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Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Ayutthya Diary by Tarun Vijay

17th May 2009

A Conclave Of Gods
Bangkok’s international airport, which is claimed to be the world’s biggest, is called Suvarnabhumi—a pure Sanskrit word, which gives me my first glimpse of how deep ancient Indian and Hindu influences run in Thailand. The road leading from the airport to the city is named after Rama IX, and there’s another road named after Rama I. I see a huge sculpture of the great churning of the ocean, with Vishnu as its magnificent centerpiece.
Thailand is a country where Rama and Ganesha coexist happily with Buddha and Avalokiteshwara. A Chinese Buddhist lady monk has built a fabulous Shiva temple (though it leaves an Indian devotee rather bewildered), and Ganesha worship is spreading like a reinvented rage amongst the youth. Shops, homes and street corners have Ganapati images in tiny, beautiful wooden shrines, about the size of the little tree-houses we use to feed birds. Songkran (from the Sanskrit Sankranti) is the Thai new year, which also comes close to Baisakhi—13th April—and I had to address a couple of new year meetings in Bangkok organised by the Hindu Swayamsewak Sangh. The present king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, Rama IX, is a living legend, the longest serving monarch on the planet today.

Solitude At Sangam
The ubiquitous presence of Ram in this deeply Buddhist land made me decide to cancel a weekend in Pattaya, and go instead to Ayutthya, the tranquil ancient capital of Thailand—a decision I will never regret. If Bangkok dazzles with its superb infrastructure and perfectly designed signage, and frazzles with its horrific traffic jams, Ayutthya soothes. The city, which derives its name from Rama’s Ayodhya, is just 76 km from Bangkok. It is majestically situated on the confluence of three rivers, the Chao Phraya, Pasak, and Loburi. Its Buddhist splendour is enchanting, and the vast expanse of ruins of temples and palaces, dotted with banyan and peepal trees, makes an awe-inspiring sight. Ayutthya was a flourishing capital for more than four centuries, till the Burmese destroyed it in 1765. It reminded me of Hampi—how and why did such a great city fall into decay?
Ayutthya today is calmness incarnate. Clean, serene, and welcoming to tourists. The absence of concrete and glass structures, the dominance of eight century-old relics, gives it a look of being in a perpetual state of silent yoga. Hindus in India must learn a few things from this Ayutthya—how to keep temples clean, preserve heritage with respect, and be courteous to devotees and visitors, without arrogant, clamorous priests looking to extort their money.
The structures bear the unmistakable stamp of Khmer architecture, with huge royal halls, soaring temple domes and grand images of meditating and reclining Buddhas. The spontaneous laughter of child bhikkus (monks) flows through this ancient city like a rivulet in a rain forest.
People are transparently religious, and generous in their donations to monks, monasteries and temples. I am told about a poor woman who won a million dollars in a lottery, built a ‘wat’ and a temple with her winnings, and donated the rest of her money for their upkeep, while she continued to live in penury. There is a small mosque, bearing the name of Pakistan, apparently built with money from that country, and a church called ‘Blessings of Ayutthya’. The king ensures equal protection to all faiths, though his chief priest’s temple is known as Devasthan and has Shiva as the presiding deity. The Portuguese, Dutch, British and French visited Ayutthya between the 16th and 17th centuries, but there is no recorded mention of any Indian contact, although Indian influence is only too visible.

Thaksin, Tocsin
Dinesh Dube, a second-generation Thai entrepreneur, says Indians are welcomed, respected and trusted. But I find that they are rather lost in their own Gorakhpur-Ludhiana world, while earning in a land that teaches Sanskrit in four universities. The Indian community is deeply subdivided into Biharis, UP-wallahs, Gujaratis and Punjabis, and hardly makes any effort to identify with the Thai cultural milieu. The Chinese have an overwhelming presence and influence, using the Buddha route to maximise their ties with a strategic partner. Alas, Delhi has not capitalised on Buddha in the same way, though of late efforts to fortify age-old Ganga-Mekong friendship fibres are slowly yielding some results.
Taksin is a name Ayutthya never forgets. An ambitious Thai general who promoted himself to be king after Ayuthya’s fall and ruled from the other bank of Chao Phraya River, he became so powerful that he declared himself a Buddha incarnate. His ministers eventually revolted and executed him. Today, another Thaksin with his Red Shirt troopers—former prime minister Thaksin Sinawatra, who was charged and convicted for corruption—is ambitiously trying to overthrow the Thai government, even forcing it to cancel the prestigious ASEAN meet at Pattaya. It dealt a deep blow to national honour.

1 comment:

Rakesh said...

I am surprised to know that Thai has this much rooted with Indian culture.

Tarun jee you wrote the facts in good way, Dhanyawad.

We Indians are divided on all possible levels almost everywhere in the world. There are many spritual (Swami Narayan, Swadhay, ISKCON, Shri Shri Ravi Sankar) & Social (RSS) which could transform India in real good way, but we Indians do not associate with these thinking that they will not be considered Modern if they join in.