the ethereal allure of wat chaiwatthanaram

Compromised by the severe flooding which affected Thailand last year, the temple of Wat Chaiwatthanaram remains closed to the public but the grounds are open and the complex is easily visible behind a surround of caution tape. Constructed in 1630 by King Prasat Thong as a memorial to his mother, the composition of the temple layout is interesting in that it reflects the Buddhist cosmology: the large Prang that stands in the centre symbolizes Mount Meru, the central axis of the universe, surrounded by concentric rings of seven cosmic oceans and seven mountains. At the four corners of the universe are the four continents (the four smaller Prangs) where human beings live. Despite, or possibly because of, the limited access, I found Wat Chaiwatthanaram to be the most striking of all the temples in Ayutthaya. The grass, untrammeled, has grown in dense and lustrous. This luminescent lake of green makes an ethereal contrast to the red bricks of the Khmer-style structures, creating just the right mood for contemplating life, the universe, and everything.

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ayutthaya

The historic second capital of Thailand, then known as the Kingdom of Ayutthaya, was founded in 1350. Glorified as one of the biggest cities in Southeast Asia and a regional power for some 400 years, it reached its apex in terms of military might, wealth, culture, and commerce in the 16th century, when the Kingdom’s territory extended into and beyond present-day Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar. Ayutthaya had diplomatic relations with Louis XIV of France and was courted by Dutch, Portuguese, English, Chinese and Japanese merchants. Conquered by Burmese invaders in the late 18th century many of the city’s magnificent structures were almost completely destroyed and the ruins which remain were abandoned after a new king liberated the Kingdom and moved the capital to Thonburi, across the river from modern-day Bangkok. A UNESCO’s World Heritage site, the ruins of Ayutthaya are today one of Thailand’s archaeological highlights, with three palaces and over 400 temples strategically located on an island surrounded by three rivers connecting the city to the sea. The architecture is a fascinating mix of Khmer and early Sukhothai styles. Some cactus-shaped obelisks, called prangs or reliquary towers, denote Khmer influence and look something like the famous towers of Angkor Wat. The more pointed towers, called stupas, are ascribed to the early Sukhothai influence. And everywhere you look there is praise to Buddha.

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