Friday, September 7, 2018

Four Centuries of Ayutthaya

                                                                      by Jim Goodman

Wat Thammikarat, a temple predating Ayutthaya's founding
       At the beginning of the 13th century much of present-day Thailand, its northeast plateau, central plains and eastern coast lay under the dominion of the Khmer Empire of Angkor.  Only the north (successfully resisted incorporation. Khmer officials either governed directly in the far-flung areas or relied on vassal rulers among local inhabitants, predominantly Thai. 
       In 1238 Sukhothai revolted, expelled the Khmer administration and under its Thai leader declared its independence.  The new state soon absorbed more provinces to its east and this development marked the beginning of Angkor’s decline.  The following century, in 1350, another challenger entered the scene—the Kingdom of Ayutthaya.  Within two generations this new Thai state would eradicate Khmer control throughout Thailand and conquer and absorb Sukhothai as well.
map of old Ayutthaya
       The state’s founder was Prince Uthong, who moved his subjects from an area to the north to a new capital on an island between the Pasak and Chao Phraya Rivers.  The latter swerved south to meet the Pasak and the Khlong Muang Canal connected the two on the northern side.  Assuming the royal name King Ramathibodi, Ayutthaya’s new ruler had walls constructed along the river boundaries and a palace built in the northern quarter.
       The new kingdom was aggressive from its birth, conquering Sukhothai, Kampaeng Phet and Pitsanulok and expanding down the Malay Peninsula.  Its armies took Angkor in 1353, 1394 and finally 1431, sacking and looting it.  After the third disaster, the reduced Khmer Empire abandoned Angkor and moved its capital to the east.
Khmer-style lions, War Thammikarat
       While politically the Thais drove out their Khmer overlords, they did not try to wipe out Khmer cultural influence.  Ayutthaya’s name is the same as that of the capital of the mythical kingdom of Rama, an avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu.  The epic Ramayana narrates his story and the Thai already were familiar with it, transmitted by the Khmer, and had their own version called Ramakien.
       A Khmer temple already existed in Ayutthaya when the city was first built and its ruins are still there today.  Called Wat Thammikarat, it features rows of lions around the base, sculpted in a very Khmer style.  The central monument here and in other compounds is the prang, an upright cylinder with a blunt top end, often embellished with niches containing images all along the exterior sides. 
Khmer-style prangs, common in Ayutthaya
       Ayutthaya artisans would later add another type of vertical monument in the compounds--the chedi, resembling an inverted bell with a pointed top and usually built to hold the ashes of royalty or famous monks or to house Buddhist relics.    Ayutthaya was officially a Theravada Buddhist state and its kings practiced merit making by constructing monasteries for the religious order and prangs and chedis to house relics.
       King Naresuan ordered the building of Wat Phra Ram, with its magnificent prang, on the cremation grounds of Ramathibodi I.  King Boromaraja II installed two chedis in Wat Rathchaburama for the ashes of his two older brothers.  After the death of their father they had fought a duel on elephant back to decide the succession and both died.  King Boromarja I sponsored the building of Wat Mahathat to hold a hair of the Buddha.  He claimed he witnessed it float down from Heaven onto his palace balcony.  How many in the construction crew working in the hot sun believed that is not known.  Those were pious times, though.  Maybe they all did.
Wat Phra Ram
In 1448 King Trailok ordered a new palace built in a different neighborhood.  The old palace compound converted to being the royal temple of Wat Si Samphet.  His son King Ramathibodi II had two tall, tapering chedis erected to house the ashes of his father and brother.  A third chedi went up in 1592 and the trio today, restored last century, is an iconic image of historic Ayutthaya.
       This king also ordered the casting of a bronze standing Buddha image 16 meters high, covered with 343 kg of gold.  It became the city’s central worship object.  He could afford such extravagance because the kingdom was strong, prosperous, well administered and faced no external threats.  Periodically it fought the northern Kingdom of Lanna, but such campaigns were short and inconclusive.
unusual prang at Wat Mahathat
