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. Work is still ongoing on the site.