A Travellerspoint blog

City of Kings

Excess wattage 2

View Asia 2008 on Wardsan's travel map.

Good news: more orang utans in Borneo.

  • ***

In Constantinople, in the time of Justinian, gangs used to fight in the streets. Nominally linked to chariot teams at the hippodrome, the Blues fought the Greens in a daily Old Firm derby. Aspirant politicians were connected to both mobs, and once they combined to try to bring down the Emperor.

In Thailand, the reds have been fighting the yellows, and now the mysterious blues have turned up. The PM has declared a state of emergency. It’s business as usual, then.

  • ***

Tradition has it that Ayutthaya was founded in 1351 by U Thong. In fact there was already a town called Ayodhya on the east bank of the river, where the oldest wats are to be found. But when his town, Lopburi, was hit by an outbreak of smallpox, U Thong founded the new town in a strategic location entirely surrounded by three rivers. Ayutthaya is no mere eyot: the island, which is very nearly square, must be two miles across. Canals used to run through it.

By Thai standards Ayutthaya is a fairly new town. Indeed ‘New Town’, Chiang Mai, is older, being founded in the thirteenth century. Sukhothai dates from the twelfth century, Nakhon Si Thammarat from the eleventh, Nakhon Pathom from the sixth, U Thong from the third.

King Ramathibodi (or maybe Boromoratcha II) II of Ayutthaya captured Angkor in 1432, at which point it was the dominant power in the entire region. (Alliances, as always, were cemented by marriage. Ramathibodi was the son-in-law of the Emperor of China.) Six years later Ayutthaya finally acquired Sukhothai, and thereafter concentrated its energies in the Malay peninsula, where it constantly tried but failed to take Melaka. The Portuguese got there first. Ayutthaya became the capital of Siam in the fifteenth century, and remained so until sacked by the Burmese army in 1767.

At the centre it was a strong and centralised state, where the king possessed absolute power. He was much more remote than the kings of Sukhothai, and he was, of course, a devaraja, and an incarnation of Vishnu. There was no law of succession - there still isn’t – and so civil wars were very common. There were 33 kings of Ayutthaya between 1351 and 1767, belonging to several dynasties.

Ayutthaya controlled dependencies all over Siam. From the north came hard wood, sappanwood, eaglewood, molasses, iron, hide, rhinoceros horn. From the south came spices, pepper, tin, gold, seafood, salt and jaggery. From the east coast came spices, pepper and gems, from the northeast forest products, silk, cotton and tin, and from the west tin, spices and pepper. From the delta of the Chao Praya came fish, rice and fruit.

From the sixteenth century Ayutthaya constantly came under threat from the expanding Burmese kingdom, which expanded into Chiang Mai and Laos. In 1569 Ayutthaya was taken, and Ayutthaya became a vassal state of Burma, a Pétain being installed on the throne. This state of affairs did not last very long, though, as one of the princely hostages taken back to Burma organised military resistance upon his return to Ayutthaya. This was King Naresuan the Great.

The Burmese army marched to Ayutthaya and fought the Ayutthayan army at Nong Sarai. Naresuan defeated and killed the Burmese crown prince, Maha Uparaja, in a duel on elephantback. Like jousting, or man-to-man challenges in Greek and Roman times, this was the honourable/chivalrous way of going about a fight. Elephants were used as war machines and as pack animals. A hundred and fifty elephants are still kept in the kraal in Ayutthaya.

In the late afternoons you see them, dressed up, carrying tourists around town. I had had enough of elephant rides by then.


Ayutthaya became a great centre of international trade. Ayutthaya traded with China, Japan, Champa, Melaka, Java, Annam, Persia and Mocha in Yemen. Each nationality had its own enclave there were, at least, Chinese, Cochins, Malays, Makassarese, Japanese, Chams, Mon and Khmer. Indians came to sell textiles and to buy elephants, ivory and tin.

