Ayutthaya: the art of classical Siam (14th – 18th century)

Conference by Thierry Zéphir, Research Engineer at the National Museum of Asian Arts-Guimet.

If the history of Ayutthaya begins in the 13nd s. it should be noted that, from the 6nd s., Thai populations had migrated from southern China and settled in what is now Thailand and southern Burma. From 10nd s., the country fell under the allegiance of the Khmer kingdom, but in the 13nd s., several Thai clan chiefs gradually emancipated themselves and the first great kingdom was that of Sukhothai, founded by Si Intharathit (c. 1238-1270). This kingdom will last until the 14thnd s. included. King Rama Khamhaeng (1239-1317) established Theravada Buddhism as the state religion and "invented" the Thai alphabet. However, the small vassal states gradually distanced themselves from Sukhothai and in 1351, Ramathibodi 1er (1350-1369) founded his new capital, Ayutthaya, on an island in the Chao Phraya River. In 1412, Ayutthaya imposed its suzerainty on Sukhothai and annexed it in 1438. On the other hand, in 1431, Ramathibodi 1er will seize Angkor, securing the eastern border of the kingdom.
From this time, the kingdom of Ayutthaya is the most powerful in Southeast Asia and will come into contact with the West through merchants and missionaries, first the Portuguese in 1511, then the Spaniards, the English and finally the French in 1662. From the 16nd s., Ayutthaya is almost constantly at war with its Burmese neighbor and, in 1569, the city is taken by the Burmese armies but will regain its independence in 1593 with King Naresuan (1590-1605) and the restoration of the pre-war borders. invasion of 1549.

When the French missionaries arrived in Ayutthaya, they made contact with an important figure, Constance Phaulkon, alias Constantin Gerakis (1647-1688). Of Greek origin, he arrived during his travels to Siam and became the confidant and privileged adviser of King Phra Narai (1656-1688). Exchanges of embassies were organized and one was received by Louis XIV himself in 1686. On the death of King Phra Narai, General Petracha (1688-1703) ascended the throne and there followed a policy xenophobic, particularly against the French.

Johannes Vingboons (c. 1616/17 – 1670). View of Ayutthaya, circa 1665. Watercolor on paper. – Nationaal Archief, The Hague, NL-HaNA 4.VELH 619.62.

Asolemn embassy given by the King of Siam to Monseigneur le Chevalier de Chaumont, Ambassador Extraordinary of His Majesty to this King. Print. In Paris, at Jean-Baptiste Nolin's, rue Saint-Jacques, around 1687.

In 1767, the kingdom of Ayutthaya was conquered by the Burmese armies, the capital was set on fire and its territory dismembered. General Taksin manages to reunify Siam from his capital Thonburi and his successor, General Chao Phraya Chakri is proclaimed king and reigns under the name of Rama 1er (1782-1809) with Bangkok as its capital, thus founding the Chakri dynasty (1782 to the present day).

To return to the period of Franco-Siamese relations, a certain number of works (often illustrated travelogues) were to be published. King Narai resided in Lopburi, and it was in his palace that he received, in 1685, the extraordinary embassy sent by Louis XIV, led by the Chevalier de Chaumont and the Abbé de Choisy. A print (circa 1787) recounts the event and while all the courtiers are prostrate, the Chevalier de Chaumont, standing, holds out his credentials on a tray, forcing the king to lean over from his box to take it. This lodge can still be seen in the ruined royal palace. A watercolor by Johannes Vingboons (c. 1616/17 – 1670) shows a panoramic view of Ayutthaya around 1665, and it will be noted that the city is surrounded by water, because it is located in a meander of the Chao Phraya, at its confluence with the Pa Sak and isolated by a canal to make an island. The city is intersected by a network of canals and people traveled there a lot by boat, especially during the monsoon. A book from 1863, Around the world by Henri Mouhot, is illustrated with many engravings which show that the city was very ruined and overgrown with vegetation. The documentation was also supplemented by photographs, in particular those of Jim Thomson (1837-1921).

