Ubosot (ordination hall), Wat Mahathat, Sukhothai, Thailand – Theravada Buddhism in Thailand vs. Cambodia is a bit of a politically-charged chicken-and-egg conundrum.
So now I’m going to take a break from reminiscing over the Ghosts of Fieldwork Seasons Past and making this “adventure narrative” seem way more awesome than it was (believe me, what was to me hunting for ancient buildings would have been to you seeing an awkward gangly twenty-six-year-old antisocially stumbling in and out of the woods. It became a smoother process as that 2016 Preliminary Survey went on, but during the first few days I was a disoriented mess). I realize that one thing I haven’t quite explained in detail is what exactly a Buddhist Terrace is and why, beyond a simple “they were associated with the spread of a new religion” explanation, they’re important.
Honest answer: at this point I don’t know much more than I do know.
That’s the great thing about being at this point, immediately following a Proposal Defense: I’m proposing that something could be a possibility based on a little sampling, a bit of deductive reasoning, and a bunch of related and unrelated theoretical literature. I think I’ve got a good idea, but this all could entirely change by the time I’m done my research. But the Academy is willing to say I know enough to keep going. So I’ll take for word for it.
So what is a Buddhist Terrace, which in itself is a pseudonym?
A Buddhist Terrace is a packed earthen mound compressed into a rectangular form by brick walls made of sandstone, laterite, or both. They have multiple stacked tiers (2-5 in most cases), and can sometimes have a stone floor, can be completely earth-covered, or have a depression that originally had a wooden floor. What is important to remember is that these are the substructures of wooden buildings that have long-since disappeared, and only the durable materials (tiers, floors, statuary) remain. We have little to no way of reconstructing their original superstructures except that sometimes (and I’ve found some at ATV013) you find roof-tiles.
ATV001 (Preah Ngok) – The depressed floor is where all the leaves have piled up.
The highest tier of a Buddhist Terrace is adorned with either a single large pedestal which would have carried a colossal image of a Buddha, smaller stone platforms that would have held smaller statues, or a mix of both. They all face east, which is a quality inherited from older temples to Shiva, and are either associated with converted temples, attached physically to them, are stand-alone structures, or are a single building within larger clusters of stone buildings (which I have yet to investigate – you can only do so much without a GPS or a hunting knife and a fear of giant spiders). Most of these Buddhist Terraces have some sort of statuary still adorning them, and some, as I discovered when I first saw the nagas at Terrace Dump, have small processional pathways leading from one of the arterial roads (N-S, E-W, and the Victory Road) to the terrace. Each of these pathways are marked by two matching statues of a mythological creature in the Indic Universe.
ATV016 (La Jonquiere 3), Angkor Thom. I’m counting this – it’s a dead lion.
Buddhist Terraces, while they appear to be the dominant building in each of their areas in which they’re built, are often accompanied by other constructions: stupas (reliquary, spiritual, or funerary), small supporting buildings, or even old temples that have been transformed into wats and are no longer the focal point of religious worship.
Stupa Base, ATV001, Angkor Thom
Alright, great – that’s a nice platform, decorated, has some supporting structures, high-quality statuary…but what makes it Theravada?
Well, this is the most important thing I’ve found out thus far: 90% of the Buddhist Terraces at Angkor Thom I’ve identified thus far have sima: large stone orbs buried in the ground marked by tombstone-shaped boundary markers which, as dictated by Theravada canon, surround a structure where novices can be ordained to enter the sangha (monastic order). At Angkor, two sima markers are propped together and surround the cardinal and subcardinal points of a Buddhist Terrace (8×2 in total).
In Southeast Asia, any sima-surrounded building is called an ubosot (ordination hall) – derived from the Pali uposathagara – and it forms a single building within a monastic complex. However, since Buddhist Terraces are often solitary structures, it is odd that nearly all of them have ubosot and are surrounding by nothing but forest. You could hypothesize that the other constructions were built in wood, that these other stone constructions (as of yet identified in my studies) formed the remaining structures in select cases, or even that the temples in the center of Angkor Thom were still central to religious worship, but the fact that these are often the only buildings in a given spot are confusing.
Usually these are placed 8×2 surrounding an ordination hall, but sometimes you have to harness a little more cosmic power to have the novices reach their full potential.
