To the unappreciative eye Ayutthaya can easily look like a heap of stones, but it is a city that dates back to 1350.
EXPOSED bricks, vegetation growing out of structures, crumbling monuments…. Ayutthaya resembles, at first glance, the quintessential “heap of stones” that archaeological sites are lightly referred to as. But that impression is short-lived. It was the capital of the former kingdom of Siam, and though its past glory cannot be recalled, the ruins still exude great majesty. A modern city has grown around the old ruins, and Ayutthaya has become one of the prime tourist destinations of Thailand, drawing nearly a million tourists a year.
Ayutthaya goes back to 1350. There are two main theories about its origins. One was that it was the result of aggressive politics backed by military action. The other is that it gradually came into being on account of trade and cultural exchange. Historians do agree on one point, and that is that its surroundings certainly played a role in its location. Situated at the confluence of the Chao Phraya, the Pa Sak, and the Lopburi rivers, the island-city soon became the dominant power in the region in terms of trade and culture and as a source of spiritual guidance.
A view of Wat Phra Si Sanphet, which dates from 1491. It was located in the compound of the king’s palace.
It was named after India’s Ayodhya. Perhaps the name was chosen because it means undefeatable in Sanskrit; it could also be because of the Hindu influences that have pervaded the region since the second century B.C. In 1360, King Ramathibodi made Theravada Buddhism the official religion of the kingdom of Ayutthaya, but he retained the old Hindu connections by compiling a legal code based on Hindu texts. This remained valid until as recently as a century ago. The Ayutthaya kings were not only Buddhists who ruled according to the prescribed dhamma, or dharma, but they were also devarajas, or god kings. Thus, their power was not just temporal but spiritual, and they were associated with the Hindu gods Indra and Vishnu. One 17th century writer, a Dutchman called Van Vliet, remarked that the king of Siam was “honoured and worshipped by his subjects more than a god” – a custom that seems to prevail in Thailand even today (speaking against the monarchy is punishable by 15 years in prison.) The Ramayana in particular and its hero Rama are close to Thai culture and literature. So close, in fact, that for generations Thai kings adopted the title Rama. The present Chakri dynasty continues the tradition, with the current monarch being King Rama IX. For 417 years, Ayutthaya flourished and was ruled by 33 kings from five dynasties. It dominated the region politically and spiritually and with its architectural splendour. Because of its hundreds of monasteries and its canals and waterways, it was compared to Lhasa and to Venice and possibly held the same power that those cities did over religion, trade and culture. Then, in 1767, the Burmese (Myanmarese) invaded Ayutthaya. They ransacked and looted the city and destroyed it completely. It was abandoned as a capital, and the jungle gradually took it over.
In 1976, the Thai government embarked on a programme of restoration. The jungle was cleared, the ruins were restored and Ayutthaya was presented once again to the world. So impressive was it that the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) thought it “of outstanding value to humanity” and in 1991 designated it a World Heritage site.
The main contribution of the Ayutthaya period was architectural rather than sculptural. This is primarily because the city was built from scratch and so it was only natural that its early rulers would have wanted their capital city to be imposing and grand. The wats, or temples, and palaces were the most numerous and the most magnificent. Most of the major monuments, including 400 wats, were built in the first 150 years of the city’s existence. Not many survive but those that do still retain their majesty.
One of the three chedis (stupas) at Wat Phra Si Sanphet, with the sharp pinnacle on a square base that was characteristic of the Ayutthan period.
The main draw in Ayutthaya is the historical park at the heart of the modern city. The park is a maze of pillars without capitals, doors without walls, steps that lead nowhere and, most noticeable of all, headless statues of the Buddha, often with limbs lying at the base, victims of vandals who realised collectors would pay hefty prices for these ancient works. Years of such defacement have made a bizarre landscape of the historical site. It is only the elegance of the sculpture and the knowledge that the face would have been one that radiated serenity that prevents the headless statues from being grotesque. Realising that the only way to preserve the Buddhas was by disfiguring them, the Thai government took the extraordinary step of removing the heads of all the statues and installing them in museums. The tactic worked since the market for headless statues is obviously not a very profitable one. The few Buddhas at the Ayutthaya site that still have heads on their shoulders are skilful modern replicas.
