That Luang: Spiritual centre of Lao people

The majestic That LuangStupa in Vientiane, featured in the SEA Games logo, is the national symbol of Laos.

That Luang, the "Great Sacred Stupa" of Vientiane, holds great religious and spiritual signifi cance for the Lao people, having been considered the symbol of Lao independence and sovereignty since the time of the Lane Xang Kingdom.The stupa is a symbol of Lao nationhood and the country's most sacred Buddhist monument, and was rebuilt in the 16th Century during the reign of King Xaysetthathirath. A symbol of the main stupa appears on the country's national seal.This fantastical structure, combining the ethereal features of a Buddhist temple with the more mundane requirements of a fortress, is visited daily by the faithful and by tourists from around the world, to pray and receive blessings, or simply to take it all in. After being destroyed during the Thai invasion in the 19th Century, the monument was later restored to its original design, with the inclusion of many references to Lao culture and identity, hence its status as a symbol of the nation. Each level features different architectural designs with encoded Buddhist doctrine. That Luang Stupa was originally built during the ancient Khmer civilisation, when Vientiane was inhabited by people known as the 'Cham'. For hundreds of years, each November a huge festival has taken place at That Luang, in which many thousands of people from across the country as well as followers of Buddha from around the world come to pay their respects.The Cham period was the second wave of Buddhism in Laos. In its early form, That Luang was not as tall as it is now, but after Lord Buddha's ashes were placed at the site and a new stupa was rebuilt around the original obelisk, the monument took on its current shape and grew in importance as a place of worship for Lao Buddhists.Many artifacts have been discovered at the site including a statue of Jayavoraman VII dating from between AD 1181 and 1219, which is presently located at the northern end of the inner cloister.King Xaysetthathirath ordered the construction of the current stupa in AD 1566, six years after designating Vientiane as the capital of Laos. The king wanted a site to hold an annual festival that would provide an occasion for testing the loyalty of chief administrators from all corners of the Lane Xang Kingdom. This festival would also pay homage to the gods and to King Fa Ngum, who unifi ed the Lane Xang Kingdom, as well as to make merit and observe religious practices, celebrate together and consolidate solidarity, strengthening the kingdom to ensure it remained intact. The wording on the 30 gold plates located around the main stupa reads: "This stupa contains the ashes of Lord Buddha and was built by King Xaysetthathirat".