Thailand Pages; Ayutthaya and Bang Pa-In - the Ancient Capital of Thailand
Ayutthaya - Ancient Capital of Siam
Just 80 km north of Bangkok on the fertile floodplains of the Chao Phraya River, there is to be found a vast and impressive collection of crumbling ruins, temples, statues and Buddha icons, the faded remnants of a once glorious civilisation. This is Ayutthaya, which for more than 400 years was the capital city of the Thai people, a city once prosperous and powerful, then destroyed and abandoned and forgotten, and today resurrected as a World Heritage Site.
This page is devoted to the city of Ayutthaya, one of the most significant historic sites of south-east Asia.
All photos on this page were taken by the author in Ayutthaya and in the southern palace of Bang Pa-In in the year 2009.
The Rise of Ayutthaya
The history of Thailand (originally Siam) up until 800 years ago is rather sketchy, but the region was home to a complex mixture of civilisations under Indian, Malay and Khmer influence, all competing for territory and power. A cohesive nation had never existed, and nor did recognisably Thai culture until the 13th century. People from southern China - the ancestors of the modern Thais - had been migrating south and settling in the region for many generations, and a number of self-governing city states formed by these people had gradually developed. In 1238 the most powerful of the states had come to prominence as the Kingdom of Sukhothai in what is now central Thailand. Sukhothai today is generally regarded as the first identifiably Thai capital. But its domination was very short-lived.
Within 150 years, a rival state to the south had begun to gain ascendancy in the region. This new power was centred on a city founded in 1351 by U Thong, a Chinese merchant who had married into royalty. As the new state quickly grew in importance, so Sukhothai declined and eventually was subdued, as were other states in the region. Strategically placed to control trade routes on an island at the confluence of three rivers, the capital of this new nation was to become the dominant city of the Thai region for the next 417 years. This was Ayutthaya. And its ruler, U Thong, now adopted for himself the kingly title of Ramathibodi I.
Under Ramathibodi I and his successors Ayutthaya would flourish. Buddhism was established as the state religion, and law courts and governmental structures were set up. Thriving trade links were developed overland to China and India, and via the rivers and the coast to the rest of the world. Commercially profitable exports included rice, fish and timber. The Portuguese, the Spanish, French and British empires all established missions in Ayutthaya, and the city became one of the most prosperous in Asia, albeit a city under constant threat. Other Thai states, as well as Khmer and Burmese forces, regularly challenged Ayutthaya's authority. In response, Ayutthaya would periodically conquer its rivals and gain territory, but never had quite sufficient manpower to quell all opposition, or to ensure its own everlasting existence.
The Downfall and Ruin of Ayutthaya
It was an attack by the neighbouring nation of Burma which was to prove Ayutthuya's downfall in 1767, when the city was finally captured after a 15 year long siege. Gold was plundered, thousands of citizens were taken captive, and the city was almost totally destroyed. The Burmese did not enjoy their conquest for long - they were driven out of Thailand before the 18th century came to an end. Sovereignty was restored to the Thais.
However the damage to Ayutthaya had been done, and the city could not recover. Instead, the Thais decided to build a new capital further south at Thonburi on the west bank of Chao Thraya River - a capital which was later extended and greatly expanded on the eastern bank of the river in a location which would develop into the modern-day conurbation of Bangkok.
The Temples and Icons of Ayutthaya
Today, Ayutthaya is a preserved site of historic interest. The ruins have been cleared of overgrown vegetation, and a large number of temples are open to the public, each with their own, special appeal.
In this page, I will illustrate a small but representative selection of the temple complexes of the City of Ayutthaya and the surrounding area. These include Wat Mahathat, an important temple of the inner city adjacent to the site of the original Royal Palace, and Wat Ratchaburana, one of the most impressive of all the pagodas. I also look at Wat Lokayasutharam, home to an enormous gold plated reclining Buddha. First though, I will look at Wat Na Phramane - the only temple to have survived intact, when the city was destroyed in 1767.
Wat Na Phramane
Wat Na Phramane is located just across a moat which surrounded the old palace complex. The temple was originally built c1500 AD, and later reconstructed, but today exists as the best preserved building in the whole city. In the 1760s when the Burmese made their decisive incursion into Ayutthayan territory, the temple was taken over and cannon was fired at the Grand Palace from here. One cannon was fired by the visiting King of Burma himself, but with a rather unfortunate consequence - his cannon exploded, and the king himself was mortally wounded! His death did not save Ayutthaya, which was doomed, but the temple of Wat Na Phramane was left largely unscathed.
The temple is notable for two very contrasting Buddha statues. The main ordination hall houses a large gold plated Buddha of the early Ayutthaya period, and this is the principal icon of the temple. But perhaps of greater cultural interest is a very much older green sandstone Buddha crafted in Sri Lanka nearly 1500 years ago, carried to Thailand, and now housed in a building adjacent to the hall.
Because of its state of preservation, Wat Na Phramane is unique in the city. But it is not typical. Much more typical of the ravages of the Burmese is the ruined temple of Wat Mahathat.
Located close to the site of the Royal Palace, and residence of the senior religious leader of the Kingdom, Wat Mahathat was one of the most sacred sites of the central city from the late 14th century, and would remain so throughout Ayutthaya's long period of dominance. Today this is one of the most extensive ruins in the city.
Wat Mahathat continues to hold a few surprises. As recently as 1956, a secret chamber was uncovered here, containing jewelry, a gold casket of Buddha relics, and other treasures.
