Pilgrimage to Sri Pada in Siam
The envoys from Kandy were on a noble mission seeking assistance from Siamese King His Majesty Borommacot Dharmaraja II (1733-1759) for revival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka which was at a pathetic, declining phase and was in the verge of disappearing from the island due to lack of properly ordained monks to carry on the Buddhist order and doctrine for the benefit of future generations.
The Buddhist institutions were deteriorated and discipline among the clergy was degenerated.
The Sri Lankan ambassadors were carrying an urgent message (Royal Sannasa) written in Pali language probably using the Cambodian script, sent by King Kirthi Sri Rajasinghe appealing for help from the fellow Buddhist ruler for revival of the esteemed common religion sacred to them. Both countries have past records of mutual help in perpetuation of Buddhism in their hours of need.
There were five Sinhalese ambassadors in the delegation accompanied by fifty-five supporting staff including several personal assistants to the ambassadors, guards, soldiers’ cooks, washermen, musicians, drummers, trumpeters, ayurvedic physicians and astrologers.
The logistic and transportation aspects for this large entourage including personal belongings as well as gifts to be given to many temples and individuals required a well organised set-up consisting of a retinue of elephants, horses, bullock carts and several boats, to be provided by the hosts at the other end.
Vilbagedera Naide, the veteran ambassador in this large entourage kept a meticulous record of the events beginning from the day they departed Trincomalee port aboard the Dutch ship Weltryg (1st August, 1750) to landing back in Sri Lanka (30th May, 1753) on board the V.O.C. ship Oost Kapelle after two years and nine months stay out of home country.
He commenced writing his recollections purely as a meritorious act which was the motivating factor for such works in that era. His form of writing is lucid, simple and easy to understand.
The narration describes details of the sea voyage and hazards they encountered, the countries they passed, the river cruise from Bangkok to Ayutthiya, the glorious capital city, which was considered to be the largest and wealthiest city in Asia at that time, the grand entrance to the Palace, Royal elephant stables, the guard of honour, audience with the King, a pilgrimage to Buddhapada temple, the splendid hospitality showered by the Siamese to delegates from Kandy and mishaps they had to encounter on return journey.
On the date decided for the Royal audience (26th July, 1751) the Sri Lankan delegation arrived in sixteen decorated barges and at the palace gateway got into horse drawn carriages that took them to inner ramparts where they dismounted and walked past the guard of honour accorded by thousand riflemen wearing armour and brass helmets. A short description is given by the author at this point of what they saw including the Royal white elephant.
Then they entered the palace and presented themselves before His Majesty who was seated like God Sakra on the golden throne decorated with precious jewels. After usual salutations the king graciously announced the royal ascent in response to the noble request made by the king of Kandy.
A royal command was decreed after the audience that arrangements should be made facilitating the Sinhalese delegation to visit and worship Phra putthapad, (Sri Buddha Pada) one of the most sacred temples in Siam.
Although the distance from Ayutthiya was nearly sixty kilometres they had to go by boats first and then walk or ride through the jungle paths along a difficult terrain to reach Saccha pahn khiri (Saccha Baddha Giri) where Buddha’s right footprint was set.
In order to elucidate the link with this holy place and placing of the sacred footprint, the author has inserted at this point the discourse between Buddha and sage Saccha Bhadda which took place soon after the exalted one attained Buddhahood.
Sri lanka holds the modest honour of initiating the discovery of Footprint of Buddha in Siam in the year 1628 A.D. The fascinating legend connected to it demonstrates the mutual bond between Buddhist communities existed in both countries for centuries. Before the advent of Gandhara art and sculpture, Buddhists in the ancient world had faith in worshipping the footprint as a form of respect to the great teacher.
It is known that replicas of footprints impressed on clay, sculptured on stone or carved in wood, were venerated in temples in ancient Buddhist world. At one stage the total number of such footprints exceeded thirteen thousand in places of worship extending from Afghanistan to Japan.
The influence of Greek/ Gandhara sculpture which was introduced at a later period transformed this form of worship gradually by changing over to venerating Buddha statues. The decline in idolizing the footprint as a result led to search for more specific locations, where Buddha has visited and had blessed those places by setting the sacred footprint.
Total of four such holy sites situated in India, Sri Lanka Indo Greek Ionia and Suwarnabhumi (part of Thailand today) were known in the ancient Buddhist world
Narmada river sand bank - India (not discovered yet)
Sumanakuta - (discovered in Sri Lanka in 3rd century B.C.)
Indo Greek Ionian city located either in Kashmir or in Bactria (not discovered yet) (Yonaka pura)
Saccha Baddha Giri (discovered in Siam in the year 1628 A.D)
The above draw up shows that the oldest known site was in Sri Lanka attracting pilgrims from all over the Buddhist world. It is recorded that altogether thirteen Sri Lankan kings, first one in 29 B.C and the last one in 1789 A.D. had climbed the holy mountain while thousands of other local and foreign devotees annually made pilgrimage to the sacred summit.
The fascinating story of how Sri Lankan monks helped indirectly to discover the Pra Buddhapada in Siam begins in connection with a visit to Sri Lanka by two Siamese monks on pilgrimage to Sri Pada. Very few devotees dared to venture into almost a “never return” expedition from their motherland to a strange land at a distance of nearly two thousand miles.
It would have been an extremely difficult journey in those days (in the year 1627 A.D.), as they had to encounter the rough terrains and unforeseen mishaps at home county first and then at a foreign land.
