|INTRODUCTION ON TEMPLES & RUINS
There are many missing bricks in relation to the ruins of Ayutthaya. For one, there is no clear chronological record of their construction. It is nearly
impossible to determine the exact sequence of their development. Such information would be priceless in understanding how the city unfolded over
centuries. Beth Fouser classifies the city's temple into three architectural sub-periods. The first began when King U-Thong (Ramathibodi I) founded
the city in 1351. This sub-period is characterized by the predominance of Khmer-influenced sanctuary towers known as prangs. After King U-Thong
established a settlement in Ayutthaya, he marched military troops to Angkor to find a resource for inexpensive labor. Thousands of war slaves,
women, and skilled artisans were removed from Angkor to build his new city. Naturally, they brought knowledge about this architectural style with
The prang towers were established mostly as royal temples. As a private experiment, I created a map of all the Khmer-influenced prangs in
Ayutthaya. It clearly shows the boundaries of the old kingdom during its earliest period. There is a vertical stretch of prang structures along Khlong
Tho (Wat Phutthai Sawan, Wat Som, Wat Jao Phram, Wat Worapho, and Wat Choeng Tha). A horizontal stretch crosses along the southern end of
Bung Phra Ram (Wat Phra Ram, Tewa Sathan). There is also a series of prangs east of Bung Phra Ram (Wat Maha That, Wat Racha Burana, Wat
Langka). One can practically visualize the city's expansion east from Khlong Tho to Khlong Makham Riang, except that there are too many missing
dates to verify it.
The second architectural sub-period, according to Fouser, starts in 1488 and ends in 1629, though there is some overlap. This period is signified by
the replacement of Khmer-influenced prangs with bell-shaped chedis in the Sri Lankan style. This architectural change was inspired by warfare
between Ayutthaya and Sukhothai, which forced the latter into becoming a vassal state. King Trailok relocated the Siamese capital to Phitsanulok in
1463, so that he could maintain a strong military presence in the north. His son, Prince Borommaracha III, became regent in Ayutthaya. Both leaders
ruled simultaneously for two decades. When King Trailok died in 1483 there was renewed rebellion in Sukhothai and the north. Prince
Borommaracha III, who would later change his name to King Intharacha II, crushed these uprising and renewed Ayutthaya as the Siamese capital in
1488. War captives were removed to Ayutthaya, bringing the bell-shaped construction style with them.
Bell-shaped chedis are located everywhere in Ayutthaya: inside royal palaces (Wat Sri Sanphet), in ethnic neighborhoods (Wat Khun Saen), and off
the main island (Wat Mae Nang Plum, Wat Maheyong, Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon). Many of these religious monasteries were established by nobility
instead of kings. The city population had grown large enough to warrant the development of new temples, and mandarins had acquired enough
wealth, power, and personal laborers to build them. There were many architectural hybrids that crossed prang towers with domed chedis, but the
simple Sri Lankan style was predominant. In addition, the city's brick walls were constructed in the middle period as well as a number of foreign
The third architectural sub-period began in 1629 under the reign of King Prasat Thong. It is characterized by the reappearance of Khmer-influenced
prang towers. King Prasat Thong was usurper to the throne, so he needed to establish his legitimacy as a holy ruler in the Buddhist kingdom,
especially since the Siamese millennial year was approaching and many prophesies predicted the obliteration of Ayutthaya. Therefore, he launched a
massive campaign of temple construction and restoration. Wat Chai Watthanaram was the greatest of these projects. It is believed that Prasat Thong
employed the Khmer-style in allusion to the kingdom's glorious past. Some scholars also suggest that he may have been involved with renewed
military expeditions into Angkor, either as king or in the form of defensive minister (kalahom) under King Songtham. However, this theory is unclear.
The Royal Chronicles only states that he sent skilled artisans to copy their temples and bring back plans (Cushman 216).
At any rate, the kings after Prasat Thong displayed mixed taste. Some redented-patterned prangs were built off the main island and a number of them
were added to preexisting monasteries as secondary structures. Bell-shaped chedis and other types were also built concurrently. The third
sub-period ended with the Burmese invasion in 1767.