The Portuguese arrived in 1511, fresh from taking Melaka. They were granted permission to trade in 1516. The Dutch received permission to trade in 1592. The newly-founded VOC arrived in 1604. They found a thriving port city with goods for sale from all over Asia. They were looking for a water passage to China, but stayed on to trade. The VOC established a factory there, where they bought hides, sappanwood, tin and pepper. Jerome van Vliet, head of the VOC factory, wrote an account of the usurpation of the throne by Prasat Thong in 1629.

Other Europeans also began to arrive in the 17th century. King Narai allowed many countries to establish factories at Ayutthaya. Bizarrely, his foreign minister was a Greek, Constantine Phaulkon. After 1664 Narai decided he no longer wished to rely too much on the violent Dutch, and he turned to France. He allowed French missionaries in, to run hospitals and schools. Envoys from Louis XIV arrived at the court of King Narai in 1685; there is a picture of the event at the Grand Palace in Bangkok. Narai sent an envoy back, and Kosa Pan was received by Louis XIV at Versailles in 1686. The English East India Company maintained factories here from 1612-23 and 1675-89.

All the foreigners had enclaves because they came to trade but had to wait for the monsoon. Each settlement had its own kapitan, who handled judicial matters. The foreigners were free to keep their own religious laws and customs.

Golden times. In 1765, however, Burmese armies invaded Siam. In 1767 they besieged Ayutthaya, which capitulated in 1767. It was looted and burned, and its priceless libraries, artworks and archives destroyed. That was the end of it. When Taksin got Siam back together, he built a new capital south of Ayutthaya at Thonburi.

On the east side of the river, the Wat Yai Chai Mongkol (or Mongkhon) was founded by U Thong, the first king of Ayutthaya, in 1357 and enlarged by King Naresuan in 1592. In 1766 Ayutthaya was sacked by the Burmese army. The wat was destroyed and abandoned, and only re-established in 1957. The wat was rebuilt on a smaller scale in 1979.


It is surrounded by Buddhas in the defeating Mara position.


The huge chedi was built by King Naresuan in the sixteenth century to commemorate his victory against the Burmese in 1592.


The Wat Phanang Choen is a Chinese-Buddhist temple, and much-used. It is easy to tell the difference: there is Chinese lettering everywhere; a lot of red; lots of subsidiary shrines within the building; no space; and people stick gold-leaf sheets on to all the statues.


These are offerings to Ganesh.


The main image is a very large Buddha. As I arrived an enormous orange cloth was unravelled to cover the heads of the congregation. Dunno why.


The wat is on the bank of the river, and you can walk down to a jetty and buy food to feed the catfish. They hang around in such large numbers that they make the river boil.


Wat Na Phra Mane was built in 1499 AD - by Indra, apparently. It hosted a peace conference between Siam and Burma in 1569. In 1760 the Burmese King Alongphaya, then attacking Ayutthaya, fired a cannon from the wat at Ayutthaya. It exploded, and the king was seriously injured and died on the way back home. So it’s a place with patriotic overtones and the Buddha image within is believed to have saved Ayutthaya; it takes a negligible stimulus to produce a patriotic response in your average Thai person.

In the gable at the front is a teak carving of Narai riding on a garuda, stepping on Naga’s head. The Buddha inside is 6.60m high, in early Ayutthaya style. In Ayutthayan style, the Buddha is relatively slim with a V-shaped torso and figure-hugging Batman robes. Buddha may have renounced his wealth, but he was a prince, and Ayutthayan Buddhas are often dressed royally and crowned; the kings of Ayutthaya liked to emphasise the power of the monarch.


Next door, in the viharn noi, is a nice Dvaravati Buddha from maybe the sixth century AD. It is held to have come from Sri Lanka. Buddhism arrived in Thailand by the second to third centuries AD at the latest. In central Thailand there was a kingdom known as Dvaravati (from Sanskrit), which flourished in the sixth and seventh centuries. The artistic style known as Dvaravati was employed throughout Thailand between the sixth and eleventh centuries. Quite a few stucco-covered stupas date from this era. In the Dvaravati era there were also a lot of images of Avalokitesvara, lord of the six syllables: om mani padme hum.


There was a Wat Maha That in every provincial city. It always contains a stupa with a Buddha relic in it, and is the most sacred place in town. In Ayutthaya the relics appeared miraculously, just when they were needed. Royal ceremonies were held there and it was considered the centre of the city.


