By Pattarawadee Saengmanee
A POPULAR place to spend the day among Thais and foreign visitors who simply don’t have time to visit our best-loved historical attractions, the Ancient City is again spreading its reach with the opening of the resplendent Great Hall of Vajra Dhamma, which it’s promoting as Lord Buddha’s museum.
Completed just in time for Visakha Puja Week, the new hall opens its doors this Friday and offers the first visitors a chance to greet Supreme Patriarch Somdet Phra Maha Muneewong who will be on hand for the official opening ceremony.
The beautiful architecture of the Great Hall of Vajra Dhamma transports visitors back to the golden days of the Ayutthaya era.
This is the latest addition to Thailand’s biggest outdoor museum on which more than Bt80 million has been spent building a tranquil sanctuary to enshrine statues of 38 Buddhas from the past, present and future based on the Buddhist canon.
Spread out over a five-rai compound called Buddhavas of the Substanceless Universe, the Great Hall has been built in strict accordance with Ayutthaya-style architecture.
“Founder Lek Viriyaphant is interested in history and Buddhism. He spent several years researching old paintings and documentaries before designing the Great Hall of Vajra Dhamma in his own style. The construction took five years and the finished building blends Buddhist principles with the uniqueness of Ayutthaya architecture,” says Natchaporn Thammathinno, deputy director of the Ancient City.
“The Great Hall has a five-spire prang, which represents a divine king and kingship under Dhamma, on its roof. The walls, both inside and outside, are adorned with millions of gilded low-relief sculptures of the Buddha, while the floor is made of fragrant Hinoki wood, a species of cypress native to central Japan and imported from Laos,” she explains.
Buddhavas of the Substanceless Universe combine replicas of 12 pagodas from India, Thailand and Myanmar, representing the Thai zodiac years.
Inspired by Buddhist cosmology, Intrachai is the towering doorway to the heavens, where symbolic Mount Meru is hemmed in by seven oceans. On the ground, the legendary Himmaphan forest is replaced with a sacred pagoda complex representing 12 Buddhist zodiac years.
Each replica contains soil from the original site and allows people to pay homage with flowers. For example, the highly-revered Mahabodhi Temple in India is reproduced for those born in the Year of the Small Snake, Myanmar’s Shwedagon Pagoda for the Year of the Horse, Thailand’s Phra That Doi Tung for the Year of the Pig and Phra That Ket Kaew Chula Mani for the Year of the Dog.
Made from cement and finished with gold, the 32-metre-tall Phra Buddha Sri Sanpetch Dayan of Ayutthaya (Luang Po To) pays testament to the kingdom’s outstanding craftsmanship. The Buddha’s relics are installed over its head and Buddha images of seven days sit on its glittering arch, making it a one-stop corner for pilgrims.
The Great Hall is enshrined with statues of 38 Buddhas based on Buddhist canon.
Also on view is the pavilion of Phra Buddha Ramannat Nirawan, a Mon-style Buddha statue in reclining posture, and the imitation abode of Indra. Next Wednesday, the Great Hall will be transformed into the site of Buddha’s cremation ceremony to wrap Visakha Puja Week.
In the meantime, visitors wishing to take part in the rites of this all-important celebration can take part today and tomorrow in making rice porridge at the assembly hall of Wat Yai Suwannaram to pay respect to the Buddha and ask him for fortune and protection.
To really enjoy the Ancient City, visitors should hire bikes or hop on the tram for a sightseeing tour. It’s laid out in the shape of Thailand and is divided into six zones, all of them home to spectacular replicas of historical temples, palaces and ancient markets that transport visitors back in time to several periods of Siam.
A short walk from the Great Hall is the central region where Ayutthaya Kingdom’s Sanphet Prasat Throne Hall has been rebuilt, based on historical accounts written by Thai and foreign archaeologists.
A replica of the Sanphet Prasat Throne Hall once served as the reception hall for Queen Elizabeth II.
Erected during the reign of King Phra Baromtrai Lokanat, it served as a ceremonial site for the coronation and other important events as well as the Audience Hall for foreign ambassadors and envoys during the reign of King Narai the Great.
In 1972, His Majesty the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej transformed Sanphet Prasat into a reception hall to welcome Queen Elizabeth II and her consort, Prince Philip. Its walls are covered with beautiful murals of the Hindu god Narayana, and are lined with 28 Buddha statues and a private collection of old porcelains and silver and gold nielloware.
The Northern region is home to Wat Chong Kham and its display of Tai Yai-style craftsmanship. This 100-year-old wooden structure was relocated from Lampang and today is used to illustrate the culture of this ethnic group.
Built of solid wood, the two-storey monastery complex has quarters for the monks and a main hall for daily religious rituals, which houses a collection of Tai Yai-style Buddha statues and other artefacts.
Wat Chong Kham from Lampang has been restored to showcase elaborate Tai Yaistyle architecture and antiques.
Next door, Wat Chiang Khong, also relocated but this time from Chiang Rai, showcases Lanna wisdom in using traditional carpentry techniques to shingle the roof. Perched on the summit of a 54-metre artificial hill, Prasart Phra Wihan in Si Sa Ket province has been painstakingly recreated to a scale of 1:3, using concrete rather than laterite.
The ancient Khmer-style castle takes visitors back to the reign of King Suriyavarman I and presents picturesque panoramic views of the Gulf of Thailand and the Ancient City surrounded by a shady tropical forest.
We stop briefly at the Recreation zone, where the Pavilion of the Enlightened was built to pay homage to Mahayana Buddhists. It’s a perfect combination of Thai, Burmese and Chinese arts, with old wood used to build the octagonal pavilion and sprawling walkways. The religious teaching is reflected through statues of Mettaya and enlightened monks.
The Old Market Town is a favourite stop for visitors, who snap up the traditional Thai snacks and beverages. It looks like a living museum, home to a barber, antique shops, old-fashioned boutiques, theatres for the Nang Yai shadow play and Chinese opera, and even a traditional casino and bawdy house.
IF YOU GO
>> The Ancient City offers several religious rituals until June 6 at a free zone that includes the Old Market Town, the Great Hall of Vajra Dhamma and the assembly hall of Wat Yai Suwannaram.
>> Admission is Bt350 for adults and Bt175 for children (Bt700 and Bt350 for foreigners). From 4pm, visitors can enjoy 50-per-cent discount on a sightseeing tour, inclusive of bike rentals and tram service.
>> Find out more at www.AncientCityGroup.net.