Temple chronology would put the growth of the city into greater context, but this still leaves room for much debate. Another problem is that we don't
really know how many temples existed in the first place.
The early Dutch traders estimated that Ayutthaya once had 300 to 450 monasteries (Baker 13). However, there is no way to verify this number
today. No inventory from the Ayutthaya period has survived, or maybe they were never counted in the first place. The Royal Chronicles name only a
few dozen monasteries, which are mostly known today by different titles. The early western visitors seldom described temples by name. The more
detailed maps by Engelbert Kaempfer and Sieur de La Mare show a number of pagodas, but fail to dig deeper with more off-the-main island sites.
The first realistic map of holy sites and municipal institutes was produced by Provincial Governor Phraya Boran Rachathanin in 1926, after the city fell
in 1767. It may offer the closest representation of what the ancient city might have looked like. Yet, there are still many problems with his map: some
of the sites were actually established in the recent Rattanakosin period; several temples were built on the foundation of older sites, monasteries are
often overlooked when located off the main island, and the names and locations of the temples don't always match previous resources. How do we
distinguish between the new and the ancient? The new city is becoming intrinsically entwined and bewilderingly blurred with the ancient one. The city
must be understood as palimpsests between the old and new. For now, the riddle of temples and their history remains a mystery. All that we can do
is to read the bones.
Adrian Snodgrass describes Buddhist temples as architectural representations of the cosmological universe. Each construction is encoded with
meaningful religious symbolism. In their rawest forms stupas are a based on the principle of a mandala, a sacred enclosure marked by a circle
inscribed within a square. The stupa is oriented in seven directions according to the movement and rays of the sun. The four cardinal directions (east,
west, north, and south) are represented horizontally. Vertically, there is the zenith which connects the stupa to the celestial heavens above, the nadir
that suggests the sun's passage along the subterranean level below, and the seventh ray corresponds with the center - the path of the Brahman in
which no sun shines.
Buddhist architectural structures are also designed to symbolize Mount Meru, which is the center of the cosmological universe. An odd number of
celestial heavens lie in layers above Mount Meru, while seven concentric seas and seven mountain ranges surround it. These are all encased by a
circle of gold. Beyond the last mountain range is the world ocean. Four continents are located at each cardinal point of the compass from there.
Snodgrass points out that every part of a stupa has deep symbolic meaning, from the foundation layers to the tip of its spire.
Ayutthaya, in itself, was conceived with the same cosmological significance. The city is surrounded by water, a symbol of the world ocean, with
important cities to each side like the four continents. The kings of the ancient city were identified with Mount Meru as part of the axis of the universe -
and at times even believed to be divine incarnates - as they sat on thrones in the center of the island. Ayutthaya was viewed as a microcosm of the
greater universe. Therefore, the city served as Siam's spiritual nucleus; not just as a capital for maritime trade. This is the primary reason why so many
temples were established in the city.
The construction of royal temples (wat luang) was a means for kings to validate authority as a religious figure, to demonstrate spiritual legitimacy by
making merit, and to commemorate important victories on the city's behalf. Many elaborate ceremonies were designed to demonstrate the piousness
of the king. For example, the royal Kathin ceremony was an annual event held by the king to donate robes to Buddhist monks, which included a
procession of elephants, musicians, and soldiers (Pombejra 84). These temples were also built to mark the ceremonial sites of royal cremations.
Since many of these edifices stored the remains of kings, who were ensured eventual rebirth as a Buddha, they were constructed large enough to
magnify the greatness of that being (Fouser 33-37).
Many of them were filled with valuable treasure and decorated with elaborate murals. Other royal temples were built to mark earlier sites of royal
residences or the territorial boundaries of current palaces. The Royal Chronicles record information about many of these regal monuments, since such
great importance was placed on them. Consequently, some historical data survived the Burmese attacks in 1767. We can piece together some of
these bones to create a better image.
