Wat Maha That, or the Monastery of the Great Relic, is located on the city island in the central part of Ayutthaya in the 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 that had been filled up somewhere in the early 20th century. In ancient times the temple was likely fully surrounded by canals and moats. The structure was registered as a national historic site by the Fine Arts Department on 8 March 1935 CE and is part of the Ayutthaya Historical Park.


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 (1370-1388 CE), somehow 23 years after the establishment of Ayutthaya. The chronicles mention that the central prang had a height of 46 meters.

In 736, a year of the tiger, King Bòromracha I and the Venerable Thammakanlayan first erected the great, glorious, holy jewelled 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 (reign 1388-1395 CE) after he attacked Chiang Mai in 1384 CE (746 CS). But this date is not corroborating 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 during King Ramesuan’s reign. In the second version, the prang was 38 meters high with on top a finial of 6 meters. 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 CE 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 (reign 1424-1448 CE) attacked Angkor in 1431 CE and had many sacred images of oxen, lions and other creatures removed from the temples. 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 had all 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, identical to the Supreme Patriarch of the Forest Dwelling sect, who had his seat at Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon (called Wat Pa Kaeo in earlier times). Van Vliet wrote in 1638 CE 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 splendour of the 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 country's welfare”. [6].

Jacobus van de Koutere or Jacques de Coutre, born in Bruges (Flanders) around 1572 CE 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 CE, de Coutre stayed about eight months in Ayutthaya as part of an embassy sent to Siam by the Portuguese governor of Malacca.

Each of the pagodas had a very high tower of stone and brick masonry, and gilded from the tip until the middle, with four stairs made of gilded lead ... The said towers were built on very large squares paved with bricks. In each square one had four ponds, one in each corner, with many trees on the water's edge. Around the tower there was a small fence in masonry. Inside the fence there were many lamps around, and many bronze figures leaned against the wall, as high as a man of good stature ... They were made completely out of bronze and natural looking. They were found then forty years before, in the Kingdom of Cambodia, in a ruined city which the natives came across in the forest. They did not know which nation had lived there. When they described it they called it Anguor. [7]

The Royal Chronicles of Ayutthaya state that during King Songtham’s reign (1610/1611-1628 CE), 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 level of the garudas and its foundation settled. [8]

Van Vliet 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 (1629-1656 CE), thus being 1631 CE.

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 CE and increased it considerably. The prang was raised to 44 meters and reached at that time, with its finial, 50 metres.

In 995 (1633 CE), 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]

Artisans restored Wat Maha That in King Borommakot’s reign (1733-1758 CE) and added four porticos to the prang. The restoration occurred at the same time as the renovation of the royal vihara and the ordination hall. We could not find evidence of other restorations in the Ayutthaya era after that. On several occasions in time, the sanctuary received some chedis, prangs, and viharas. At the fall of Ayutthaya in 1767 CE, the Burmese attack set fire to the monastery.

Wat Maha That housed before an unusual Buddha image in green stone in the Dvaravati style (Mon) dating from 707 - 757 CE. 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 CE, at 0500 Hr in the morning, the main prang collapsed at the niche level. 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 that 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 Fine Arts Department last century, the temple has been prone to severe looting and damage by illegal excavation.

The pictures of Wat Maha That taken by Peter Williams-Hunt during reconnaissance missions of the Royal Air Force in the 2nd World War shows in what state the ruins of Wat Maha That were in 1946. The Fine Arts Department undertook quite a bit of restoration of the site.


(1) The earliest version of the Royal Chronicles of Ayutthaya is the Luang Prasoet chronicle dating from 1680, somehow 40 years later than Van Vliet’s work. All the other Chronicles of Ayutthaya were written after the fall of Ayutthaya in 1767.

(2) Wat Maha That was rendered by the Dutch as Nopphathat, Nappetat or Nappetadt. [11] The 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".