Perhaps the most photographed Buddha in Ayutthaya is the sandstone head that now lies entwined, quite appropriately, in the roots of a bodhi (peepul) tree. This is on the grounds of Wat Mahathat, or Temple of the Great Relic, which dates back to the 14th century. Like the other structures, this too was vandalised. Whatever survived was scavenged and sold. Archaeologists have established that this temple was one of the first to be built at the centre of the old city. The legend goes that the king was meditating in the early hours of the morning when he saw a glow close to the ground. He believed this to emanate from a Buddha relic in the ground and commissioned the temple. The temple’s structure mirrored its impressive beginnings – its prang, or reliquary tower, rose to 38 metres and was crowned with a six-metre-high spire. This striking structure had a short life. It fell some time in the 15th century, probably after being struck by lightning. It was rebuilt several times but today only the base remains.
A headless statue of the Buddha, with ceremonial offerings, at Wat Phra Si Sanphet.
Wat Ratchaburana was built in 1424 by King Borom Ratchathirat II, who had the main prang of the temple built over the site of his father’s cremation site. Nearby are two chedis, or stupas, that the king built for his two brothers, the princes Ai and Yi, who died while duelling on elephant back for their father’s kingdom. Only the bases of the chedis have survived to the present day. In 1957, looters tunnelled down to the two-level crypt inside the main prang to look for treasure. They were apprehended, but their attempt persuaded the Fine Arts Department of the Government of Thailand to explore the site further. Careful excavations brought to light Buddha images, gold artefacts and wall murals.
The four-gabled roof of Vihara Phra Mongkhon Bophit.
Wat Phra Ram is one of the best-preserved temples, possibly because it was close to the palace. The wat has a distinctive corncob-shaped chedi with stucco galleries ornamented with naga, garuda and Buddha statues.
The Ayutthan sculptors were adept at making massive sculptures and at casting bronze. This gigantic statue of the Buddha, inside the vihara, testifies to both these skills.
Wat Phra Si Sanphet exudes a deep sense of time. It is situated on the premises of the royal palace that was established in the early years of Ayutthaya’s history. The important edifices here are the three main chedis containing the ashes of three kings. The temple was dedicated to the royals and was used by them as a private chapel and for ceremonial occasions.
The head of a sandstone statue of the Buddha entwined in the roots of a bodhi, or peepul, tree. There is no historical record of the whereabouts of the rest of the statue.
Vihara Phra Mongkhon Bophit, which is a hall of worship, holds a gigantic Buddha image. The statue, initially built in 1538, suffered great damage during the Burmese invasion that ended Ayutthaya’s reign. The image was initially outdoors but was brought into the vihara at some stage. When the roof of the vihara collapsed, the statue was once again exposed to the elements, and it fell to King Rama VI to move it to a museum after about 200 years. In 1957, the Fine Arts Department rebuilt the old vihara along its original lines, and the statue, now covered with gold leaf, was reinstalled at its old site in a new home.
The sculptors of the Ayutthan period depicted the Buddha in various poses. Here, one of these images in the historical park in the new city.
Phra Chedi Si Suriyothai is a memorial dedicated to Queen Suriyothai, who was honoured because she disguised herself as a soldier and rode into battle on an elephant to save her husband. The chedi marks the spot where she was cremated.
Phra Chedi Si Suriyothai, the memorial dedicated to Queen Suriyothai, who died saving her husband in a battle in 1548.
Ayutthaya has been restored with keen sensitivity and the innate understanding that rebuilding the structures would actually destroy rather than recreate the old surroundings. Left alone, the ruins speak for themselves and transport the visitor back in time.
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