Long-term readers of New Mandala may know that I have a particular interest in Uphakhut (Shin Upagutta). As I wrote in 2007:
Upakhut is an important figure in local belief in many areas of Burma, northern Thailand and Laos. The stories of his origins are numerous. (For those interested, The Legend and Cult of Upagupta by John Strong has a wealth of detail.) In Sanskrit legend he is the son of a perfume maker and one of the early followers of the Buddha. In northern Thailand, many villagers believe that Upakhut is the son of the Buddha himself. Legend has it that he was conceived when a fish ate some of the Buddha’s semen when he washed his robe (or bathed) in a river. Upakhut was born and lives in a grand palace at the bottom of the ocean. One of his key roles is to provide protection on the occasion of major Buddhist festivals (poi luang) when he is taken from the river and installed in a temporary pavilion in the temple grounds.
On a recent trip to Malaysia, I was delighted to find this wonderful shrine to Upakhut in the Dhammikarama Burmese temple in Penang.
According to a booklet provided by the temple:
Arahant Upaggutta, who is believed to be still abiding in the ocean, has helped many people to overcome their troubles and problems, especially the seafolks who always invoke his blessings for their safety on the sea and voyages across stretches of water. Arahant Upagutta is also know to possess the power that can overcome all obstacles, problems and fulfilling of wishes on examinations, sickness, including the exorcising of evils.
In Penang Dhammkiarama Burmese Buddhist Temple, a small wooden Arahant Upagutta Shrine surrounded by a small pond was erected long ago by the Venerable Monks and travellers, in order to pay respects and to show gratitude to the Arahant. These travellers who came by boat and had landed safely on the island, would pay respects and make offerings to their Patron Saint at the Shrine. An annual celebration is held every December to enable the devotees to show their gratitude when their problems have been solved and their wishes fulfilled. …
It is believed that the Arahant is still living somewhere in the ocean. Hence, his shrine is always surrounded by water. As for looking up at the sky, Arahant Upagutta is actually looking at the position of the sun to determine the time of day. As a monk, he does not take any food after midday.