The Pha That Luang or “Great Stupa” is the most important Buddhist monument in Laos. The large golden stupa in Vientiane is believed to enshrine a breast bone of the Buddha. The pagoda also known as That Luang is officially named Pha Chedi Lokajulamani, which translates to “World Precious Sacred Stupa”.
Local legend tells that monks sent out by the Indian King Ashoka to spread Buddhism arrived in the Vientiane area in the 3rd century BC. A stupa was erected to enshrine a sacred relic from the Buddha at the spot where the That Luang currently stands.
In the 12th century the Khmer built a temple at this spot, of which remains have been found.
The Pha That Luang was built in 1566 after King Setthathirath had made Vientiane the new capital of the Lan Xang Kingdom. At that time the pagoda was covered in gold leaf. In 1827 most of the city of Vientiane was destroyed and looted by Siamese invaders.
The Pha That Luang was heavily damaged and eventually left abandoned. It was rebuilt in the 1930’s by the French to its original design. The Pha That Luang has been submitted to the Tentative List of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
The pagoda is surrounded by cloister walls with small windows. The galleries on the inside of the cloister walls contain ancient Laos and Khmer artifacts like statues, many of them badly damaged, inscribed steles and other sculptings. Among them is a statue of King Jayavarman VII of the Khmer empire.
The Pha That Luang consists of three levels. On top of the first level wall are hundreds of sema stones that mark the sacred area. At the center of each side of the wall is a prayer gate called Haw Wai, an open structure with a double roof containing a Buddha image. The stairs to it are guarded by Naga snakes.
On top of the wall marking the second level are hundreds of sema stones and 30 small stupas. Arched gates lead to the third level that measures 30 by 30 meters and contains the 45 meter high stupa. The upper part of the stupa resembles an elongated lotus bud topped with a multi tiered parasol.
The large grounds surrounding the golden stupa contain several other Buddhist structures. In front of the That Luang is a statue of King Setthathirat, King of the Lan Xang Kingdom and founder of the monument.
When the stupa was built in the 16th century, four temples were constructed around it, one on each side. Today, only two remain. To the South is the Wat That Luang Tai, an open sala like building with a three tiered roof. To the North is the Wat That Luang Neua. This is the temple where the supreme patriarch of Laos Buddhism resides. The elegant structure has a very ornate front façade and a multi tiered roof, with an ornamental Dok so faa at its center.
The recently constructed Hor Dhammasabha or Buddhist convention hall was opened during the celebrations of the 450th anniversary of the city of Vientiane. The building used for meetings and Buddhist ceremonies has a beautiful, intricately decorated colorful façade over the main entrance. Its roof consists of multiple, multi tiered sections. The central part is topped with a golden spire, the two flanking roof sections are decorated with a Dok so faa ornamental roof element. Inside the Hor Dhammasabha is a Buddha image in the Bhumisparsha mudra seated in an ornamental throne. The ceiling is adorned with several colorful motifs, like deities and Dhamma wheels.
Other structures on the grounds include a bell tower, several stupas, a very large golden reclining Buddha and a number of pavilions sheltering images of the Buddha. A circular platform surrounding a large Bodhi tree contains Buddha images in several mudras. Outside the walled area are souvenir shops and food stalls.
The Pha That Luang is the scene of the country’s most important Buddhist festival, the Boun That Luang, held during the full moon of the 12th lunar month. Thousands of people flock to the grounds for three days of Buddhist ceremonies and celebrations to pay respect to the golden stupa and to give alms to hundreds of monks. Buddhist devotees walk around the That Luang three times holding incense sticks to pay their respect.
Days of festivities precede the Boun That festival when the grounds are filled with hundreds of stalls selling food, clothing and various crafts. Activities include carnival rides, games and rides for children, musical performances, parades of people wearing traditional costumes playing traditional music, candlelight procession and fireworks.