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xEurasia Odyssey

Bangkok

THAILAND | Sunday, 26 January 2014 | Views [711] | Comments [1]

Bangkok and Ayutthaya

 Spent a very busy few days in this hub of Asian commerce and amazing temples.  Some know Bangkok as the ‘City of Angels,’ although there are many more Buddha images than those of angels.  It is also perhaps the capital city with the longest official name, which according to into-asia.com is transliterated as Krung Thep Mahanakhon Amon Rattanakosin Mahinthara Ayuthaya Mahadilok Phop Noppharat Ratchathani Burirom Udomratchaniwet Mahasathan Amon Piman Awatan Sathit Sakkathattiya Witsanukam Prasit, which they translate as “The city of angels, the great city, the residence of the Emerald Buddha, the impregnable city (of Ayutthaya) of God Indra, the grand capital of the world endowed with nine precious gems, the happy city, abounding in an enormous Royal Palace that resembles the heavenly abode where reigns the reincarnated god, a city given by Indra and built by Vishnukarn.”  Bangkok isn’t an ancient city, but from the beginning a glorious one. It was built by the first king of the current Thai Dynasty, the Chakris, in 1768.  That king, King Rama I, moved the capital from Thon Buri across the Chao Phraya River to the eastern side for defensive purposes as well as for agricultural reasons.  The land was more fertile around the current location.  He had moats built around the city to create a better defense system so that his capital became an island. This was a similar geographic setting to the capital he had grown up in, Ayutthaya, which had been the main city of the Thai people for 417 years before its complete annihilation by Burmese forces in 1767.

Ayutthaya was a center for learning and culture from the time it was founded in the mid 1400s and scholars from across Asia would come to study in its monasteries.  While Buddhism, specifically Sri Lankan influenced Theravada, was the main religion, Mahayana and Brahmanism (Hinduism) were also practiced in the realm.  After the Portuguese came in the early 16th C, Christianity was also an accepted sacred faith.  The 34 rulers in the 5 dynasties that comprised the Ayutthaya period ruled absolutely.  They were god-kings, and most were also warriors.  They needed to be as throughout history this region has been tossed among competing empires, the Mon in Burma, the Khmer in Cambodia and at times the Laotians and Vietnamese got into the fray.  For the Ayutthayan kings, the Khmer were a relatively short-term problem, but the Burmese were a real long-term threat. The outside enemy, however, was only able to succeed in destroying the empire after internal strife among the nobility made it impossible for a united front against the military forces from the north.  Part of the internal problems may well have been due to ecological reasons. In 1766 there was a huge flood that decimated the crops; people starved and riots took place.  This is similar to the situation in France at the beginning of the French Revolution, with the exception that after a few years the French people rose up to overthrow the monarchy, but as we all know this only lasted for a little while before the “Little General” made himself Emperor and the cycle began again.  The analogy isn’t all that bizarre, as the Ayutthayan kings had been sending envoys to Versailles/Paris and Versailles/Paris to Ayutthaya since King Louis XIV, the model European Absolute Monarch. Another similarity was that the last Ayutthayan ruler, King Ekkathat was uninterested in war and wasn’t as concerned with the threat to his empire as he should have been.  Had Louis XVI been a stronger personality, perhaps the Reign of Terror would never have happened. But time has proved that the ineffectual leadership of both rulers led to the destruction of their respective empires.  In the East, the Burmese obliterated the former capital city over a period of seven days of cannon blasting and burning.  The ruins they left, are the ones that we can now visit on a day trip from the current capital city.

