Despite being one of the most important historical temples in Chiang Mai and having some of the most beautiful original stucco artwork in Thailand, Wat Jed Yod is largely quiet and free of tourists. It’s not only quite peaceful, but Wat Jed Yod is also designed like a miniature version of Bodh Gaya, making it an interesting temple to poke around and have a look at.
The name Jed Yod (เจ็ดยอด jèt-yâwt) means “seven spires” in reference to the architectural design of the wihaan, or shrine hall. However, this is only the common name, and not the official one. The temple’s official name is Wat Photharam Maha Wihan (วัดโพธารามมหาวิหาร), and it was built in the 15th century by King Tilokarat.
The temple is intended to represent the Mahabodhi temple in Bodh Gaya, India where the Buddha attained enlightenment. Tilokarat had some monks sent to Bagan in neighboring Burma, where there was already a replica of the Mahabodhi temple. And the plans for Wat Jed Yod were then based off this. This is probably why we can notice some similarity to the original temple in India, and yet see many obvious differences.
King Tilotarat had a bodhi tree planted and established the temple to celebrate the 2000th anniversary of Buddha’s enlightenment. Then, in 1477 the temple hosted the 8th Buddhist Council. This was a meeting of monks held in order to check the accuracy of the Tripitaka texts.
The First Buddhist council was held not long after the Buddha passed away. The meeting was comprised of 499 enlightened Arhat monks plus the monk Ananda, who had served as the Buddha’s personal attendant for many years. Although he had not yet attained Arhatship before the council began, Ananda was invited to attend because of his incredible power of memory and close proximity to the Buddha for so many years. Ananda could recall every teaching of the Buddha verbatim, making his inclusion at the meeting necessary. In those days, religious texts in India were always preserved by memorization, not by writing them down.
Later, as various inconsistencies in the memorized versions of texts appeared, other councils were held to determine a consistent version of the teachings. There are only six World Buddhist Councils that are generally recognized, though, so it’s not entirely clear if the council held at Wat Jed Yod had a truly international scope, nor what numbering system is used to call it the 8th council.
Nevertheless, Wat Jed Yod was an extremely important temple in the time of King Tilokarat, and in fact his relics are enshrined there in a large chedi.
Besides the bodhi tree and the original brick wihaan, the extensive grounds contain other spots connected to Bodh Gaya. It is said that the Buddha spent one week meditating under the bodhi tree and then spent an additional six weeks in six different spots nearby. You can find each of these locations marked at Bodh Gaya, and Wat Jed Yod also has its own versions.
For instance, it is said that in the sixth week after enlightenment, the Buddha sat beneath the tree belonging to the Naga serpent king Muchalinda. A heavy downpour and subsequent flooding threatened to break the Buddhas meditation, so the Naga offered his own body to serve as a coiled seat and hooded canopy for the Blessed One. There is a large water basin at Bodh Gaya build to approximate the pond where the serpent resided, and a smaller version has been built at Wat Jed Yod (although it was empty of water on my last visit).
Speaking of serpents, Wat Jed Yod is considered to be place of pilgrimage for those born in the year of the snake. In the Lanna version of the Asian zodiac, the year of the snake is usually called the “little snake” to differentiate it from the “big snake” or Naga, which is used in place of the dragon. There is a particular temple associated with each zodiac sign in Lanna tradition, and Wat Jet Yot is the temple to go to for those born in the year of the snake to make merit. For this reason, you’ll see many small votive statues of snakes places as offerings, especially at the shrine on the back side of the wihaan under the shade of the bodhi tree.
The wihaan itself needs to be considered a treasure of Lanna art. The outer surface is covered in stucco images of floating devas, or angelic beings. Although partially damaged, many of the figures are still in excellent condition. They display a unique sense of grace, and we can only imagine how beautiful the building would have looked when it was newly completed.
There is also a much larger, modern wihaan located at the temple that is more generally used for assembly, which is also quite beautiful in it’s own way. Out front, there’s a large grassy area with a few benches and tables spread out under some shady trees. It would make a nice place to come in the morning and sit down with a good book.