History & Culture

Ayutthaya: The other Ayodhya

A view of Wat Phra Ram

Headless statues, limbless statues, columns with their roofs missing. It would seem we are in a battlefield from which the marauding force had just left the other day. We are amid the ruins of Wat Phra Si Sanphet in Ayutthaya, the Thai city that was the capital of the Siamese kingdom for over four centuries from 1351, until it was overrun by the Burmese army.

Unlike Ayodhya, situated 3,500 km away in India, which inspired its name, the violent past has long been forgotten, with hardly anything simmering beneath. Even the long line of Buddhas with the severed limbs do not evoke any passion. Hardly a hundred kilometres away from the pulsating capital city of Bangkok, and accessible by a quaint maroon passenger train, Ayutthaya has but of late come into the radar of a group of Indians.

Last year, the Ram Janmabhumi Nirman Nyas announced its plan for the construction of a Ram temple near here. It is no wonder that Thailand attracts the attention of many Indians, be it the name ‘Rama’ that all of the Thai kings of the Chakri dynasty to the present day are referred by, or the centrality of the ‘Ramakien’, the Thai Ramayana, in the society here.

A Buddha head trapped amid roots of a Bodhi tree

A Buddha head trapped amid roots of a Bodhi tree

But moving beyond the names and into the heart of the Ramakien, the current version of which was composed in the 18th century by King Rama I, it diverges from the popular Indian versions of the Ramayana. Demon king Thotsakan (Ravana) is much more prominent in the epic than Phra Ram (Rama).

As AK Ramanujan notes in his classic essay ‘300 Ramayanas’, the Ramakien admires “Ravana’s resourcefulness and learning, while his abduction of Sita is seen as an act of love and is viewed with sympathy. The Thais are moved by Ravana’s sacrifice of family, kingdom and life itself for the sake of a woman. Unlike Valmiki’s characters, the Thai ones are a fallible, human mixture of good and evil. The fall of Ravana here makes one sad. It is not an occasion for unambiguous rejoicing, as it is in Valmiki.”

A headless Buddha statues at Wat Phra Si Sanphet

A headless Buddha statues at Wat Phra Si Sanphet

The Thai epic hints at the possibility that Sita could be his daughter, as Ravana’s wife gives birth to Sita after consuming a blessed rice ball. A prophecy that his daughter would cause his death makes Ravana throw Sita into the sea, where the sea goddess protects her and takes her to Janaka. As for Hanuman, the one here is no celibate devotee.

Ramanujan notes that the Thais enjoy the details of war, the techniques and the fabulous weapons more than the partings and reunions. This interest in war is not an accident, but has everything to do with Thailand’s own history, as the mutilated Buddha statues in Ayutthaya would testify. One of the most fascinating sights here is in the site of Wat Maha That, where a Buddha head, believed to have been part of a sandstone Buddha statue in the 1600s, can be seen trapped amid the constantly growing roots of a Bodhi tree.

The Ramayana is believed to have reached these regions as early as the seventh century, through the trade routes from South India. Though Buddhism was the main religion of the Kingdom of Ayutthaya, Hindu scriptures had a major influence on its culture and society. This easy blending of the two religions might not be visible to a visitor at present, as mostly Buddhist symbols stand out, except when you travel back to Bangkok along the Chao Phraya River. At the centre of the city, near the Grand Palace stands Wat Phra Kaew, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha.

A big undamaged statue of Buddha at Wat Phra Mahathat

A big undamaged statue of Buddha at Wat Phra Mahathat

Inside, one would come across an imposing statue of Thotsakan, the Thai Ravana. There’s more. One of the compound walls is filled with giant murals, which tell the complete story of the Ramakien sequentially through 178 images. Painted in the eighteenth century, just a few years after the sacking of Ayutthaya by the Burmese, it might take some time for those from India to recognise the epic being represented here, for the attires and presentation are starkly different from the images we are used to watching in the television version of the Ramayana.

The ruins of Ayutthaya, now a UNESCO World Heritage site spread over a vast area, still retain some of the majesty of the once thriving empire. At Wat Phra Si Sanphet, three bell-shaped stupas stand at the centre of the site, with each containing the ashes of former kings. Steps lead half-way up these stupas, from where the pillars at a distance give one the outline of a large hall that existed here. Red brick structures of myriad shapes and sizes dot the area, which once served as the temple of the royal family and venue of royal ceremonies.

Wat Phra Mahathat

Wat Phra Mahathat

Situated by a vast lake is Wat Phra Ram, initially built as a cremation site for one of the first Ayutthayan king, Ramathibodi I, but later turned into a temple. Buddha’s head in the roots is just one of the many marvels at Wat Maha That, built in 1374 and set to fire in 1767 by the Burmese. Walking past the many limb-less Buddha statues that line the periphery of the large open hall, one would be caught by surprise by a giant undamaged statue of a seated Buddha, with an elevated mountain-like platform and a hexagonal pagoda forming a perfect backdrop.

It was in one of these sites that the Thai dance drama form of ‘Khon’ originated, again with the Ramakien, and by extension the Ramayana, playing a role as source material. Back in those days, it was performed only by members of the royal family, with the audience too from the upper classes. Performed with elaborate costumes and sets, it is still performed under royal patronage, but with the doors open to the larger public, both as performers and the audience. The Ramakien continues to be the major source material.

The ruins of Wat Phra Si Sanphet in Ayutthaya

The ruins of Wat Phra Si Sanphet in Ayutthaya

While attempts are being made to limit the Ramayana to a few square kilometres in Northern India, with one of its myriad versions being imposed as the one and only true version, the universal epic itself has defied these limitations and spread its wings outside. As Ramanujan would say, in India and in south-east Asia, no one ever reads the Ramayana and the Mahabharatha for the first time. The stories are there, “always already”. Only that, the story changes a little, with every step one takes.


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Printable version | Apr 25, 2022 10:17:15 am | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/the-deep-and-enduring-cultural-impact-of-the-ramayana-reverberates-in-thailand-from-its-national-epic-to-the-names-of-kings/article28771489.ece