The roots of Buddhism

Ayutthaya, meaning "invincible" in Sanskrit, was once a city of a million people with 2,000 temples and 4,000 images of the Buddha. One from the temple of Wat Phra Mahathat lies here, broken, enveloped by the roots of a banyan tree.

In 1350, a Thai chieftain rebelling against the ruling Khmers (Cambodians) built this glittering city between three rivers, about 89 kilometres north of modern Bangkok. He crowned himself King Ramathibodi I; his city quickly became the capital, ruled by an autocrat heading a highly stratified bureaucracy.

Wat Phra Mahathat was built by a successor, King Ramesuan, while he was a monk in the interim between his two reigns (1369-70 and 1388-95).

Along with most of Ayutthaya, Wat Phra Mahathat was destroyed by invading Burmese in 1767 and the jungle swallowed up the "city of 2,000 golden spires" described by a visiting Frenchman.

It was not until 1956 that the Thai government began to restore Ayutthaya, which was declared a World Heritage Site in 1991. Wat Phra Mahathat revealed many treasures, such as a relic of the Lord Buddha in a golden casket, ceremonial objects in gold, ruby and crystal and a giant stone head of the Buddha. But the jungle did not surrender everything and this had remains in the banyan roots. Fittingly, perhaps, since it was a banyan tree beneath which the Buddha sat for 40 days until he received enlightenment.

The banyan (ficus benghalensis) can grow to giant size over centuries: one has been recorded as being 600 metres in circum-ference, capable of sheltering 20,000 people. Such tropical ficuses are called strangler figs. They often spring from a seed deposited high in another tree by an animal. After the seed germinates, the roots grow down along the trunk of the host tree until they reach the ground, branch and establish themselves, forming an interlacing cylinder.

Thai Buddhism is of the Theravada ("Doctrine of the Elders") or Southern Buddhism school, based on writings dating from 480BCE, the time of the religion's founder, the historical Prince Siddhartha Gautama. Popular Theravada worship tends to focus on statues of the Enlightened One, to which offerings are made.

Buddhism teaches Three Characteristics of existence: Impermanence (Anicca), Suffering or lack of satisfaction (Dukkha), and Anatta (emptiness or lack of self). How sharply this 14th-century stone Buddha in the banyan roots rebukes the name which the king gave his city: invincible no more.

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