On a tumultuous night, the invaders armed with the deadliest of weapons attacked with the only aim: ‘Destruction of Ayodhya’. They plundered, looted, destroyed art treasures, libraries, ancient manuscripts including the original version of "Ramayana", religious scriptures, devastated palaces, massacred as many citizens as they could, drove away others, captured several tens of thousands as slaves, demolished temples, mutilated venerated idols from within leaving them headless or limbless, carried away or melted other golden statues and idols. And with a final war whoop, they set fire to the city of Ayodhya and went back gloating in their victory upon destruction.
This was ‘Ayuthaya dahanam’.
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It was on the fateful night of April 7th 1767 that the above happened in Thailand when their traditional enemy, Burma marauded mercilessly the city of Ayuthaya (Spelling as transcripted from Thai language), the capital of the Thai Kingdom.
The South-East Asian nation-kingdom of Thailand although professing to abide by Theravada Buddhism, has undeniably strong classic Hindu elements in belief and practice. Thai history is usually classed into the early ‘Dvaravathi’, followed by ‘Sukhothai’, ‘Ayuthaya’, and ‘Bangkok’ periods. The elements of Indian civilization that kindled the rise of the Thai kingdoms got gradually fused with typically localized ‘Thai’ elements as time went by.
It is the ‘Ayuthaya’ period that would capture the interest of any Indian today.
The city of Ayuthaya is located about 70 km north of Bangkok. King Ramathibodi who named it after the birthplace of Lord Rama founded it in 1350. He envisaged "Ramarajya" for his Kingdom, as the King was "Devaraja" or "God King", particularly Vishnu incarnate.
Ayuthaya was a glorious, wealthy and flourishing island-city located at the confluence of three rivers, the Chao Phraya, the Pasak, and the Lopburi. It was the envy of not only its neighbors but also visiting and trading Europeans. It housed a population of 1 million comprising not just Thais but people belonging to some 40 nationalities. The French visitor Jean de Lacombe has recorded in awe that the palace of the King, Lord Rama Incarnate according to the Thais, "Is a dwelling worthy of an Emperor of the whole world". In its heydays it has been recorded by outside observers that Ayuthaya city was so magnificent that London at the time seemed a mere village in comparison.
Ayuthaya had an unbroken succession of Kings ruling over it for well over 400 years, until its sack by the Burmese in 1767. However, the divine elements were so to say in its favor, as Burma did not get to occupy Thailand (or Siam as it was called then), but had to scramble home to defend itself against the invading might of the Chinese army.
It was exemplary vision and courageous leadership that mustered the shattered lives from Ayuthaya to form a new Thai Kingdom away from the ruins. When the pressures of creating a new Kingdom overwhelmed the leader, it was his General who assumed the reigns of Kingship, the founder of the present "Chakri" dynasty, King Rama I. To this day the Chakri dynasty has ruled over Thailand. The present King is Rama-IX in succession - the longest reigning monarch in today’s world.
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With the burning of Ayuthaya, faith or future did not die for the Thais. Instead of squandering national interests, orientation, money, efforts and time the Thais mobilized their minds, hearts, strengths and energies towards productive engagement erasing any thoughts of destructive vendetta or rebuilding on the ruins.
The Thais were bent on showing their enemies and proving to themselves that they were absolutely capable of recovering from such devastative destruction and humbling humiliation to rebuild a more powerful nation - a nation that would never be subjugated to any alien power ever.
Thailand is the only country in our neighborhood that has never been colonized.
The Thais with utmost determination decided that they wouldn’t be vulnerable for exploitation by outsiders. When European invasion was in full force, Thailand received ambassadors from them as well as missionaries. They learnt English and other European languages, adopted modern technology and methods for developing their Kingdom and so on, but did not succumb to pressures of any sort.
King Rama IV is quoted as having told one of his missionary friends, who in the guise of imparting education wanted to convert the Thais, in no uncertain terms: "What you teach us to do is admirable, but what you teach us to believe is foolish".
