One of Thailand's most majestic historical sites is past capital of Ayuthaya. Driving through the now modern day Ayuthaya you can find many temples dating back over five centuries scattered throughout the city. The Ayuthaya Historical Park, a large park on Ayuthaya Island that is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is the most centralized collection of temples: Wat Ratchaburana, Wat Mahathat, Wat Phra Sri Sanphet, Wat Phra Ram and Wiharn Phra Mongkhon Bopit.
The Kingdom of Ayuthaya was founded in 1350 by King Ramathibodi I, famous for establishing Thereveda Buddhism as the official religion of Thailand and creating the the legal system called Dharmashastra that was based on a mixture of Indian and Thai customs. At this time there was a lot of Indian influence in the region, as well as Chinese, Khmer, and Mon. Much of the architecture in Thailand to this day contains characters, like the mythical monkey Hanuman, that originated from Hinduism. The political and social institutions of Ayuthaya were thus heavily influenced by both Buddhism and Hinduism. Ayuthaya served as the capital of Thailand until it was destroyed by the Burmese army in 1767.
During the height of Ayuthaya the city was known for its splendor. Its magnificence can still be felt today when witnessing the rows and rows of prangs (reliquary towers) still standing firm, resisting nature's power. It was known for its diplomacy and commerce, being one of the most cosmopolitan places of the time, comparable to Paris according to a French ambassador of King Louis XIV. The Kingdom was friendly toward foreigners, as it was in a critical midpoint between China and India, and allowed many foreigners and ambassadors from countries like China, Japan, India, and Vietnam (and later the Dutch, Portugese, and French) to set up villages outside the city walls. In 1511 a group of Portugese diplomats made their way to the kingdom, being the first Europeans to come to the country. Ayuthaya was strategically set up on an island formed by 3 rivers (the Chao Phraya, the Pasak, and the Lopburi) that connected the city to the sea. Its placement protected it from attacks from enemies coming from the sea as well as seasonal flooding. It was set up in a systematic grid comprised of canals, roads, and moats. By the turn of the 18th century Ayuthaya was one of the world's largest urban areas.
Though the kingdom continued to flourish it came under threat by Burma, who had briefly captured the city in the mid 1500s. In 1767 Burma invaded the city and after a 14 month siege succeeded in completely destroyed it. Almost all literature, art, and historical records from this period were lost, yet Burma only successfully controlled the region for a few months as they were under threat themselves by China. With very few Burmese left the surrounding areas began to gradually reclaim independence until one general, Phraya Taksin, began the unification effort and established a new capital that became what is now Bangkok.
It is hard to imagine what the city could have looked like in its glory today. A new city has been established there, everyone conducting their everyday activities to the backdrop of century old ruins; a child playing in his backyard containing a stone chedi, a group of boys playing soccer on the field that was once a battleground that lead to the demolished structures just behind them, the vendors lining the ruins so travelers can buy memorabilia. Yet the site still has maintained its power.
When I went we started at Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon, a functioning temple to this day. The temple was built by King Ramathibodi I around 1357. It, along with most of Ayuthaya, was sacked by the Burmese but re-established in 1957. Many people come to the temple to visit a large lying Buddha and climb up the famous chedi standing tall and intact, unlike many of the others. We climbed up the now warped and jagged steps to enter the small chamber that thousands still come to and give merit. From on top of the stupa you can see a the vast grounds and rows upon rows of nearly identical Buddha statues.
The second temple we went to was Wat Mahathat, built around year 1374. It is also known as the Monastery of the Relic, as it is believed to have enshrined relics of the Buddha. It was one of the most important temples due to its proximity to the Grand Palace, as well as being the Royal Monastery. Today the temple is completely destroyed, and all that is left are ruins. Headless rows of Buddhas can be found still sit upon their stupas, some barely discernible and now more like a pile of stones. It is at this Wat that the iconic image of a Buddha head can be found entangled in the roots of a large tree. The tree has mysteriously wrapped itself around the head, as though nature itself is trying to destroy what's left of this ancient city. Or, possibly, raise it back up as the Buddha's peaceful face waits patiently as it grows higher and higher each year.
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