This article appeared in September 2013 issue of JetWings International.
Ayutthaya – A mirror of old Siamese Glory
While in Bangkok last September, I decided to visit Ayutthaya, a place of heritage, cultural and historical importance. With Pattaya, Phuket, Chiang Mai, Krabi, Phi Phi and many more similar exotica available during a Thailand visit, Ayutthaya seldom finds a place in any normal itinerary. My enquiries revealed it was around 85km from Bangkok, a driving time of 90 minutes or less.
During the drive, I did some reading up to realise that Ayutthaya is a brilliant amalgamation of Hinduism and Buddhism; and, it also holds a mirror to the glorious Siamese past.
The Capital City of 33 Siamese Kings
It is located in the valley of the Chao Phraya River. King U Thong, who went there to escape a smallpox outbreak in Lop Buri, founded it in 1350. He proclaimed it the capital of Ayutthaya kingdom or Siam.
Ayutthaya became the second Siamese capital after Sukhothai. The ruins of prang (reliquary towers) and gigantic monasteries reflect its past glory. From a population of mere three hundred thousand in 1600 AD, this city grew to a population of one million in 1700 AD – making it one of the largest cities in the world in those days.
Its complete name is Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya. It remained the capital of Thailand (erstwhile Siam) for over 400 years. And during these years, 33 different kings ruled the kingdom.
Ayutthaya is named after the city of Ayodhya in India, the birthplace of Rama in the Ramayana. Interestingly, the Ramakien (“Glory of Rama”) is Thailand’s national epic and is based on Hindu epic – Ramayana. Ramakien has its roots in Sanskrit word Ramakhyan, which literally translates into ‘a long story of Ram’. The storyline has its similarities in content, but has differences in context.
Of Attacks and Counter-attacks
The place has a glorious history. Starting around the mid 16th century, the kingdom was repeatedly attacked by Burma, the first such attack coming from the Toungoo dynasty. This attack of 1548 failed. The second Burmese invasion led by King Bayinnaung got King Maha Chakkraphat to surrender in 1564. The royal family was taken captive and the king’s eldest son Mahinthrathirat was made the custodian king. His father managed to escape as a monk in 1568 and Mahinthrathirat revolted. This led to a third invasion in 1569 in which Ayutthaya was recaptured, and Bayinnaung made Maha Thammarachathirat the custodian king.
Bayinnaung’s died in 1581 and Maha Thammarachathirat proclaimed Ayutthaya’s independence in 1584. Subsequently, the Siamese rebuffed repeated Burmese invasions over the following 10-year period from 1584 to 1593. In fact, in one of these invasions in 1593, there was an elephant duel between King Naresuan and Burmese heir-apparent Mingyi Swa. In this, Naresuan killed Mingyi Swa. This day (18 January) is even today observed as Royal Thai Armed Forces day.
Siamese people resented these attacks and counter-attacked Burma. They ended up capturing a fairly long stretch of Tenasserim coast in 1595. Subsequently, in 1602, they captured Lan Na. They even invaded mainland Burma and went as far as Toungoo in 1600, but did not succeed in their motive of capturing it. Once Naresuan died in 1605, Burmese people again attacked Siam and won back control over northern Tenasserim and Lan Na. Siam’s attempt to recapture these places in 1662–1664, failed.
Of ‘Trade’ Winds and Cold Fronts
By 1700, merchants from diverse regions, such as Japan, Portugal, Netherlands, India, Arabia, etc. started landing here. The merchants from Europe claimed Ayutthaya as the finest city they had ever been to. Many European maps of the city paint its stature vividly, marking it as a city of gilded palaces and ceremonials. They even portray it through a flotilla with a difference – that of trading ships from all over the world.
In the mid-seventeenth century, King Narai ruled Ayutthaya. Foreign trade brought to Ayutthaya not only items of indulgence, but also of war mongering. Thanks to this trade-boost, Ayutthaya became very prosperous. But, in the eighteenth century, Ayutthaya gradually started losing its hold over its provinces. These provinces started revolting against Ayutthaya and its rule.
In the mid-eighteenth century, Ayutthaya again got caught in wars with the Burmese. Though, the first invasion by the Konbaung Dynasty of Burma did not succeed, the second invasion led to ransacking of Ayutthaya city and led to the end of the kingdom in April 1767. Burmese almost completely burnt the city down to the ground, bringing the glory of Ayutthaya to a sudden end.
A Site of Suppression of Freedom
Here, in the Ayutthaya Historical Park, you can today see the ruins of the former capital of the Kingdom of Siam. And while there, do spare a thought to the fact that it is a site akin to Jalianwala Bagh of 1919 or Tiananmen Square of 1989, in an oblique manner, as all these reflect suppression of freedom of local people.
Considering its significance in the region’s history, Ayutthaya Historical Park has been included in UNESCO’s list of world heritage since 1991. The place still has some towering temples intact. And, ostensibly, these are the temples dedicated to Lord Rama of the Siamese epic – ‘Ramakien’.
Of Ramayana and Boddhisattava
During your visit, what is likely to fascinate you most is the omnipresence of Buddha statues in these Hindu God Rama’s temples. Current-day Buddhism’s influence cannot be overlooked here. Also, geographically, it is an island surrounded by 3 rivers, an interesting phenomenon.
The must-sees include the three pagodas of Wat Phra Si Sanphet which house the remains of King Borommatrailokanat, King Borommarachathirat III and King Ramathibodi II, and the ruins of the old city, or what is left after the Burmese invasion (Burma, now Myanmar).
Heritage hunters are bound to enjoy the sites and stories of Ayutthaya. And the scale and precision of planning of this city is likely to take your breath away.