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Ayutthaya's 'forgotten' temples damned by deluge

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Lesser-known historic sites in the ancient capital were severely damaged by the floods and now that reconstruction has begun they may be forever abandoned in favour of more prominent spots

Walking down splintered side roads in post-flood Ayutthaya recently - among the rotting debris of rubbish mountains, animal carcasses and rusted motor vehicles - I sensed that the aftermath would be harsh. Homes had been destroyed. Large trees had been ripped up by their roots. Many parts of the city still remained beneath water after two to three months of flooding. My task was to seek out small deserted ruins (wat raeng) and countryside temples (wat rad), ones that few locals and tourists have ever heard of, so that I could survey the damage.

WATERY GRAVE: Left, dozens of skeletons were found at the site of a Portuguese settlement in Ayutthaya in the 1970s. Right, the burial pit as it looks now after waters inundated the area.

This personal research was the saddest academic activity I have ever undertaken. Flooding caused at least one large ruin to collapse into a mound of bricks, fresh cracks split the walls and foundations of other structures, and a centuries-old Portuguese graveyard displaying dozens of skeletons had been transformed into a swimming pool. I realised that some of these historic sites could never be repaired. Ultimately, the questions are raised: What is the value of these lesser known, non-revenue generating, ancient historic structures in a modern city that is rapidly urbanising? What importance will they have for future Thai generations?

THE VALUE OF CURIOSITY

As a teacher at Phranakhon Si Ayutthaya Rajabhat University specialising in tourism studies, I have asked students these questions many times.

In order to pique their interest, I set out to track down and explore the remains of the ancient city. These were the numerous "forgotten" ruins; there are so many historic sites in Ayutthaya that the smaller and less significant ones barely attract attention. I had no idea how difficult this goal would be. These deserted ruins hide at modern schools, police stations, hospitals, residential areas and overgrown jungles. The present municipality of Ayutthaya has sprouted from the damaged roots of the old capital. The old and the new have merged in such a way that they can't be separated. By the time my research was completed, three years had passed.

a classroom at Phranakhon Si Ayutthaya Rajabhat University. The university plans to tear down the building due to severe damage.

In the process of seeking out deserted ruins in the countryside, I was bitten by stray dogs, struck at by poisonous snakes, stung by countless insects and hospitalised for a month after major spinal surgery after a speeding motorcycle hit me. In the end, I tracked down and photographed nearly 500 historic sites (active temples, abandoned ruins, foreign settlements, bridges, gates, etc), which I hoped to share with students in the classroom.

Unfortunately, my photos of historic sites didn't arouse their curiosity. They cared about active temples with Buddhist clergy; not the deserted ruins that they considered full of ghosts.

But the students knew I was curious, so they offered assistance and learned in the process of gathering information.

They volunteered to go to these places with me and help translate.

As they engaged elderly Thais about these hidden sites, they became more active and involved. Some students would bring into class old books, maps and photographs that their grandparents had lent them to share with other students. Class became more informal and based around the exchange of dialogue instead of textbooks. I started to post this new information on various websites and later helped create www.ayutthaya-history.com so that this material could be preserved and accessible to future generations. As a result, my teaching grew into a type of community development.

NATURE TAKES ITS COURSE

As the water level ate its way up to my second floor dwelling in mid-October, I realised that this flood would cause massive damage throughout the city. I had no electricity or plumbing and water seeped through the cracks of my wooden floor. Poisonous snakes sought shelter in my house. Many students were trapped at home and could no longer come to class. A significant number of locals died. For a while, I tried to deliver emergency supplies via kayak to people in more remote areas and to check on the situation at lesser known historic sites in the city (some of which had been completely engulfed by water). I realised that it was time to leave when my kayak got stuck on the roof of someone's house.

flooding widened cracks at this small deserted ruin, which is all that remains of a former Buddhist temple known as Wat Mongkut north of the main city island. It now may topple over.

