Ayutthaya was the seat of power in Thailand for centuries and the ruins of its temples are a reminder of the Indic influence in this region.
The kingdom of Siam (old name of Thailand) was established in the first half of the 13th century CE with Sukhothai as its capital. Ayutthaya, around 70 kilometers north of present-day Bangkok, was strategically positioned and by the 2nd half of the 14th Century became the most important city cum capital of the kingdom of Siam with over 300,000 inhabitants. Ayutthaya is like an island surrounded by the waterways of the Chao Phraya River on 3 sides. It served as a major international trading Port and had become one of the world’s largest and most cosmopolitan areas and a centre for global diplomacy and commerce.
The word Ayutthaya has its roots in the word Ayodhya in India, which is the birthplace of Lord Ram and a highly revered place for Hindus. ‘Ayutthaya’ indicates the influence of Hinduism in the region and is associated with ‘Ramakien’, the Thai version of The Ramayan. King Ramathibodi or U-Thong, the first king of the kingdom of Ayutthaya (1314-1369) had named this city. There were many socio-political elements of the Thai Kingship that were based on Vedic Hindu concepts and Theravada Buddhism. The name of King Ramathibodi shows this influence as both Rama and Bodhi are present in the name. The Royal rituals were based on Hindu Vedic scriptures and conducted by Brahmin Priests. The Royal household had adopted the religious-political ideology that had been embodied by Lord Rama as mentioned in the Ramayana. The Theravada Buddhism had brought in the concept of ‘Dhammaraja’, i.e. the king should rule his people in accordance with the teachings of Buddha. So we see a syncretic blend of Hinduism and Buddhism forming the basic tenets of Thai kingdom.
The Ayutthaya kings built numerous architectural wonders that were mostly dedicated to Buddhism as the main religion of the region had come to be Theravada Buddhism. The architecture of the structures was influenced by Angkor style of construction and the Sukhothai cum Thai style of building monasteries. The city was much older and had existed as a Khmer military and trading post with many structures built as per Khmer architecture.
This magnificent city of Ayutthaya was brought into ruins by the Burmese armed forces in 1767. The city was burned to the ground and the residents forced to abandon it. The devastation of the area was so severe that this city was never rebuilt. The remains of the temples, stupas, monasteries and the waterways are a part of the archaeological site. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Wat Mahathat is a Buddhist temple complex and was built by King Borommarachathirat (the suffix is etymologically derived from the Hindu words Raja-Dhiraj) in 1374 CE. This is one of the most extensive compounds with remains of numerous stupas or Chedis and Prangs (central towers). Stupas are typical to Buddhist architecture where the structure is a solid temple form. The Prang style of architecture has its origin in the Khmer stylised Mount Meru depictions where there are groups of tower shrines, with the central tower being the most pronounced.
(The remains of this once magnificent holy place)
There is an extraordinary site at Wat Mahathat that attracts tourists, who wait patiently in line to get a glimpse and good photography spot of the head of a sandstone statue of Buddha. This head had fallen off the main body and with time the roots of a bodhi tree has encompassed it in such a way that the serene face of Buddha is visible to the world. This spot is not to be missed.
(The head of a Buddha statue that has been embraced by the roots of a Bodhi tree)
The Prangs are quite intact and the niches that once was home to Buddha images are empty except for a few places. The stylising resembles a temple Vimana that tapers to the top. There is a sitting Buddha at the entrance of one Prang and a statue of Buddha with his right hand in the blessing mudra stands on a pedestal in the niche of another Prang. The standing Buddha has been depicted wearing sheer cloth and the flow of cloth is similar to the Angkor style clothing of Apsaras and Dwarpalas.
(A cluster of Prangs with Lord Buddha blessing all devotees)
Wat Mahathat has remains of numerous halls that must have been used as gathering areas for monks to meditate, and for followers of Buddhism to congregate. One such raised platform has a very tall brick column that has survived to this day.
(The raised platform of the hall and the Tall brick column that stands on another raised hall platform)
There is a huge mound in complete ruin that once must have been a huge stupa as it is solid in architecture. Just the lower portions of handrails of the stairways remain that indicate that there must have been stairs that went all the way to the top of the stupa. Looking at the height of the ruins it seems clear that this structure must have had been the biggest stupa of Ayutthaya before it was destroyed.