That’s NOT what I meant!
I didn’t make the connection between sima and Theravada Buddhist ordination until I went to Thailand, so the context I needed to identify these buildings didn’t come until a a few days after I left Cambodia during Pilot Research. Prior to this, I was convinced that Buddhist Terraces and Cruciform Terraces (another similar type of substructural construction at Angkor) were just variations of one another.
Cruciform Terrace, Royal Palace, Angkor Thom – by the time I got to Sukhothai I realized that these were not the same as Buddhist Terraces.
Cruciform Terraces, cross-shaped stone platforms scatted throughout Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom, were either the substructures of ceremonial platforms or processional temple pathways (although I’ve long-hypothesized that they were library substructures) Buddhist Terraces, meanwhile, were…well, the jury’s still out on that but Thailand ended up being a serious lead.
It makes sense that the Thais would’ve had a hand in the conversion of the Southeast Asian subcontinent to Theravada Buddhism, considering that a) both the empires that stemmed from Sukhothai and Ayutthaya were Theravada) eventually overpowered the Khmers in modern Thailand and conquered much of the western reaches of the Khmer Empire by the 15th century b) was directly influenced by the Mahavihara (the Theravada Mothership) in Sri Lanka and c) sacked and occupied Angkor Thom three times in 1350, 1394, and 1431 CE.
And the nagas stood by and did nothing!!! NOTHING!!!
However, because of 20th and 21st century Southeast Asian nationalism it’s considered an academic faux-pas to write regional histories without taking into account (and separating them) modern borders, nations, and peoples. I was cautioned about this by EFEO Director Christophe Pottier during a very long and very informative lunch meeting in Bangkok in June 2015, and even though he saw where I was coming from, he told me to keep the comparisons subtle or else I’d never get a survey permit. Especially on the Khmer side – as the post-Angkorian Cambodian kingdoms were viciously dominated by various foreign powers (Thai, Vietnamese, Laotian, French, Japanese, etc.) for the following five-and-a-half centuries, reminders of military defeat do no good for a nation looking forward and only serve to rub some extra salt in their wounds.
It’d be like mocking China for losing the Opium War, or Germany for losing WWII…wait, we already do that!
Anyway, the big break of my project, following that exhaustive yet informative five-hour meeting with Christophe Pottier, was a day-trip I took up to the ruins of Ayutthaya. I’d spent the last five days in Bangkok either looking at museums, taking down notes on Thai monasteries at the Siam Society, or dicking around at various temple complexes that were much more important to modern Thailand than they were to medieval Siam, so I needed to take a step back into the ancient world to gather my thoughts and figure out what my next step was towards deciphering these Buddhist Terraces.
Wat Phra Kaew, Bangkok – while this majestic Emerald Buddha fantasy land was fun, there was a) not a crumbling wall in sight and b) no Yul Brynner.
Ayutthaya was the capital of Siam, the predecessor state of the modern Kingdom of Thailand, from 1350 – 1767 CE, and was once considered a “Venice of the East” thought by many to be the spiritual successor to Angkor. Considering how badly Angkor was pillaged when it was sacked by an army from Ayutthaya in 1431, half of Angkor’s riches ended up there anyway. It remained prosperous for over four centuries until it was destroyed in 1767 CE by an enormous Burmese siege which torched the place and turned it into a ruin overnight. The kings of Ayutthaya moved south to Thonburi (across the river from Bangkok) and then into their current home in the Royal Palace soon afterward. Ayutthaya, meanwhile, became a swampy river ruin and continues to be so (with, of course, the proper UNESCO infrastructure implemented since 1991).
Wat Mahathat, Ayutthaya- Now think of this sad brick ruin entirely decked out in gold with a gold roof, gold-painted pillars, and a wall-to-wall gold-filled treasury the size of Madison Square Gardens.
Ayutthaya is one of the easiest day-trips you can take from Bangkok, as it only requires a 45 minute train ride from Hualamphong Station in the center of the city (the train leaves approximately every half-hour from 6:30am to 9pm). So getting there was not the problem – it was the heat that kicked in once I got there. By that point in Pilot Research I’d lost upwards of 15 pounds from cycling around Angkor alone, and I lost another 5 over ten days in Thailand, but having not seen a scale in nearly five weeks I thought I was fine and rented a bike. In order to get to Ayutthaya as a pedestrian it’s advisable to take the ferry across the city’s ancient moat to the other side, where bike rental vendors wait patiently with cheap bike hires and city maps.
