A century old Thai mural restored by Sri Lankans
May 31 On a crumbling wall of Wat Dhammaram in Ayutthaya, faint traces are all thats left of an image depicting a group of monks in an open boat. The mural, which is more than 100 years old, tells the story of a Thai monks voyage to the kingdom of Kandy - now Sri Lanka - to revive Buddhism on the island.
Like that mural on the wall, the story has faded from Thai memories. But Sri Lankans are well-acquainted with the story.
Some 250 years ago, Buddhism in Sri Lanka had gone into decline due to European colonial influence. So, Sri Lankas King Keerati Sri Rajasinghe wrote a letter to King Boromakot of Ayutthaya requesting assistance. Phra Ubali Maha Thera, a highly respected monk from Wat Dhammaram, was sent by the king along with 16 other monks. Their mission was to revive Buddhism on the island in response to the appeal for help.
"People were converting to the new religion, so we didnt have enough monks to conduct ordinations," Ransiri Perera, from the Sri Lankan embassy in Thailand, says of this period in his countrys history.
After a long and difficult journey on the open sea, the monks - including Phra Ubali - landed in Sri Lanka, eventually establishing an order of 3,000 monks that became known as the Siam Wong or Siam Ubali sect.
"If they had not come, Buddhism would definitely have declined," says Perera. "We are grateful to Thailand and its Buddhism."
The faith has since flourished in Sri Lanka and the Siam Wong sect is now the dominant Buddhist sect in the country, with more than 5,000 temples.
For more than eight centuries, the two countries have been linked together by Buddhism. Sri Lanka embraced Buddhism from India in the second century BC, becoming one of the religions strongholds in the region.
From Sri Lanka, Theravada Buddhism established itself in Thailand during the Sukhothai period. It then spread throughout the southern kingdom of Srivijaya (today known as Nakhon Si Thammarat), where it became known as the Lanka Wong sect.
This year is the 250th anniversary of the Siam Wong sect. To celebrate, Sri Lanka is helping to restore Wat Dhammaram. By providing Bt3.4 million for urgently-needed repairs to the 400-year-old wat, the grateful nation wants to remind Thais of the centuries-old religious ties between the two countries. "The temple is a connection between Thailand and Sri Lanka," says Phra Athikan Prasan Khemakunyo, the abbot of the temple. "It stands to reason that if Sri Lanka wants to do something to help Thai Buddhism, then helping with the wats restoration is a good way to do it."
Banchong Wongwichien, head of the Phra Nakorn Si Ayutthaya Fine Arts Department, which is in charge of archaeological preservation and conservation in the province, says that even Ayutthaya locals knew little about their citys famous monk and the connection with Sri Lanka until restoration work began on the wat two years ago.
"They asked me why Sri Lankans were helping to restore the temple. I told them the story, so now they understand it," Banchong says.
The project began with the restoration of the temples bell tower and Tripitaka Hall, where valuable scriptures were kept. Banchong says the buildings were in a terrible condition, their foundations damaged by subsidence caused by years of flood damage due to the temples location on the banks of the Chao Phya River.
"We had to restore the whole buildings," he recalls. "We laid the new foundations and increased their strength with concrete belts. And dykes have been built in front of these buildings to prevent bank erosion. Everything was re-created from old photographs of the temple that we had."
Two weeks ago, the projects official completion was marked with a ceremony in which a Sri Lankan-made bell was given to the temple.
Banchong considers the donation from the Sri Lankan government a great bonus for Wat Dhammaram. He says there are thousands of archaeological sites in Ayutthaya that need restoration work done, but the departments limited budget can fund only two sites a year.
Meanwhile, that faded wall mural of the floating monks is still awaiting rescue. Without funds, Banchong can do little more than preserve its present condition at best. Nevertheless, he insists he would never ask Sri Lanka for more money.
"For a country like Sri Lanka, that amount of money is huge and
were grateful that they gave it to us," he says. "Phra Ubalis
actions have proven that virtue never dies and good deeds are never useless."
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