Comparing from the larger, better-known sites at Ayutthaya, the most remarkable thing about Wat Phra Men is that it is intact. After a day wandering around the island with its broken pillars, mounds of shattered bricks and cracking stucco, it is a surprise to see that this still a functioning wat with a roof on top. While the structures on the island had been all but obliterated by the ferocious onslaught of an invading Burmese army in 1772, this one wat had been left unmolested by their cannons. So why had the Burmese spared this little temple when so many larger and more magnificent specimens had been dealt with so ruthlessly? It seems that the answer was nothing more than superstition.
The later Ayutthaya period had been of frequent warfare and constant instability. During a previous Burmese military campaign, a Burmese king by the name of Bayinnaung had been killed when soldiers were trying to fire cannon on Wat Phra Men in a mid-sixteenth century campaign. The cannon had malfunctioned, killing the king instead. Taking it as a bad omen, the wat had been spared in the next war. This was fortunate for tourists as it meant that there was one Ayutthaya-era wat at the site to compare with all the ruined examples. In entering Wat Phra Men with its twin rows of pillars supporting a sharply sloping wooden roof, I realized that all the lonely pillars set in rows about Ayutthaya would once have supported ornate wooden roofs, topped with coloured tiles. It reinforced for us the scale of the devastation the Burmese had unleashed. And indeed it had so demoralized the Thais that they relocated their capital to Bangkok.
But the fact of it being intact was not the only surprise at Wat Phra Men. After we had seen the main wat, we went into the smaller bot to the side and were met by a massive Buddha statue, which was being fervently worshipped by Thai devotees. Outside were a pile of sandals where the locals had cast off their shoes. Following this cue, I dropped my shoes at the door and went inside into the reverential gloom. There were a number of Thai women kneeling before the large, greenish stone Buddha. At about 4.2 metres in height, it was described as being three times human scale- in which case the locals were much shorter then than are today- and it was famously seated in ‘European style’ with its legs hanging and its feet on the ground. While this might not seem a particularly remarkable circumstance to the average tourist, when you remember that most Buddha statues from Thailand are seated in the lotus position, this seating posture might start to seem of greater interest. For the serious Buddhist art scholar, every gesture of the legs, body and hands is imbued with religious significance and each different posture can be viewed as a reference to a particular story from the Buddhist scriptures; it probably also has a specific Sanskrit term to describe it.
The upshot of all the discussion about this seated posture is that it is typical of the Buddhist depictions from Nakhon Pathom, which was probably the largest settlement in Lower Thailand during the Mon or Dvaravati period. Many reliefs and statues have been found in that city which depict the Maitreya Buddha, or Buddha of the future world, in a seated position with his right hand raised in a teaching position and his left resting on his leg. In short, art historians had categorized this is a Mon-Dvaravati rather than a Thai sculpture. For this and other reasons it was believed that this monumental 4.2 metre tall Buddha had been transported here all the way from Nakhon Patham, probably in the fifteenth century, when the Ayutthaya kingdom was at the height of its power and splendour. The kings of Ayutthaya would doubtless have thought that this revered Buddhist statue, which had already been worshipped by the inhabitants of Nakhon Pathom for seven hundred years at that point, would have brought glory and distinction to their new capital. It had not survived the fourteen centuries since its creation entirely in one piece, however. The hands of this Buddha were both resting on its knees, but this was thought to be due to a poor-quality restoration at one point: the original teaching position hand had been broken off.
For the Thai visitors, this was clearly a revered image and they could be seen praying fervently before it. Previous devotees had left all manner of offerings before it, such as incense, small statues and glittering ornaments. What impressed me most was the size of the thing, the sombre beauty of its black stone and the large head with its tight curls of hair. Sitting there in its flowing robes, as if on a throne, it was a commanding presence. And the idea that it was one thousand three hundred years old, dating back to a previous kingdom that I’d only just heard of and which pre-dated the arrival of the Thais in this part of the country greatly intrigued me. Apart from wanting to know more about this Mon kingdom, Dvaravati, and how it had influenced the Thais who had later occupied the region, I was curious about just how it had got there. I wondered if Ayutthaya had started off as a Mon settlement and had later been conquered by Thai invaders from the north. While the guidebook mentions its age and the fact that it is of Mon provenance, they don’t explain how it got there. It was to be many years before I came across the notion of it being transported there in an academic paper.
After viewing the image, I met with Cameron again outside. Not having any religious beliefs at all, he felt awkward entering active places of worship, feeling somehow that he was disrespecting the believers. He had a quick look at the statue from the doorway and had then waited outside for me. I shared my thoughts with him about the statue and he said that he had never even heard of the Mon or Dvaravati, which prompted a little more discussion. Just outside the compound there was a woman selling chilli squid, which she was barbecuing over hot coals on wooden skewers. Cameron suggested we give them a try and so we stood outside Wat Phra Men, waiting for the squid to cook and feeling content with our day’s sightseeing. As the sun went down over Ayutthaya with the brilliant golden appearance of the interior of a Thai wat, I thought about the ‘Black’ Dvaravati Buddha inside Wat Phra Men and of the Burmese attack on Ayutthaya, and it pleased me to think that the statue had been a magic talisman which protected this wat from destruction by Burmese cannons. My interested in Dvaravati had been peaked.