UNESCO Field Report: Demystifying Ancient Ayutthaya

Chairat Chongvattanakij

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Ravaged by periodic war and marred by the inexorable march of time, the ancient ruins of Ayutthaya, Thailand’s pre-modern capital, seem to stand today as a captivatingly cryptic vestige of past splendor, perhaps divulging their secrets only to the few who devote themselves to the study and preservation of historical sites and traditional construction techniques.

With this in mind and with the aim of demystifying ancient Ayutthaya and disseminating valuable knowledge about its built heritage to a wider public, UNESCO organized a much-anticipated field trip to the storied city on February 25th, 2023, during which four leading experts provided participants with multifaceted insights into two important temples from the Ayutthaya era.

Wat Phutthaisawan: a cosmos of details

Prang and flanking mondop, Wat Phutthaisawan
Prang and flanking mondop, Wat Phutthaisawan. Source: UNESCO / C. Wongot

Commissioned in 1353 by King Ramathibodi I, founder of the Ayutthaya Kingdom, Wat Phutthaisawan is remarkable because both historical and archaeological records attest to its being continuously in use from the mid-fourteenth century to the present day. In 1935, Wat Phutthaisawan became one of the earliest temples to be registered as an ‘ancient monument’ by the Fine Arts Department of Thailand.

According to Dr. Parisut Lerdkachatarn, Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Architecture, Rangsit University, King Ramathibodi I (or King Uthong) may have originated from Lopburi, which would explain why Wat Phutthaisawan appears to emulate the architectural layout of Wat Phra Si Rattana Mahathat, in Lopburi. At the heart of this layout is the prang (Khmer-style reliquary tower) representing Mount Meru, which, in Buddhist cosmology, is the sacred mountain at the center of the universe. Indeed, the prang is situated at the center of a square courtyard, enclosed by a covered gallery that symbolizes the boundaries of the universe. To the east are the ruins of the main vihara (assembly hall), which protrudes into the gallery, perhaps to allow historic congregations easy passage into the courtyard for circumambulation of the prang

Mr. Veerasak Sansaard explaining the historical geography of the late Ayutthaya Kingdom
Mr. Veerasak Sansaard explaining the historical geography of the late Ayutthaya Kingdom. Source: UNESCO / C. Wongot

Throughout its lengthy history of continuous use, Wat Phutthaisawan has undergone at least three major restoration efforts, perhaps the earliest of which occurred during the late Ayutthaya period, as noted by Mr. Veerasak Sansaard, archaeologist at the Ayutthaya Historical Park. In other words, to the trained eye (and to the historian’s delight), architectural features of the various temple structures offer veritable snapshots of the evolution of built heritage from the time of the early Ayutthaya Kingdom onwards, documenting the process of successive stylistic commentaries upon the work of previous generations.

For instance, Dr. Parisut speculated that the central prang may have originally been flanked by two other prangs, much like Phra Prang Sam Yot, in Lopburi, but these prangs perhaps were later converted into mondops (square or cruciform buildings) with pyramidal roofs. Mr. Veerasak remarked that the central prang itself has been upgraded more recently to reflect a smoother, more modern Rattanakosin-era (1782–1932) aesthetic.

The main vihara (right) protrudes into the covered gallery, Wat Phutthaisawan
The main vihara (right) protrudes into the covered gallery, Wat Phutthaisawan. Source: UNESCO / C. Wongot

Another highlight of Wat Phutthaisawan pointed out by Dr. Parisut is its impressive cluster of minor stupas, some of which display features typical of the early Ayutthaya period (e.g the octagonal base), while others are more characteristic of the middle and late Ayutthaya periods (e.g. as indicated by their bell shape and three-tiered singh bases).

Mr. Suntan Viengsima explaining the carpentry techniques as indicated in the tool traces visible on the beams of the Residence of Phra Phuttakosajan, Wat Phutthaisawan
Mr. Suntan Viengsima explaining the carpentry techniques as indicated in the tool traces visible on the beams of the Residence of Phra Phuttakosajan, Wat Phutthaisawan. Source: UNESCO / C. Wongot

Expert conservation carpenter Suntan Viengsima identified woodworking details that revealed the admirable technique of ancient carpenters, such as dovetail joinery in the tightly interlocking floor planks at the Residence of Phra Phuttakosajan, and the intricate mitre joinery visible on a window frame at the Vihara of the Reclining Buddha.

Vihara of the Reclining Buddha, Wat Phutthaisawan
Vihara of the Reclining Buddha, Wat Phutthaisawan. Source: UNESCO / C. Wongot

Pointing to a large diagonal wood beam which helped to support the gallery’s roof structure, and which was put solidly in place untold years ago through adroit joinery, Mr. Suntan declared, “Nails had been available for a long time. But our ancestors were skilled enough to design such wood joinery as to render them unnecessary.”