Remarkably, however, the best known and most celebrated of all the relics at Wat Mahathat is not some ornate and glittering treasure. It is the broken head of a Buddha statue, which was found entwined - or perhaps embraced - in the surface roots of a sacred old fig tree (pictured and described below).
Just a few hundred metres from Wat Mahathat is one of Ayutthaya's (and indeed one of Thailand's) largest free-standing monuments.
In 1424 the then king of Ayutthaya, King Intharachathirat, died. He had three sons, and a dispute between the elder two as to the rightful successor to the throne culminated in mortal combat on elephant back. Neither brother survived. Instead the youngest sibling ascended the throne as King Sam Phraya.
One of Sam Phraya's first acts after coronation was to build an enormous temple in the Khmer 'prang' style (a tall domed pagoda), to house the ashes of his two dead brothers. This is Wat Ratchaburana, and it remains today as perhaps the most impressive and attractive of Ayutthaya's many pagodas.
One of the most visited sites is Wat Lokayasutharam, a temple thought to have been built during the early and middle Ayutthayan periods. Sadly much of this temple has been lost, and only the foundations of most of the buildings remain. Only one large tower or prang still survives.
But Wat Lokayasutharam today is not known for its temple buildings, but rather for the huge reclining Buddha which graces the site. About 29 m long, the Buddha lies with the head resting on a lotus flower in a position signifying enlightenment. The statue is made of brick and plaster, overlaid with gold, and after years of neglect, it was restored in the 1950s. Today it is often draped in brilliant orange robes.
The Royal Summer Palace of Bang Pa-in
Ayutthaya, for all it's former splendour, is today a site of near total ruination. The Burmese did an efficient job of destroying the Kingdom, and the city at its heart. Apart from the temple of Wat Na Phramane (featured above), little remains in pristine condition. But just 17 km south of the city is a royal outpost of Ayutthaya which was not allowed to just die and fade away in quite the same way. This is the Palace of Bang Pa-In.
The history of Bang Pa-In dates to the middle era of Ayutthaya. In the early 17th century King Ekathotsarot was sailing the great River Chao Praya, when his ship got into difficulties and he became briefly stranded on an island in the river. Here he met, and later had a child with, a local woman. That child grew up to succeed his father as King Prasat Thong, and in honour of his birthplace, the new king decided to build a monastery and a Summer Palace on the island. The island was called Bang Pa-In. Little more has been documented about the development of the site during the 17th and 18th centuries, but soon after the fall of Ayutthaya, this site like the main city, was also abandoned, neglected and overgrown, and would remain so for a full century.
However, the long term fate of the palace has been very different from that of Ayutthaya. In the late 19th century - 100 years on - King Rama IV breathed new life into Bang Pa-In with the decision to build a new palace. His successor Rama V added further ceremonial buildings, and Bang Pa-In once more assumed the status of a royal residence.
Buildings of Bang Pa-in
Today Bang Pa-In remains a royal site, but open to the public to visit its many historic buildings, as well as an ornamental lake and landscaped gardens. Features include the King's residence of Phra Thinang Warophat Phiman, complete with throne and state reception rooms, and a Chinese Pavilion which contains another royal throne, and hand-carved furnishings, murals and displays. An attractive gatehouse connects the Outer Palace (the official State Buildings) to the Inner Palace (private royal dwellings), and in the gardens which surround the lake stand many other fine buildings and monuments to former royals.
One of these monuments has a tragic story attached. 1n 1881, Queen Sunandakumariratana drowned when her boat capsized on Chao Phraya River. Attendants could not go to her assistance because commoners were forbidden by law from touching the royal personage. The Chief Attendant was later condemned for upholding the strict letter of the law, which was immediately repealed by her husband, the grief-stricken king. The monument was built in the Queen's honour.
There is, however, no doubt as to Bang Pa-In's greatest attraction. It is Phra Thinang Aisawan Thipaya - the Pavilion - built in 1876. The Pavilion is an intricately ornate and beautiful building in a most romantic setting, perched on a platform on the lake.
Bang Pa-In today, of course, bears little relation to the Summer Palace of the Ayutthayan era, but it does offer a tantalising glimpse in microcosm of the splendour of royal Thai palaces from a bygone age. On a visit to Bang Pa-In, one can only try to imagine how magnificent the great city of Ayutthaya and its temples and palaces - the heart of the Kingdom - must have looked in its hey-day.
A good clear map of the Bang Pa-In Palace can be found by clicking on this link.
Recommendations - a Visit to the Ruins of Ayutthaya and to the Palace of Bang Pa-in
To most of the world the ruins of Ayutthaya remain virtually unknown. Certainly the site is less celebrated than Angkor Wat in neighbouring Cambodia, where a huge temple rises up out of the jungle. But Ayutthaya was once every bit as important and at least as significant - the longest serving capital of the Thai people.
And today the site is very accessible. Excursions can be arranged from Bangkok by coach or by cruise boat along the Chao Phraya River. Parking is available for cars, and the site is easily explored with an information centre and museum to assist visitors. The well maintained Palace of Bang Pa-In makes a tranquil and attractive contrast in style, en-route to the main city.
A full day will be sufficient for most people to explore the main sites of Ayutthaya and the Summer Palace of Bang Pa-In, and it will be a day to remember for anyone who has an interest in history, culture or architecture.
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