- Ayutthaya nai yan krungthep: silpakam thi samphan kap maenam lam khlong by Praphatsot Chuwichian
As the author of this interesting book quite rightly points out in his preface, the flooding that annually plagues Bangkok's eight million residents is nothing new. Sedimentation that gradually raised the Chaophraya River delta above sea level over the course of the past millennium contributed to the adverse floodwater conditions during the wet seasons. The communities that settled in the lower river delta over the centuries have adapted their way of life to the area's aquatic reality. What is new, however, is the irresponsible ecological exploitation of Bangkok and its surrounding flood plains—supplemented by the deforestation of the upper Chaophraya watershed—over the past century and a half, which has transformed the delta's human ecology from 'adaptive' to increasingly 'adversarial', turning the annual inundation from friend to foe.
Among the various preoccupations of Thai historians in recent decades has been the delineation of the peopling of the lower Chaophraya delta from former centuries. The present study contributes to that body of research by surveying, analysing and [End Page 221] dating many of the lower delta's surviving ancient temples as a means of plotting the origins of the area's human settlement during the Ayutthaya era (1351–1767). That challenging interdisciplinary exercise entailed long and exhaustive fieldwork for the author. Specialist skills in art history were also required to examine the surviving architectural and archaeological fragments of major temple elements—presiding Buddha images (phra phutha rup pratan), ordination and congregation halls (ubosot and wihan), boundary stones (bai sema) and reliquary monuments (chedi and prang)—as a means of estimating their approximate dates of origin. It is fortunate that recent technological breakthroughs in satellite monitoring and remote sensing—culminating in the global positioning system (GPS) and Google Earth mapping—helped to make that task much more efficient.
During the Ayutthaya era, the lower delta—Ayutthaya's 'Gateway to the South Seas' (pak tai), otherwise known as 'the Sea of Mud' (thale tom)—attracted peasants from the lower social classes who engaged in wetlands foraging, fishing, fruit gardening, salt farming and local transport. Wet-rice cultivation was scarcely possible because of the lower delta's saline soil, and these pursuits substituted adequately for the staple Thai crop in generating a subsistence income. To cope with the isolation and insecurity of their frontier life, the pioneers clustered across river- and canal-side settlements. Each settlement was served by a temple providing a broad range of social functions, as well as linking the lower delta communities with the political, economic and cultural core at Ayutthaya. The importance of these community centres was reflected in their assembly halls' prominent and durable brick-and-mortar construction, which stood in contrast to the frail, impermanent wood and bamboo fabrication of all other village structures. The surviving remnants of the lower delta's many ancient village temples is the focus of the book's effort to delineate the chronology of settlements in the lower Chaophraya delta over the course of the Ayutthaya era.
The book focuses on the art styles observable in the sculpting and casting of the surviving temples' presiding Buddha images, the [End Page 222] carving of temple boundary stones, the architecture and stucco work of monastic assembly halls, and the contours of reliquary monuments. An entire chapter is devoted to Wat Prang Luang, located along the west bank of a major meander of the old Chaophraya River channel near the upstream limit of the lower delta, at Nonthaburi; a detailed examination of that ancient temple's archaeological remnants suggests that it is the oldest surviving temple in the lower Chaophraya Delta. The chapters that follow compare the main architectural and archaeological features of a large number of other temples scattered across the lower delta. The result is a rough periodization of the lower delta's expanding habitation over a series of half-century stages, from the late twenty...