In contrast to the royal temples are the ones known as "wat raad" or village monasteries. These smaller and less impressive monasteries were
frequented by commoners and lesser nobility. They were usually located outside the royal palaces or completely off the main island. Nevertheless,
these sacred places were designed with the same cosmological principles in mind. A main stupa marked the center of the monastery in representation
of Mount Meru. That structure was architecturally marked with a variety of symbolic meanings and mythological forms. These religious sites were
either aligned to the east to greet the rising sun or in the direction of water to recognize that Buddha was facing a river when he obtained
Since Ayutthaya was a hydrous city with plentiful flood water, there was a distinct tendency to build village temples around natural rivers and
man-made canals. Many village monasteries were encircled by moats to signify the world ocean or the seven rivers surrounding Mount Meru.
Neighborhoods formed around these islets. Then the lay community used the Buddhist monastery as a community center. People moved around them
socially, held wedding, had funerals, studied in classrooms, and sought advice from monks. Floating markets and business shops often existed
nearby. The village temples were vital to the religious community, but less is known about them than the royal temples because commoners didn't
leave many records. Therefore, it is painfully difficult to track down any information about these former holy sites.
The ancient city still has continuity, however, because even in modern times Buddhist temples are designed and used in a similar ways. Ceremonies
have been passed down from one generation to the next. Monasteries are usually comprised of at least one main reliquary tower (a prang, chedi, or
some other form), a viharn where commoners went to worship, and an ubosot that was used exclusively by monks for prayer and ceremony. The
ubosot was often surrounded in cardinal directions by eight bai sema (stone monuments that mark a sacred boundary) and a ninth sema was likely to
be buried in the center of the ubosot. These sacred markers signified the spot where an odd number of round luk nimit stones were buried during
consecration of the monastery (an important ritual in which entire villages might participate). In addition, most temples had individual shrines, or
mondop, that encased a single image of Buddha or one of a popular monk.
The religious practices have been preserved in Ayutthaya along with the basic design of monasteries. It is history, collective memory, and specific
physical structures that have gone to ruin.
As a teacher, I wanted to learn if my students still felt connected to these old places. While prodding them to research ruins and dig up new
information, it quickly became evident why they lacked interest. On one hand, they really didn't care about hidden symbols of Buddhist cosmology. It
wasn't important for them to know that Ayutthaya was once considered a microcosm of the universe and the main island a representation of Mount
Meru. The exact number of temples, their architectural shapes, and the date of their construction were considered irrelevant. Plus, they already knew
all the vocabulary words about temples for their own needs.
In the modern city, the meaning of temples lies not in symbols, shapes, numbers, words, or dates; but in the functions that they provide. Monasteries
are places where families interact and participate in social functions. Communities meet for weddings, funerals, ordination ceremonies, and other
events. The temples provide social welfare services ranging from food distribution, animal care, and education opportunities for the poor. The ancient
ruins hold little meaning, because they lack all this activity. More importantly, the ruins are missing a vital religious element - Buddhist monks. The
monastic community of abbots, monks, and other temple workers are what gives the place life. Without this interaction the ruins are lost souls. They
become unwitting hosts to stray dogs, litter, and ghosts.
From this point it is easy to feel detached. Once isolated, the temples become vulnerable. Looting has been a pervasive problem in the city. The
majority of ancient Buddha images suffer the humiliation of having missing heads, and there are very few stupas today without holes caused by
explorative treasure hunters.
The suburban temples off the main island are especially prone to being hit by thieves. Jean-Baptiste Pallegoix observed that even as far back as the
1830s there was a mania to seek treasures in Ayutthaya (Pallegoix 281), but this was nothing when compared to scale of looting done by organized
gangs starting from the late 1950s. During the restoration of Wat Racha Burana, the police sergeant who guarded the temple later returned with 20
colleagues, broke into the crypt and stole the property. When the treasure found at Wat Racha Burana spread out, it sparked more looting at every
monument in the city (Sukphisit 46). The limited supply of Buddhist monks could not be caretakers for so many temples. Therefore, government laws
were passed to protect these holy sites, and a branch of the Fine Arts Department opened in Ayutthaya in 1959.
