Ancient Thailand

The ancient Siamese kingdoms of Thailand maintained an independent existence throughout their thousand year history, and were never conquered by foreign powers.

Paintings of Life of Gautama Buddha at Wat Phra Yuen Phutthabat Yukhon Amphoe Laplae.
The Ancient Cultures of Siam

Head of Buddha, bronze, Sukhothai style, late 14th–early 15th century

The home of Theravada Buddhism, and the ancient gilded Wat temples, throughout its 800-year history Thailand can boast the distinction of being the only country in Southeast Asia never to have been colonized. Almost a thousand years ago the Tai people migrated from their ancestral homeland in the southern mountains of China, to establish a long lived Kingdom known for centuries as Siam. Developing a unique culture based closely on the principles of Buddhism, Thailand developed a culture that was deeply independent, and distrustful of foreign intentions. This led them to develop a powerful military, that clashed in tremendous confrontations with the Burmese Kingdoms of the north. The art of Thailand can be considered one of the most refined in south east Asian tradition, achieving the idealized perfection that is mirrored in the west with classical Greek art.

Early History, the Nanzhao Kingdom

A Buddha, from an ancient Sukothai temple

Nanzhao Kingdom was formed by the unification of six Tai kingdoms in 729. Piluoge, the leader of one small tribal state, extended his control over the five neighboring kingdoms while acting in alliance with China, which needed an ally against the aggressive Tibetans. Once unification was complete, Piluoge established Nanzhao’s center of power near Lake Er. Geographic factors rendered the capital impregnable, and two Chinese attacks were repulsed in 751 and 754. Nanzhao was also able to dominate the East-West trade routes from China and Tongking through Burma to India. By the 9th century Nanzhao had become an imperialistic state waging war deep into Burma in 832 and into Tongking in 862. This relationship of warfare with Burma set the stage for the rivalry these two dominant powers faced for the next few centuries.

Nanzhao attained a high level of culture. Skilled artisans taught the weaving of cotton and silk gauze. Salt and gold were mined in many parts of the kingdom, and a complex system of government and administration was developed.

A view of the scared Stone Bell Mountain

A view of the scared Stone Bell Mountain

Nanzhao declined during the late 9th century and fell in 902, when a rebel official killed its last emperor and set up a new state. The Mongols under the leadership of Kublai Khan conquered the area in 1253. During the preceding two centuries, however, the Tai had been moving southward in large numbers, eventually forming the bulk of the population in what is present-day Thailand. The Thai people founded their kingdom in the southern part of China, which is Yunnan, Kwangsi and Canton today. A great number of people migrated south as far as the Chao Phraya Basin and settled down over the Central Plain under the sovereignty of the Khmer Empire, whose culture they probably accepted. The Thai people founded their independent state of Sukhothai around 1238 A.D., which marks the beginning of the Sukhothai Period.

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The Kingdom of Sukhothai

Thai warriors depicted in an stone carving from the Sukhothai era

A Kingdom and a dynasty were founded here in the middle of the thirteenth century, and the Thais gradually brought under their sway the whole of the land that has remained theirs, from Burma to Cambodia and, to the south, down as far as the Malay Peninsula. In the 13th century, during the Sukhothai Period, Thais began to emerge as a dominant force in the region, gradually asserting independence from existing Khmer and Mon kingdoms. Called by its rulers “the dawn of happiness”, this is often considered the golden era of Thai history, an ideal Thai state in a land of plenty governed by paternal and benevolent kings, the most famous of whom was King Ramkamhaeng the Great. However in 1350, the mightier state of Ayutthaya exerted its influence over Sukhothai.

The Kingdom of Sukhothai had important contacts with Sri Lanka. Thai monks travelled to Sri Lanka for further religious instruction, and Sri Lankan monks settled in Sukhothai. Sukhothai religious art was thus influenced by Sri Lankan art. The Buddha images of the Sukhothai era gained important disdinguishing characteristics from the images during the Khmer and Mon era. A flame appeared on top of the head of the Buddha. The head is covered with fine curled hair. The face is oval, with high curving eyebrows, a hooked nose, a downward gaze, and overall displays a gentle smiling expression. The body of the Buddha images displays broad shoulders and a small waist. Overall it can be said that the Buddha Images do not appear human, but display idealistic or superhuman characteristics. During the Sukhothai era, the four postures of the Buddha (sitting, standing, walking, reclining) were created. Buddha images of the Sukhothai era are subdivided in several groups. Sitting Buddha images of the Sukhothai period most often display meditation posture, or the gesture of Subduing Mara. Walking Buddhas display the gesture of dispelling fear (Abhaya Mudra), or giving instruction (Vitarka Mudra).