 Between the Ayutthaya and Bangkok there was a short period of about 15 years when the capital was in Thon Buri, today near where Wat Arun (Temple of Dawn) stands.  There had been an ancient Ayutthayan fort near the old temple, and when King Taksin the Great, a former military man was made the last king of the previous dynasty, he moved the capital there as he recognized that it would be impossible to rebuild Ayutthaya.  Unfortunately, the land itself wasn’t particularly good and was open to attack from the non-river side, so after he died, the newly appointed king-general, Rama I created the city of Bangkok out of a small village that had been on the site.  In the process he also created some of the living legends that sustain the monarchy and the mystic of this vibrant metropolis.  The Rama Kings, the current one is the 9th, are so named after the Indian legendary god-hero, ideal man and ruler.  King Rama I was a master at creating a positive public image.  In his newly built Grand Palace, he had 178 panels of images hand painted along the inside of the outer corridors telling the story of the Ramakein (sometimes spelled Ramakain), the story of the Indian, now Thai, legend.  The most common Indian version was written by Valmiki, but the basis for King Rama’s version is most probably Indonesian/Javanese Shadow-Plays.  In both versions, the King-god can do no wrong, he is supported by loyal brothers, Hanuman the monkey general/king is his faithful servant, and Sita is the loyal, subservient, graceful and demure wife.  The roles for the court, the people and women are clearly defined by the legend and promoted through artwork in painting, in court dramas that led to the development of Thai Khon dance/music dramas, and in general presentation to the people.  For example, the King was seated upon elaborately decorated thrones high above everyone who came to see him.  The story for the musical “The King and I” is based on the English teacher who came to King Rama IV’s court and was so appalled wit the way people had to crawl to meet their lord and master.  The crown prince in that story, did become King Chulalongkorn, King Rama V, who made tremendous inroads with building bridges to the Western nations and their innovations, while maintaining a Thai identity. He was the King who started an official educational system for example, prior to his reign 1868 to 1910, there was no formal schooling.  He also promoted laws that raised women from basic slavery to having some legal rights and by the beginning of the 20th C finally officially abolished slavery in the kingdom.  Even with all his good works, however, he was still a “Rama” and had many many wives and fathered over a 100 children.  He was the last King to do so, though, because since King Rama VI, the Thai king has only one wife.

In spite of the proliferation of children, part of the Thai kings’ role is that of ‘Defender of Buddhism’ and as such they are expected to be monks at some point in their lives.  King Rama IV (King Mongkut) was a monk for 27 years, the entire duration of his predecessor’s reign.  After his coronation he established a new form of Thai Buddhism, while supporting and promoting religious tolerance throughout his realm.  He was an active social reformer and from his actions it is clear that he took his role as ‘Protector of the People’ very seriously.  The same cannot be said of all the Thai Raman kings, as the VII, did what Edward of that digit did, namely abdicate when things got rough.  He high tailed it to England after riots and rebellion in the capital city that forced a constitutional monarchy in 1932.  Number VIII died when he was only about 20, and in 1947 the eighteen year old Bhumibol Adulyadej was installed as King Rama IX.  The current king was born in Cambridge, MA, but lived most of his childhood and youth in Switzerland.  It was there he met his spouse, who was the daughter of the Thai ambassador to Paris. This King and Queen are very well loved and respected by their people.  Their images hang throughout the city in places of honor.  While the rest of the government is in turmoil and there is currently a “state of emergency” declared, with occasional bomb blasts through out the city, (though luckily none while I’ve been here) they are not directed at the monarchy; only at the interim Prime Minister and the current ruling political party.  Elections are supposed to take place on Feb. 2, but the protestors want to delay the vote as there are at least 22 districts that have no candidates to put forward because deadlines weren’t met.  There farmers in the north are also up in arms as they were promised compensation for the lack of rice production due to a prolonged drought, and they haven’t been paid, but the banks want to collect on the loans the people incurred.  The political situation at the moment is a mess, but again, it is not directed at the monarchy.  The image of Rama does live on.

 There are over 400 temples in the capital city.  Most of them quite large, many huge, and almost all with guilded gold Buddha images.  There are generally four major postures for Ayutthayan and Bangkok Buddha figures: standing, walking, seated, and reclining. There are also a number of Naga Buddha images, i.e., the Buddha protected by multi-headed serpents. The Reclining Buddha here is generally not an image of the Parinirvana , but instead relates to a different tale, one in which the Buddha was trying to teach a demon a lesson in humility.  The demon was overly proud of his size and might, so the Buddha made himself huge and serenely lay down, demonstrating the futility of pride to the demon.

The temples glisten in the sun as they have colored glass inlays amid the gold. They almost always have demon guardians, lions, or helmeted standing bird-beasts at the entrance to the ceremonial hall with the main Buddha image.  These represent the forces that the Buddha subdued and that now watch over the Dharma.  Their architectural styles differ with the period in which they were built and the type of community in which they are housed.  The temple of Wat Pho, where the most magnificent of the Thai Reclining Buddhas is house, is among the many, which are still active monasteries. It is also the home to some of the oldest chedis (stupas) in the city.  There are four very large Reclining Buddhas in Thailand.  The largest, 50 m. long, is in An Thom, the next largest at 48 m is in Singburi, the one at Wat Pho 46 m  copied the 42 m figure in Ayutthaya and elaborated upon it. 

