Thai History – The Ayutthaya Period
King Ramathibodi I’s name literally means ‘Rama at the Bhodi tree’ and pays homage to the tree under which the Buddha gained enlightenment and was freed from attachment to impermanent phenomena. After he founded Ayutthaya in 1350 by the building of a canal across a bend in the Chao Phraya river, the city quickly became the capital of his kingdom, which grew in importance when in 1378 the king of Sukhothai was forced to swear allegiance.
Ayutthaya was originally named ‘Ayodhya’ after the mythical kingdom of the Gods portrayed in the Ramayana epic, which was adopted and then adapted from the Indian original with the help of Ceylonese monks during the Sukhothai period (see my other ezine article). It is no coincidence that the present King of Thailand, HRH King Bhumibol, is also known as HRH King Rama IX, as spiritually Thailand has been hugely influenced by the Ramayana ever since. The Thai version of the epic differs from the Indian in that the Thai version has a happy ending, whereas the Indian original did not: it is maybe no surprise that the happiest people on the planet felt that a sad ending to the epic equated with a sad conclusion on the ultimate meaning of life, which did not reflect their views.
Queen Phra Si Suriyothai was the consort of King King Phra Mahachakkraphat. Only 7 months after he was crowned as King in 1548, his rule was challenged by yet another of the seemingly never-ending Burmese invasions, which led to a battle near Kanchanaburi’s Three Pagoda Pass. Unusually for a woman Queen Phra Si Suriyothai had had a little military training and begged the King to be allowed to accompany him, along with their two adult children, one of whom she wanted to be the mahout for her war elephant. The king at first refused, but eventually gave in to her pleas that she loved him so much that her life would be worthless if any harm were to befall him.
Queen Phra Si Suriyothai stayed close to the king in the thick of the fighting. The warriors between the King and Phrachao Prae, a ferocious and deadly Burmese warrior, fell. The Queen could see that the King was in mortal danger from the Burmese champion and rode her elephant between them, lunging with her lance at the Burmese, who easily parried her thrust and then killed her with a single blow of his sword across her neck and chest. The Burmese champion could not however defend himself against the Thai King and Queen simultaneously, so could then be impaled by the King on his lance.
In 1569 the Burmese captured, on the first of two occasions, Ayutthaya. Sixteen years later they were on the brink of making the Thais into a vassal state when, in 1585, into the fray stepped King Naresuan, who fought tenaciously against ever-larger Burmese armies until finally defeating them in 1593. In the final battle Naresuan, according to the official chronicles, challenged the Burmese commander-in-chief to a dual. After a long and exhausting fight the Burmese commander had the upper hand and, after getting his elephant into an advantageous position behind Naresuan’s shoulder, lunged with his lance for the coup-de-grace. Unfortunately for him he underestimated the skill and courage of the Thai King who, after reeling backwards, just managed to dodge the blow but, in doing so, almost fell out of his saddle. The Thai king, committing himself to a desperate do-or-die attack, left his defences wide open. Without trying to regain his seat, he grabbed the back of his saddle with one hand and, with the weapon in his other hand, he lunged at the Burmese general. Luckily for him his aim was true and his sword buried itself in the Burmese’s chest, thus ending the war, evicting the Burmese from Ayutthaya and earning the Thai king the sobriquet ‘the Great’ for his achievement.
Visitors may have noticed that the spelling of ‘Ayutthaya’ is the least standardised of all Thai city names - it is also known as Ayotaya, Ayothaya, Ayudhya, Ayutaya, Ayuthaya and Ayuttaya. The cause of the confusion is that, after his defeat of the Burmese, King Naresuan the Great changed his capital’s name to ‘Ayutthaya’, meaning ‘the undefeatable city’. This was to prove to be an unfortunate misnomer as, almost two hundred years later in 1767, the Burmese again invaded, laid siege to the city and, at the twenty-fourth attempt, sacked it and destroyed the dynasty.
After the conquest the city was thoroughly looted and then burned, which still rankles many Thais today, who are bitter at the Burmese for pillaging or destroying all of this architectural treasure trove’s precious objects, in a ransack that was so comprehensive that the city had to be abandoned afterwards. It is pointless to point out to embittered Thais that their own kingdoms did at least their fair share of burning and pillaging. This bitterness towards Burma can on occasion have dire personal consequences for individual Burmese refugees in Thailand, who are mostly illegal immigrants and are therefore vulnerable to abuse by the unscrupulous.
The city’s golden period, between the mid-seventeenth century and its demise, was literally golden. Tons of the metal were used to gild hundreds of temples and religious artifacts, resulting in a city which at first sight stunned the many Western and Far Eastern visitors into awed silence. European traders and diplomats unanimously described Ayutthata in its hey-day as more splendid and opulent than anywhere else they had ever seen, and made contemporary London look like an impoverished village by comparison.
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