Saturday, June 9, 2012, 00:00
Cradle of history
For historians, Ayutthaya is the most significant city in the early historical kingdom of Thailand, says Onanong Thippimol, a historian at Thammasat University, the second-oldest varsity in the Southeast Asian kingdom. We believe Thailands history begins from the Ayutthaya period, although it is not what most Thais believe. This period was the commercial golden age of the Thai kingdom.
The city, also called Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya and located 76 kilometers north of Bangkok, was founded in the 14th century by King Ramathibodi I or U Thong, and went on to serve as the capital for over 410 years under 33 kings from different dynasties.
Located at the confluence of three rivers the Chao Phraya, Pa Sak and Lop Buri it can also be reached by boat from Bangkok. To visit Ayutthaya is to visit one of the worlds largest and most sophisticated ancient cities, one which retains much of its grandeur though the army of Myanmar, then known as Burma, destroyed it in the 18th century.
The significance of the city can be perceived despite the ruins. Visitors can get a glimpse of one of the most prosperous cities in East Asia, a once majestic capital with over 400 magnificent Buddhist monasteries.
Ayutthayas temples are an important reminder of the time in 1360 when King Ramathibodi I declared Theravada Buddhism the official religion of Ayutthaya to differentiate his kingdom from the neighboring Hindu kingdom of Angkor. Theravada is the school of Buddhism following the Tipitaka, said to contain the earliest surviving record of the Buddhas teachings.
Since then Buddhism has continued into the 21st century as a dominant factor in the nations social, cultural, and political life. Today, many Buddha images have been restored and are objects of high veneration.
Thais usually go to Ayutthaya to visit Buddhist temples there and pray, says Suthida Angkinand, a manager at the Jim Thompson restaurant in Bangkok. We see Ayutthaya as an important part of our religion and also as very important to our countrys history.
Some of that importance also stems from king Ramathibodi I compiling a legal code, a mixture of Hindu legal text and Thai custom, which became the basis of the royal legislation. This legal code remained in force until the late 19th century.
One temple that has become a symbol of Ayutthaya is the Wat Phra Si Sanphet. Once the site of the royal palace, the temple was built by king Borommatrailokanat in the 15th century to be used as a monastic area. It has three bell-shaped Sri Lankan-style chedis chortens which house the ashes of three Ayutthaya kings.
A Unesco-declared World Heritage Site in 1991, Ayutthayas famous landmarks are preserved as the Ayutthaya Historical Park, characterized by prangs reliquary towers and gigantic monasteries.
The Wat Ratchaburana temple was born out of a royal tragedy. After the death of king Intharachathirat in 1424 AD, two of his sons, Chao Aye Phraya and Chao Yi Phraya, fought over the throne and the internecine battle claimed both. It then fell on a third brother, Chao Sam Phraya, to hold the funeral for his father and brothers.
The new king also had a temple built at the cremation site and at the place where his brothers had fought, he constructed two chedis to store their ashes.
The Wat Ratchaburana temple abounds in murals illustrating tales from the Buddhas earlier lives.
King Chao Sam Phrayas name lives on in the name of Thailands second-largest museum, the Chao Sam Phraya National Museum. It houses an impressive collection of Buddhist art as well as bronze Buddha images, carved panels, gold objects and jewelry obtained from two crypts at the Wat Ratchaburana. A visit to the museum is a must for its comprehensive collection of Thai religious art and artifacts.
We take children to the museum and the park so that they can learn about the history of their hometown, says Boonchoo Sukkasem, a teacher at the Wat Lamtakian School. Ayutthaya is the old capital of Thailand and the children are very proud that they were born here.
Across the road from Wat Ratchaburana is Wat Phra Mahathat, one of the oldest temples in Ayutthaya and most striking. Its central prang is 46 meters high, standing out all the more since it is surrounded by crumbling stupas. One of the most-frequented places here is the copse of trees boasting a Buddha head surrounded by tree trunks.
The city is full of canals and some of the temples can be visited by boat, such as the Wat Chai Wattanaram. Sitting on the west bank of the Chao Phraya River, this 400-year-old temple is prone to floods though the government has built walls to prevent floodwater from entering the compound.
The Wat Chai Wattanaram, one of the most impressive examples of Khmer architecture, is also very serene as it is located at some distance from the other temple sites. The Buddha images that line the inner wall of the courtyard add to the serenity and holiness of the temple.
Initially, Ayutthayan art was influenced by the annexation of the Sukhothai kingdom in north-central Thailand. Later, during its great war period, its national art was born. Subsequently, Western influences were assimilated and Ayutthayas culture and traditions became the model for the next period in Thai history, the Rattanakosin kingdom ruled by the Chakri Dynasty (from 1782 to present).
I have been to Ayutthaya twice, in 1989 and in 2010, says Diah Lubis, an Indonesian banker. If you go there, you have to know the history of it; otherwise you see only ruins. When I go to Ayutthaya, I imagine the grandeur of the kingdom of Ayutthaya until it was razed to the ground.
Ayutthaya has a long association with China. Chinese merchants had trade relations with the ancient kingdom and its rulers had links with Chinese emperors from the 14th to the 18th centuries. There have been intermarriages between the Chinese and Thais and the city of Ayutthaya, to this day, celebrates the Chinese Spring Festival with color and vigor.
The day the Chinese New Year starts, all ancient temples and pagodas admit visitors free. The main avenues are decorated with red and yellow festoons and dragons and lions, attended by laughing children, parade intersections and roundabouts.
The Year of the Dragon saw one of the main avenues Chee Kun swarmed by crowds in red traditional Chinese outfits, pageants with drums and brass orchestra, martial arts performed on the grass, and music groups rehearsing.
In Thailand, there is no discrimination against the Chinese, says Kritsana Harnsirihiat, one of the organizers of the Chinese New Year celebrations in Ayutthaya. It is a good place for us (people of Chinese descent) to live and practice our culture.
As if reacting to his words, the procession moves. Men, women and children march on to the rhythm of drumbeats and sound of trumpets, interspersed with legendary Chinese creatures of all sizes and colors. There are tigers and a long, beautifully decorated dragon carried by dozens of volunteers.
The procession reaches Wat Ratchaburana. The dragon, lifted high into the air, offers an arresting and almost unreal contrast with the ancient temple. It is a contrast that emphasizes harmony: The harmony of two cultures co-existing in peace and amity.
IF YOU GO
76 kilometers north of Bangkok.
Ayutthaya province, home to Thailands former capital, boasts impressive sights, including hundreds of Buddhist temples and ancient architecture.
How to go there:
There are no airports. The basic options are bus or train with packaged day trips also on offer by tourist agencies. Buses leave Bangkoks Mo Chit bus station at short intervals, the trip taking about an hour. You can also take a taxi. Trains leave from Bangkoks Hualumpong station regularly.
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