WAT MAHA THAT (วัดมหาธาตุ)
Wat Maha That or the Monastery of the Great Relic is located on the city island in
the central part of Ayutthaya in Tha Wasukri sub-district. The temple is situated on the
corner of the present Chikun Road and Naresuan Road. The monastery stood on the
west bank of
Khlong Pratu Khao Pluak, an important canal, which has been filled up
somewhere in the early 20th century. In ancient times the temple was likely fully
surrounded by canals and moats. The structure has been registered as a national historic
site by the Fine Arts Department on 8 March 1935 and is part of the
Ayutthaya World
Heritage Historical Park.

History

The exact date of the establishment of Wat Maha That is difficult to assess.

The Luang Prasoet version of the Royal Chronicles of Ayutthaya put its construction in
736 Chula Sakarat (CS) or 1374 of the Christian Era, during the reign of
King
Borommaracha I
(r. 1370-1388), somehow 23 years after the establishment of
Ayutthaya. The chronicles mention that the central prang had a height of 46 meter.

"In 736, a year of the tiger, King Bòromracha I and the Venerable
Thammakanlayan first erected the great, glorious, holy jeweled reliquary,
towering one sen and three wa, to the east of the royal lion gable."
[1]

Later versions of the Royal Chronicles of Ayutthaya state that Wat Maha That was
established by
King Ramesuan (r. 1388-1395) after his attack of Chiang Mai in 1384
(746 CS). But this date is not corroborating with his period of reign.

"Then the King went out to observe the precepts at Mangkhalaphisek Hall. At ten
thum he looked toward the east and saw a Great Holy Relic of the Lord Buddha
performing a miracle. Calling the palace deputies to bring his royal palanquin, he
rode forth. He had stakes brought and pounded into the ground to mark the spot.
The great holy reliquary which he built there was nineteen wa high, with a nine-
branched finial three wa high, and named the Maha That Monastery. Then the
King had the Royal Rite of Entering the Capital performed and festivities were
held in the royal residence."
[2]

In general, historians bet on the two horses and take as granted that the construction of
the monastery was started by King Borommaracha I and completed in King Ramesuan’s
reign. In the second version the prang was 38 meter high with on top, a finial of 6 meter.

An earlier source (1), Jeremias Van Vliet, a chief merchant of the Dutch East India
Company in Ayutthaya, wrote in his
Short History of the Kings of Siam in 1640, that it
was Prince U-Thong, the later
King Ramathibodhi I, who built Wat Maha That.

"Then Thao U Thong began to re-establish the city on the fifth day of the waxing
fourth moon (in our reckoning being the month of March) in the Year of the Tiger
and called it Ayutthaya. He also built three temples which are still considered to be
the most important in the whole kingdom: the Nopphathat, the most holy;
Ratchaburana, the same size and shape as the Nopphathat but not visited by the
kings because of a prophecy that the first king who goes in there will die shortly
thereafter; and Wat Doem still the foremost [monastic?] school. After Thao U
Thong had built the aforementioned city, he had the entire population called
together and declared himself king
." [3]

The chronicles mention that
King Borommaracha II (r. 1424-1448) attacked Angkor
in 1431 and had a large number of sacred images of oxen, lions and other creatures
removed from the temples there. These images were brought to Ayutthaya and installed
as offerings at Wat Maha That.

"In 793, a year of the boar King Bòromracha II went and seized Nakhòn Luang.
He then had his son, Prince Nakhòn In, ascend the royal throne of Nakhòn Luang.
At that time the King then had Phraya Kaeo and Phraya Thai and all of the
images brought to Ayutthaya.] [BCDF: The King then had Phraya Kaeo, Phraya
Thai, and their families, as well as all the images of sacred oxen and all the images
of lions and other creatures, brought along. When they reached Ayutthaya, the
King therefore had all of the animal images taken and presented as offerings,
some at the Phra Si Ratana Maha That Monastery and some at the Phra Si
Sanphet Monastery."
[4]

