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Thailand: Wat Phra Mahathat

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Wat Phra Mahathat | Thailand | Asia

[Visited: September 2009]

Outside the entrance of the temple, a small parking lot was almost full with tuk-tuks, taxis, and tour buses, and we feared a crowded visit to Wat Phra Mahathat. Fortunately, we would find out we were mistaken. The temple actually turned out to be a vast complex of temple platforms. When Ayutthaya was raided by the Burmese in the 18th century, Wat Mahathat was badly damaged and set on fire. The results can still be seen today - rows upon rows of headless Buddha statues give the impression a devastating iconoclasm just took place. Somehow, the ruins of what once must have been a majestic temple complex breathes a peaceful atmosphere. While the origins of the temple are not known with certainty, it is thought that the remains of what we see now were constructed in the 17th century. This is the place which is supposed to have held the remains of the Buddha in a prang, a Khmer style spire. While the prang collapsed a long time ago, treasures hidden inside were unearthed in the 1950s.

Picture of Wat Phra Mahathat (Thailand): Wat Phra Wahathat with Buddha statue and yellow cloth around shoulder

Wat Phra Mahathat now lies in ruins that are partly overgrown by grass and trees. In some cases, those trees have started to get entangled with the ruins - soon after entering, we found the most famous sight of Wat Phra Mahathat: a Buddha head appearing to be one with the roots all around it: the rest of the statue is not even visible anymore and it is not known how the head ended up here in the first place. It is ironic that this has become the symbol of Wat Phra Wahathat, and even one of the symbols of Ayutthaya, the former capital of Siam; while hundreds of Buddha statues here are without a head. The head peacefully and patiently looks on and does not seem to be bothered by its precarious situation.

Picture of Wat Phra Mahathat (Thailand): Roots of bodhi tree around the head of a Buddha statue

After the pretty sight of the Buddha head in the base of the old bodhi tree, we continued walking the ruins. We saw platforms that had been effectively stripped of all their Buddha statues, which we could only imagined once lined the contours. We saw parts of solid walls that had once defined the side of a temple. We saw very few Buddha statues with their heads still intact - most had crossed legs, with a slender hand with long fingers on the right hand upper leg, and a body - but the heads were nowhere to be found. In fact, very few bigger Buddha statues still had their heads, and a yellow cloth, around them. Even though much has been destroyed at Wat Phra Mahathat, the nostalgia it invokes gives this place its very attractiveness.

Picture of Wat Phra Mahathat (Thailand): Grassy field with ruins of Wat Phra Wahathat
Picture of Wat Phra Mahathat (Thailand): Rear view of Buddha statue at Wat Phra Wahathat
Picture of Wat Phra Mahathat (Thailand): Headless Buddha statues at Wat Phra Wahathat
Picture of Wat Phra Mahathat (Thailand): Platform once holding statues of Buddhas at Wat Phra Wahathat
Picture of Wat Phra Mahathat (Thailand): Buddha statue and wall
Picture of Wat Phra Mahathat (Thailand): Some of the remains of Wahathat temple
Picture of Wat Phra Mahathat (Thailand): Cross-legged Buddha statues sitting against a wall
Picture of Wat Phra Mahathat (Thailand): Headless Buddha statue at Wahathat
Picture of Wat Phra Mahathat (Thailand): One of the few surviving Buddha heads with yellow cloth
Picture of Wat Phra Mahathat (Thailand): Detail of the carvings in Wahathat temple
Picture of Wat Phra Mahathat (Thailand): The symbol of Wahathat: a Buddha head in the roots of a tree
Picture of Wat Phra Mahathat (Thailand): Slightly capsizing stupa at Wahathat
Picture of Wat Phra Mahathat (Thailand): Chedi seen from one of its corners

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