The ships owned by V.O.C were the major available mode of transport to venture in to the risky voyage across the Indian ocean to reach Batticaloa or Trincomalee, the two ports in Eastern sea coast of Sri Lanka under the Kandyan kingdom.
From there the two monks probably would have taken the route to Sri Pada by crossing the river Mahaweli at Mahiyangana and then to the ancient city of Ratnapura which again was an arduous journey through the jungle and remote villages.
It was the tradition in those days to provide food and lodging to pilgrims by the villagers while monks were accommodated at temples across the route. The stopovers usually extended for few days more helped the pilgrims to recuperate, find new friends, exchange notes and commence the difficult climb.
While resting in such a retreat, fellow Sinhalese monks enquired the Siamese guests why they make a tedious journey from Siam all the way when a sacred footprint already exists in their own country.
It appeared that the Siamese monks did not know about it and was thankful to the Sinhalese monks for the information given. They were told that Saccha Badda Giri is supposed to be located in Suwarnabhumi and therefore the people of Siam should make a strong effort to find it.
Resuming their journey back home, the two monks reached Ayutthiya ten months later and straightaway reported to the pious King Song tham Indraraja what they heard in Sri Lanka and the good advice given by the Sinhalese monks.
Overjoyed by this happy news, the King ordered a massive search operation enlisting his Armed Forces, Government Officials, and general public. They were combing through the jungles closer to mountains, rock formations and hilly lands with no success.
Wilbagedera wrote his short account hundred and twelve years after discovery of Pra Buddhapada. Among other foreigners who put their views on record, the Dutch national Theodorus Jacobus von den Heuvel’s account written in the year 1737 remains prominent.
He was the head of the Dutch trade office in Ayutthiya during King Borromakot Dharmaraja’s reign and joined the journey under royal command once as a “honorary observer”. He kept a daily journal of the visit in detail describing the river cruise, jungle trek, places and temples they visited, prelates and officials they met and the hospitality of the Siamese. It is a valuable historical record.
However as usual among Europeans living in Asia in that era, it seems that he found it difficult to comprehend fully the oriental way of life and religious practices, and as a result, jumped into wrong and superficial conclusions.
He displayed his ignorance and failure to understand the primary Buddhist concepts based on the genesis of a wide universe depicted symbolically by 108 auspicious signs on Buddha’s feet.
Visiting the temple subsequently he saw everything with a critical eye. In contrast, Wilbagedera was a devout narrator always conscious of the fact that the most important mission he had been entrusted with was to escort the Siamese monks to Sri Lanka.
Awareness of Buddhist doctrines learned in home country, and rituals practiced from childhood made it easy for him and others in the entourage to understand subtle local nuances and take part in ceremonies at ease at the Buddhapada temple. He saw everything with a faithful eye.
There are many accounts on glories of Ayutthiya written by French, Dutch, Portuguese, English and Persian visitors Among them only two had described Buddhapada, namely the long account by the Dutch envoy in 1737 and the brief description by Wilbagedera in 1751 A,D. His work may be the only one written by an Asian Buddhist visitor having parallel thoughts with Siamese, a fact one cannot ignore when comparing him with other foreign writers. In that sense he holds a unique place.
Ayutthiya kingdom was completely destroyed by the invading Burmese army in the year 1778 the city was plundered, almost all the religious places were set on fire, thousands were killed, in short, the glorious city of Auytthiya vanished from the scene within few days.
It is presumed that Wibagedera was among the last few foreign visitors who wrote descriptions on the magnificent capital few years before it was destroyed.
A visit to Phra Buddhapad, situated 108km from Bangkok is worthwhile as a pilgrimage or one day trip. There are many modes of transport from Bangkok to the sacred place, by bus, by hiring car or by the river in a comfortable boat or renovated rice barge up to the city of Ayutthaya and continue to Buddha Pada. There is a wide variety of choice available, priced for any budget.
It is also possible to take a train to Ayutthiya and continue by road. Although it takes time, the boat ride is the best way of seeing the beautiful country side as well. Usually the boat journey starts at 8 A.M. from Bangkok and takes about three to four hours to reach Ayutthiya with lunch provided in the boat. Few hours could be spent sightseeing in the old city.
While in Autthiya, a visit to Wat Dharmaram Temple is a must for every Sri Lankan Buddhist who wish to pay grateful homage to Siamese National Upali Maha Thera for his priceless contribution to the revival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka.
He was residing at that temple when permission was granted by King Borommacot Dharmaraja to lead the team of 18 Siamese monks and eight novices to the island nation in 1752. There is a beautiful mural depicting that historic event inside the temple.
This place of worship was recently renovated through the initiatives jointly taken by our Embassy in Bangkok and Thai ministry of foreign affairs. The Sri Lanka Govt contributed three million four hundred forty thousand Bhats towards the cost while Royal Thai government contributed one million Bhats for the restoration.
The journey to Buddhapada by highway from Ayutthiya moves through pleasant countryside and the entrance to the temple seen from a distance is awe inspiring.
The well kept and clean atmosphere at the approach immediately puts one in a relaxed mood and the serene ambience of greenery invites the visitors to roam leisurely in the vast ten square kilometers of this temple perimeter.
The pleasant sound of bells hanging from the roof edges of the vihara, set up in motion by the cool breeze, combined with the deep resonant of temple bells rung by devotees create an appeasing atmosphere.
It is certainly a soothing experience for those who need restorative blessings after visiting overcrowded temples and hectic shopping sprees in Bangkok.
(The writer was the former Sri Lankan Ambassador to the Netherlands and to the Philippines.)