Wat Maha That was one of the most important monasteries of the Ayutthaya kingdom,
not only because it was the religious centre and enshrined relics of the Buddha, but also
because of its proximity to the
Grand Palace. It was a royal monastery and the seat of
the Supreme Patriarch of the City Dwelling sect till the end of the Ayutthaya period - at
par with the Supreme Patriarch of the Forest Dwelling sect, which had its seat at
Wat
Yai Chai Mongkhon (called Wat Pa Kaeo in earlier times). Van Vliet wrote in 1638 in
his
Description of the Kingdom of Siam that from the highest ecclesiastic regents,
namely the four bishops of the principal temples of Judia, “
The bishop of the Nappetat
(2) has the supreme dignity
” [5]

In the past, it was the venue of important royal ceremonies and celebrations. Van Vliet
describes the splendor of yearly Royal procession to Wat Maha That on the occasion of
Kathin, where the Ayutthayan Kings “
made their offerings to the gods and prayed for
the welfare of the country
”. An excerpt from The Description of the Kingdom of
Siam
of 1638 can be read here [7].

Jacobus van de Koutere or Jacques de Coutre, born in Bruges (Flanders) around 1572
and a merchant in gemstones gave in his manuscript
La Vida de Jaques de Couttre a
description of what was likely Wat Maha That. In 1595 de Coutre stayed about 8
months in Ayutthaya as part of an embassy sent to Siam by the Portuguese governor of
Malacca. The description you can find
here.

The Royal Chronicles of Ayutthaya state that during
King Songtham’s reign (r.
1610/1611-1628) the prang fell in decay and the upper part of the main prang came
down.

"In that year the stupa of the Monastery of the Holy Great Relic collapsed  right
down to the [B: garuda rafters, the foundation and the steps] [CDEF: level of the
garudas and its foundation settled]."
[8]

Van Vliet although wrote in
The short History of the Kings of Siam (1640) that the
tower collapsed in the third year of King Prasat Thong’s reign (r. 1629-1656), thus
being 1631.

"In the third year of his reign the golden tower of the Nopphathat suddenly
collapsed without a crosswind, thunder, or lightning. He had it quickly erected
again, but before this tower was totally restored, the scaffolding (beautifully
durably made of bamboo) also collapsed unexpectedly during a rain to
consequence, strange omens were seen but were kept secret by the soothsayers."

[9]

Prasat Thong restored the stupa in 1633 and increased it considerably. The prang was
raised to 44 meters and reached at that time, with its finial, a height of 50 m.

"In 995 (1633 AD), a year of the cock, the King in His holy compassion had the
holy stupa of the Monastery of the Great Relic, which had been destroyed earlier,
restored. Originally the main section had been nineteen wa, with a sky trident spire
of three wa, so the King said, “The original form was extremely squat. Rebuild it
so it is a sen and two wa high but retain the sky trident spire so that together they
equal one sen and five wa.” When it was built it looked conical and it was ordered
that makha wood be brought and added to the brick and that mortar be taken and
added to it. In nine months it was completed and a ceremony to dedicate it was
ordered to be held on a grand scale."
[10]

Wat Maha That was restored again in
King Borommakot’s reign (r. 1733-1758). Four
porticos were added to the prang, which was restored at the same time as the royal
vihara and the ordination hall. No evidence of restoration of the monastery could be
found after. Obviously chedis, prangs, and viharns were added on several occasions in
time. At the fall of Ayutthaya in 1767, the monastery was set on fire in the Burmese
attack.

Wat Maha That housed before an unusual Buddha image of green stone believed to be
made in the Dvaravati style (Mon) dating from 707 - 757 AD. A governor of Ayutthaya
got this statue moved to
Wat Na Phra Men during the reign of King Rama III, where it
still resides in a small vihara next to the ubosot.

The main prang of Wat Maha That survived until the reign of King Rama V, as seen in a
photograph taken in 1903, early 1904. On 25 May, 1904, at 0500 Hr in the morning,
the main prang collapsed at the level of the niche. The prang fell further apart in 1911
during the reign of King Rama VI. The Fine Arts Department restored it partially. The
symmetrical base with staircases on the four sides is all what remains of the once
majestic prang.

Wat Maha That was certainly not exempted from looting. From its destruction in 1767
until its restoration by the FAD last century, the temple has been prone of severe looting
and damage by illegal excavation.