(Remains of a massive Stupa)
What I noticed as I walked through the expanse of remains and rows of damaged Buddha statues was the remains of a series of pillars. There are remains of columns that are just a few inches high on the raised platforms. One tall column stands as a reminder of the height of these columns if they had not been destroyed. These columns are said to have held wooden roofs over the hall areas. There are remains of columns even at the ground level. I tried to imagine the area with its pillars holding up wooden roofs upon the halls, walkways, and meditation areas. The enormity of the covered area was mindboggling.
(The remains of pillars at various parts of the site and rows of destroyed Buddha statues)
Wat Ratchaburana, a Buddhist temple complex, was built by King Borommarachathirat II in 1424 CE. It was at this site that his two brothers had fought for the vacant throne of the kingdom. Both died and the throne came to Borommarachathirat II. This temple complex has the most beautiful Prang among the early Ayutthaya period. When one visits the site, what captures the eyes, is the view of Wat Ratchaburana Prang through the doorway of the remains of a huge meditation hall. Portions of the walls of this hall remain. The outer doorway has the remains of beautiful triangular Toran.
(View of Prang from outer doorway of hall)
From the top of the steps of the Prang, one gets a clear view of what is left of the meditation hall. There are remains of the base of pillars that must have stood tall and held a wooden roof above the hall. A broken statue of sitting Buddha faces the Prang. One tall pillar has a portion of its capital intact.
(The remains of the meditation hall)
The steps that lead up to the sanctum of the Prang is intact. This is the only site where visitors can climb the stairs and enter the main shrine area. The central Prang is surrounded by four towers at the four corners. This entire structure of five towers has been built on a raised platform. It reminds one of the stylised depiction of the Mount Meru, the abode of the Hindu Gods symbolised in Khmer Architecture, prevalent in Cambodia.
(The beautiful Central Prang and the stupas at the corners)
The main temple area was built in the early era of Ayutthaya. Initially, Ayutthaya was a Khmer controlled outpost and port area. The influence of Hindu symbolism that is prevalent in Khmer iconography is seen in this Temple. The Garuda (The Mount of Lord Vishnu) is depicted straddling the five-headed Naga on for sides of the Prang. Male Dwarpalas or Guardians of the temple are also depicted holding lances in their hands. The Five headed Nagas are present at the cornices of the doorways.
(Garuda straddling a five headed Naga and Dwarpalas on both his sides)
Wat Ratchaburana is the most intriguing of temples in this area as its History reveals that it was home to treasures and Buddhist artefacts. The Central Prang has a Vault that was looted in 1957. Most of the stolen goods were never recovered. Over ten thousand votive Buddhist tablets were found along with gold jewellery weighing over a ton. This vault had mural paintings that depicted the earlier lives of Buddha. But at present, the murals are hardly visible. There are stairs that lead to the inner vault but it is too dark for anything to be visible on the walls.
Wat Chaiwatthanaram was constructed right at the west bank of the Chao Phraya River. It is a later construction and was built in 1630 by King Prasat Thong. This temple resembles the Angkor style Mount Meru Theme even though it was built a few centuries after the peak of the Angkor kingdom. There seemed to be a continued respect for Hindu ideologies and the concept of God-King remained. This temple was used by the King and the Royal family and also served as a Buddhist monastery.
It is an intriguing complex with the Central Prang being the tallest. There are four stupa style towers on the four corners and numerous smaller stupas all around.
(Wat Chaiwatthanaram prang and stupas)
The smaller brick structures exist in a better condition when compared to other older buildings of Ayutthaya. The brick size remains typical to the region –small, flat burnt bricks.
The site is beautiful despite being in ruins. One can sit on the remains of the pedestals and feel the cool riverside breeze. It is saddening to see that almost all statues of Buddha have been desecrated.
(The desecrated statues of Buddha)
The Central Prang has been destroyed in such a way that the base area no longer has its outer structure and the stairs are dilapidated. The top part of the tower has retained its outer limestone plaster.
(The Central Tower)
The side towers are rather interesting as they have been stylised more like a temple Vimana than like a stupa. Some portions of the outer plaster remains of one tower reveal a niche that has reliefs of rows of devotees praying to a female deity. This deity’s clothes are very similar to the clothes worn by the Apsaras depicted in Angkor monuments. The outer plaster of another tower reveals a deity standing in a flame of fire. The damage is such that it is difficult to understand the depictions.
