This Month’s Feature Article
A Trail down the Unknown Thailand
For visitors to Thailand, the names of places like Bangkok, Phuket or Pattaya are quite well-known for their entertainment values, but not the other places of the country. Very little is known to us on how Sam Desh, as it is known in history had carried the Indian legacy in her own history, civilization, art and culture. For travellers who want to savour the taste of tradition and culture of a place also without restricting themselves to natural beauties only may consider selecting some other places of Thailand also, while visiting the country. Today I want to share my experience about such a place – Phimai city, situated on the northeast boundary (“Nakhon Ratchasima” as they call it) – a city which used to be favourite of the Khmer dynasty kings who ruled Cambodia or the old country of Kamboja.
Phimai city is located almost 321 km away from Bangkok. There are various ways to reach this place. This city is full of beautiful constructions built in line with Angkorbhat of Kamboja. Though the city was founded by Mahayana Buddhism followers, the main attraction of this city lies in the Hindu constructions. Spread over the pillars and lintels of the Phimai palace are stories of Ramayana, Mahabharata, and other stories. Lord Shiva used to be worshipped in this city more than a thousand years ago and the city was full with innumerable Shiva Lingas and idols of gods and goddesses of Hinduism. For people who would love to enjoy the Sam Desh at 4 hours distance from Bangkok, Phimai is a city of wonders.
Phimai can be reached by train, bus, private taxi as well as air. It takes approximately 4 hours to reach by car. The road condition is extremely good and there is no dearth of good food and drinks and resting places on the way. However it saves lots of time if someone reaches Phimai by air route. Alternately one can go by van and return by flight that also saves quality time. On the day of visiting Phimai, one can add few other places of tourist attractions as well, viz. Relics of ancient temples, sanatorium etc.
Before we start our Phimai journey, it is imperative to know who founded this city and how was the world then. Bheema Pura or Phimai was at the confluence of an ancient highway which had joined 2 countries. A wide spacious road passed through Nagar Rajaseema or Nakhon Ratchasima and goes to the famous city of Angkorbhat. The powerful Khmer emperors of Kamboja had built this road with one end of the road being Angkorbhat and the other end is Phimai – a classy, cultured city which was an important trading hub as well. In the old stone edicts, there is another name mentioned for Phimay-Bheemayapura or City of Bheema as per translation – it is quite remarkable to see a city named after the second Pandava at this north-eastern tip of Thailand. It is even more surprising to see the huge lintels mentioning the story of Mahabharata which are still well-preserved and maintained. The city of Phimai was rectangular in shape with a wall and ditch at the boundaries and the highway was a wide cultural link route. On the sides of the highway, the emperors built temples, inns, veterinary clinics and dispensaries. Kuti Rishi or Rishi-Kuthi named old sanatorium still remains. The Phimai city was built during the time of Jayabarman I, the Kamboja ruler who was a Hindu by religion, and many Hindu temples and architectures built by him makes this place of significant value. The city was further developed and beautification was done during the time of Jayaraman VII between 10th century and 12th century.
It is said that it was during the time of Jayaraman VII, the city became a hub of Mahayana Buddhism. More than 102 dispensaries were built on the side of the highway. However, Jay barman VII was tolerant about other religions as well inspite of being a Buddhist himself.
Prasat Phnom ruang used to be the place of worship of Mahadeva. This huge temple was built in in line with the famous Angkorbhat temples, which had 15 entrances from east to west built in such way that the first rays of the sun reaches the deity and the shrine as it happens in temples of India as well.
8 km away from Phimai, Prasat Phnom ruang was a Hindu temple town of 11th century. Like a traditional Hindu temple town, this also had a beautiful huge area in between — 510m by 1090m in size. In between the lake there was a temple — people in Siam and Kamboja believed that sea is all around Mount Meru or Kailash, hence they built the lake and the temple symbolizing their belief.