A map of Thailand in the 13th century

A map of Thailand in the 13th century

Sukhothai, one of the most remarkable architectural sites in the whole world is hidden away in the middle of Thailand !. Some 300kms(180 miles) north of Bangkok in amongst the orchards and paddy-fields, in the heavily forested flat-lands that spread across the valleys of the parallel rivers flowing down from the northern mountains near the Chinese border, where the Mekong River also rises. Behind a screen of mango’s and coconut palms,the tall towers, the domes with their pointed steeples and the giant statues emerge proudly from the tangled undergrowth clinging to their base and almost smothering dozens of smaller monuments. This is all that is left of a once formidable city, and the buildings still standing, apart from the ramparts and the ruins of the moats, are all shrines, temples and monasteries, though the men who built the city, and made their own dwellings out of mud and wood, had wanted to leave only the testimonies of their spiritual quest to posterity. Sukhothai -“the dawn of happiness”, is the name of this city, which between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries was the capital and whose history sums up the beginnings of the Thai nation.

For 200 years Sukhothai was the moving spirit behind this development. Its decline came about only in the first half of the fifteenth century, when a new capital farther south, Ayuthaya, was set up and became the new political centre, asserting its authority over all the cities in the new state. The first Thai princes no doubt brought with them the Mongol hierarchical organization of society, for theirs was divided into warriors, commoners and serfs.

The Thais had already been initiated into Theravada Buddhism and before long adopted the culture of the Khmers,with its strong Indian influence, and also their customs. King Ram Khamhaeng the Great, who succeeded to the throne of Sukhothai, invented the Thai script, an adapted version of Khmer writing, which is derived in turn from a southern Indian alphabet, as attested by a stone inscription of 1283. He is also attributed with working in co-operation with both King Ngam Muang of Phayao & King Mengrai of Lan Na helping with the choosing of the site where the new capital of Lan Na would be built, the site they collectively chose is better known as Chiang Mai today. The Three Kings Monument proudly stands today in the old centre of Chiang Mai as testiment to their co-operation.

It was the same King Ram Khamhaeng, who rebuilt the city of Sukhothai, conferring upon it the eminently religious character still so striking today. Buddhism, the official religion,espoused with such fervour that one of the king’s successors became a monk for some time, co-existed peacefully not only with Hinduism but with the traditional ancestor worship and worship of spirits, including the guardian spirit of the city. But it was Buddhism that through its doctrine and traditions was to exert a guiding influence over the development of the capital and the surrounding areas. A Sukhothai stone inscription gives a magnificent narrative of this kingdom, which at the height of its power must have had a population of nearly 300,000.

The inscription names the ramparts, lakes and ponds, designating the orchards and the fields, of which it is said that “whoever cultivates them, possesses them” and, especially, enumerating the buildings erected by its kings in testimony to the irreligious zeal. In the centre were the sanctuaries, Buddha images of all sizes in gold, bronze and stucco; to the west a monastery containing a large sanctuary enshrining the statue of a seated Buddha,eighteen cubits high( 9 metres / 30 feet); to the east, more sanctuaries; to the north towering above the houses, coconut palms and paddy fields, large Buddha images; and to the south, monasteries and temples. Even with the waning of their prosperity, the last princes of the line were,to the end, as bountiful as their predecessors in their architectural and religious zeal. Within the perfect rectangle, measuring 2,000 by 1,600 metres, traced out by the ramparts of this carefully planned city, there are today seventy-six of these monuments, and there are fifty outside the walls.

This profusion of religious architecture enabled the ruling elite to proclaim both its faith and the stability of the state, and the stone inscriptions can no doubt be believed when they stress the loyalty of the inhabitants “all without exception, without distinction of rank or sex”, and the justice and harmony that reigned in the Kingdom and far beyond its borders, since the sovereign called upon the subjected peoples to observe with love and mutual respect the “Law of Enlightenment and Compassion”. One thing is certain, this attitude,inspired by the Sri Lankan doctrine of Hinayana – “the Little Vehicle”, better known as Theravada Buddhism today, was to have a profound effect on culture and the arts and leave its imprint on the development of the Kingdom for many centuries to come.

This influence was felt first and foremost in the art of building,which, with the exception of the walls, small forts and possibly the royal palace, of which only the foundations remain, can be seen in monumental architectural complexes, nearly all comprised of the same elements but laid out in an extraordinary variety of ways. The masonry is either brick bonded with limestone mortar or (usually for the walls and basic structure) laterite blocks, and the main architectural features are the high towers surmounted by a majestic lotus-bud dome, known in India as “stupas” and in Thailand as “chedis”,which were originally used for storing relics of the Buddha.

There are also other towers, either central monuments within the sacred precinct or, alternatively,structures built to enclose the chedi. The “mondop” is square, with a tapering roof, and the “prang” is reminiscent of the Khmer prasaton which it is modelled upon, with slender lines and highly decorative sculptures. Another characteristic feature is the Viharn, sometimes to be found in the center of a monastic complex but more often in front of the chedi; it is a large assembly hall divided into naves by bonded brick pillars, with a timber-frame roof and a solid apse as a background for the monumental Buddha images.