In 1956 CE, 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 labourers found the upper ventilation hole of the crypt. Workers performing a vertical excavation from the floor of the relic chamber discovered a shaft in September. 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 crowbar 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 crowbar 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. [12]

The workers found a hollow stone pillar 3.20 m high with a lid buried in a cemented-brick pedestal in the 17 m deep shaft and needed five days to remove it. On 30 August 1956 CE, the Fine Arts Department opened the stone container in the presence of the authorities. A small stupa wrapped in a lead sheet containing relics, gold ornaments, many bronze images, pewter votive tablets and other valuables filled the container.

The relic treasure of the past

On 30 August 1956 CE, the stone container was opened in the presence of authorities. The container was filled with a small stupa wrapped in a lead sheet, gold ornaments, many bronze images, pewter votive tablets and other valuables. [12]

The stupa consisted, in fact, of six small stupas, one enclosing the other. The outer stupa was lead the second silver the third was nag (an amalgam of copper also with a golden tip but had a gold ringlet fastening its body onto a gold-plated pedestal) the fourth was black wood the fifth was redwood.

Three layers of crystal placed on top of each other formed the sixth stupa. Emeralds and rubies topped the lowest layer made of dark garnet. The three layers were fastened with gold bands studded with tiny emerald drops. The base of this crystal pagoda was inlaid with six sapphires of different colours.

Inside the crystal stupa was a small golden casket with a lid that contained the Buddha relics. The crystalline relics are about one-third of the size of a grain of rice and are kept in sandalwood oil.

The stone pillar and the seven-layered urn with the Buddha relics are preserved and displayed at the Chao Sam Phraya National Museum in Ayutthaya.


Wat Maha That as Wat Phra Ram, Wat Phutthaisawan, and the later built Wat Racha Burana 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 also often surrounded by a courtyard and a gallery.

The design, architecture and decoration of a Khmer temple were modelled according to a series of magical and religious beliefs. Devotees moved from the mundane world to a spiritual one by walking on 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, the 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 to function in harmony with the universe. [12]

The Khmers built the sanctuary or the abode of gods in the city's centre to imitate Mount Meru, which they believed to be the centre 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. [13]

All temples in the early period of the establishment of Ayutthaya were 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. A courtyard and a roofed gallery, lined with a row of Buddha images, surrounded the quincunx. 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 Phutthaisawan.

The principal prang of Wat Maha That had a laterite base. The top part of the stupa was brick and mortar. Brickwork at the four sides of the base indicates that the prang had porches in the cardinal directions, a feature not implemented in the early Ayutthaya period (1351-1491 CE). A staircase could reach these porches. Historians believe these porches date back to the temple's renovation in 1633 CE during King Prasat Thong’s reign. Inside the prang, archaeologists found mural paintings of Buddhas in different postures. The prang stood until the beginning of the 20th century. Finally, the brick part collapsed because no preservation occurred since the fall of the city in 1767 CE. The Fine Arts Department found a crypt containing relics of the Buddha inside the stupa fifty years after its collapse.

The Wihan 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 tree staircases could reach. There was also an entry into the hall from both sides. Behind the central pedestal were two exits leading down to the gallery. Two rows of columns supported the multi-tiered roof of the vihara. The hall contained mural paintings of the Vessantara Jataka. Wihan Luang has undergone several restorations in the past and in recent times.

The ubosot or ordination hall was rectangular and stood west of the central prang. The hall had a double entry to the west and two exits on the sides near the central 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 that 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 to demarcate the sacred area of the Sangha (Buddhist brotherhood). Two sets of marker slabs were found in this area. The first set consisted 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 markers are believed to have been made in 1374 CE during King Ramesuan’s reign.

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. He describes the stone Buddha images in the gallery as statues with big and peculiar robes, stout bodies in the Bayon style with sharp chins, considered older than the Sukhothai period. Although not clear about the origin of these statues, the question remains open if they were once looted from Angkor or at least modelled from Khmer war loot (See King Borommaracha II and Angkor above).