Ayutthaya therefore had a water enclosure, a brick rampart from 1549, fortified with bastions, also in brick. In this space were arranged the palaces and the main temples. But many temples were also built outside the enclosure, as well as the residences of foreigners.

Around the World, vol. 8, p. 244 and 245, 1863. Travels in the kingdoms of Siam, Cambodia, Laos and other central parts of Indo-China, by the late Henri Mouhot.

Muang Boran (Ancient City). Throne Hall of the Royal Palace (Wang Luang) of Ayutthaya.

Today, most of the buildings constructed of perishable materials have disappeared, only the temples built of laterite or brick have relatively resisted. The Front Palace (Wang Na), destroyed at the time of the sack of the city, was rebuilt under the Chakri (in particular under Rama IV Mongkut (1851-1868) who had the Phisai Sanyalak built in order to carry out astronomical observations there. If you want to get an idea of ​​the appearance of a palace during the city's splendor, you have to go to a park located in the south of Bangkok, the Muang Boran, where many ancient monuments have been reconstructed today. hui lost. Thus, we can see the throne room of the royal palace (Wang Luang) of Ayutthaya as it existed. These wooden structures were covered with roofs bearing a rich decoration referring to the Khmer architectural decor. of Ayutthaya claiming a cultural and political proximity with the Angkorian kingdom, have recovered and adapted a whole part of the Khmer architectural heritage.

Wat Phanan Choeng, Phra Buddha Triratananayok. Brick and stucco, gilding. Reflection of U Thong's style B. Originally from the 14th century.

Wat Putthaisawan, exterior view and Parinirvana located inside. Brick and stucco. 14th c.

Wat Yai Chai Mongkon. Overview of the Stupa. Brick and stucco. 14th c.

A few Ayutthaya-era temples have been preserved, maintained, and restored, giving an idea of ​​who stood in the city. In particular, in Wat Phanan Choeng, a Buddha built in brick and stucco, is a reflection of U Thong's B style. It was made in 1324/25, 36 years before Ayutthaya became the capital of the kingdom of the same name. Wat Putthaisawan was founded in 1353 by Ramathibodi (1351-1369) on the site of his first residence in Ayutthaya but was later restored and modified. Often, Thai kings had a temple built inside their palace. The sanctuary tower (prang), in the shape of a sugar loaf, was at the center of an architectural complex surrounded by a wall. An ambulatory was leaned against this enclosure, sheltering images of the historic Buddha, all similar, except for a few details. These images could have been commissioned by the founder, by members of the clergy, by high dignitaries or by the population. Many of these sculptures were originally made of metal and were either carried away during the sack of the city in 1767 or melted down to salvage the material. Another important element in the architecture of a temple is the stupa (chedi), a memorial monument which, at the origin of Buddhism, housed relics of the Buddha. During the Ayutthaya period, the stupas have a particularly redentulous form. There are also other buildings inside this architectural complex that protect stuccoed brick, metal and sometimes stone sculptures. Thus, Wat Putthaisawan, a structure that was originally covered with tiles, houses a large reclining Buddha. This parinirvana is often present in Thailand, Buddhism Theravada having been transmitted from Sri Lanka where these images are frequent.

Wat Yai Chai Mongkon was founded in 1357 by Ramathibodi for monks returning from Sri Lanka where they had gone to study Buddhism Theravada, then restored by Naresuan (1590-1615), in 1592, to commemorate his victory over the Burmese. The imposing stupa is surrounded by a gallery where many Buddha statues are aligned. The base of the building is square and the stupa still has the bell shape which is common in Sri Lanka.

Wat Mahathat. Aerial view. Brick and stucco. 14th c.

Le prang of Wat Mahathat in the 1900s.