(One tower with a female deity depicted on the outer wall)
(The frontal of another tower depicting a deity standing amidst rising flames)
There are corridors that run around the temple complex with statues of sitting Buddhas at the corners areas. The inner walls have a layer of limestone plaster. What is unique is the use of black plaster to cover the statues and give an artistic design to the pillars and walls that hold the roof. The statues have been damaged and much of the black plaster has been removed.
(Statues of sitting Buddhas in the corridor of the complex)
I luckily met a few ladies wearing traditional Thai attires along with accessories such as a golden crown and an umbrella. They looked resplendent and glowed under the rays of the afternoon sun while I desperately tried to keep my eyes open, unable to bear the glare of the sun.
The most wonderful scene was the sight of young school kids sitting under the shade of a gigantic silk cotton tree, with paper and pen in hand. They had come to draw the Wat Chaiwatthanaram as they viewed it from a distance. (I wish schools in India encouraged such activities and thereby make kids admire the architecture of monuments more vividly)
This is an old temple with archaeological evidence showing its existence to Pre Ayutthaya kingdom days. At present, this is a functioning temple with a giant Buddha statue indoors and ruins of once impressive buildings. But the most interesting part of this temple is the unique set of roosters on a platform. The story behind it is that Burma had waged war and taken over Thailand sometime during the 16th Century. The Prince of Thailand, Naresuan was captured and taken to Burma so as to make Thailand loyal to Burma. It so happened that Prince Naresuan’s Rooster won a rooster fight against a Burmese Prince’s Rooster, where the wager was Ayutthaya. Thus Ayutthaya came back to Prince Naresuan. Today a statue of King Naresuan sits proudly amongst these roosters that are offerings by the Thai people.
(Statue of the King with the Roosters)
The temple also has a typical stupa (Chedi) on one side. The Chedi is surrounded by fierce lions all around its base as if protecting this important monument. This attribute makes it a unique monument in this city. The stair railings remind one of the ubiquitous Angkor Naga Balustrades found in Cambodian architecture.
(Fierce lions guarding the Stupa and multi-headed Naga stair railings)
Two huge roosters stand proud in front of the ruins of the main hall of this complex. The magnificent pillars are mute testimony to what must have been a grand structure before its destruction. A Buddha statue has been placed just in front of the main hall. There are Apsara figures at the base of the outer platform on which the whole structure has been constructed.
(Remains of the main hall)
A giant reclining Buddha statue is in a small building which is just big enough to contain the statue. A similar modern statue is placed in Wat Pho in Bangkok, which is visited by a constant stream of people throughout the day. In contrast to that bustling place, this temple, with its original, now stained Buddha statue, seems forlorn, attracting very few visitors. But the place induces peace and one definitely wants to relax in the hall.
(The reclining Buddha)
Phra Si Sanphet
During the heydays of the Ayutthaya Empire in the mid-17th century CE, Phra Si Sanphet was the most important temple of the kingdom. It was part of the sprawling royal complex and the temple was used exclusively by the Royal family. The complex consists of remains of three prominent bell-shaped Stupas, many mandapams, a large platform that was the base of a Vihara, multiple Chedis, etc. The site was in use right from the time of the first king in 14th century CE and subsequent kings added on to the architectural wonders of this site, making it a great complex at its peak.
(The remains of the base of a Vihara and other Buddhist buildings)
The main stupas were originally gilded with gold and they must have been an impressive sight. A great worship hall was built in 1499 and a large Buddha statue was installed within its premises. It was a bronze statue, gilded with hundreds of kilograms of Gold and stood 16 metres high. During the sack of 1767, most of the structures were destroyed and the gilded statue was melted by the conquering Burmese army. The leftover Bronze statue has been taken to the Wat Pho temple in Bangkok. Even in this dilapidated state, these stupas are still impressive with towering spires. There are steep steps leading to alcoves within these structures where ashes of kings were kept.
