Thailand's Rich and Ancient History of Women in Buddhism

Thailand has a rich and ancient history of women in Buddhism, from the 3rd century BCE, when Asokan-era arahant missionaries Sona and Uttara Thera came from India to the ancient land of Suvarnabhumi first sharing the Buddha's teaching, ordaining more than 3,000 noble men and 1,500 noble women as bhikkhus and bhikkhunis. This was the foundation of Buddhism in Thailand, where Buddhism is still very much alive and flourishing to this day, with more than 90% of the population being Buddhists of the Theravada School. Thailand also has many Chinese-Thai Mahayana Buddhists, and an old and recently reviving history of Vajrayana Buddhism. The ancient land of Survarnamubhumi or Suvannabhumi in the Pali-Buddhist language -- the Land of Gold -- used to include all of Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and the South of Vietnam and China.

This blog showcases a little of the immense wealth of the rich heritage and history of Thailand's Buddhist women - and of all of the Thai people and culture - from ancient to modern times. We hope you enjoy your Women in Buddhism Tour here and during your stay in Thailand!

(If you enjoy this blog, please be sure to read the "Older Posts" - click link at the bottom of this page. Most more recent posts are focused around Bangkok and Ayutthaya. Older posts are mostly from further afield upcountry in Thailand's Northeast and Northwest.)

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Noppapolbhumi Siri Chedi (the Queen's Chedi) at Doi Inthanon

Noppapolbhumisiri Chedi
National Monument to the Foremost Women Disciples of the Buddha

The Noppapolbhumisiri Chedi was built by the Royal Thai Airforce near the summit of Doi Inthanon, Thailand’s tallest peak (2,565 meters) to commemorate Queen Sirikit of Thailand’s 50th birthday.

It took 900 days to build and a budget of 135 million baht, and was dedicated on August 12, 1992. The chedi is 55 meters tall, 5 meters shorter than the adjacent Nopparmaythanedon Chedi to King Bhumibol, indicating that she is 5 years younger. It has a 12-sided form, and the base of the chedi is built in the shape of an open lotus flower with 4 levels. Above this, the main body of the chedi has 25 small levels, topped by a golden spire of 8 levels. The entire chedi therefore has 37 levels, signifying the “37 Factors of Enlightenment.” On the top of the golden spire is a 9-level silver ‘umbrella.’

The “37 Factors of Enlightenment” or “Wings of Awakening” (Pali: bodhipakkhiya-dhammá) include:

· Four Foundations of Mindfulness (satipatthana)

· Four Right Efforts (sammappadhana)

· Four Bases of Power (iddhipada)

· Five Faculties (indriya)

· Five Strengths (bala)

· Seven Factors of Enlightenment (bojjhanga)

· Eight Fold Path (ariya-magga)

Queen Sirikit is popularly viewed as the ‘mother of Thailand’ and this chedi dedicated to her was built to honor all women, by highlighting the significant contribution that women have made in the development of Buddhism. The artwork decorating the chedi depicts the history of these women, briefly described in this document.

Napapon Phoom-siri Chedi -- a shrine to the Foremost Women Disciples of the Buddha -- was dedicated to the Queen of Thailand commemorating her 60th birthday in 1992) near the summit of Doi Inthanon. It is a twin of the shrine on the neighboring peak -- a shrine to the Foremost Male Disciples of the Buddha -- which was dedicated to the King of Thailand.

Chedi Base

The 9 purple tiled mosaics around the base of the chedi tell the stories about the lives of famous historical Bhikkunis—ordained women followers of the Buddha who practiced with right effort until they reached Arahantship. The Tripitaka mentions more than 500 enlightened Bhikkunis, thirteen of which were singled out and received specific praise from the Buddha for their particular abilities and distinctions. Nine of these thirteen Bhikkhunis are depicted on the outside walls of the chedi.

Bhikkhuni Uppalavanna Theri was praised for her achievement in performing miracles.