The agency's lack of funds and trained staff made patrolling these sites very ineffective, so plundering continued even into recent times. One Japanese
researcher writes that in 1999 Thai police in the Ayutthaya found "more than 500 ancient artifacts in the residence of a well known sculpture"
(Nagashima 100). The cities skilled craftsmen repaired broken sculptures and sometimes counterfeited fake ones, though these imitations actually
helped to reduced looting because it supplied art lovers and brought some underground stone carvers out of hiding (Sukphisit 86). It is almost as if
these looters were trying to erase the defeat of the ancient city. At various times, Ayutthaya served as a vital stop in a smuggling route that delivered
Southeast Asian antiques to Bangkok dealers and overseas markets via Singapore (Nagashima 104-109). One collector of Ayutthaya art was the
legendary Jim Thompson.
Jim Thompson made frequent visits to Ayutthaya before his mysterious disappearance in the Cameron Highlands of Malaysia in 1967. He spent much
of this time on boat trips, exploring little known canals and off-the-beaten track ruins. On these visits he sometimes purchased artwork and old teak
houses. Jim Thompson bought many antiques from Ayutthaya shops. Part of the terrace of his popular house is decorated with 17th century brick
and green Chinese tiles from Ayutthaya (Warren 103). Bangkok was a paradise for antique enthusiasts while Jim Thompson lived there. Farm
workers unearthed ancient art while plowing new fields, and construction companies uncovered artifacts while rebuilding the city. These objects were
taken to Bangkok and sold along with stolen merchandise.
To be fair, Jim Thompson collected Thai art to preserve the national heritage, and he intended to donate his museum to the Siam Society, but his
willingness to buy stolen material had gotten him in trouble. In 1962, he was involved in an episode known as the "incident of the five white heads". It
started when an antique dealer from Ayutthaya sold him three limestone heads that allegedly belonged to the Srivijaya period. The same Ayutthaya
dealer delivered two more heads to him the following year. Thompson paid a hefty amount for these sculptures. Unfortunately, it was later discovered
that some of these objects were stolen. The Fine Arts Department sent officers to Jim Thompson's house to reclaim them. They ended up in the
national museum and he was never given any compensation (Warren 114-116). Not surprisingly, there is at least one theory that Jim Thompson's
disappearance was the result of supernatural retribution for having removed Ayutthaya images.
Ayutthaya's rebirth was centered in a different type of quagmire. The city yearns to wade forward to find the solid footing of development. Yet, as a
British researcher phrased it in 1969, that there exists something in Ayutthaya that is hostile to the modern world (Bramley 8). Locals hang onto the
image of the ancient city with pride, even if this distrust of change leads to the stagnation of the modern town. I am told that no building can legally be
constructed higher than the main chedi at Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon, which commemorates King Naresuan's victory over the Burmese in 1593. Even
after living in Ayutthaya for fours years, I still haven't seen an airplane fly anywhere near the main island, some say that this is to avoid having
passengers placed above the heads of certain Buddha images.
The city is full of stories about absconded amulets, hidden caches of gold, and buried Buddha images. Citizens repeat that valuable treasures were
fearfully cast into canals to avoid theft by the Burmese, as the city was besieged in 1767. There are also many tales of retribution: bounty hunters that
met untimely death, looters that get decapitated for stealing heads, bandits that go insane. The idea of decapitating a Buddha image is very offensive
for most Thais, especially if his head falls to the ground at the level of one's feet. It also bothers many Thais to have Buddha heads displayed in a
museum on the first floor, because sight-seers would be walking above him. However, this attitude alone doesn't put a halt to the horror of looting.
That can only been done with community awareness and conversation.
A new crop of population is currently growing across the city. The seeds have been scattered in former rice fields. Factories and paved roads have
sprouted like concrete weeds. What will happen to ancient ruins when they are surrounded by the new energy of modern life? Many residents view
themselves as protectors of the ancient city and old Siamese traditions. Therefore, many attempts have been made to reclaim ancient sites. A
significant number of active monasteries are built at the location of earlier temples (Wat Kasatrathirat, Wat Phutthai Sawan, Wat Phanan Choeng),
and in this way ancient stupas and important Buddha images get preserved.