From
the collection of the aerial photograph Peter Williams-Hunt, who took pictures
during reconnaissance missions of Royal Air Force in the 2nd World War, I choose two
photographs to indicated the state of the ruins of Wat Maha That in the year 1946
(
photo 1 - photo 2). It is obvious that quite a bit of restoration had been undertaken by
the Fine Arts Department (
photo 3).
Excavations

In 1956 the Fine Arts Department started excavations at Wat Maha That. At first
workers, found in the main chamber of the principal prang, half buried in the sand under
the pedestal of the pagoda, a solid gold lion, sitting in a fish-shaped container decorated
with a gilded motif and filled with other gold accessories.

At a later stage the smell of sandalwood oil hung in the air and the upper ventilation hole
of the crypt was found. A shaft was discovered in September, when a vertical
excavation from the floor of the relic chamber was performed.

Aphivan Saipradist recounts the story of one of the workers, Mian Youngpradit, digging
for the crypt in its analysis as follows:

"It was both exciting and tiring. We had only a crow bar and a basket. And we
had to dig just a big enough hole to go through, layer by layer, until we reached
the main crypt 17 meters underneath. We had to use a lantern. But the ventilation
was so poor that breathing became more difficult. We had to lower leafy guava
branches down the hole to help with the ventilation. The noise of the crow bar
touching the stone in the tiny hole was heart wrenching. When it hit the box, the
compressed air suddenly burst out of the tiny hole was so violent that it seemed
like a big serpent jumping at us. If we had not been prepared, it could’ve killed us.
That was how many crypt diggers were killed."
[11]

In the 17 m deep shaft a hollow stone pillar 3.20 m high with a lid buried in a cemented-
brick pedestal was found. Five days were needed to remove it. On 30 August 1956 the
stone container was opened in presence of authorities. The container was filled with a
small stupa wrapped in a lead sheet containing relics, gold ornaments, a large quantity of
bronze images, pewter votive tablets and other valuables.
Architecture

Wat Maha That as Wat Phra Ram, Wat Phutthai Sawan and the later built Wat Racha
B
urana follows the Khmer concept of temple construction. We find nearly identical, but
earlier built structures at Angkor. Phnom Bakheng, Preah Rup, East Mebon, Baphuon
and Ta Keo were all Temple Mountains, consisting of a central tower surrounded by
four corner towers, forming a quincunx, the latter also often was surrounded by a
courtyard and a gallery.

The design, architecture and decoration of a Khmer temple were modeled according to
a series of magical and religious beliefs. Devotees moved from the mundane world to a
spiritual one by walking along one of the four axes, each of which has a different
astrological value. East, the direction of the rising sun, was auspicious, representing life
and the sexual prowess of the male. Most of the Khmer temples were built with the
entrance to the east, as this was the formal approach to most Hindu shrines. In general,
however, west is considered inauspicious and represents death, impurity and the setting
sun. North is also auspicious, while South has a neutral value. The Khmers adhered to
the Hindu belief that a temple must be built correctly according to a mathematical system
in order for it to function in harmony with the universe. [11] The sanctuary or the abode
of gods was built in the center of the city to imitate Mount Meru which the Khmers
believed to be the center of the universe. The town layout, a square-shape,
corresponded with the Mandala concept, arising from Hindu beliefs, which indicated the
boundary of the universe. [12]

All temples in the early period of the establishment of Ayutthaya were clearly Khmer
styled, consisting primary of laterite structures (instead of sandstone) and bricks,
enhanced with stucco. Wat Maha That consisted basically of a large central prang
surrounded by four subsidiary prangs at the four inter-cardinal points, standing on a
raised square platform. The quincunx was surrounded by a courtyard and a roofed
gallery, lined with a row of Buddha images. Typically for the Ayutthaya period is that
often the gallery was penetrated by a monastic structure, being an ordination or an
assembly hall, or even sometimes both. An exception to this was Wat Phutthai Sawan.