Diagonal wood beam put in place through joinery of covered gallery, Wat Phutthaisawan
Diagonal wood beam put in place through joinery of covered gallery, Wat Phutthaisawan. Source: UNESCO / C. Wongot

Wat Chaiwatthanaram: a microcosm of power, royal and divine

Field trip participants at Wat Chaiwatthanaram
Field trip participants at Wat Chaiwatthanaram. Source: UNESCO / C. Wongot

If Wat Phutthaisawan is fascinating for its richness of structural and aesthetic details, Wat Chaiwatthanaram, even in its ruined state, immediately overwhelms one with its sublime grandeur. Located at the site of the former residence of King Prasat Thong’s mother, the temple was most likely constructed early in the king’s reign (r. 1629–1656), thus serving the dual function of marking his reign and commemorating his immediate ancestor, much as Khmer monarchs were wont to do. As Dr. Parisut elucidated, King Prasat Thong, who had usurped the throne, needed to invoke more ancient Khmer customs in order to associate himself with the glory of Angkor and thereby assert his legitimacy.

Dr. Parisut Lerdkachatarn describing the layout of Wat Chaiwatthanaram
Dr. Parisut Lerdkachatarn describing the layout of Wat Chaiwatthanaram. Source: UNESCO / C. Wongot

Replicating the basic layout of Wat Phutthaisawan, albeit on a grander and more elaborate scale, the central prang of Wat Chaiwatthanaram similarly symbolizes the centre of the universe. Intriguingly, however, Dr. Parisut has inferred that the cosmic symbolism at Wat Chaiwatthanaram, when considered together with a set of stucco relief panels depicting scenes from the Buddha’s life, may also be consonant with King Prasat Thong’s aspiration to ultimately become the future Buddha. As a tribute to the king’s late mother, the temple features eight crematorium-style conical structures, equidistantly situated along the quadrangular gallery, called meru thit (aligned with the cardinal axes) and meru rai (located at the four corners).

Reflecting the broad historical trend in which the ubosot (ordination hall) attains greater prominence within the temple complex until it eventually becomes the main building of Rattanakosin-era temples, Wat Chaiwatthanaram places the ubosot – rather than the vihara – in the east, here representing the front end of the temple complex.

The central prang and its surrounding merus, Wat Chaiwatthanaram
The central prang and its surrounding merus, Wat Chaiwatthanaram. Source: UNESCO / C. Wongot

Ms. Waraporn Suwatchotikul, architect and manager of the World Monuments Fund’s Wat Chaiwatthanaram Conservation Project, recounted that the project was launched in response to the severe flooding of Ayutthaya in 2011, which caused the collapse of the temple’s southern wall. After pumping out floodwater and repairing the wall, the project expanded in scope to include the restoration of the merus and the gallery that connects them. Ms. Waraporn related that the current aim is to undertake exemplary conservation work that prioritizes the built heritage while being relatively free of time and budget constraints. 

When asked why the conservation team did not attempt to restore the temple to its full former glory, she cited the conservation principle of minimal intervention, especially when details such as the original paint color or decorative pattern cannot be ascertained. Nevertheless, as Mr. Suntan pointed out, by deciphering other clues like cavities carved out for wood beams, it was possible to imagine what the timber roof structure above the gallery would have looked like and even produce the sort of stunning two-dimensional, schematic reconstruction, that Ms. Waraporn showed the field trip’s participants.

Ms. Waraporn Suwatchotikul (right) unveils the visual reconstruction of a meru and part of the covered gallery, Wat Chaiwatthanaram. The reconstruction was created by Patcharapong Kulkanchanachewin and published on Facebook (arch.kidyang) on 28 February 2023, and on Twitter @arch_kidyang, on 2 March 2023
Ms. Waraporn Suwatchotikul (right) unveils the visual reconstruction of a meru and part of the covered gallery, Wat Chaiwatthanaram. The reconstruction was created by Patcharapong Kulkanchanachewin and published on Facebook (arch.kidyang) on 28 February 2023, and on Twitter @arch_kidyang, on 2 March 2023. Source: UNESCO / C. Wongot

As the sun began to set on Wat Chaiwatthanaram, tinging the central prang with a soft golden hue, the ancient bricks seemed to be ‘humanized’ by a gentler warmth. After all, these bricks were indeed the product of human ingenuity and industry, the very tangible expression of the values which a society once held dear, and which were shaped, in the broadest strokes, by the ambitions of monarchs, the scourge of war, the material allure of commerce, the otherworldly aims of religion and the vicissitudes of fortune. This is what the ruins of Ayutthaya can teach us — if we learn to sensitize ourselves to their human and humanizing subtleties.

The field trip to Ayutthaya was organized by UNESCO with the support of the SCG Foundation and in partnership with Rajamangala University of Technology Thanyaburi, Rangsit University, the World Monuments Fund, and the Fine Arts Department of Thailand.

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Chairat Chongvattanakij

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