During the flood, I was able to kayak down paved roads that had once been ancient canals. I could not help but think that modernisation had exacerbated the damage. The ancient city had been designed in response to the inevitable seasonal flooding. Locals dug canals for transport and to move excessive water toward areas where it could be stored for times of drought. These arteries were frequently dredged as people used them daily by boat.

The city walls helped to protect residents from rising flood levels. Houses were built on stilts high above the ground. The ancient temples were raised on mounds, and people could seek refuge in them during times of floods.

In contrast, the modern city is not set up to survive large-scale flooding. Many canals are blocked or landlocked by dirt bridges and paved roads. Other canals have filled with hyacinth and plastic bags full of rubbish _ neither of which existed in the ancient city. Old reservoirs were filled in to create new neighbourhoods, and nearly all traces of the city walls have been toppled. New homes are often constructed at ground level, and few locals own boats any more. As a result, the damage is more severe than in the past.

Historic sites are further eroded by monsoonal winds and tropical storms. Rain and humidity seep into holes dug by looters. Vegetation growth widens cracks in architecture, causing bricks to split in two and plaster to fall off walls. The ruins gradually shift balance as they sink in mud due to their weight. Maintenance of these historic sites is time-consuming and expensive.

Nevertheless, residents of the modern city often survived floods by seeking refuge at ancient sites. Many set up shelters on the higher ground of crumbled mounds that formerly functioned as temples. Animals huddled on the dilapidated foundations of ruins. Long abandoned sermon halls (viharn) hosted families and their belongings. For these people, the value of these deserted ruins is unquestionable.

REBUILDING

The popular historic sites mentioned in guidebooks for their size and grandness will naturally receive more attention since tourists are willing to pay money to see them. But what will happen to the remote historical sites; many of which are scattered off the main city island and covered by heavy vegetation? Does the nation need them more than a future apartment complex or factory?

a small chedi at a deserted ruin known as Wat Singharam on the main city island, and the same chedi after it collapsed due to two months of heavy flooding, above right.

I wondered about this when I discovered that the main memorial tower of one of my favourite deserted temples, Wat Sam Jin, had collapsed into a thousand bricks. This ruin was unknown to almost everyone, and now it is gone. It is comforting that I had led many students to this historic site while it stood. We photographed it earlier and created a document of what it once looked like. Over time the bricks and artefacts in situ will be carried away by future floods. Wat Sam Jin will likely become a brick mound like dozens of others in the city. I also wondered where the bones of Portuguese settlers had floated off to and if any of them had been saved.

The value of small forgotten historic sites will be determined in the months following this flood. Budgets are being drafted and money has been earmarked to rebuild damaged roads and old architectural structures. Professionals have been brought in to determine if the ruins are safe enough for tourists to return. At this point, people seem shell-shocked and are still at the stage of gathering information. Damage has apparently shown in the main prang-style chedi at Wat Phra Ram, and a large crack has appeared on the shins of the popular reclining Buddha image at Wat Lokaysutharam. How these sites will be restored is still a matter of discussion. Most of this cultural heritage is protected by legislation, but it will take much more work to protect these sites from future floods.

I have contacted members of the Fine Arts Department, Unesco and the International Council on Monuments and Sites. I have also discussed the damage with leading historians and academics. However, my role is primarily that of a teacher. I can only show representatives of these organisations how to find these forgotten historic sites and perhaps instil pride in my students by involving them in repair work.

One student told me not to worry so much about countryside ruins. He reminded me of the Buddhist belief that nothing is permanent. Time must pass for everything, including sites of cultural heritage. It's true - nothing is permanent, but hopefully, one day, neither will apathy be.

WRESTLING WITH DESTRUCTION

The ancient city of Ayutthaya, founded in 1350, near the site of an earlier Khmer settlement, grew into a thriving maritime city that European visitors described as the ''Venice of the East''. The old city evolved into a vital regional centre for trade, religion and refuge. Five dynasties and 34 kings ruled in Ayutthaya before Burmese troops destroyed the Siamese capital in 1767.

