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A City in Ruins With Buddhas Looking On

November 22, 1987|JAMES F. LEE | Lee is a free-lance writer living in Lewisburg, Pa

AYUTTHAYA, Thailand — This city north of Bangkok is just the place to see the ruins of a past civilization, and to see Buddhas, too.

For four centuries, as capital of the kingdom of the same name, Ayutthaya was one of the great cities of the world, until it suffered a catastrophe so colossal that rebuilding was impossible.

Burmese invaders in 1767 completely sacked the city, carrying 90% of its inhabitants off into bondage and leaving Ayutthaya a ruin forever.

Somerset Maugham visited the ruins in 1929. He was so moved by the destruction he saw that he wrote in his journal: "In these Eastern countries cities are founded, increase to greatness, and are destroyed in a manner that cannot but fill the Western traveler . . . with a certain misgiving."

Ayutthaya's rise and fall was spectacular, and does cause some misgiving about the transitory nature of things.

Founded in 1350 on an island formed by the confluence of three rivers, the city of Ayutthaya rose to greatness as the kingdom expanded, conquering neighboring nations until its territory encompassed much of today's central and northern Thailand.

Center of Buddhism

Moreover, it became one of the major centers of Buddhism in Asia. At its height, 1,700 Buddhist temples filled the city; 4,000 Buddha images, many of them made of gold or encrusted with jewels, graced those temples, and the city's population numbered more than 400,000. That put Ayutthaya in a class with Cambodia's Angkor Wat and Burma's Pagan.

And it ended almost overnight. Throughout its 400-year history Ayutthaya fought a succession of wars with its neighbors: Mons to the west, Khmers to the east, the Kingdom of Chiang Mai to the north.

After several unsuccessful attempts, Ayutthaya's major rival, the Burmese, managed to defeat and capture the city and, in one of the world's most savage displays of wanton cruelty, leveled it, practically brick by brick.

In a few short days one of the largest cities on earth had ceased to exist.

What this leaves for the visitor today is a splendid, haunting testimony to the grandeur of what once was. The ruins sit in clusters scattered throughout the lush tropical island.

Vegetation Encircles Pillars

Most of the construction was brickwork, plastered over and covered with gold leaf. The gold is gone, as is most of the plaster, but you can still see the foundations of ancient walls among the remaining bricks.

Vegetation pokes through brick flooring and encircles pillars standing in solitary idleness, no longer supporting sweeping, steeply arched roofs. Vines creep along the crumbling brickwork, completing the job of destruction started more than 200 years ago by the Burmese.

A silence hangs over the site, as if in tribute to the ghosts of the past. And everywhere the white blossoms of frangipani fill the air with their perfumed fragrance.

The city must have been beautifully landscaped, for several lakes still reflect the spires of stately pagodas, delightfully arranged around the shores.

All you have to do is to reconstruct the walls in your mind, and the magnificent scale of the city that was comes to life.

One of the best ways to get your bearings and a feeling for the layout of the ruins is to take a boat ride around the island. Boat trips can be arranged at your hotel, or by simply walking down to the water and asking for a boat to hire.

We did the latter, paid 200 baht (about $8 U.S.) and were treated to a 1 1/2-hour journey that gave us glimpses not only of ruins but also of the modern small town of Ayutthaya adjacent to the ruined city.

Guide and Tuk-Tuk

Because the ruins are so numerous and spread out, it is a good idea to hire a guide with a tuk-tuk (golf-cartlike vehicle that makes a noise like tuk-tuk, tuk-tuk) and visit the sites at your leisure. We hired a guide for the day for 200 baht, spending as much time as possible at the ruins without worrying about transportation.

Our favorite site was Wat (temple) Phra Sri Samphet, a large structure formerly housing a gold-leafed Buddha, but which is notable now for its three identical restored chedis (spires, broad at the base and pointed at the top) standing like sentries over the ruins.

These chalk-white chedis provided a vivid backdrop for several orange-clad monks passing by.

Nearby, smacking of grand spanking newness, is Vihan Phra Mongkol Bopitr, a recently restored (20 years ago) temple built around a huge black Buddha; a previous temple was destroyed when the Burmese sacked Ayutthaya.

We had the luck to see the Buddha there receiving a change of clothes; several attendants climbed over the giant body, removing yards of saffron-colored robes and throwing them down in billowing yellow piles to be cleaned.

All that remains at another ruin, Wat Lokaya Sutha, is the massive reclining Buddha it once housed. The Buddha lies unprotected, peacefully sleeping through rain and sun.

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