Today, Christians amount to only one per cent of the entire nation (predominantly Chinese-Thais). Muslims who are mainly localized in the southernmost part of Thailand adjoining Malaysia compose about 4% of the population. Although, Buddhism is the national religion, the Thai constitution states that the country is secular with the King benevolent on all his subjects following any formal faith.
Even though Ayuthaya was razed to the ground, neither did the religious fervor of the Thais suffer nor was there any damage done to the legacy of Rama.
On the contrary, the Thais believe the "Chakri" (or Vishnu Chakra -"Wheel") dynasty has given them an unbroken succession of Rama incarnates so that they may be ruled over by his divine blessings. The destruction of Ayuthaya did not bring an end to "Ramarajya" but the ‘Bangkok’ period that arose soon afterwards is referred to as "Ratanakosin" or gem of an era in the history of the Thais. King Rama IX’s residence is named Chitralada. The Thai national and royal emblem is the Vishnu vahana of Garuda. Royal Thai titles when passed on over five generations tend to cease, after which a Royal is given the title "na Ayuthaya" or as a descendent "Of Ayuthaya".
It is interesting to note the pervasive influence of Hinduism in Thailand even today. The Hindu Trinity of Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu are worshipped with unrelenting reverence.
Vishnu and his avatar of Rama are obviously the most revered of all. The walls of the magnificent Temple next to the King’s Grand Palace have mural scenes from the entire story of Ramayana painted on them. This temple was modelled closely on the destroyed Ayuthaya temple. Rama’s Sita has not been forgotten either. In the "Royal Field", north of the temple, that is the traditional site for royal cremations and for the royal ‘Ploughing ceremony’, a statue of Mae Thorani ("Mother Earth") stands on a white pavilion.
As the original manuscript containing the Ramayana was burnt in Ayuthaya’s carnage, King Rama I wrote the Thai version of Ramayana called Ramakien in a poetic format. His son, Rama II, penned a much shorter adaptation of it. It is this story that is the main feature in classical Thai dance-drama to this day.
When we read some of the verses of the Thai National Anthem, their single-minded devotion to their motherland stands out in their unity and self-pride.
The Thai Nation, " has maintained its rule because the Thais have always been united";
" They shall not allow others to take away their freedom".
The Thais did not forgive nor forget what happened to Ayuthaya, but focussed their faith and force upon themselves.
Today, Ayuthaya is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The ruins are being maintained by the Thai Government's Fine Arts Department, and funding is also obtained from the UN for restoration projects. The temples, idols, palaces etc., have not been reconstructed but have been repaired for rendering them safe for visitors. Ayuthaya is a center now visited by tourists keen on observing the ravages of history upon it.
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Much as a parallel cannot be drawn between Thailand and India on the issue of Ayodhya, India surely has a lesson here to learn from our small, sensible and sprightly neighbour.
Muslims destroyed Hindu temples in India in the distant past. Eleven years ago, Hindus demolished a Muslim structure.
Indians had better hand over the disputed area to the UN and get on with their lives.
All Indians, irrespective of their religious affiliations, need to unite for focussing on the national agenda of becoming a power to reckon with in today’s world, rather than use and misuse Ayodhya for political, religious and social reasons.
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I remember while on a visit to Ayuthaya, I asked an elderly Thai gentleman:
"Aren’t you enraged at what the Burmese did to your Capital? Don’t you want Ayuthaya to be rebuilt?"
" Mai pen rai" ("Never mind") he mumbled with typical Thai graciousness and a faraway look in his eyes.
He then looked up and asked with his eyes dancing mischievously, "Aren’t we Thais better off now than our enemies? My son tells me that we are called one of the ‘Asian Tigers’?"
The Thais have learnt that history does not seek answers in the politics of hatred.
For the Thais the ruins of Ayuthaya serve as a constant grim reminder of past national tragedy, and serve to spur them on towards greater self-establishment and self-enhancement.
The writer is a Social Anthropologist from the University of Madras. She used to teach "Thai Studies" at a Bangkok University for many years. She now lives in Sydney, Australia.
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