The Powerful Past of the Former Siamese Capital Revealed in the Splendor of 400 Temples
Long ago, the city of Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya was a global center of economics and commerce. Within a few centuries of being founded, the city grew to having a population of one million inhabitants, who lived among sophisticated infrastructure, architecturally advanced buildings, and hundreds of magnificent temples.
Ultimately, the city of Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya succumbed to an attack by the Burmese, never to be rebuilt. All of the city’s inhabitants fled, never to return. Today, the ruins of the city are a UNESCO World Heritage Site, known as the Ayutthaya Historical Park, where visitors can come and view the partially restored Buddhist temples. This amazing site represents an historical Siamese capital that housed 35 kings over several centuries, and which ruled as a global power.
A beautiful sunset behind the Wat Phra Si Sanphet temple at the ancient ruins of Ayutthaya. Credit: Pius99 / BigStockPhotos
The city of Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya was founded by King U Thong in 1350, as the capital of the Siamese Kingdom. It was located on an island surrounded by 3 rivers. At one point it was one of the world’s largest urban areas, with an estimated population of 300,000 by the year 1600, and 1,000,000 by 1700. The island location was strategically chosen, protecting the city from both flooding, and enemy attack. It was sometimes referred to as the “Venice of the East.”
Due to being located directly between China and India, and situated so as to be protected from the Arab and European powers, Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya became a global center of economics and commerce, connecting East and West.
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Contemporary maps show that Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya was a systematically designed city, with moats, roads, and canals surrounding the structures. Features included a hydraulic water management system which was highly advanced for its time.
“This detail from Fra Mauro's world map of the 1450s shows the city of Ayutthaya in its centre. Here, Ayutthaya is named "Scierno", a name derived from the Persian name of the city "Shar-I-Nau", meaning "New City". The map is orientated with south to the top. To the right of "Scierno", two cities in Burma can be recognised: "Pochang" (present day Bagan) and Ava (present day Inwa).” Public Domain
The builders in the city were highly advanced, as evidenced by the remains of temples and monasteries that exist to this day. Each building was elaborately decorated, with murals and crafts. During Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya’s existence, it was ruled by thirty five kings. However, the amazing building designs and protective nature of the city’s location were not able to withstand all attacks. In 1767 the Burmese army brutally attacked Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya, burning the city to the ground. Those who survived the attack fled the city, never to return. The city was never rebuilt and the ruins remain to this day.
Today, Ayutthaya Historical Park, located on the ruins of Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This site includes hundreds of attractions, many of which used to be temples.
Unfortunately, 2018 began as something of a difficult year for the archaeological site. In February, three of the wooden Thai buildings that are more than one hundred years old were damaged in an electrical fire (no one was harmed as most of the monks were out collecting alms at the time). Just a few days later, the Bangkok Post reported five tourists were charged with a fine of 10,000 baht (just over 300 USD) and/or a one-month jail term. The Thai tourists were identified because they posted an image of themselves on Facebook which showed them sitting on and climbing the ancient ruins of Wat Mahathat.
Apart from Wat Mahathat, a few of the other attractions at Ayutthaya Historical Park include Wat Naphramane, Wat Lokayasutharam, Wat Phanan Choeng, Wat Mongkhol Bophit, Wat Phra Sisanphet, Wat Chai Watthanaram, and Wat Rat Burana. Ayutthaya Historical Park is known for the tall reliquary towers known as prang and large Buddhist monasteries.
Wat Chaiwatthanaram is a Buddhist temple within the Ayutthaya Historical Park. Its construction was commanded by King Prasat Thong. The name Wat Chaiwatthanaram means “the Temple of long reign and glorious era.” The central prang is 35 meters high, and four smaller prangs are all located on a rectangular platform. This was a royal temple where religious ceremonies were performed and royalty was cremated. The temple demonstrates a Buddhist worldview. The large central prang symbolizes the mountain Meru, with the smaller prangs representing the four continents swimming in the four directions of the world.
Wat Chaiwatthanaram, Buddhist temple within the Ayutthaya Historical Park. Tall prangs are visible in the evening light. Wikimedia
Wat Kudi Dao is another temple located within Ayutthaya Historical Park. This Buddhist temple was built at the command of King Narai, and restored by King Thai Sa in 1711. Phra Then Muni, an important priest to Crown Prince Boromakot lived there. The complex contains several buildings, including Ubosot ordination hall, Viharn image hall, a bell-shaped principal Chedi, and an outer building called Tumnak Kummalaen. Wat Judi Dao has been somewhat restored to its original form, as it existed before the attack from the Burmese.
Buddhist temple Wat Kudi Dao, Thailand. The architectural style is late Ayutthaya. Wikimedia, ( CC BY-SA 4.0)
A final example of the temples contained at the Ayutthaya Historical Park is the Wat Phanan Choeng. This Buddhist temple was built in 1324, 26 years before the city of Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya was actually founded. Within the largest building of the complex is a gilded 19-meter-high seated Buddha from 1334 CE. The statue, called Luang Pho Tho or Sam Pao Kong, is a guardian for mariners. It has been said that prior to the destruction of the city, “tears flowed from the sacred eyes to the sacred navel" of the statue.
“Wat Phanan Choeng, from 1324 CE, houses an immense seated gilded Buddha. Folded orange lengths of cloth are thrown up from the ground to people who are standing in the Buddha's lap. The robes are then unfolded and rolled out from above over the worshippers below as a form of blessing.” Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Ayutthaya is also famous for a Buddha head entwined in Banyan tree roots at Wat Mahathat, which has become one of the most iconic images of Thailand. The temple was destroyed during the Burmese attack, and many of the Buddha statues in Ayutthaya were vandalized by having their heads lopped off. It is not known how the Buddha head came to be entwined in the roots of the tree. One theory suggests that the tree simply grew around the Buddha head during the period when the temple lay abandoned and overgrown. Another theory is that a thief moved the Buddha head away from the main temple to hide it, but was unable to retrieve it later.
Famous Buddha head in tree roots at Wat Mahathat temple complex, Ayutthaya. Credit: Tupungato / BigStockPhotos
Ayutthaya Historical Park’s designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site shows the immense meaning and history behind the ruins, and the city that one stood there. Such a large center of global commerce likely appeared to be indestructible to those who lived there from 1350 through 1767. When the Burmese attacked the city, they must have had a powerful force behind them, to be able to destroy a city of millions possessing sophisticated and complicated infrastructure and architecture.
Fortunately, through restorations many of the temples on the site have been partially renewed, mirroring the important buildings and structures they once were. This, with the added protection of being a UNSECO World Heritage Site, means that visitors today have the opportunity to see these magnificent temples and to try to understand the importance they once held for the society that lived there. The Ayutthaya Historical Park remains a symbol of the historical past of Siam.
Featured image: A view of the Ancient Pagoda in the Ayuthaya World Heritage park. Credit: Khunaspix / BigStockPhotos
The temple of Wat Chaiwatthanaram, at Ayutthaya Historical Park, Thailand. Wikimedia ( CC BY 2.0 )
Historic City of Ayutthaya – UNESCO. Available from: http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/576
Temples & Ruins – History of Ayutthaya. Available from: http://www.ayutthaya-history.com/Temples_Ruins_MahaThat.html
Buddha Head in Tree Roots, Wat Mahathat, Ayutthaya – Thaizer.com. Available from: http://www.thaizer.com/tourist-attractions/buddha-head-in-tree-roots-wat-mahathat-ayutthaya/
By M R Reese