Most of the royal buildings in Ayutthaya itself are badly damaged. Wat Mahathat, located in the center of the city was built in 1384 under Boromaracha 1er (1370-1388), then completed and restored in the following centuries. After the collapse of prang in the first quarter of the 17nd century, it was rebuilt in 1633 under Prasat Thong (1629-1656): the height was then increased from 38 m to 50 m. A new collapse, this time definitive, took place in 1911. A photo from 1900 shows that the prang was still standing even though the site looks very ruined. It was built in the center of a courtyard enclosed by an enclosure and extended to the east by a rectangular building, the main prayer hall (vihara) and, to the west, through another room for ordinations (ubosoth). Many of the sculptures that appear to be in good condition are often reconstructions from completed old elements, many of them having at least lost their heads. Around the central complex were arranged prang secondaries constructed of brick. You have to imagine that the entire surface was covered with stucco and a lime mortar of which you can still see some traces.
Thai architects sometimes adapted the shape of the prang and one can be seen, of octagonal plan, the upper part of which supports prang classic shape, smaller sizes. In addition to these buildings, many stupas were erected all around the enclosure. Some could house the ashes of high members of the clergy or the aristocracy. As already mentioned, the stupas of Ayutthaya have evolved, from the square base supporting a bell to an extremely jagged construction ending in a tapering point, evoking the initial parasols.
The statuary always presents a totally idealized face with an expression that is both distant and benevolent. The majority of seated Buddha sculptures show him in the gesture of taking the earth as a witness (Bhumisparsha-mudrā).

Wat Mahathat. Prang octagonal secondary. Brick and stucco.

Wat Mahathat. Strongly redentulous stupa. Brick and stucco.

Wat Mahathat. Buddha seated in Bhumisparsha-mudrā. Sculpture restored from old elements.

Wat Phra Ram was founded in 1369 by Ramesuan (1369-1370) on the cremation ground of his father, Ramathibodi 1er (1351-1369). It has the same type of layout as Wat Mahathat but less developed. Building a monastery on his father's cremation site had a very virtuous connotation. THE prang is quite well preserved and gives a good idea of ​​this stuccoed brick architecture.

Wat Phra Ram. Entrance to the enclosure and prang. Brick and stucco. 1370.

Wat Ratburana. THE prang. Brick and stucco. 15th c. but restored in the 18th century.

Wat Ratburana. Detail of the paintings in a niche in the crypts. 15th c.

The third royal complex, Wat Ratburana was founded in 1424 by Boromaracha II (1424-1448) on the cremation site of two princes who had opposed each other for the throne. Severely damaged in 1767, it was restored and the whole, prang and miscellaneous buildings, is better preserved than in the two previous examples. In the upper base of the prang, crypts housed the original foundation deposit, a deposit that made the place sacred. These three superimposed crypts, preserved from looting, "discovered" in 1957, yielded a magnificent collection of sacred and sumptuary objects. The interior volume of this space evokes a prang. The walls of these crypts are adorned with relatively well-preserved wall paintings and, as is usually the case with paintings from the Ayutthaya period, they are on a red background with gilding. You can admire it on other sites such as Wat Yai Suwannaram in Phetburi, (17nd century) or Wat Ko Keo Suttharam, Phetburi (18nd century) whose murals of theubosoth are dated 1734. In the latter, the decor is made up of a succession of stupas between which are scenes from the life of the Buddha. In these scenes, contemporary foreigners are represented, recognizable by their costumes: Indians, Dutch or French.

Wat Ko Keo Suttharam, Phetburi. Murals of theubosoth dated 1734 (detail).

Wat Ratburana. Section showing the crypts inside the prang.

Wat Ratburana. Treasure. Prang thumbnail (detail). Embossed gold, semi-precious stones. 1424.

Wat Ratburana. Treasure. Set of representations of the Buddha in embossed gold. 15th c.

To conclude, Thierry Zéphyr presents elements of the treasure of Wat Ratburana. Among other sculptures, there was a scale model of prang in gold leaf hammered, chiseled and encrusted with semi-precious stones with all the details of the ornamentation of the real monument. The many representations of Buddha, also in embossed gold leaf, refer to the style of U Thong, which was a stage in the development of Siamese statuary. In addition, this deposit also included ornaments, sumptuary objects that testify to the opulence and wealth of this kingdom.

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