ILL-PREPARED: Many ruins are located on the property of municipal sites in Ayutthaya, such as Wat Prasart, which has suffered from the flooding along with the nearby hospital.

New Siamese capitals were built in Thon Buri and Bangkok, which further expedited the destruction of Ayutthaya. To fund his wars with Burma, King Taksin the Great sent boats to the old capital to retrieve silver from Wat Pradu Songtham and gold from Wat Phutthaisuwan. King Rama I later hauled away ships full of Buddha images and building materials. King Rama III then dismantled Ayutthaya's city walls and fortresses to construct Wat Saket in Bangkok, which collapsed into rubble that is now known as the Temple of the Golden Mountain. French missionary Jean-Baptiste Pallegoix observed at the time that there was a mania to seek treasure in the ruins of Ayutthaya.

People have continued to destroy the ancient ruins in modern times. With nationalistic fervour, in the 1950s, Field Marshal Phibun Songkhram created land codes to push Ayutthaya into becoming a modern city. Ancient canals were buried to make way for roads and motor vehicles. A shockingly large number of ruins were cleared away to create space for modern buildings. The Chao Phraya Dam, completed in Chai Nat in 1957, permanently changed irrigation practices and the local rice industry.

Also in 1957, massive city-wide looting occurred when valuable treasure was discovered in crypts at Wat Mahatat and Wat Rajaburana. This theft spread to the lesser-known ruins in the city as well. Ironically, Phibun's nationalistic push to modernise the country helped destroy the traditional lifestyle that comprised Thailand's heart. Locals became even more detached from this historical past, and greed took over. In 1964, Sumet Jumsai, the father of Thailand's architectural preservation movement, observed bulldozers flattening old chedis so that precious items could be sold, and he noted government plans to divide land in the old city to sell to private individuals. Because of this destruction, a small group of people became more conscious of the historic value of Ayutthaya's historic sites and attempted to protect them.

One of the first victories for the preservation of ancient sites in Ayutthaya took place in 1972. Building works ploughed up five temples near Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon for an extension of the Ayutthaya Agricultural School. This development was halted after students petitioned for the protection of these ruins. A second victory occurred with the passage of the Conservation of Monuments Act of 1985. Another victory occurred in the 1990s as squatters were pressured to finally leave slum dwellings beside Ayutthaya Historic Park. Over 60 families encroached on this protected property during the 1970s and refused to relocate for nearly 20 years.

The battle between the modern and ancient city continues to this day as the city struggles to answer questions about the value of old historic sites within a modern city of increasing population growth.


Ken May has lived in Ayutthaya for seven years. He has published several tourism-related books and nearly 50 articles about education. He is currently researching Muslim and Chinese historic sites in Ayutthaya.

WATERLOGGED: The foundations of Wat Sanam Chai were weakened after the temple was left underwater for two months.

IRREPLACEABLE: Inset, hidden in a small neighbourhood on the main city island Wat Sam Jin showcased a prang-like chedi. Left, Wat Sam Jin after the floods caused it to collapse.

RAVAGED RELICS: This gallery of Buddha images once stood at Wat Thasai, a deserted ruin that has now been annexed by Wat Rachapraditstan on the main city island, and the same gallery after a vicious storm caused the roof to collapse on them in 2010, right. HEAD ABOVE WATER: Many small statues and images in Ayutthaya were almost totally submerged, including this one at Wat Nang Kui,

A crack has appeared on both sides of the legs of this popular reclining Buddha image at Wat Lokaysuttharam

A crack has greatly widened on the base of Wat Ket, a deserted ruin that played a role in the execution of prisoners in the ancient city

RAVAGED RELICS: This gallery of Buddha images once stood at Wat Thasai, a deserted ruin that has now been annexed by Wat Rachapraditstan on the main city island, and the same gallery after a vicious storm caused the roof to collapse on them in 2010, right.

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