhamma and Tripitaka studies conducted by monks, many Wats provide Thai language classes and examinations for Malaysian Siamese society at large.


In the administrative aspect, Wat Mai falls under the management of Majlis Sangha Negeri Kelantan, a religious body made up of Chief Abbots of the state. Officially, this monastic organization is under the patronage and appointment of the Kelantan's Sultan, a symbolic attachment formed in the spirit of harmony in the state's multi-religious society. This branches out into warm relationships with the State Government, with the organization working within the bounds of local norms and regulations.


Aside from it's more serious roles, Wat Mai remains down to earth and remain close to its community. On a usual day, devotees and tourists alike drop by to the complex for various reasons of their own; whether to marvel at the buildings, pray, making merit, taking a mandi bunga (flower bath) ritual, or simply stopping by for its local-favorite mee kolok.

Wat Mai Suwankhiri Hongsa Lamp effigy

A Hongsa effigy on one of the lamps in the compound. The Hongsa, a mythical creature of the Himmapan Forest, is the same creature depicted on the Dragon Boat's prow.


In terms of the ecclesial relationship, the Kelantan Sangha maintains close ties with the Thai Sangha across the border in dealing with matters related to religious guidance, further education and monastic administration. On the ground, the Sangha is supported by the Siamese community through associations such as Persatuan Siam Kelantan (PSKN) and Young Buddhist Association of Malaysia (YBAM). With this supportive environment, temples like Wat Mai have continued to receive numerous homages from government officials, monks and devotees from local and abroad, especially during special religious occasions.

Wat Mai Suwankhiri crematorium

Wat Mai's traditional crematorium with elaborately carved Khan Thuai (eave brackets).

These buildings are frequently found in Thai Wats and can be identified by its tall and slender chimney.

Wat Mai Suwankhiri gravestones Mondop

Gravestones near the back entrance of Wat Mai.


By maintaining pragmatic relationships with their political and social ecosystems, the Siamese has indeed flourished in Kelantan more than ever. Most evidently, this has manifested in the establishment and maintenance of around 25 Buddhist Wats and Samnaks (religious offices) throughout the state - most of which have since been gazetted as protected religious and community centers under the State Government. Out of these, four temples are widely considered to be the most culturally significant, namely Wat Mai Suwankhiri (Dragon Boat Temple), Wat Pothivihan (Sleeping Buddha), Wat Phikulthong (Golden Standing Buddha) and Wat Machimmaram (Sitting Buddha).


Today, Wat Mai Suwankhiri continues to attract the veneration of Buddhist devotees and tourists from Malaysia and beyond. For those who hold Siamese heritage close to heart, the temple's Dragon Boat is more than an eye-catching marvel, but an immense symbol of religious, royal, and cultural significance.


***

Wat Mai Suwankhiri

Peacock motif on one of the buildings in Wat Mai.


Author's note: The visit above was conducted in 2019. Photos may not reflect the actual condition of the site during the date of publishing.


Notes:

*Terms for a Thai Shrine Hall

Vihara (Pali) / Wihan (Thai) / Viharn (Thai)

*Kelantanese perspective of decorated boats

For the locals, the imagery of decorated boats resonates with Kelantan's Perahu Kolek art and tradition, which can still be seen today on the colorful Malay fishing boats that still depict dragons and bird motifs.

*Dragon Boat Temple

Not to be confused with Wat Phothikyan Phutthaktham (Double Dragon and White Standing Buddha) in Bachok, Kelantan.


References / Further Reading:

Comments on architecture of Wat Mai Suwankhiri: อุโบสถวัดไทยในเมืองมลายู (กลันตัน เกดะห์ ปะลิส และปี นัง) สมัยรัตนโกสินทร์ (Bunlue Khoruamdach, 2012) - Silpakorn University PHD

Siamese community in Kelantan: ย่อบันทึกวัดรัฐกลันตันนี้ (วีระ สุวรรณ , แฮลาย ปรามวล, 2010) - เทมการพิมพ์

Thai Embassy and Malaysian Government acknowledgement of Wat Mai as a major tourist attraction: 28 มี.ค. 57 - กงสุลใหญ่ ณ เมืองโกตาบารู เป็นประธานในพิธีเททองหล่อองค์สมเด็จโต (2022) - Royal Thai Consulate-General Kota Bharu

Cultural mix of Siamese and Chinese influence in Thai Buddhist Temples: Chinese Art within Thai Temples in Malaysia: The Disappearance of Thai Art (Punya Tepsing, 2015) - Asian Social Science

Thai architecture: The Study of Thai Traditional Architecture as a Source for Contemporary Building Design in Thailand (Wattana Boonjub, 2009) PHD Silpakorn University

Naga imagery in Thai architecture: Naga Artistic Work in the Northeastern Region of Thailand (Mettha Sirisuk, Arkom Sangiamvibool1 & Vuthipong Roadkasamsri, 2014) - Asian Culture and History

Thailand Royal Barges: เรือพระราชพิธี (2015) - กรมศิลปากร กระทรวงวัฒนธรรม

Life of Buddhist monks in Kelantan: สภาพชีวิตพระสงฆ์เชื้อสายสยามเพื่อดำรงวิถีไทยในรัฐกลันตัน ประเทศมาเลเซีย (พระวิจักร์ พงษ์พันธ์* , ปัญญา เทพสิงห์, และ เก็ตถวา บุญปราการ, 2017) - มหาวิทยาลัยสงขลานครินทร

Wat Mai Ubosot Nuk Limit gilding and burying cremony: 23 ส.ค. 56 - กงสุลใหญ่เป็นประธานจุดธูปเทียนและฝังลูกนิมิตวัดใหม่สุวรรณคีรี (2013) - Royal Thai Consulate-General Kota Bharu

Somdej Toh Pavilion consecration: 阿赞多铜像完成制造.高僧带领善信诵经加持 (31/3/2014) - Sin Chew Daily

Wat Mai activities and latest condition: 丹卫局取缔卫生不达标 8餐馆被令关门清洁 (18/1/2024) - China Press

Siamese community in Kelantan: Rebuilding Place With The Siamese Cultural And Architectural Values: Wat Machimmaram, Kelantan (Pathamawadee a/p Eh Tat & Azizi Bahauddin, 2019) - The European Proceedings of Multidisciplinary Sciences - ICRP 2019

Relationship between Buddhism and Kelantanese communities: Buddhism in a Muslim State: Theravada Practices and Religious Life in Kelantan (Mohamed Yusoff Ismail, 2006) - e-Bangi : Journal of Social Sciences and Humanities

Kelantan State Government gazette of Wats: Kelantan satu-satunya negeri wartakan tapak Wat Siam (Ahmad Albab, 27/7/2017) - Berita Pas

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