Ayutthaya jetty – the water smells like Terrace Dump.
I had come to Ayutthaya for a couple of reasons, only one of which was directly dissertation-related at the time. The first was to just chill out and take a day of mindless sightseeing to get my mind back where it should’ve been. I think, in hindsight, I tried to work way too hard in way too hot a climate on Pilot Research, and the meeting with Christophe was a much longer endeavour that completely took the wind out of my sails. He’s nice, extremely intelligent, and carries an air of gravitas about him, but he’s also a critical pessimist who’s experienced a lot since beginning work at Angkor in 1992, so he told me (in nicer words) that the last five weeks of work I’d been doing was useless and I should start over with another angle. It completely derailed me for 24 hours, and so I decided it was time to maybe take a break for a bit before I had to present at a conference at the National University of Singapore later that week. The second was to take photos of a specific colossal Reclining Buddha (a sculptural image of the Buddha sleeping/dying/entering nirvana) at Wat Lokayasutharam for said conference.
Top: Reclining Buddha, Wat Lokayasuratham, Ayutthaya (c. early 16th century)
Bottom: Reclining Buddha, Baphuon Temple, Angkor Thom (c. late 16th century (but possibly 15th))
A section of my MA Project was spent comparing these two.
I was giving a talk on post-Angkorian Art History and Archaeology and its politico-religious significance, essentially what I could dredge out of my (since disproven) MA Thesis, at the National University of Singapore’s Postgraduate Conference on Southeast Asian Studies, but the only image I had from Wat Lokayasuratham was one from a bad tourism website. So, I figured I might as well get an HD one if I’m only 45 minutes south a week before the conference.
The third reason was to find anything outside of Cambodia to give context to the Buddhist Terraces I was seeing at Angkor. Notes would come later, but I needed something to standardize what a Buddhist Terrace was or might’ve been or where it might’ve come from. There were no answers at Angkor Thom beyond their presence, I didn’t think there were any others in Cambodia at the time, and at least Ayutthaya had monasteries that were visibly monasteries – why not check it out?
So, of course, we need to switch back into discovery story mode with some ruin-walking fun!
After taking some photos at Wat Lokayasuratham, I took a peek around the corner at the monastery that accompanied the Reclining Buddha.
We have an ordination hall!
8×2 sima boundary stones. It was the first time I’d seen them anywhere since Angkor. They weren’t pretty to look at, but they definitely seemed original, considering that the rest of the ubosot looked like this:
I don’t think anyone’s been ordained here in a while…
If you’ve ever done an MA Project or a PhD Dissertation, random happenings like these are the “OH THANK GOD I’M NOT CRAZY” moments you remember fondly. It’s beyond the point of “shit I found something so cool!” and more in the realm of “well that’s a relief” or “at least I don’t have to start over again” or “for once my advisor’s head is not banging on their desk right now.”
Thankfully, this wasn’t an isolated incident, and I found another one down the way at Ayutthaya’s largest temple, Wat Phra Si Sanphet.
The stupas of Wat Phra Si Sanphet glow gold at night.
Part 1 of the Sexy Sima Series, Wat Phra Si Sanphet, Ayutthaya.
Now, this comparison really geeked me out. The first one is a vihara from Wat Phra Si Sanphet, and the other is the Buddhist Terrace Preah Ngok from Angkor Thom:
The Siamese vihara doesn’t have sima, so it wasn’t used for the ordination of monks, but it’s nearly identical in form and layout to the sima-surrounded Buddhist Terrace here outside the Bayon Temple. Which means there was definitely some cross-cultural exchange during this time period, and it may have been geopolitically tilted in favour of Siam (sorry, Cambodian readers).
But it may have also happened even earlier than that. If Zhou Daguan declared in 1296 that “worship of the Buddha is universal”, and Ayutthaya was founded in 1350, there’s a fifty-four year gap. Either Zhou Daguan had it entirely wrong, mistaking Buddhist worship for Hindu, or Siamese/Ayutthayan influence had less to do with Buddhist Terrace construction than the architecture suggests.