The northwestern prang of the temple is one of the few structures containing mural paintings from the early Ayutthaya period. The wall opposite the entrance shows a trace of a bell jar that usually accompanies a Buddha image, which is missing. The left wall was adorned with the paintings of three rows of Buddhas, while the pictures on the right wall almost wholly vanished. The colours used were black, white and red. 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 over time. A Royal decree was issued to establish in each significant city, a temple being the most important religious focal point for that area. Thus, we see Wat Maha That or Wat Phra Sri Rattana Mahathat established in Lopburi, Phitsanulok, Kamphaeng Phet etc.

Johannes Vingboons (c.1616-1670 CE), a Dutch cartographer, created a painting named ‘Afbeldinge der Stadt Iudiad Hooft des Choonincrick Siam’ published in Vingboons Atlas around 1665. We can discern Wat Maha That in this painting. Historians believe somebody collected the information to make this painting during Van Vliet's time (1640 CE) in Ayutthaya. On Vingboons map, we see a large Khmer prang surrounded by four subsidiary stupa (the one behind the central 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. Although not customary for the monks to house in stone structures, the latter could have been the residence of the Supreme Patriarch.

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

The Buddha head in the root of the Bodhi tree.

The sandstone Buddha head of the Ayutthaya period encapsulated in the roots of a Bodhi fig tree (Ficus religiosa) attracts tourists to Wat Maha That. Different stories go around. Some people assume the decapitated head was placed there by a thief and he never returned others think it has been there since the fall of Ayutthaya, as a victim of the Burmese attack when the city burned to the ground.

Nothing is what it seems. Around 1968-1970 CE Wat Maha That was restored. A worker moved a remaining Buddha head from the location planned to be restored and placed it under this Bodhi tree. As the Ficus religiosa, next to a very long lifespan, has a fast-growing nature, the Buddha's head engulfed fast into the tree's aerial roots. The roots gradually covered the head of the Buddha image and became one of the most recognisable images of Ayutthaya and Thailand in general.

The Ayutthaya Historical Park staff must keep an eye on the tree's growth and its roots. The roots in the early 90s did not yet wrap up the Buddha's head. Around 2017-2018 CE, the roots wrapped around the head of the Buddha statue with an additional 0.5 to 2.5 cm. As the roots grow gradually, the Buddha's head will be covered slowly and eventually wrapped up by them. Park staff tries now to control the growth of the tree with synthetic substances. [14]

The sacred fig has a religious significance in Buddhism, as it is the tree under which the Gautama Buddha attained enlightenment. The area around the Bodhi tree is considered sacred by the Thai population. There is a guard present at all times.


[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 117/119.

[7] Unpublished English translation by Dr. Philippe Annez of Jacques de Coutre, Vida, Aziatische omzwervingen (Berchem-Anvers, EPO, 1988).

[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] Van Vliet's Siam - Chris Baker, Dhiravat Na Pombejra, Alfons Van Der Kraan & David K. Wyatt (2005) - page 55.

[12] Saipradist, Aphivan (2005). A critical analysis of heritage interpretation and the development of a guidebook for non-Thai cultural tourists at Ayutthaya World Heritage site. Silpakorn University.

[13] Rooney, Dawn F. (2002), Angkor, an introduction to the temples - page 112/113.

[14] Saensaap, Wirasak - Head of the Buddha image in the root of the Bodhi tree, Wat Mahathat - Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya Historical Park.

Other consulted works:

1. Ayutthaya, a World Heritage (2000).

2. Ayutthaya - World Heritage Reflections of the Past - APAO.

3. Intralib, Sonthiwan (1991) - An outline of the History of Religious Architecture in Thailand - Sonthiwan Intralib.

4. Charnvit Kasetsiri & Michael Wright (2007) - Discovering Ayutthaya.