Buddha looked at me from the roots of the Banyan tree. His peaceful eyes showering blessings at me, a boy who had come to meet him from Ayodhya, the city whose name his Ayutthaya has taken. All the Buddha had, though, was his head, severed by the Burmese invaders more than three centuries ago. Yet invaders came and went, then died, Buddha lives on.
I was in Ayutthaya. World’s biggest city in the 1700s, capital of then Siam! Ayutthaya, a city of over a million people even in those days. Ayutthaya, a city which invited traders and sailors from across the world and had different quarters established for them just outside the walls of the city, in fact the river, Chao Phraya… Chinese, Portuguese, Indians, Japanese, Persians, Afghans, Spaniards, Dutch, English, and French…. Ayutthaya, where St. Joseph’s Church, built by the French in 1666 still stands tall, a whopping 350 years after! A city then looted, razed and finally burnt down by the Burmese in 1767.
I had been to Angkor Wat and seen the ruins, much bigger than anything Ayutthaya could offer. Yet, this one was far more personal. For someone like me, born in a village near Ayodhya, it was nothing less than a pilgrimage. Being in a city that takes its name from the rusty, mofussil town Ayodhya three oceans and countless rivers away was a surreal experience, a journey within.
Taking a boat ride in the Chao Phraya river was remembering the Saryu river thousands of kilometers away. Seeing Buddha after Buddha with their heads severed a reminder of Ayodhya, again, and all the religious violence committed in its name.
And it was on this boat that I remembered the astonishment in the eyes of my co passenger, an Indian, when I told him that I was going to Ayutthaya.
Ayutthaya? Where is that in Thailand was the prompt, and spontaneous question. I was not surprised. For a country still not catching up with backpacking, also the one where many go to only the places they can get their, and often vegetarian only, food, Ayutthaya wasn’t a likely choice in any case. Even if it is just 85 kilometers from Bangkok and can be visited over a day trip- I stayed there for three nights though. Going to Thailand often means going to Bangkok and/or Pattaya (pronounced Pataiya) and for obvious reasons.
The conversation broke with the inflight announcement: We have started our descent and would shortly land in Bangkok. The announcement running in my head was different though: We shall go to Bangkok via Ayutthaya, Suphanburi, Kanchanaburi, Hell Fire Pass and Pattaya. The route has seen horrifying wars like Burmese raising Ayutthaya to ground and the Japanese killing over 1 lakh prisoners of war forcing them to labour for Thai-Burmese Railways for rushing supplies for Indian front.
I have rarely seen places more beautiful, and more saddening. And more encouraging and inspiring. As I wrote in the beginning, invaders die, Buddhas live on. Do look for your Ayutthaya, or Ayodhya. If you happen to be near this one, though, do visit the Buddha there. Tell him that a small boy from Ayodhya sends him hugs.