WAT RACHA BURANA
Wat Racha Burana - also called the Monastery of the Royal Repairs or the
Monastery of the Royal Restoration - is located on the City Island in the central area of
Ayutthaya at Tambon Tha Wasukri. The temple is situated on the corner of the present
Chikun Road and Naresuan Road, just opposite
Wat Maha That in the vicinity of the
former
Pa Than bridge. The monastery stood on the west bank of Khlong Pratu Khao
Pluak, an important canal, which has been filled up somewhere in the early 20th century.
In ancient times the temple was likely fully surrounded by a moat. The structure has been
registered as a national historic site by the Fine Arts Department on 8 March 1935 and
is part of the Ayutthaya World Heritage Historical Park.

History

The Luang Prasoet version of the Royal Chronicles of Ayutthaya set its construction in
786 Chula Sakarat (CS) or 1424 of the Christian Era, during the reign of King
Borommaracha II (r. 1424-1448)  also known as Chao Sam Phraya.

"In 786, a year of the dragon, King Intharacha I became ill and passed away. At
that time Prince Ai Phraya and Prince Yi Phraya, young sons of the King,
fought each other on elephants at Than Forest Bridge and both of them died
there. So a young son of the King, Prince Sam Phraya, ascended the royal
throne of the Capital City of Ayutthaya and took the royal title of King
Bòromracha II. And he then had two holy monuments built to cover that spot in
the Municipality of Than Forest where Prince Ai Phraya and Prince Yi Phraya
fought each other to the death on elephants. In that year Ratchabun Monastery
was founded."
[1]

King Intharacha (r. 1409-1424) had three sons being Chao Ai Phraya, ruler of Suphan
Buri; Chao Yi Phraya, ruler of San Buri; and Chao Sam Phraya, ruler of Chainat located
on the northern limit of the Ayutthayan Kingdom that time. Following the death of their
father, the first and the second born, led their armies to Ayutthaya in order to claim the
throne. Both princes engaged each other in personal combat, mounted on elephant; on
or near the “charcoal forest” bridge (Saphan Pa Than). Both were severely wounded,
their throats slashed open at the same time and died in combat. The youngest brother,
Chao Sam Phraya, was then invited to Ayutthaya and proclaimed King under the title of
Borommaracha II. The King commanded
two chedis built on the site where his brothers
engaged in battle. He cremated both his brothers and on their cremation site Wat Racha
Burana (1) was built.

Not much is known on the history of this temple in the period between its establishment
in 1424 and its destruction in 1767.

In December 1766  on a late Friday night, a heavy fire broke at
Tha Sai (Sand Landing)
and spread south along Khlong
Pratu Khao Pluak via the Elephant Bridge (Saphan
Chang) towards Wat Racha Burana and Wat Maha That to finally stop at Wat Chatthan.
The Royal Chronicles mentioned that over ten thousand monastic structures and houses
were destroyed in Ayutthaya. It was the same night that the Phraya of Kamphaeng Phet
(the later King Taksin) with his followers fled from their encampment at
Wat Phichai in
Ayutthaya. The Chronicles recall that the fleeing group arriving at the Village of the
Mixed Pundits on Saturday at two o'clock in the morning, saw huge flames lighting up
the city of Ayutthaya. [2] Just before the city was lost to the Burmese, the Ayutthayan
chronicles recorded that a crow flew in and spontaneously impaled itself on the finial of
the main prang, an event which was considered a bad omen for the city. [3]

As illegal diggings in the ruins of the ancient City of Ayutthaya became  prevalent in the
first half of the 20th century, the government of Prime Minister Phibun Songkram
established the "Committee of Restoration of Ayutthaya" in July 1956. A budget was
allocated for the restoration and reconstruction of the most important temples. The Fine
Arts Department (FAD) started the restoration of Wat Maha That in 1957. In August of
that year, archaeologists discovered a number of golden objects on the site. The news of
the discovery spread rapidly, with as a consequence the start of an uncontrollable spree
of treasure hunting all over the ruined area of Ayutthaya. FAD became aware that illegal
diggings occurred at Wat Racha Burana and planned to start excavations immediately.
Due to a delay in the planning, a gang of looters returned to the main prang and
succeeded in reaching the upper chamber of the crypt on 23 September 1957. [4]  The
looters plundered a great number of relics interred with the remains of the two princes.
Shortly after the police was informed by a drunk amongst the looters, they could recover
some of the stolen treasures. An unknown amount of gold has never been recovered as
most of the findings were immediately sold to dealers and collectors. In 1958 excavation
and restoration of Wat Racha Burana by Fine Arts Department finally  began. A number
of bronze Buddha images, precious stones, many golden artifacts, including royal regalia,
miniature utensils and numerous votive tablets were found in the crypt. [5]

The recuperated treasures of Wat Racha Burana were displayed at - a special built for
the occasion - Chao Sam Phraya National Museum, named after the third son of King
Intharacha. The national museum was inaugurated on 26 Dec 1961 and displayed  next
to the excavated objects of Wat Racha Burana also the excavated objects from Wat
Maha That and other important temples. The proceeds from the sale of some of the
votive tablets found at Wat Racha Burana was used to fund the construction of the
museum.

