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Ayutthaya: A Tale of Two Temples

Thai Tour: Day 5

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Wat Chaiwatthanaram, Ayutthaya

A glorious kingdom

There was a time when Ayutthaya was one of the greatest cities in the world. At the beginning of the 18th century, a population of almost a million had made the city the most important trading post in Asia. Merchants from India, China and even Europe, were converging on Ayutthaya to trade everything from rice to rifles, taking home stories of the city’s magnificence.

Located at the junction of three rivers, Ayutthaya was the perfect site for what became, for over 400 years, the capital of the various states that would form the Thailand we know today. Protected by its inland position from attack by those sea-going nations eager to expand their own influence, the city was able to flourish, as treasure-filled temples, gold-topped palaces and an artistic and cultural life unrivalled in the region, made Ayutthaya the envy of all who visited.

All this came to an end, however, when the Burmese army decided to spoil the party in 1767. Having arrived in Ayutthaya the previous year, the city endured a 14 month siege at the hands of the invading Burmese, culminating in the burning to the ground of everything that had made Ayutthaya great. All that remains now are the crumbling ruins of what once was.

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Headless statues at Wat Mahathat

At Wat Mahathat

All around the city these reminders of past glories can be found. Indeed, they are hard to ignore. At Wat Mahathat, for instance, what had once been one of the most important monasteries in the entire kingdom, was now not much more than a tumbledown pile of red bricks. The former main pagoda, a 50-metre-high structure in its day, looked like an earthquake had hit it, while the Buddha statues encircling it were now just a few rows of headless torsos praying in the sun.

Where those heads had gone it was hard to guess – lopped off and carried away as prizes maybe; destroyed in a fit of jealous rage at the grandiosity of it all perhaps. Or maybe the intervening centuries had simply seen them plundered and taken back to God knows where. Now, the heads had been replaced by rocks, a small but significant gesture allowing them to reclaim some small shred of dignity.

But not everything at Wat Mahathat was damaged or looted. Encased in the roots of a fig tree, seemingly kept safe from harm, one of Thailand’s most recognisable images can be found. It’s possible someone tried to make off with it – a perfect sandstone Buddha head, sliced off and rolled a few dozen feet in the hope that they could manage it – but still it remains, cradled in those protective roots.

All those postcards all over Thailand I’d seen it on previously had led me to believe that only after a trek into the undergrowth, after passing overgrown ruins and hidden relics would I finally come across it. I’d imagined I’d see a couple of orange-robed monks laying flowers at its base or lighting candles amid the greenery. The dusty, roped-off plot within earshot of the passing traffic that I actually found, was far less atmospheric.

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The Wat Mahathat Buddha head, one of the most well-known images in Thailand

Wat Chaiwatthanaram

After an afternoon siesta to escape the 38°C heat, it was a thirty minute or so bike ride from the centre of town, over the river, to Wat Chaiwatthanaram. Standing on the west bank of the Chao Phraya River, just south of the main island, Wat Chaiwatthanaram is perhaps the temple amongst all others that offers a picture of what Ayutthaya used to be.

With its 35-meter-high central pagoda surrounded by four smaller structures, one at each corner of its rectangular base, surrounded in turn by a further eight chedis, Wat Chaiwatthanaram has become one of Ayutthaya’s best known temples. Commissioned in 1630 by the King Prasat Thong at the beginning of his reign to commemorate his mother, it was built in the traditional Khmer style and bears more than a passing resemblance to Angkor Wat in Cambodia, whose kingdom Prasat Thong conquered.

We arrived just in time to catch the light as the sun began to sink behind us. Shadows were lengthening and the temple’s red and grey bricks were yellowing perfectly as I hurried to get the photos I’d envisaged on the journey there. Again, there were headless statues. Again, two hundred years of neglect had not been kind. But the architecture was largely still intact where it mattered.

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Wat Chaiwatthanaram was built in the Khmer style and bears more than a passing resemblance to Angkor Wat in Cambodia

A central role

Originally, there would have been over one hundred of those Buddha statues, painted black and gold, lining the walls connecting the eight outer chedi. The walls themselves once formed a covered walkway, ornately painted on the inside, decorated with twelve reliefs depicting the life of the Buddha on the outside. It was fittingly grand for what has always been, since the completion of its 20-year-long construction, one of the most impressive and important temples in the region.

As a former royal temple and the site of various religious ceremonies and royal cremations, Wat Chaiwatthanaram played a central role in the religious life of 17th century Ayutthaya. In its architecture too, it reflected the Buddhist world view, in which the central prang or pagoda represented Mount Meru, considered the central axis of the world, around which, floating in a square-shaped ocean and represented by the four smaller prangs, the earth’s continents existed. All this, in turn, was bordered by the outer walkway and its eight chedi mountains, representing the limit of the knowable world.

Wat Chaiwatthanaram was flooded back in 2011, threatening not only the temple’s remaining stucco elements, but its entire structural integrity. The whole place was submerged under ten feet of water for over a month, needing a boat to navigate the flooded grounds. As a result, $700,000 was pledged to the World Monuments Fund in order to contribute to improving the inadequate flood defences in the area. Yet as the sun sank out of view, and the dogs got ready to reclaim the grounds that come nightfall, would once again belong to them, it seemed that not within another two hundred years could anything arrive to break the peace that had descended on the site.

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