The principal prang of Wat Maha That was constructed of laterite at the base. The top
part of the stupa was of brick and mortar. Brick work at the four sides of the base
indicates that the prang had porches in the cardinal directions, a feature not used in the
Early Ayutthaya period (1351 - 1491). These porches could be reached by a staircase.
Historians believe that these porches were added during the renovation of the temple
done in 1633 during King Prasat Thong’s reign. Mural paintings of Buddhas in the
different postures were found inside the prang. The prang stood until the beginning of the
20th century, but finally the brick part collapsed as unfortunately no preserving had been
done since the fall of the city in 1767. Fifty years after its collapse a crypt was found
containing relics of the Buddha inside the stupa.

The Vihan Luang or the Royal Assembly Hall of Wat Maha That stood east of the
prang, orientated towards Khlong Pratu Khao Pluak. The rectangular structure was quite
large, measuring 40 m by 20 m. The vihara had a front porch (east) which could be
reached by tree staircases. There was also an entry into the hall from both sides. Behind
the main pedestal were two exits leading down to the gallery. The multi-tiered roof of the
viharn was supported by two rows of columns. The hall contained mural paintings of the
Vessantara Jataka. Viharn Luang has undergone several restorations in the past as well
as in recent times.

The ubosot or ordination hall was rectangular and stood west of the main prang. The hall
had a double entry to the west and two exits on the sides near the main pedestal which
contained the presiding Buddha image. The hall was surrounded by an inner wall (Th:
kamphaeng kaeo, literally Crystal Wall), forming an inner court which gave access to the
gallery. Outside and around the ubosot were eight boundary stones or marker slabs (Th:
bai sema) at the eight cardinal points in order to demarcate the sacred area of the
Sangkha (Buddhist brotherhood). Two sets of marker slabs were found in this area. The
first set was made of reddish stone measuring 1 m x 67 cm x 11 cm. The second set was
made of fine greenish stone and had the characteristics of Sukhothai’s boundary stones,
measuring 1.12 m x 72 cm x 8 cm. The stones are believed to have been made in 1374
CE during King Ramesuan’s reign. [11]

Aphivan Saipradist writes in his analyses that the presiding Buddha images in the ubosot
and vihara were large-sized stone sculptures that existed before the establishment of
Ayutthaya. Also the stone Buddha images along the gallery he describes, as statues with
big and peculiar robes, stout bodies in the Bayon style with sharp chins, considered older
than Sukhothai period. He is although not clear about the origin of these statues and the
question remains open if they were once looted from Angkor or at least modeled from
Khmer war loot (See King Borommaracha II and Angkor above).

The northwestern prang of the temple is one of the few structures that still contain mural
paintings from the Early Ayutthaya period. The wall opposite the entrance shows a trace
of a bell jar which normally accompanies a Buddha image, which however is missing.
The left wall was adorned with the paintings of three rows of Buddhas, while the
paintings on the right wall are almost completely vanished. The colors used were black,
white and red. [11]

Identical to other large temple sites, smaller pagodas and minor viharas were continually
added, restored and reconstructed at the complex.

Saipradist states that the tradition of building pagodas to enshrine relics of the Buddha
spread widely in time and that apparently there was a Royal decree issued to establish in
each important city, a temple being the most important religious focal point for that area.
As thus we see Wat Maha That or Wat Phra Sri Rattana Mahathat established in
Lopburi, Phitsanulok, Kamphaeng Phet etc.

Johannes Vingboons (c.1616 - 1670), a Dutch cartographer, created a painting named

Afbeldinge der stadt Iudiad Hooft des Choonincrick Siam
published in Vingboons
Atlas around 1665. In this painting,
Wat Maha That can clearly be discerned. Historians
believe that the information to make this painting was collected during Van Vliet's time
(1640) in Ayutthaya. On Vingboons map we see a large Khmer prang surrounded by
four subsidiary stupa (the one behind the main prang is not visible) and a gallery; the
Royal vihara and multiple satellite chedis. The kutis or lodging for the monks seems to be
located behind the monastery walls. It was although not customary for the monks to be
housed in stone structures, but the latter could have been the Residence of the Supreme
Patriarch.

The restored ruin of Wat Maha That is located in Geo Coord: 14° 21' 25.44" N, 100°
34' 2.77" E.   