A few active temples are established on top of the very foundation of old religious sites, often incorporating ancient brick walls into modern viharns
(Wat Samana Kottharam, Wat Phukhao Tong). There have also been some failed attempts to revive places of Buddhist worship (Wat Hatdawat,
Wat Ket). Royal patronage has saved a large number of monasteries and even beautified others with murals (Wat Suwan Dararam, Wat
Senasanaram, Wat Tum, Wat Borommawong). Some former monasteries have morphed into new roles as tourist sites (Wat Maha That, Wat Racha
Burana, Wat Sri Sanphet). There is a distinct desire to sustain these temples and fill them with the life of modern activity.
In my university classes, I sent students to do fieldwork and document these places. I wanted to install in them the idea that they play a role in the
city's survival. Their generation is responsible for the preservation of the city ruins. My objective was for them to reclaim the city by learning about it.
In other words, they began fitting a few bones together. They gathered information in their community and conducted research outside of class. They
learned to create maps. We spoke about these places together and experienced them in groups. This shared activity helped renew life around these
ruins. They talked about these sites with their friends and family.
Through this learning process at monasteries, we were symbolically lifting Buddha's head to a higher level; like the tree embracing that much
photographed image at Wat Maha That. Basically, my classes were growing a history by replanting bricks. Mostly we explored Buddhist temples,
but we also checked out Chinese Shrines, former churches, and even a number of mosques. My classes visited about 55 of these places together;
that seems to be the limit of their patience for local ruins.
I continued my own research from there. I wanted to track down the places listed on the 1926 map done by Phraya Boran Ratchathanin. How has
the city changed since then? I was curious about urban development: before, after, and the next stage. What are the canals that still exist? Where did
people live? What are the buildings that sprouted around these sites in modern times? I wanted to hunt for Constantine Phaulkon's home, find the
three Portuguese camps, and discover the burial site of a Muslim who supposedly had magical powers. It became a hobby to look for ancient sites.
This activity revealed particularly nice bike routes in the city and a number of scenic canals that could still be navigated.
For awhile, I debated if this information should be shared with others, since knowledge about these sites' presence might lead to more theft or
vandalism. I finally changed my mind after I stumbled across Wat Phraya Maen. This remote temple is isolated in a suburban countryside. When I
saw it with my students it had been vandalized: broken beer bottles were smashed in the corner, graffiti flashed inappropriately across some brick
walls, and women's underwear clung to the staircase entrance. My students and I were disgusted at the treatment of this site. I then decided that
these places would be better protected if there is more activity around them.
I considered the possibility of having my student clean up these temples as a project. They could bring tourists to these places and show them.
Maybe write a few reports. My students could plant coconut trees, where the old ones used to be, in order to grow back the city. I wondered how
to convince the local community to adopt these temples and take care of them as a matter of national pride.
One day, a student presented me a map produced by the Fine Arts Department's in 1997. It listed over 400 sites - including ancient temples, old
walls, arched bridges, water gates, and foreign settlements. I have since set out to visit every one. My research has now led me to 325 of these sites.
There are many more that I haven't been able to find, and plenty have yet to be fully excavated. The scale of ancient sites is simply amazing. And new
temples are being constructed each year. In fact, the modern city had fully revived and probably even surpassed the number of monasteries in ancient
What would we find if we looked harder for all the ancient sites? What could these remains tell us about both the ancient and modern city? I was
recently reminded of this point when I learned that a ruin existed five minutes from my home. I had lived at the same residence for three years without
seeing it. It was covered by trees and an apartment building blocked its view. Once if visited the site and discussed it with people from the
neighborhood, it opened up a new path for me to learn from. These sites are everywhere; you just have to know where to look.
We have tried to present as much historical information as we can track down, but when data is lacking we have relied on observation, personal
experiences, and the gathering of stories from people living around these sites. However, there are many contradicting stories, dates, and
interpretations. Also, we realize that some readers may feel that writing about so many temples is overkill, but we believe that each temple link placed
on this website contributes another brick in the foundation of a reviving city.
|Introduction by Ken May - April 2008