Discover Siam's Ancient Capitals

Story posted: Saturday, 28. May 2011 by CPA Media

Pictures From History / Themes / SIAMESE CAPITALS






Discover Siam's Ancient Capitals


The earliest known civilisation in Thailand dates from around 3600 BC, when the people of Ban Chiang in the northeast developed bronze tools, fired pottery, and began to cultivate wet paddy rice. At this time the Tai people who have given their name to the kingdom did not even inhabit the region of present day Thailand, but are thought to have been living in loosely organised groups in what is now southern China.

Little is known of the history of Thailand’s coastal regions until around two millennia ago, by which time it seems certain that Malay peoples were already settled in southern peninsular Thailand along both the Andaman and Gulf coasts. Inland, in the wild hills and jungles of the central spine, small groups of negrito hunter-gatherers, the ancestors of today’s Mani people, eked out a precarious living. Further to the north Mon people had settled the Tenasserim region and the southern Chaophraya Valley, while further east the Khmers had settled along the southeastern gulf coast and in the Mekong delta, while of the Tais, still living far to the north, there was as yet no sign. Significantly, however, by this time both Indian and Chinese civilisations had become powerful and advanced. Each would develop to exercise powerful and very different cultural influences across mainland Southeast Asia, becoming in time the cultural godfathers of the region, which Europeans would eventually dub Indochina. The first civilisations to develop among Thailand’s coasts and islands were not Tai all, therefore, but Malay, Mon and Khmer, each of which would be influenced to a greater or lesser degree by both India and China.


 Suvarnabhumi and Srivijaya

 As early as 300 BC the Malay World, including peninsular Thailand, was already being Indianised by traders visiting in search of fragrant woods, pearls, and especially gold, causing the Indians to name the region Suvarnabhumi or ‘Golden Land’. These traders brought with them both Hinduism and Buddhism, which was already established in southern Thailand by the 1st century AD. By about 500, a loosely knit kingdom called Srivijaya had emerged, encompassing the coastal areas of Sumatra, peninsular Malaya and Thailand, as well as parts of Borneo. Ruled by maharajas, its people practiced both Hinduism and Buddhism. Living by trade with India and China, Srivijaya flourished for around 700 years.   

From the 10th century, the power of Srivijaya began to decline. Never a centralised state, it was weakened by a series of wars with the Javanese, which disrupted trade. In the 11th century a rival power centre arose at Melayu, a port believed to have been located further up the Sumatran coast, possibly in what is now Jambi province. Melayu’s influence is shown by the fact that the name is the origin of the word ‘Malay’. The power of the Hindu Maharajahs was also undermined by the arrival of Muslim traders and teachers who began to spread Islam in Sumatra along the coast of the Malay Peninsula. By the late 13th century, the Siamese kings of Sukhothai would bring much of the Malay Peninsula under their control. Yet the great wealth of the region, with its rich resources of aromatic timber, sea products, gold, tin, spices and resins – all highly prized both in China and in India – kept Srivijaya prosperous until its final demise in the 14th century.


The Mon Kingdom of Dvaravati

At about the same time as Srivijaya dominated the southern part of the Malay peninsula, another people, the Mon, established themselves as the rulers of the northern part of the peninsula and the Chao Phraya River Valley centring on present day Bangkok. Dvaravati flourished from the 6th to the 11th centuries, with Nakhon Pathom, U Thong and Lopburi as major settlements. Like Srivijaya, Dvaravati was strongly influenced by Indian culture and religion, and the Mons played a central role in the introduction of Buddhism to present day Thailand and especially the Andaman Coast. It is not clear whether Dvaravati was a single, unitary state under the control of a powerful ruler, or a loose confederation of small principalities. Either way, the Mon would succumb to pressure from the north by the 12th–13th centuries as the Tai moved south, conquering Nakhon Pathom and Lopburi but absorbing much of Mon culture including the Buddhist religion.


 The Khmer Empire

At the same time as the coastal regions of western Thailand were being influenced by Indic culture through Srivijaya and Dvaravati, another major power had developed in the east and was stamping its influence on the area that is now eastern Thailand, covering an area that extends all the way from the Chao Phraya Valley to the Cambodian frontier, as well as northwards as far as Laos. This was the Khmer Empire of Angkor, the forerunner of present day Cambodia.