       Because of its expansion south along the Malay Peninsula, Ayutthaya had developed a maritime trade, something the Khmer Empire never achieved.  This development coincided with Europe’s Age of Discovery and the arrival of the first Europeans in the region.  The earliest were the Portuguese, who in 1507 persuaded the Sultan of Malacca, an important trading post, to allow them to set up in the city. 
       Their success aroused the jealousy of resident Arab traders.  They organized an attack on the Portuguese and took twenty prisoners.  One escaped, got reinforcements and in 1509 the Portuguese sent a naval squadron to Malacca.  When the Sultan refused to release the prisoners the Portuguese stormed the city, deposed the Sultan and made it their first Southeast Asian colony. 
Ayutthaya-style chedi
trio of chedis at Wat Si Sanphet
       Aware that Ayutthaya claimed suzerainty over Malacca, the Portuguese sent a delegation to Ayutthaya, which was well received.  Ayutthaya approved the new situation.  The Thais noticed that the delegates did not display any sense of superiority.  One of the Portuguese stayed on to write a book on the kingdom’s history and customs.  In 1515 the two sides signed a treaty, whereby the Portuguese supplied Ayutthaya with guns and ammunition and were allowed to conduct business and to reside in a special neighborhood just outside the city’s southeast corner.
Wat Ratchaburana
       In the following decades the Portuguese taught the Thais the techniques of making cannon foundries and muskets and trained Ayutthaya’s army.  Their assistance was crucial in the ability of Ayutthaya to repel a Burmese border attack in 1539, which turned out to be a prelude to worse troubles to come.  Burma was now a strong, united country with an ambitious king.  Ayutthaya then suffered a decade of lethal succession struggles and by the time affairs settled down, Burma’s King Tabengshweti launched an attack.
mixture of temple monuments Ayutthaya
       Ayutthaya’s defenses held, but a royal tragedy tinged the victory.  In the course of the battle King Mahachakrapat engaged in a duel on elephant back with the Prince of Prome.  When the Burmese prince appeared about to slay the king, Queen Suriyotai, also on an elephant and dressed for war, maneuvered herself between them and took the lance to save her husband’s life. For her patriotism and self-sacrifice she thereafter became Thailand’s most revered heroine.  A chedi to her stands today in the western part of the city. 
       Ayutthaya’s relief was only temporary.  Tabengshweti went mad the following year and was assassinated.  After three years of succession struggles, Bayinnaung emerged on top.  As ambitious as his predecessor, Bayinnaung conquered the northern state of Lanna in 1558, and with that flank secured, launched an invasion of Ayutthaya in 1563.  After a constant bombardment and continuous siege, Ayutthaya sued for peace the next year. 
Buddhas spared from the sacking of Ayutthaya
       After six years Bayinnaung found a pretext to invade again.  This time he captured the city, dethroned the king and installed his own choice, Maha Tammaraj, as vassal of Burma.  The latter gave his daughter to the Burmese king as wife in return for the repatriation of his son Prince Naresuan, who had been living as a hostage in the Burmese capital as a result of the terms that ended the 1564 war. 
       While in Burma, Naresuan became well-versed in Burmese culture and learned to speak the language.  To his hosts he appeared to be assimilated, but he simply concealed his real feelings.  Back in Ayutthaya, his father was not happy in the role of a Burmese vassal, but was not yet able to resist.  Cambodian attacks in 1579 gave him an excuse to repair Ayutthaya’s fortifications without arousing Burmese suspicion.  It also gave Naresuan experience in leading the army in the field repelling further Cambodian campaigns.
elegant Khmer-style prangs
8th century stone Buddha, Wat Na Phra Men
       In 1581 Bayinnaung died and the princes began fighting his successor Nandabureng.  In a campaign against one of his rivals in 1584, Nandabureng called on his vassals for support.  Ayutthaya declined and instead declared independence.  The Burmese tried several times to re-subjugate Ayutthaya, but its brilliant commander Naresuan defeated every attempt.  In one incident in 1593 he killed Burma’s Crown Prince in a duel on elephant back.
reclining Buddha, Wat Lokayasutharam
       Maha Trammaraj died in 1590 and Naresuan became king.  Within a few years he was able to take the offensive against Burma.  He captured Lanna and drove deep into Burmese territory.  While still campaigning in the north he died in 1605 and for his accomplishments has since been knows as King Naresuan the Great. 
