Thai Tour: Day 6
The Wat Phra Si Sanphet Buddha
There was once a statue of the Buddha housed at Wat Phra Si Sanphet that was covered in 170 kg of gold. It was 16 metres tall, had a head which was almost two metres in length, and weighed close to 64 tons.
The statue, named Phra Si Sanphetdayan after the temple itself, was cast on the orders of King Ramathibodi II around 1500 and became one of the most sacred Buddhist images in the Ayutthaya kingdom. Installed on an 8 metre wide base on an altar at the rear of the royal chapel, it was reportedly the largest and most extravagant Buddha statue of the time anywhere in the world.
According to the 17th century French priest Nicolas Gervaise, so large was the Wat Phra Si Sanphet Buddha, that it was said to have been cast where it stood, the temple only having been built around it when its casting was complete. Next to it, further smaller statues of gold and silver were gathered together with “more than a hundred much smaller ones covered with gold-spangled robes and with fingers and toes laden with diamond rings.” When the Burmese arrived in Ayutthaya in 1767 after conquering the kingdom, they smashed the statue, stole the gold, and burnt the palace to the ground. So it goes.
The grandest temple of them all
It was just before 8am when we rolled onto the gravel and parked our bikes. We faced down the long pathway towards the whitewashed façade of the adjacent Viharn Phra Mongkol Bopit. There wasn’t a cloud in the clear morning sky. A couple of gardeners were pottering about, loading empty plant pots onto the back of a three-wheeled truck in their wide-brimmed hats. The only other people around were the two women yawning next to the ticket booth, sheltering from the already burning sun in the shadow of a nearby tree.
Whereas the previous evening’s visit to Wat Chaiwatthanaram had seen the sun set on a relatively well-preserved set of ruins, walking into the grounds of Wat Phra Si Sanphet that morning, it was clear a little more imagination would be required this time around. What had once been the grandest temple in Ayutthaya, situated within the grounds of the Royal Palace and used exclusively by the royal family for official ceremonies, was now only a few dishevelled chedis and some piles of bricks.
It was in 1350 that construction on the original royal palace was begun. Ordered by the then Prince U Thong, the soon-to-be first king of Ayutthaya would declare the city the capital of the kingdom he had just established, taking for himself the title of King Ramathibodi I (r. 1350-1369) in the process.
Some 98 years and eight kings later, a new palace was established on the present day site by King Borommatrailokanat (r. 1448-1488), upon whose death, his second son, Ramathibodi II (r. 1491-1529) of the aforementioned giant golden Buddha fame, built two of the three existing chedis in order to bury the ashes of his father and his three-year-reigning older brother King Borommaracha III (r. 1488-1491). The third chedi was constructed during the reign of King Borommarachathirat IV (r. 1529-1533) to house the ashes of his own father, the builder of the first two chedis, King Ramathibodi II.
So much for complicated names and convoluted kingly history. Wat Phra Si Sanphet may have once been at the centre of Ayutthaya’s royal cultural life, but now, there isn’t actually all that much to see. Of the three chedis still standing, only one (the easternmost chedi) survived the initial destruction. The other two were restored in 1956. Though blackened and pockmarked as all three currently are, you would be hard-pushed to notice the difference.
Of the large prayer hall in front of these three chedis where the Phra Si Sanphetdayan was formerly housed, only two parallel rows of stunted columns remain. In fact, it is barely recognisable as a building at all. The roof and walls are gone, the bricks long since carried away by enterprising constructors elsewhere, while where kings and princes once walked in robes across tiled floors, patchy grass now grows.
As we wandered round the bricks and sagging chedis, up five-step flights that led to nothing but a slightly higher piece of grass-covered former temple floor, it was hard to fathom the past greatness of the place. A few remaining Buddha statues, their arms or heads now missing, were sitting in the open; stray dogs wandered the ruins looking for somewhere to escape the heat; but to try and grasp some sense of what was missing was like trying to build again from scratch from the foundations up.
Forty minutes was all we could manage out in the open. In truth, it was time enough to see all that needed to be seen. It was only the first early stop on a day that would take in flat tires, lying Buddhas, and more orange-sashed statues than I knew how to photograph. Next stop was the welcoming shade of Viharn Phra Mongkol Bopit thirty metres across the cobbles. The inside of a temple had never looked so inviting.
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