I think I’ll go back to Ayutthaya for more than a day in May this year.
So I did the logical thing that anyone would do armed with that hypothesis: ride around mindlessly for another three hours on a rickety bicycle at Ayutthaya taking photos outside of temples (for those on a budget, choose 2-3 temples to visit at Ayutthaya and skip the rest because it costs 100 baht to access each one and 150 baht to get into Wat Phra Si Sanphet), get totally dehydrated and tired (AGAIN), and take the train back to Bangkok and get yelled at by the conductor for accidentally breaking a seat by…well…sitting on it.
Friendly advice for traveling to Ayutthaya: DON’T TAKE THE EVENING TRAINS BACK. They’re crowded, the seats they assign foreigners are plastic and broken, and the taxicabs at the train station refuse to use their meters. Either go up early and leave mid-afternoon or go around noon leaving Bangkok and stay the night.
And don’t look out the window until you’re well out of Bangkok – the train tracks are surrounded by a never-ending riverside slum.
Fortunately, after a great night’s sleep (13 hours) I was booked on a train heading north to Sukhothai, the first Thai capital and the origin of what one might refer to as “state religion” in Thailand. Sukhothai was actually founded by the Khmers as an outpost-city in the early 12th century, but according to the famous Ram Khamhaeng Inscription of 1292 (disputed by Western scholars as questionably accurate but unquestionable in Thailand under the monarchy’s lese-majeste laws) Sukhothai emerged as a kingdom of its own after winning independence from the Khmers and adopting Theravada Buddhism from the Mahavihara in Sri Lanka.
Also known as the Land of Fancy Hands (Wat Si Chum, Sukhothai)
Ram Khamhaeng (r. 1279-1298 AD) and his successors built Sukhothai into a Theravada utopia where he reigned as its philosopher-king, and especially within the walled city this really tells (although it may have just been the sunlight) from both the sculpture and the architecture. The whole place is literally glowing.
Wat Mahathat, Sukhothai
Wat Sa Si, Sukhothai
I only did a full day of research at Sukhothai in the end (I had to catch a train down the Thai peninsula to Singapore the next morning), and after going to Ayutthaya I really had my work cut out for me. Every monastery in the walled city (they were all in separate complexes, similar to Ayutthaya but unlike Angkor Thom) had its own ubosot with well-preserved sima stones, and they demarcated only one building per complex.
Not every monastery at Sukhothai has sima or ubosot, but most did, which has made me realize how odd and unique Angkor Thom was. It may have been that Angkor Thom was constructed as a capital cosmically tied to another religion, or that the Khmers wanted to ordain a buttload of monks at the same time, but the number of Buddhist Terraces built alone, with sima, and without any other context make my project very, very confusing.
I’m extremely happy I went to Thailand – if I hadn’t I’d probably still be scratching my head or have moved on to a new topic entirely, one less interesting or game-changing. Sukhothai is also one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever traveled to, and because I went out on my (rented) bike that afternoon to experience the peace and quiet (and heat) of an abandoned, empty ruin, it established my strategy of skipping the crowds and the humidity and doing survey during the 12pm – 5pm Khmer siesta. I’ll eventually write a whole entry on that one day in Sukhothai – God knows when I’ll be back – but I’ll leave you all with a few images of that beautiful June afternoon.
These are just the tip of the iceberg. I’ll be posting more in my Photos section as soon as I get the time to go through them all.
So now we’ve come to the end the three-part Dissertation series, and it’ll be my last post until January 3rd (which really isn’t that far away at this point – six days until China) when the real In Broken Footsteps blog begins. But I feel like I’ve been pretty thorough, no? I’ve got Origins, Followthrough, Definitions, and Context!
As I move forward and the blog expands, if anything seems unclear just refer back to these three entries (or message me – happy to respond in the comments below!) for some context.
I expect some of what I’m saying now to be disproven or made redundant, and I’ve recently found out that my survey permit process at Angkor has hit a bit of a snag, so my reality might change drastically over the next six months. But that’s part of the fun, right? Research is a journey, and in archaeology, the destination and the answers are wrong almost 80% of the time! Three cheers for incremental lines of evidence and theoretical uncertainty!!!
Happy travels, and see you at the airport on January 3rd!