Wat Arun, has a large central chedi that is similar in stylistic complexity to that of Wat Phukhao Thong built in 1387 in Ayutthaya. The bottom of the former is in Khmer style, while the latter is in Burmese style, but the tops of both are in Thai style with niched corners.  These chedis do not house any relics the way a stupa would.  The one in Ayutthaya was to commemorate the king, and his image is on the side of the spire, not the Buddha’s.  At Wat Arun, the Buddha’s image is placed in the side chambers.

There are four major architectural structures in the Ayutthayan and Bangkok temple sites: chedis, stupas, prangs (like chedis but without the directional niches for images), and pagodas. Each of these has slightly different variations depending on location and era.

Sculptures of the Buddha abound in this city, but also those of Ganesha.  The Elephant God graces the front of the National Theater, and the National Museum has a number of Thai styled Vishnus, Brahmas, and Shivas that are dramatically different from any Indian representation of these deities.  The only women images, however, are the Asuras and Yakshas as well as those of musicians and dancing girls.  Guan Yin, however, does appear in later portrayals when she came to the region with Chinese immigrants, but there are no images of native female goddesses in the National Museum or indeed in any of the temples I visited.  There is supposed to be a temple dedicated to a female figure in Kanchaburi, but that is quite a ways away from town, and even if it is there, the distance from the metropolis and the uncertainty in the general population as to its existence indicates that it is not a major sacred site.

 Even in the Khon dramas women are depicted differently from men.  Masks used to be used for all the figures with the exception of female demons who always had painted faces.  Nowadays, humans and deities are often portrayed without the masks, but male demons still require them.  Ravana, who is known in Thai drama as Totsakam, is generally green and has two rows of faces, the bottom one represents his ten faces from the story although the mask may not have that exact number and the top his celestial force.  Sometimes there are three rather than two levels to his mask, but most often two.  Rama is also green, while his brothers are yellow and red. 

The dance drama has three basic elements with four kinds of performers: the gesture/posture based dance, the recitation of the story/dialogue, and the music.  Later additions have included singers adding to the orchestra component.  The actors traditionally did not have a vocal role as the mask prohibited the production of sound.  This means that the reciter has two functions, to convey the thoughts of the individual actor in poetic form and to declaim the dialogue, known as cecara.  The reciter must be fluent not only in the storyline, but also a musician as that timing between the orchestra and actor’s gesture must be perfect.  The same goes for the instrumentalists who need to be able to anticipate the reciter’s vocal line and the actor’s gesture so that the music, text, and movement happen simultaneously.  Traditionally there were five instruments in the Khon orchestra, but as singers have been added over the past century so have a few more instruments, which makes the performance even more complex. Not surprisingly, the main stories of the Khon dramas are taken from, you guessed it, the Ramakien.

 On Wednesday, there was at least one ceremony happening at each of the temples I visited.  I learned that this week, this was the “holy day” and that rather than having one specific day of the week, like a Friday, Saturday or Sunday for the people of the Book, the “holy day” here rotates each week.  Next week it will be on Thursday.  During the holy day the monks lead the lay population in chanting/prayers and extra donations for monks, the poor and animals are distributed.  Similar to services in European Catholic Churches, during the prayer ceremonies visitors are not allowed inside the temple to gawk at the artwork.

Many of the images in the temples, the paintings on the walls as well as the sculptures themselves, are artistically stunning.  Glistening gold is the preferred color and in order to keep it bright, the temples are constantly being renovated.

 The painted illustrations are helpful as a record of the myths, but also as a form of communication with the past.  For those of us who cannot read the Thai script that was first developed in the 13th C, they are also an essential tool for understanding the culture.

 Bangkok may not be an old city compared to others in SE Asia, but it is a fascinating hub of activity, culture and stunning beauty.  It is a city that unfolds over time and provides the visitor with new sites, and insights, no matter how long one has lived here or how often one returns.

 

 

 

 

Comments

1

Wow! I learned a lot from reading this piece. Excellent writing and coverage of a broad range of topics. Quality! Shall read more blogs. I enjoyed Thailand a lot. Between all four trips, wife and I spent one year in Thailand. We traveled by every mode - down to motorcycle taxis I often had to use to make the last stretch to a golf course in the countryside - preceded by train, bus, sangtheou (forget the spelling).

  Terry Price Feb 4, 2014 4:29 AM

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