About Wat Chaiwatthanaram
Identified by cultural historians as the structure most emblematic of Buddhism’s influence on Thai society, the Buddhist temple of Wat Chaiwatthanaram was commissioned in 1630 by King Prasat Thong in the traditional Khmer style. The temple is situated 80 kilometers north of Bangkok, within the ancient city of Ayutthaya. Ayutthaya was the capital of the Siamese kingdom at the height of its power and influence, from 1350 until its besiegement by the Burmese army in 1767. While Ayutthaya was once a thriving economic center, Wat Chaiwatthanaram was until very recently a deserted ruin, subject to decay and looting, and encroached upon by unlicensed residential housing. Illegal housing was demolished in the 1980s, and in 1987 the Fine Arts Department of Thailand began conserving the site. Considered one of Thailand’s most significant monuments, Wat Chaiwatthanaram sits adjacent to the central area of Ayutthaya, which was inscribed on the World Heritage list in 1991. The site is also of paramount economic value to the local population, attracting thousands of tourists every week.
Situated atop a rectangular masonry platform, a thirty-five meter high central prang (tower-like spire) is surrounded by four small prangs, which are in turn flanked by eight merus, structures used as crematorium for some royal figures that sit outside the platform perimeter. Originally, paintings decorated the interior walls of the merus, and relief scenes depicting the life of the Buddha covered the exteriors. Buddha image statues also populated the merus, covered in gold. Unfortunately, fragments are all that remain of these decorative elements.
Flooding brings a need for immediate attention and support
Thailand suffered from severe flooding in 2011, accelerating conservation problems at Wat Chaiwatthanaram, and thus elevating its preservation status to a site in need of immediate attention. That same year World Monuments Fund was invited by the Fine Arts Department of Thailand to review deteriorating conditions due to the recent environmental changes. WMF performed a subsequent investigation of the damage to the temple's fragile stucco and remaining sculptural elements.
After reviewing general conditions and realizing the inadequacies of current flood protection measures, WMF and the Fine Arts Department of Thailand agreed to collaborate. In 2012, WMF was awarded support from the U.S. Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation and the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok to undertake critical preliminary work. Analysis included technical surveys, conditions surveys of the materials of the temple and its decorative elements, thorough documentation (including new photography), and the determination of high priorities for conservation. In addition to these, WMF designed the new south flood wall constructed by the Fine Arts Department of Thailand, produced a master drainage and flood plan, and laser scanned the complex.
Building capacity for conservation and stewardship of Thailand’s heritage
WMF’s work at Wat Chaiwatthanaram has transitioned through the years, from emergency response to focus on a conservation campaign at the temple’s merus (conical pavilions towers) and the ruined galleries that connect them. A constant objective of the project has been the utilization of the conservation process as a training tool to build capacity within the Fine Arts Department of Thailand for the long-term stewardship of the site and other heritage sites in the country.
Starting in 2013, WMF’s project team instituted training programs for new conservators and staff of the Fine Arts Department focusing on Wat Chai's ornamental merus, whose repetitious forms and conservation challenges provide an ideal case study for building materials conservation issues common in Thailand. A pilot program at Meru C3 provided a variety of original exterior material to learn from: the fired brick and lime mortar masonry, stucco plasters, and stucco decorative elements. Meru C3 also allowed interior decorative finishing issues to be addressed, such as lacquered Buddha statues, wall paintings, and the carved, lacquered, gilded and glass inlayed teak wood ceilings. The project extended to the ruined galleries that connect the merus, previously enclosed spaces featuring formerly lacquer and gold-covered Buddha statues that had long been exposed to the elements. With the pilot program at Meru C3 successfully completed, the project and training has moved on to Merus C4, C5 and most recently, Meru C6. The work has become a best practice model for heritage conservation in Thailand.
Last updated: January 2021.
Work is supported by the US Department of State through the Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation and the US Embassy in Bangkok, and by the Robert W. Wilson Challenge to Conserve Our Heritage.