Footnotes:

(1) The earliest version of the Royal Chronicles of Ayutthaya is the Luang Prasoet
chronicle dating from 1680, somehow 40 year later than Van Vliet’s work. All the other
Chronicles of Ayutthaya are written after the fall of Ayutthaya in 1767.
(2) Wat Maha That was rendered by the Dutch as Nopphathat, Nappetat or Nappetadt.
[6] Author found another denomination of the temple in Ref 7 being Wat Naputhan.
Ven. Jinawarawansi (Prince Prisdang of Siam) corrected this in the notes of reference as
Na-pa-tan (Na Pa Than). Pa Than stands for the "charcoal quarter" hence Wat Na Pa
Than means the "Monastery in front of the charcoal quarter".

References:

[1] The Royal Chronicles of Ayutthaya - Richard D. Cushman (2006) - page 12 /
Source: Luang Prasoet.
[2] Ibid - page 13.
[3] Van Vliet's Siam - Chris Baker, Dhiravat Na Pombejra, Alfons Van Der Kraan &
David K. Wyatt (2005) - page 201.
[4] The Royal Chronicles of Ayutthaya - Richard D. Cushman (2006) - page 15 /
Source: Luang Prasoet, Phan Canthanumat, British Museum, Reverend Phonnarat &
Royal Autograph.
[5] Van Vliet's Siam - Chris Baker, Dhiravat Na Pombejra, Alfons Van Der Kraan &
David K. Wyatt (2005) - page 158.
[6] Ibid - page 55.
[7] Ibid - page 117/119.
[8] The Royal Chronicles of Ayutthaya - Richard D. Cushman (2006) - page 210 /
Source: Phan Canthanumat, British Museum, Reverend Phonnarat, Phra
Cakkraphatdiphong & Royal Autograph - Discovery of a Buddha Footprint.
[9] Van Vliet's Siam - Chris Baker, Dhiravat Na Pombejra, Alfons Van Der Kraan &
David K. Wyatt (2005) - page 242.
[10] The Royal Chronicles of Ayutthaya - Richard D. Cushman (2006) - page 217 /
Source: Phan Canthanumat, British Museum, Reverend Phonnarat, Phra
Cakkraphatdiphong & Royal Autograph.
[11] A critical analysis of heritage interpretation and the development of a guidebook for
non-Thai cultural tourists at Ayutthaya World Heritage site - By Aphivan Saipradist -
Silpakorn University (2005) - ISBN 974-464-276-9.
[12] Angkor, an introduction to the temples - Dawn F. Rooney (2002) - page 112/113
- ISBN 962-217-683-6.

Other consulted works:

1. Ayutthaya, a World Heritage (2000).
2. Ayutthaya - World Heritage Reflections of the Past - APAO.
3. An outline of the History of Religious Architecture in Thailand - Sonthiwan Intralib
(1991).
4. Discovering Ayutthaya - Charnvit Kasetsiri & Michael Wright (2007).
Text, maps & photographs by Tricky Vandenberg
Updated September 2012, January 2015
Remains of the Royal Vihara
Headless Buddha image in situ
Base of the main prang - quincunx
The west gate
View from the south
Mural painting in situ
The touristic
The gallery or Rabieng Khot
The gallery or Rabieng Khot
Base of the main prang - quincunx
Base of the main prang - quincunx
Chedi in situ
One of the many satellite vihara
Satellite vihara
False windows of the Royal Vihara
Base of the main prang - quincunx
View of the gallery
(Base of the main prang - quincunx)
(View of the gallery)
(The west gate)
(The gallery or Rabieng Khot)
(Base of the main prang - quincunx)
(View from the south)
(Base of the main prang - quincunx)
(False windows of the Royal Vihara)
(One of the many satellite vihara)
(Base of the main prang - quincunx)
(Remains of the Royal Vihara)
(The touristic "high light" of Wat Maha That)
(Chedi in situ)
(Mural painting in situ)
(Satellite vihara)
(Detail of a 19th century map - Courtesy of the Sam
Chao Phraya Museum)
Rare blue and white octagonal jar for lustral water from the Yuan Dynasty period
(Rare blue and white octagonal jar for lustral water
from the Yuan Dynasty period found in the crypt of Wat
Maha That. Likely sent to Ayutthaya as a diplomatic
gift rather than used for trading purposes.  
Chandra
Kasem National Museum)
(Headless Buddha statue in situ)
(The gallery or Rabieng Khot)