Bangkok offers glimpse into the past

Bangkok offers glimpse into the past

The city is a melting pot of Eastern and Western cultures

The ubosot of Rachathiwat Temple, refurbished during King Chulalongkorn's era and supervised by his brother Prince Naris, features not only Buddhist and Thai but also European-style motifs as well as symbols from Hinduism.  Nutthawat Wichienbut
The ubosot of Rachathiwat Temple, refurbished during King Chulalongkorn's era and supervised by his brother Prince Naris, features not only Buddhist and Thai but also European-style motifs as well as symbols from Hinduism.  Nutthawat Wichienbut

Stroll along the Chao Phraya River and visit the old quarter of the capital Krung Thep Maha Nakhon and you can see living proof of the harmonious mixture of Thai-Chinese and European cultures, which still carries a connection from ancient Ayutthaya to the modern Rattanakosin era.

The term "Bangkok" has been known among foreigners since the Ayutthaya era. It was the area of about 10 kilometres from the mouth of the Chao Phraya River, where all the foreign vessels coming from the sea and the bank of the Chao Phraya River stopped and paid tariffs.

"Goods were unloaded here. Not everyone and everything could pass and get into the inner city, the capital of Ayutthaya. Some of the foreigners settled down in this area," said Assoc Prof Predee Phisphumvidhi, deputy dean of Mahidol University's Faculty of Liberal Arts.

After the fall of Ayutthaya, the capital moved to Thon Buri along the west bank of the Chao Phraya River during the King Taksin era and later moved to the east side of the river when King Rama I during the present Rattanakosin era took the throne. The connection from the ancient to the modern era continues through religion, the arts and people's way of life.

For an instance, the Santa Cruz and Holy Rosary churches, as part of the legacy of Thai-Portuguese relations, carry the historical connection.

After the fall of the Ayutthaya Kingdom, when King Taksin settled Thon Buri as the new capital, he allocated a piece of land on the West bank of the Chao Phraya River for the Portuguese community to settle on because they were good friends of Siam.

The land became the Santa Cruz community, which is today home to Thais and Chinese who are Christians, Buddhists and Muslims.

"We have lived together harmoniously for over 200 years. We call ourselves 'Three religions, four Beliefs' but actually there is more than that," Kudichin community leader Pinthong Wongsakun, 62, said.

"We take care of one another. We share a disaster warning system. For example, when the water rises, the area where Muslims live would be the first to face flooding. We would gather and help them handle the flood, such as by building community bridges. Similarly, for other kinds of disasters, we watch one another's back," he said.

The bells of Santa Cruz Church are still a part of the warning system. Their sounds can be heard all over the area of this riverside community.

All 17 families in the community are close. They pass on their traditions. Before any new members join the family through marriage, they are introduced in advance, Ms Pinthong said.

The Kudi Chin community also join hands to conserve and promote their cultures through community tourism. Khanom farang Kudi Chin, or sponge cake, is one of the highlights.

The cake was adapted from a Portuguese recipe, using Siamese ingredients and Chinese culture, to make sponge cakes topped with sugar, slices of sweetened pumpkin, dried persimmon and raisins.

In addition, Ban Sakul Thong provides authentic Thai-Portuguese style food while the Ban Kudi Chin Museum welcomes visitors who want to explore the history and cultures of this community.

The Santa Cruz church is in its third version. During King Rama III's era, the church was renovated for the second time in 1834, which was supervised by Jean-Baptiste Pallegoix, a bishop who later would contribute greatly to the Siamese intellectual community.

For a time in the early Rattanakosin era, under the reign of King Rama I, Portuguese Christians did not accept the power of French missions authorised by Rome (the Vatican) in Thailand.

They separated from Ayutthaya and brought their precious relics, the statue of Our Lady of the Rosary and a lifelike wooden sculpture of the Corpse of Christ, to their new church on the East bank of the Chao Phraya River. It was only later that Christians here accepted the French missions.

The name of the Holy Rosary Church, also known as Wat Kalawa, is believed to be a recognition of Mount Calvary, where Jesus was crucified.

In the past, the only chance people could see the Corpse of Christ statute was once a year on Black Friday. But today, visitors can appreciate the beauty of the statue when they come to this gorgeous church.

In 1838, Bishop Pallegoix was once again assigned to supervise the renovation of the Holy Rosary Church, but the building was already worn out by time.

Under the reign of King Rama V, from 1891-1897, the new church was constructed in an elegant Gothic Revival style. The funds came from donations mostly made by Chinese businessmen.

About 2km near the Holly Rosary Church, we can again appreciate the Romanesque Bisentile style of architecture at Assumption Cathedral, located in the old neighbourhood of Bang Rak.

It is another cathedral designed by Western artists during the Rattanakosin era.

"This is designed by French missionaries with the intent to make it great," said Puttipong Puttansri, director of historical archives, Arch Diosease of Bangkok.

"The Bell Tower was inspired by the Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon. When Christians pass on the boat they can see [this tower], and feel the noble mind."

Unfortunately, the luxurious stained glass from France were all damaged during World War II. The principal Roman Catholic church of Thailand Assumption Cathedral was a venue for hosting Papal visits to Thailand, including Pope John Paul II in 1984 and Pope Francis in 2019.

Apart from Christian arts, the Rachathiwat Temple can also be an example of the Siamese-Western connection. King Mongkut (Rama IV), before taking the reign, was ordained here.

He developed a friendship with Bishop Pallegoix of the Immaculate Conception Church. The temple and the church are next to each other with only a small canal in between.

These are only a glimpse of harmony in the cultures we can see, just by exploring "Bangkok".

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