An unconventional destination

Roy Poonawala
Monday, 2 September 2019

The city of Ayutthaya is one of the many unconventional destinations in Thailand and it would specially interest Indians

Indian tourists have known various cities or parts of Thailand as fun destinations and with increasing connectivity to these places, it has become easier to directly reach there from Mumbai or Bengaluru. However, Thai hosts now want Indians to know about yet another set of destinations which offer great monuments and historic places. 

The Hindu tradition in Thailand connects Indians to these destinations even more. The influence of the Ramayan is clearly felt and seen at these places which Indians would love and the Buddhist monuments in some of these places are timeless classics. Visiting the places and experiencing the rich environment there is really fulfilling. 

The historic city of Ayutthaya, founded in 1350, was the second capital of the Siamese Kingdom after Sukhothai. It flourished from 14th to 18th centuries, during which time it grew to be one of the world’s largest and most cosmopolitan urban areas, and a centre of global diplomacy and commerce as well. 

Ayutthaya was strategically located on an island surrounded by three rivers connecting the city to the sea. This site was chosen because it was located above the tidal bore of the Gulf of Siam as it existed at that time, thus preventing attack on the city by the warships of other nations. The location also helped to protect it from seasonal flooding. Contemporary sources and maps prove that Ayutthaya was laid out according to a systematic and rigid city planning grid, consisting of roads, canals, and moats around all the principal structures. The scheme took maximum advantage of the city’s position in the midst of three rivers and had a hydraulic system for water management which was technologically extremely advanced and unique in the world. 

Sadly, in 1767, Ayutthaya was attacked by the Burmese army. They burnt it to the ground and forced the inhabitants to abandon it. Ayutthaya was never rebuilt in the same location and today remains as an archaeological ruin in Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya District, Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya Province. It is characterised by the remains of tall prang (reliquary towers) and Buddhist monasteries of monumental proportions, which give an idea of its past size and the splendour of its architecture. The total area of the World Heritage property is 289 ha.

One of the most photographed spots in Ayutthaya, Wat Phra Mahathat, is that of a large stone Buddha head set in a colossal and deep-rooted tree. Exactly how the head became locked in its present location is unclear, however, it is thought to be linked to the immense flooding and destruction of previous years, and the rapid vegetation growth which ensued afterwards. Legend has it that, a few metres from this spot, two brothers fought violently over who would succeed as the King of Siam. The victor, King Ramathibodi I, subsequently built the palace and all the Buddha statues here, in honour of his brother. 

The city was situated at the head of the Gulf of Siam, equi-distant between India and China and well upstream to be protected from Arab and European powers who were expanding their influence in the region even as Ayutthaya itself was consolidating and extending its own power to fill the vacuum left by the fall of Angkor. As a result, Ayutthaya became a centre of economics and trade at the regional and global levels, and an important connecting point between the East and the West.  

The Royal Court of Ayutthaya exchanged ambassadors far and wide, including with the French Court at Versailles and the Mughal Court in Delhi, as well as with imperial courts of Japan and China. Foreigners served in the employ of the government and also lived in the city as private individuals. Downstream from the Ayutthaya Royal Palace, there were enclaves of foreign traders and missionaries, each building having their own architectural style. Foreign influences were many in the city and can still be seen in the surviving art and architectural ruins.

The Ayutthaya school of art showcases the ingenuity and the creativity of the civilisation as well as its ability to assimilate a multitude of foreign influences. The large palaces and Buddhist monasteries constructed in the capital, for example at Wat Mahathat and Wat Phra Si Sanphet, are testimony to both the economic vitality and technological prowess of their builders, as well as to the appeal of the intellectual tradition they embodied. All buildings were elegantly decorated with the highest quality of crafts and mural paintings, which consisted of an eclectic mixture of traditional styles surviving from Sukhothai, inherited from Angkor, and borrowed from the 17th and 18th century art styles of Japan, China, India, Persia and Europe, creating a rich and unique expression of a cosmopolitan culture and laying the foundation for the fusion of styles of art and architecture popular throughout the succeeding Rattanakosin Era and onwards. 

Constructed in Ayutthaya in the 17th century, Bang Pa-In Royal Palace, simultaneously known as the Summer Palace, is the former residence of the Thai monarchy, and is still used today as a site for royal retreats and holidays. Russian and Chinese architecture as well as traditional Thai designs blend brilliantly to create a colourful and symmetric exterior here. Visitors are highly recommended to climb the brightly painted lookout tower if time permits, which offers amazing panoramic views of the surrounding city. The palace remains largely open to guests all year round, with tours available for the Chinese-style royal palace and throne room as well as the lavish, vibrant gardens.

Wat Chaiwatthanaram is a magnificent Buddhist temple in Ayutthaya situated on the west bank of the Chao Phraya River. A number of temples throughout Thailand take their design from this building. It is an eye-catching arrangement which includes a raised platform and eight towering chedis, or chapels. All of the chedis are attached to secret passageways and have colourful paintings inside, illustrating the life of Buddha. There are 120 sitting Buddha statues dotted around the area. Originally thought to have been painted in black and gold, they now sit dressed in orange drapery, creating a peaceful, picturesque scene.

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