One and a half kilometres east of Patouxai stands the Buddhist stupa, That Luang, Laos’s most important religious building and its national symbol. The present building dates from the 1930s and is a reconstruction; the original That Luang is thought to have been built by King Setthathilat in the mid-sixteenth century, and it is his statue that is perched jauntily on a pedestal in front of the stupa.
Archeological evidence suggests that, like most central and southern Lao Buddhist structures of significance, That Luang was built on top of an ancient Khmer site. What the original Buddhist stupa looked like is a mystery, but a Dutch trader, Gerritt van Wuysthoff, who visited Vientiane in 1641, left an awestruck account of the gold-covered “pyramid” he saw there. Between then and the early nineteenth century, the stupa was embellished and restored periodically, but this ceased after the 1828 Siamese raid which left the capital deserted. When French explorers Francis Garnier and Louis Delaporte stumbled upon That Luang in 1867, it was overgrown by jungle, but still largely intact. A few years later, Chinese-led bandits plundered the stupa looking for gold, and left it a pile of rubble. A photo on display in the National Museum, taken in the late 1800s to commemorate the visit of a group of Frenchmen, gives some indication of the extent of the devastation.
A French attempt at restoration was made in 1900, after which the stupa was disparagingly referred to as the “Morin Spike”, a snipe at the architect, whose idea of a Buddhist stupa resembled a railroad spike turned on its head. Dissatisfaction with the design eventually led to another attempt in the 1930s. Using sketches done by Delaporte as a model, a re-restoration in brick and stucco was carried out over four years, and what you see today are the results of this effort.
The tapering golden spire of the main stupa is 45m tall and rests on a plinth of stylized lotus petals, which crowns a mound reminiscent of the first-century BC Buddhist stupa at Sanchi, India. The main stupa is surrounded on all sides by a total of thirty short, spiky stupas, which can be reached via any of four gates in the crenellated walls that support the monument. The whole is in turn surrounded by a cloistered wall, vaguely Chinese in style. Within the cloisters is a collection of very worn Buddha images, some of which may have been enshrined in the original Khmer temple that once occupied the site. Until just a few years ago, only the stupas’ spires were “gilded”, but with the passing years, more and more gold paint has been applied, so that now even the inner walls and their crenellations are gold. The effect is best seen just before sunset or during the evenings leading up to the That Luang Festival, when the stupa is festooned with strings of lights, and moths the size of sparrows circle and cling to its glowing surface.