An uniqueness of Phimai is a huge snake building a bridge or Naga Setu as they call it. Popular belief says Naga Raja Vasuki, or Muchlinda as he is referred in Thailand, is protecting the palaces and the temples. Hence, to reach a temple, one has to cross the huge bridge of Muchalinda.
On the left side of the entrance to the temple, there is a well-constructed relic which still remains, which the eminent historians believe to be the library at one point of time. Like in Sham and Kamboja, in many ancient temples, which were converted to Buddhist temples, similar libraries are seen. In the main shrine, it was Shiva who used to be the worshipped deity who had been replaced by Lord Buddha in these temples. The outer body of the temple has the inscriptions of Ramayana and Mahabharata as in India.
More surprises awaits inside the National Museum than the mere beauty of the temples and palaces of Phimai. The museum is full with 10th century sculptures and statues of Mahishasura Mardini Durga, Shiva and Parvati on the back of Nandi, Ashvamedha ritual of Yudhishthira and many other Gods and Goddesses — not to be missed at all !
Many scholars thinks that the palace and temples made of laterite stones was the victory pillars of the Kamboja kings. A relic of an old palace is seen on the road between Bangkok and Phimai which used to be the chest of the kings. Before any big ritual, the king used to use that palace for getting ready and to arrange the homage he intended to carry for the rituals. The experts have found many square pillars there and they have identified that these palaces had innumerable rooms with the ceilings made of wood. These palaces were probably used to store the religious books.
There is a temple named “He brahma” at the palace from where 7 Shiva Lingams were rescued in 1954. It is assumed that this place was an education centre.
For building all these palaces and temples, the stones came from Shikhiu district beside the Nakhon Ratchasima High Road, where very carefully, a huge space has been conserved till date. Stone was cut from here and was carried to build temples, hospitals, rest-houses etc. 17 inns and rest-houses were built for the travellers by the benevolent rulers. On that road, there is another Cambodian town Muang Khorokpura, a place which has high phonetic resemblance with Gorakhpur of India.
That place has a huge hospital built by King Jay Barman VII and has been preserved and restored well till date and is popular by the name Oat-Prang-Muang Kaoname. Experienced guides explain the history of this place in a candid way and some of the walls of the hospitals still remain. There used to be two huge lakes that used to supply water to the hospital and the local villagers used to render their service to the hospital.
Phimai not only is laden with a rich archaeological and historical heritage, people who are interested about ancient pre historic cave paintings of “Tham Khyao Chan Nogam” also have their treat near the Shikhiu district and makes you go through a creepy reminiscence of past. The Tham Khyao Chan Nogam caves are 58km away from Nakhon Ratchasima town. Nearly 4000 years back there used to live some people who have used some red organic colour and drew many pictures of hunting for the future generations to cherish. Some of the paintings depict the daily life of those days as well.
Having dinner at a local Shikhiu restaurant, one can come back to Bangkok in 3 hours.
There are books available at Phimai museum mentioning the details about the museum but most of them are written in Thai language only. While concluding the travelogue on Phimai, it is pertinent to mention that many researchers claim the word “Phimai” has come from the Buddhist word ‘Vimana”. I am ignorant about the origin of this word, whether it is Sanskrit or not, but Phimai in its own style, with splendid architectures, and as spectator of numerous historical events, is a must destination for researchers and travellers. The Bhimaya Pura, just like Bhima of the Pandava brothers, stands tall in the map of Thailand, written in golden letters and present in the love and affection of local people.
- Courtesy Siam Society Study-trip
- Phimai, its Cultural Route and Associated Temples of Phanomroong and Muangtam — by Prof. Dr. Adul Wichiencharoen.
Mrs Anita Bose is the author of the bestseller, Ramayana: Footprints in South-East Asian Culture and Heritage. She has lived for several years in Thailand and has travelled in South-East Asia and done extensive research on the spread and impact of Ramayana and ancient Hindu culture in Thailand and other surrounding countries.
Mrs Anita Bose has also written extensively about Madhubani art and has published Patachitra of Odisha and Jagannath Culture, a work on art.