 The Khmer Empire, like Srivijaya and Dvaravati, was strongly influenced by Indic culture deriving both from Java and from India itself. Early Khmer civilisation began in the region of the Mekong Delta in the 2nd century AD, and was known to the Chinese annalists as Chen La. In the late 8th century, a royal prince of Chen La returned home from Java and proclaimed himself devaraja or ‘God-King’. He was extraordinarily successful, crushing rivals and attracting supporters, and by 790 he had established a new kingdom which the Khmers called Kambuja, centred on the great floodplains of the Tonle Sap Lake where he founded his capital at Hariharalaya near the modern Cambodian town of Roluos. He took the name Jayavarman, or ‘Armour of Victory’, and ruled until his death in 834.

Jayavarman’s successors continued to expand the territory under their control. Indravarman I (877–889) also began extensive building projects, thanks to the wealth gained through trade and agriculture. He was followed by his son Yasovarman I (889–915), who established a new capital near Hariharalaya which he called Yasodharapura, the earliest city of Angkor. The Khmers gradually extended their control west to the Chaophraya River, north to Vientiane in present-day Laos, and east to the South China Sea where they came into conflict with yet another Indianised state, the Hindu Kingdom of Champa.

The 11th century was a time of external conflict and internecine struggle. Only with Suryavarman II (1113–50) was the kingdom fully united. Under his rule, the huge temple of Angkor Wat, dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu, was built. Suryavarman II also conquered the Mon kingdom of Dvaravati and the area further west to the border with the kingdom of Pagan (modern Burma), expanding south into the Malay peninsula down the kingdom as far as Nakhon Sri Thammarat, dominating the entire coast of the Gulf of Siam.

The next great Khmer emperor was Jayavarman VII (1181–1219), who defeated the Chams, unified the empire and initiated a series of astonishing building projects culminating in the construction of Angkor Thom, probably the greatest city in the world at the time, with a population estimated at about one million people. Yet this was to be the last flowering of Khmer independence until modern times. Like Dvaravati and Srivijaya, Kambuja would fall victim to the emerging power that would become Thailand.


The Kingdom of Sukhothai

Sukhothai was part of the Khmer empire until 1238, when two Tai chieftains seceded and established the first independent Tai kingdom. This event is considered to mark the founding of the modern Thai nation, although other less well-known Tai states, such as Lan Na, Phayao and Chiang Saen, were established at about the same time. Sukhothai expanded by forming alliances with the other Tai kingdoms and adopted Theravada Buddhism as the state religion with the help of Sri Lankan monks. Under King Ramkhamhaeng (1279–98), Sukhothai enjoyed a golden age of prosperity. During his long reign the present Thai alphabet evolved and the foundations of present-day Thailand were securely established. He expanded his control over formerly Mon and Khmer territories in the south as far as the Andaman Sea and Nakhon Sri Thammarat on the Gulf coast, as well as over the Chaophraya Valley and southeast into present day Cambodia.

With the creation of the Kingdom of Sukhothai, a new political structure came into being across mainland Southeast Asia. A new and vigorous state subdued the Mons and absorbed broad swathes of territory from both Srivijaya and the Khmers. At the same time the Thai newcomers, an ethnically Sinitic people, intermarried with the inhabitants of the states they had supplanted, and adopted their Indic culture. The Thais continue to celebrate the glories of the Kingdom of Sukhothai in the words of the renowned Ramkhamhaeng Inscription, believed to have been dictated by the king himself:


In the time of King Ramkhamhaeng, this land of Sukhothai is thriving. There is fish in the water and rice in the fields. The Lord of the Realm does not levy toll on his subjects for travelling the roads. They lead their cattle to trade or ride their horses to sell. Whoever wants to trade in elephants, does so. Whoever wants to trade in horses, does so. Whoever wants to trade in silver and gold, does so... He has hung a bell in the opening of the gate over there. If any commoner in the land has a grievance which sickens his belly and gripes his heart, and that he wants to make known to his ruler and lord, it is easy. He goes and strikes the bell which the King has hung there. King Ramkhamhaeng, the Ruler of the Kingdom, hears the bell. He goes and questions the man, examines the case, and decides it justly for him. So the people of this city praise him.

