THAILAND: In ancient Ayutthaya, Sukanya Ramanujan is moved by the fragility of a city that is valiantly limping back after the devastating flood two years ago
We tend to think of globalisation as a recent phenomenon, a word that conjures up images of multinational brands. And yet the world has always been abuzz with globalisation. Take Ayutthaya, an ancient city about 80 km from Bangkok. Now a historical park, it is but a shadow of its former self. Yet it is difficult to miss the significance of the place as the spot where cultures and trade from across the world merged to create a thriving kingdom.
The drive from Bangkok to Ayutthaya hardly takes an hour and a half. The city is distinctly divided into the historical part and the new town. What is unique about the old city is the way it is surrounded by the Chao Praya river on three sides giving it the feel of an island. Almost before I can ask, our guide explains that the name is indeed derived from Ayodhya, Rama’s birthplace. Religions and cultures were among the first things to be globalised and South-east Asia was a crucible where Hindu mythology blended with Buddhism to create unique narratives that both resemble and stand apart from their parent philosophies.
Ayutthaya is a UNESCO heritage centre and rightly so. A multitude of monuments and ruins dots the few square kilometers of land. The sheer number and size of the temples alone are proof of how prosperous this kingdom must have once been.
Silenced by size
Having only a few hours at Ayutthaya, our guide decides to take us through just the most popular sights. Our first stop is Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon, a temple complex built by the first king of Ayutthaya in 1357 that is stunning in size and detail. Two massive statues of Buddha frame the tall staircase leading into the temple hall and rows of Buddhas stretch down every side of the building. I recognise the image from photographs I have seen and resist a very touristy urge to tick a mental box. A more modern hall near the temple contains an ancient painting that depicts a battle on elephant back between the prince of Ayutthaya and the king of Burma. Our guide is at pains to point out that the men holding the weapons near the head of the elephant were the royals and not the men seated on the cushions. “They had to been shown fighting,” he explains. Like any prosperous kingdom, Ayutthaya was often at war with neighbour Burma. It was ultimately the armies from Burma that laid waste to the city, proof of which can be seen in the decapitated Buddha statues at our next stop, the Wat Mahathat.
Wat Mahathat is a sprawling temple complex although the individual stupas are a mix of styles from different countries — Khmer style from Cambodia, Ceylon style from Sri Lanka and an early version of Ayutthaya's own style, constructed of laterite. I am forced to tick one more mental box when we come across the famous and very photogenic head of Buddha around which the roots of a Bodhi tree have grown. Nobody quite knows how the head came to be so well lodged in the tree roots but my own guess is that when the invading armies decapitated the statues, one of the heads must have fallen under the trees. But then that’s the guess of an amateur.
We then head to Wat Sri Sanphet, one of the largest and most impressive structures in the old town, which also served as inspiration for the temple of Emerald Buddha later built in Bangkok. I notice that the Buddhas around the complex face outwards rather than towards the temple. I learn later that this is because the three stupas inside contain the ashes of kings.
Spirit of survival
We make a small diversion to Wat Lokayasutharam, with its enormous and imposing open-air statue of a reclining Buddha. I find it difficult to get the entire length of the massive statue in one frame. The enormity of the work of history and art in front of me hits me, even more than with the reclining Buddha at Bangkok. Once again, I am struck by the similarity in imagery between the Hindu and South-east Asian Buddhist traditions.
Chai Wattanaram, our last stop, makes a fitting finale. The temple complex is easily the most impressive I have seen so far. Built in the mid-17th century, the temple has a central Khmer style stupa, about 35 metres high, surrounded by eight smaller stupas. Unfortunately, we are not allowed to enter because the structures have been destabilised by the massive 2011 floods in Thailand. Large parts of Ayutthaya went under water and apparently many of the monuments we had seen earlier in the morning had been submerged in 5-6 feet of water.
It made me think about how some cities die not once but twice. Ayutthaya had been the nerve centre of a prosperous South-east Asian kingdom linking the East with the West. But ultimately, it could not resist destruction by the Burmese army in the 18th century. When the centre was revived and opened to tourists, the floods came in and damaged again whatever remained. Restoration is underway to save what is left but there is a sense of fragility that makes my visit a lot more poignant.