Architecture

Wat Racha Burana at par with Wat Phra Ram, Wat Phutthai Sawan and Wat Maha
That,  followed the Khmer concept of temple construction, and are as thus very similar
to each other. We find nearly identical, but earlier built structures at Angkor. Phnom
Bakheng, Preah Rup, East Mebon, Baphuon and Ta Keo were all Temple Mountains,
consisting of a central tower surrounded by four corner towers, forming a quincunx; the
latter also often was surrounded by a courtyard and a gallery. All temples in the early
period of the establishment of Ayutthaya were Khmer styled, consisting primary of
laterite structures and bricks, enhanced with stucco.

Wat Racha Burana was initially built as a basic quincunx surrounded by a covered
gallery. At a later stage the monastic structure was expanded with a vihara and ubosot in
an east-west axis. The vihara became partly incorporated into the gallery, while the
ordination hall stood isolated on the western side. The monastery was surrounded by
water, a symbolic representation of the oceans surrounding Mount Meru (represented by
the prang). The complex faced Khlong Pratu Khao Pluak to its east and another Lopburi
oxbow shortcut canal to the west (name not known by author).

Only the walls and foundations remain of the royal vihara. The main entry was in the east,
leading to an elevated porch. The structure could also be accessed by different entries on
the sides. The walls were windowless, having vertical slit openings, bringing ventilation
and providing at the same time a diffused light into the inside. The vihara had a wooden
multi-tiered roof structure, which collapsed (burned down). The eaves were supported
by pillars with a lotus motif. [6]

The ubosot or ordination hall stood in the west, isolated from the gallery. The hall was
accessed via an elevated porch. There were two entries in the west and two in the rear,
one on each lateral side.

The prang of Wat Racha Burana was still in fairly good condition and could be restored.
The prang, representing the cosmic Mount Meru, is located in the middle of the ancient
compound and is built on an indented pedestal protruding towards the north and south,
resulting in a wing-like formation, which was characteristic for prangs of the early
Ayutthaya period. The “cella” or central small hall inside the prang containing the crypt,
can be accessed through a porch directed towards the east, by climbing the steep stairs
leading to the entry of the porch. The prang has three staircases on the east, north and
south side. Over the cubic “cella” rises the central tower, the bud-shaped prang. The
“cella” housed a Buddha image. On the lowest level of the top-part of the prang are
decorated Garuda and Naga sculptures still visible.

The two-level crypt under the cella can be  reached via a narrow staircase built in 1958
by the FAD. It is warm inside the crypt and the descend is not recommended for people
with claustrophobia. The upper chamber is a three meter square room with nearly faded
murals depicting Chinese people. Some Chinese characters can still be recognized. The
lower cell is so small that only a single person can enter at a time. The murals here are
still fairly visible, depicting Buddha with his disciples, trees and birds and some floral art
work. Some parts of the pictures were gilded. The badly restored ceiling bears also large
tracts of paint.

The temple is certainly worthwhile a visit, in combination with Wat Maha That and the
Chao Sam Phraya Museum.


Footnotes:

(1) The oldest Ayutthayan Chronicle - the Luang Prasoet - mentions "Wat Racha Bun"
or "Monastery of the Royal Merit".  
References:

[1] The Royal Chronicles of Ayutthaya - Richard D. Cushman (2006) - page 15 / Source: Luang Prasoet.
[2] The Royal Chronicles of Ayutthaya - Richard D. Cushman (2006) - page 514 / Source: Phan Canthanumat, British Museum, Reverend Phonnarat &
Royal Autograph.
[3] The Royal Chronicles of Ayutthaya - Richard D. Cushman (2006) - page 519 / Source: British Museum & Reverend Phonnarat.
[4] Ayutthaya: World Heritage Reflections of the Past - Ayutthaya Provincial Administration Organization page 26/29.
[5] Khruangthongsamay Ayutthaya - Krom Silpakorn (2005).
[6] Ayutthaya, a world heritage (2000) - page 104/105.

Other consulted works:

Discovering Ayutthaya - Charnvit Kasetsiri & Michael Wright (2007) - page 86/87.
An outline of the History of Religious Architecture in Thailand - Sonthiwan Intralib ( 1991).
Text by Tricky Vandenberg - April 2010
Photographs by Somchai Pattanavaew & Tricky Vandenberg
(View of the main prang)
(View of the main prang and Royal vihara)
(View of the main prang from the north)
(General view of the courtyard)
(View of the ordination hall)
(View of the main vihara)
(Stairway to the crypt)
(View of the ceiling in the lower chamber)
(Garuda sculptures on the base)