This is an image you may have seen often: the head of a sandstone Buddha image lying amidst the roots and lower trunk of a Bodhi tree in the Wat Maha That complex. The rest of the body has disappeared. Click here to read a brief introduction to Ayutthaya.
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Construction for the Wat Maha That was started in 1374 during the reign of King Borommarachathirat I but completed only under King Ramesuan who ruled from 1388 – 1395. A few decades later, the main ‘prang’ (Khmer style tower) collapsed while King Songtham was in power from 1610 – 1628. It is believed to have been restored sometime between 1630 – 1655 when King Prastthong took over; the height of the ‘prang’ was also significantly increased.
This Wat served as the seat of the Sangaraja, the head of the monks of the Kamavasi sect; this status was established by Mahathera Thammakanlayan who was a contemporary of King Borommarachathirat I. It thus served as a royal monastery too, and was regarded as the most sacred in Ayutthaya for a long time.
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The main ‘prang’ collapsed again around 1911 during the reign of King Rama VI, and looters saw this as an opportunity to dig for treasure. It was not until 1956 that the Fine Arts Department of the Government carried out its own excavations to find relics of the Buddha. These included many antiquities including Buddha images, votive tablets, covered boxes in the shape of fish and golden plaques in the form of animals. These objects are now on display at the Chao Sam Phraya National Museum.
Back to the Buddha’s head: there is no clear evidence how it came to rest in its present position. But it is assumed the temple complex was set on fire by the invading Burmese in 1767 and many of the structures collapsed and images broke. With the area deserted for over a century, a Bodhi tree may have grown around the head lying on the ground.
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