In Ayutthaya the presiding stupa was a Khmer-style prang, but there are chedis and prangs all over the place; it is a large site. Most of the chedis are reduced to brick, but you can see that they used to be covered in stucco.


The wat was founded under the third king of Ayutthaya, Borromaratchathirat I (phew), in 1374, and completed under Naresuan, who reigned 1388-95. It was originally 44 metres high, but collapsed during the reign of Songtham (1610-28). It was renovated in 1633, after which it was 50 metres high. It was badly damaged in 1767, and the wat destroyed, and the prang collapsed again during the reign of Rama V in 1911.

It feels a bit like Pompeii. Subsidiary prangs lean at angles.


It is in the grounds of the Maha That that the iconic image of Ayutthaya is found: the Buddha head in the bodhi roots. The bodhi tree has grown around the head so that now it is incorporated into the tree.


The Fine Arts Department excavated only in 1956. Six nested stupa-shaped reliquaries were found buried 17 metres under the prang. The actual Buddha relic is perhaps a third the size of a grain of rice.

With the reliquaries was a lot of treasure, among which was a gilded stone container in the shape of a fish, inside which were 19 beautiful gold offerings. There were also images made of gold, silver, bronze and tin. Votive tablets were found, too, made of tin, clay, and gold and silver foil, all dating from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.

They are now in the museum in Ayutthaya, and naturally the relics are part of a shrine. While I was looking at the objects I was given a banana by the museum staff. This had been part of the offering to Buddha earlier in the day, and I was told it would bring health if I ate it. All the staff were eating bananas.

Maha That was the first place in the country that Buddha relics and treasure had been unearthed, and this sparked a wave of chedi robberies. The crypt of Wat Ratchaburana was robbed in September 1957. Inside the crypt was a gold prang, originally a metre high, which may have contained a Buddha relic. The robbers had torn it apart to make it easier to transport. The robbers were arrested but only a few pieces were recovered. It was only then that the Fine Arts Department was instructed to excavate the crypt.


Also in the crypt were Buddha images in Pala, Dvaravati, Sriwijaya, Lopburi, Sukhothai, U Thong and early Ayutthaya styles, which is pretty much all of them. There was also a set of royal utensils (jars, trays, boxes etc) including betel nut set, and a water pot with a lid topped with the faces of Brahma; and jewellery. These are also beautiful objects. Gold objects were inscribed variously with Thai, Khmer, Chinese and Arabic scripts. Royal regalia were also found. Five items symbolised kingship: crown, sword, walking stick, fly whisk and slipper. The sword was found.


The wat was founded in 1424. On the site itself there are two newer chedis. Boromaratcha II built the chedis to commemorate his brothers, who had managed to kill each other in a duel on elephantback.


The site was badly damaged in 1767 but the prang is in perfect condition, decorated with garudas, nagas etc.
You can go down to see the crypt, which was decorated in a dark red mural.




The ubiquitous mynah.


The Wat Phra Mongkhon Baphit houses a huge Buddha, 12.45 metres tall, in bronze. It is also in early Ayutthaya style. Its head and right arm were broken during the catastrophe of 1767. The viharn was restored in 1956, and it still looks very new.


At the centre of Ayutthaya, the Grand Palace was a gargantuan complex. Three concentric walls surrounded the king’s residence. There was an administrative and ceremonial area in the middle part, and Wat Phra Si Sanphet, the royal wat, stood in the outer layer. Almost nothing now remains. It housed the Phra Si Sanphet, the largest standing metal Buddha ever known. Now the Wat Phra Si Sanphet contains three chedis in a line. They were built to house the remains of three Ayutthayan kings.


It was at Si Sanphet that I finally received my own usnisha.


Posted by Wardsan 09:36 Archived in Thailand

Email this entryFacebookStumbleUpon

Table of contents

Be the first to comment on this entry.

This blog requires you to be a logged in member of Travellerspoint to place comments.

Enter your Travellerspoint login details below

( What's this? )

If you aren't a member of Travellerspoint yet, you can join for free.

Join Travellerspoint