       Though Burma recaptured Lanna, it was not in a position to mount another expedition against Ayutthaya for well over another century.  Ayutthaya began to prosper again.  It expanded relations with foreigners and there were soon Dutch and Japanese settlements in the capital and agreements made with the English, Spanish and French.  As a great international commercial center, Ayutthaya also attracted people from the region.  Khmers, Chams, Vietnamese and Malays took up residence.  
ruins of Wat Si Sanphet
       Under King Narai the Great, in the1680s Ayutthaya exchanged diplomatic missions with the Court of Louis XIV of France.  Pushing hard for this relationship was Constantine Phaulkon, a Greek adventurer who had risen to a high position in Narai’s court.  After the king’s death in 1688 a usurper seized the throne, had Phaulkon executed and expelled the French. 
       The coup did not go down well internally and revolts raged until 1700.  After that, things settled down again and under King Boromokat, who took over in 1733, Ayutthaya enjoyed 25 years of peace, during which the arts and crafts flourished.  Many poets were active.  The Ramakien was turned into a dance drama and the long oral epic of Khun Chang Khun Phan, the adventure-filled narrative of a tragic love triangle, finally written down.
       Boromokot also bestowed lavish patronage on Buddhism.  At a Sinhalese request he sent 15 Thai monks to help purify Buddhist practices in Ceylon.  It was in his reign that the custom began of Thai boys entering the monkhood briefly.
Khmer-style prangs in Ayutthaya
Meanwhile, trouble was brewing to the west.  Burma had a strong new ruler named Alaungpaya.  The rise of a new Burmese dynasty was always a threat to Ayutthaya.  Alaungpaya launched a war on Ayutthaya in 1760.  Reaching the northern walls of Ayutthaya, he set up camp at Wat Na Phra Men and began a steady cannonade against the city.  However, one cannon blew up and severely wounded him.  The army retreated back to Burma, but Alaungpaya died on the way.
       His successor died after three years, but with the accession of King Mangra in 1763 Burmese armies marched again.  They subdued Luang Phabang and Manipur and in 1766 made a final assault on Ayutthaya.  Under a terrible siege and hopelessly outnumbered, the last king of Ayutthaya offered to lay down arms and become a Burmese vassal. But the Burmese demanded unconditional surrender.  When that was rejected Burmese troops swarmed into the city on 7 April 1767.
new bridge and pavilion in the Park center
       Then they mercilessly sacked it.  They leveled the walls and palaces, killed thousands, looted all the valuables (including ones Ayutthaya had looted from Angkor), destroyed the monasteries and lopped the heads off all the protective Buddha images they could find.  The only temple spared was Wat Na Phra Men, where Alaungpaya was mortally wounded.  And the only artwork untouched was the stone Buddha inside the smaller viharn (assembly hall).  A seated Buddha image, hands on his knees, thrice life size, in the north Indian Gupta style, dated 8th century, it is a major tourist attraction today.  They also abducted 30,000 residents back to Burma.  These included royal family members, officials, soldiers, peasants, craftsmen, monks and even the Court dancers.
       That was the end of formerly illustrious Ayutthaya, now empty, in ruins and abandoned.  When the country recovered the new capital was Thonburi, on the lower Chao Phaya River, and later Bangkok.  Eventually a new settlement arose on the site, mostly on the eastern side and across the Pasak River to the east, where Burmese destruction didn’t reach. 
Buddha head in a fig tree trunk, Wat Mahathat
new Buddha iamge placed in the ruins
       The central and western thirds of the old city are now the Ayutthaya Historical Park.  Except for a few new temples, a museum and some government buildings, the area consists of the ruins of Ayutthaya’s past.  There is no admission charge for the park, but instead ticket booths at the larger monastery compounds.  One can peer over the walls to get a view and decide whether to pay to go inside.  The most popular sites are Wat Si Sanphet for the three chedis and Wat Mahathat for the Buddha head in the trunk of a fig tree.  Quiet parks and walkways lie in between everything.
       Besides tourists, Thais also come here.  Sometimes they leave new Buddha images placed among the ruins.  Often they dress up in traditional clothing for the visit.  They are very aware how much Ayutthaya customs and traditions contributed to Thai culture and identity.  When they pose for photos in front of the monuments, they look proud.

ruins in Ayutthaya Historical Park
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1 comment:

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