Upper Balcony (OUTSIDE)

The 6 brown clay tile mosaics on the outside of the upper balcony depict well-known ‘upasika’ (a faithful female lay supporter/practitioner), who had practiced Dharma in past lives and aspired to be reborn in the Buddha’s pure land in order to be able to continue practicing the Buddha’s teachings.

Lower Balcony (INSIDE)

The 6 brown clay tile mosaics on the inside of the lower balcony illustrate excellent Bhikshunis and ‘upasika’, who towards the end of their lives ordained in the Buddhist Order and attained Arahantship.

Inside the Chedi Hall

The centerpiece of the hall is a standing Buddha statue in the Pang-Ram-Phung position, which is the position for those people who were born on a Friday, the birth day of Her Majesty the Queen. The Buddha statue is 3.20 meters high, weighs around 5 tons, and is made from white jade (Hun-Pai-Yu) from China. This Buddha figure has received the name from Her Majesty the Queen: “Phra-Bud-Dha-Si-Ri-Ki-Ti-Thee-Ma-Yu-Mong-Khon”.

Inside the head of the statue (‘Phra-Ket-Mo-Le’) is enshrined a relic of the Buddha, which was given by the Supreme Patriarch of Thailand (the head of the Buddhist Sangha in Thailand, appointed by the King).

The lower wall is decorated with carvings of Her Majesty’s activities, such as her visits to villages in the rural countryside, crafted in the Thai granite.

The upper part of the wall has been decorated with Italian glass mosaic depicting 12 stories taken from the Buddha’s life. The stories highlight 4 historical women who had a very strong influence in the development of Buddhism and helping the Dharma to spread. These include: Phra Nang Sri Maha Maya (the Buddha’s mother), Phra Nang Maha Pajapati Gotami, Phra Nang Bimba Yasodhara (the Buddha’s wife), and Visakha Maha Upasika.

  1. Her Holiness (Phra Nang) Sri Maha Maya: her dream foretelling the Buddha’s birth
  2. Giving birth to the bodhisattva, the Buddha-to-be, under a Shala tree
  3. The Buddha: preaching/giving Dharma to Sandusita Devaputta
  4. Her Holiness Mahapajapati: making offering to the Buddha
  5. Her Holiness Mahapajapati: ordained as a Bhikkhuni
  6. Her Holiness Mahapajapati: attained nirvana
  7. Lady Visakha Maha Upasika: listened to the Buddha’s teaching
  8. Lady Visakha: had been chased from the richest house
  9. Lady Visakha: had offered the metal palace to the Buddha
  10. Her Holiness Bimba Yasodhara: asked for the ‘treasure’ of Dharma (for their son, Ven. Rahula)
  11. The Buddha had explained the inside and outside of the ‘treasure’
  12. Her Holiness Yasodhara-Bimba: ordained as a Bhikkhuni

Bimba Yasodhara Rahulamata -- the Buddha's Former Wife -- Ordaining as a Bhikkhuni.
She became one of his Foremost Disciples

Sources, and more information:

Buddhist Women at the Time of the Buddha — Hellmuth Hecker



Most of the information for this post came from two documents in Thai supplied by Walaiporn Pornwiroon of Bangkok, and Captain Aekasingha Klinphodi of the Royal Thai Ariforce and the Assistant Working Group for the Royal Chedis on Doi Inthanon. Captain Aekasingha was also very generous with his time, showing me around the chedis. Lawan Vongchindarak in Bangkok contributed significant time to researching and translation. Brock and Nui Wilson of Chiang Mai also contributed to the translation. Special thanks to Venerable Thubten Chodron and Ayya Tathaaloka Bhikkhuni, whose interest in and continual dedication to the contribution of women to Buddhism initiated this effort.
May this work contribute in some small way to the benefit of all mother beings.  
Barry Flaming, Chiang Mai (

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