(The three main stupas that was once gilded with gold)
Consistent with the stature of a site with continued construction across centuries, there are multiple structures all across the campus. The main stupas are surrounded by other smaller Chedis. There were a large number of buildings in the campus but the bricks were taken away for construction activities in Bangkok till recent times, resulting in only a few mute remains of the destruction of this grand palace-temple complex.
(The rows of smaller Chedis in the complex)
Wat Phra Ram
Wat Phra Ram was built by King Ramesuan in 1369 CE. The main structure is not very elaborate when compared to other Prangs of Ayutthaya. But there is something divine about this place as one feels at ease and tends to relax. The greenery that surrounds this structure is very well maintained and there is a tranquil garden nearby with trees that appear ancient. There were hardly any tourists here and it is a less frequented site.
(The remains of the central Prang and a side stupa)
The outer wall runs against a corridor that once housed numerous Buddha statues. Restoration works have helped keep the remains standing.
(The trees add immense beauty to the overall surroundings)
Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon
This magnificent temple was created to commemorate King Naresuan’s victory over the Burmese during 1593. The literal meaning of its name is “The Great Temple of Auspicious Victory”. It has an imposing central shrine Stupa form with steep stairs leading to the sanctum sanctorum. The whole township can be seen from the top of the stairs. The staircase is flanked on both sides by huge Buddha statues in sitting form.
(The very impressive central shrine of the Stupa)
This temple is the seat of monks of Aranyawasi school (dwellers of the forest), who are known for Meditation. There are numerous sitting Buddha statues all along the inner boundary in this temple with all the statues in the standard meditation pose.
(The row of identical sitting Buddhas in meditation pose)
Apart from the huge Stone Buddha statues outside the main shrine, there are subsidiary shrines (probably added later) with shining Golden Buddha statues. These are used for worship by the devotees. Apart from the standard meditating Buddha statue, there is a statue of Buddha holding his rotund stomach.
(The Golden Buddha in meditation and a different portrayal of Buddha with a rotund stomach)
Wat Mongkon Bophit
This is an active temple where a large number of worshippers gather daily. It has a Huge Buddha statue (17metre high), with a modern temple structure around it. Historically, this statute was created in 1538 CE by king Chairachathirat (etymologically – Jairajadhiraj). During 1610-1612, King Songtham moved it to the current location and built a mandapam to house the statue. It was damaged subsequently due to lightning and restored during the reign of King Borommakot (1732-1758 CE). The whole structure was burnt during the sack of 1767 CE. The current structure was finally restored during 1955-56.
(The beautiful temple structure)
The magnificent statue is made of Bronze and it was covered with Golden leaf during 1990. Visitors throng this place. A group of school kids sat near the impressive golden sitting statue of Buddha and prayed. Visitors like us walked around the statue in awe, struggling to keep quiet and not disturb the silence.
Flowers and metallic representations of leaves of holy Peepul tree (Ficus religiosa) are offered for worship. Devotees tie metal Peepul leaves onto branches of artificial trees that have been placed on the sides of the Golden statue. These leaves have writings on them – a wish, words of thankfulness, peace etc.
(The giant sitting Buddha)
The sack of 1767 resulted in large scale destruction of the monuments of Ayutthaya. Some of the old statues recovered at this location are kept within this temple. It looks like only the statues buried underground have survived the burning by the Burmese Army in 1767 and subsequent plundering throughout the years.
(Old Buddha statues)
These ruins are all clustered around Ayutthaya island area and just outside the river banks. The original city had a huge number of other temples, monasteries and residential buildings. Wat Na Phra Meru is the only temple that survived the destruction and it has an extraordinarily beautiful Buddha image inside its sanctum. Wat Phanan Choeng is another impressive place which was originally built before Ayutthaya. It currently hosts the most stunning giant golden Buddha Image in Asia. The whole city is full of forgotten monuments and the expanse of the modern city is eating away the scattered ruins. Only the major monuments are protected and visited by the tourists.
The whole of South East Asia is replete with the symbols of the socio-religious aspects of Indic religions. Even today, Ramakien, the Thai version of the Ramayana, is the national Epic of Thailand. These magnificent ruins indicate the fact that even so far away from India, in a kingdom which is officially Buddhist, the capital of the kingdom was called Ayutthaya and Kings were called Rama (it continues till today). It is a case of supreme irony that India is still trying to legally “determine” this link between Ayodhya and Rama at the original Ayodhya.