The historic King Ramkhamhaeng

The historic King Ramkhamhaeng

These buildings were partly covered with ornamental stucco sculpting, both inside and out. They usually had very intricate decorative motifs in bas-relief: demons, vast floral panels, and seven-headed snakes (nagas). But there were also ceilings with finely worked engravings illustrating countless scenes from Buddha’s previous lives Qataka. Several of the bas-reliefs were painted, but unfortunately all that is left are traces of the pigments used. The statuary, however, is there, an abundant, impressive testimony to the genius of its sculptors, who were past masters in all the forms of sacred imagery employed at the time, and their masterpieces include several effigies of Hindu divinities, Siva, Urna,Lakshmi, and Vishnu.

But nothing is more characteristic of the art of Sukhothai than the innumerable Buddha figures, cast in bronze or molded in stucco on a laterite core, which for more than two centuries were both an internal and external feature of every temple and monastery. Their own particular form, although there is usually evidence of Sinhalese influence, reflects what may be taken to be a dogged, clear determination to employ every possible means to portray the supernatural morphology ascribed to the Buddha by the sacred texts.

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The Ayutthaya Kingdoms

The ruins of an Ayuttaya temple

The ruins of an Ayuttaya temple

The Ayutthaya kings adopted Khmer cultural influences from the very beginning. No longer the paternal and accessible rulers that the kings of Sukhothai had been, Ayutthaya’s sovereigns were absolute monarchs and assumed the title devaraja (god-king). The early part of this period saw Ayutthaya extend its sovereignty over neighboring Thai principalities and come into conflict with its neighbours, During the 17th century, Siam started diplomatic and commercial relations with western countries. In 1767, a Burmese invasion succeeded in capturing Ayutthaya. Despite their overwhelming victory, the Burmese did not retain control of Siam for long. A young general named Phya Taksin and his followers broke through the Burmese and escaped to Chantaburi. Seven months after the fall of Ayutthaya, he and his forces sailed back to the capital and expelled the Burmese occupation garrison.

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Buddhist Temples

Buddhist Wat Temples

Buddhist temples in Thailand (otherwise known as ‘wat’) are located in temple compounds and consists of a number of buildings with different architecture, function and importance. Most temples, of course, since having been built in the last century, will be in ‘contemporary’ or Rattanakosin style, but on the tourist trail and when visiting well renown wats, you will find different architecture, related to the historical period when the temple compounds were built.

Wat Pho (also known as Wat Chetuphon) lies within walking distance south of the Royal Grand Palace. The oldest structures date to the Ayutthaya period. During the Thonburi period (1767-1792) Wat Pho was granted the royal monastery status. The temple has been restored many times during the past 2 centuries. Wat Pho is well known for its Reclining Buddha. The Vihara of the Reclining Buddha was built during the reign of Rama III. The gilded Reclining Buddha is 46 meters long and 15 meters high. Remarkable are also the feet of the Buddha statue, featuring mother-of-pearl inlay drawings of the 108 auspicious characteristics of the Buddha.

A most imposing building when exiting the vihara (wihan) of the Reclining Buddha is the Phra Mondop (The Scripture Hall). It is topped with a crown-like spire and decorated with colourful porcelain. The Scripture Hall keeps a small library on the Tripitaka or teachings of the Buddha. Wat Pho contains close to a hundred chedi (pagodas). They have different styles and dimensions. Besided Thai style, some chedis are in Cambodian style, some in Chinese style. The most famous and most prominent of the chedis at Wat Pho, are those dedicated to the four first Kings of the Chakri dynasty. Each of the four Phra Maha Chedi is about 41 metres high. They are in different colors (green, white, yellow, blue respectively for the Phra Maha Chedi dedicated to the Kings Rama I, II, III and IV).

View of the Sukhothai Sa Si Temple

View of the Sukhothai Sa Si Temple

The Phra Ubosot at Wat Pho contains the main Buddha statue, called Phra Tang Pha Thip. It is in meditation posture in Ayutthaya style. The murals on the wall of Phra Ubosot feature all levels of heaven. The eight pearl-inlaid doors feature the Ramayana epic. The chapel boundary wall is decorated with bas-reliefs from the Ramayana. When walking around Bangkok, you will see often images on transparent paper for sale. These were originally copied (not anymore) from the outer wall of the chapel. Wat Pho has long been involved in health. Different statues of hermits in exercise postures can be seen. At present Wat Pho is still a center for traditional Thai massage, which can be experienced in situ. The many inscriptions at Wat Pho indicate that the temple was a major institute of education and is considered the first ‘open university’ in Thailand.

Wat Benchamabophit is a temple compound of profound beauty and religious importance. Better known to foreigners as ‘the Marble Temple’, it is located close to Dusit palace. The Ubosoth was constructed with Carrara marble from Italy, therefore the name. Wat Benchamabophit is a royal monastery belonging to the first class ranking of Rajavaravihara. Few wats belong to this class. The wat was founded during the reign of King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) on 1 March 1900. Because of this date, it not long ago celebrated its centennial. That possibly is one of the reasons why the compound as a whole looks amazingly well maintained, with even the monks living quarters in bright unexpected colors. The name ‘Wat Bechamabophit’ simply means : the temple of the Fifth King. The main structure at Wat Benchamabophit is the Ubosoth Hall. It is one of the finest works of architectural art of the Bangkok period. The Ubosoth has four gables, with the east gable being the main entrance.

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