 With the Ramkhamhaeng inscription, a new polity, which in the fullness of time would come to be Thailand, was definitively established on the Southeast Asian stage.


The Kingdom of Ayutthaya

 The glories of Sukhothai were to be short lived, however. During the early 14th century a rival Thai kingdom began to develop in the lower Chao Phraya Valley, centred on the ancient Khmer city of Lopburi, not far from present day Bangkok. In 1350 the ambitious ruler, named U Thong, moved his capital from Lopburi to a nearby island in the river which would be more defensible, giving the new city the name Ayutthaya, and proclaiming himself King Ramathibodi (1351–69). He declared Theravada Buddhism the state religion, invited Buddhist monks from Sri Lanka to help purify and spread the faith, and compiled a legal code based on the Indian Dharmashastra which would remain largely in force until the 19th century.

Ayutthaya soon eclipsed Sukhothai as the leading Thai power. By the end of the fourteenth century, Ayutthaya was the strongest power in Southeast Asia, but it lacked the manpower to dominate the region. In the last year of his reign, Ramathibodi seized Angkor during what was to be the first of many successful Thai assaults on the Khmer capital. The weakened Khmer periodically submitted to Ayutthaya's suzerainty, but efforts to maintain control over Angkor were repeatedly frustrated. Forces were also diverted to suppress rebellion in Sukhothai and to campaign against Chiang Mai, where Ayutthaya's expansion was tenaciously resisted. Eventually Ayutthaya subdued Sukhothai, and the year after Ramathibodi died, his kingdom was recognized by the Hongwu Emperor of China's newly established Ming Dynasty as Sukhothai's rightful successor.

The Thai kingdom was not a single, unified state but rather a patchwork of self-governing principalities and tributary provinces owing allegiance to the king of Ayutthaya under the mandala system. These states were ruled by members of the royal family of Ayutthaya who had their own armies and warred among themselves. The king had to be vigilant to prevent royal princes from combining against him or allying with Ayutthaya's enemies. During the fifteenth century much of Ayutthaya's energies were directed southwards, toward the Malay Peninsula, where the great trading port of Malacca contested its claims to sovereignty. Malacca and other Malay states to the south of Nakhon Sri Thammarat had become Muslim early in the century, and thereafter Islam served as a unifying symbol of Malay solidarity against the Thais. Although it failed to make a vassal state of Malacca, Ayutthaya established control over much of the peninsula, making both the Andaman and the Gulf of Siam coasts definitively Thai as far south as Hat Yai, and extending its authority further south over the Malay regions of Pattani and Kelantan.

The 16th century witnessed the rise of Burma, which, under a powerful and aggressive dynasty, overran Chiang Mai and Laos and made war on the Thai. In 1569 Burmese forces captured the city of Ayutthaya and carried off the royal family to Burma. A vassal ruler, King Thammaracha (1569–90), was appointed king, and his son, King Naresuan the Great (1590–1605) succeeded in restoring Siamese independence for a further century and a half. In 1765, however, Burmese armies once again invaded, destroying the capital and scattering the defending forces. Ayutthaya's art treasures, the libraries containing its literature, and the archives housing its historic records were looted, and the city left in ruins.

Despite this disaster, Siam made a rapid recovery. A noble of Chinese descent named Taksin led the resistance. From his base at Chanthaburi on the southeast coast, within a year he defeated the Burmese and re-established the Siamese state with a capital at Thonburi on the west bank of the Chao Phraya River, just 20km from the Gulf of Siam. In 1768 he was crowned King Taksin, posthumously becoming Taksin the Great. He rapidly re-united the central Thai heartlands under his rule, and in 1769 conquered Cambodia. He then marched south and re-established Siamese rule over all southern Thailand and the Malay States as far south as Penang and Trengganu.

Although a brilliant military technician, by 1779 Taksin was in political trouble. He alienated the Buddhist establishment by claiming to have divine powers, and attacked the economically powerful Chinese merchant class. In 1782 he sent his armies under General Chakri to invade Cambodia, and while they were away a rebellion broke out in the vicinity of the capital. The rebels, who had wide popular support, offered the throne to General Chakri, who accepted. King Taksin was subsequently executed, though rumours spread that he had entered the monkhood at Nakhon Sri Thammarat in the south, a story that retains some popular credence in southern Thailand today.




 Text copyright © Andrew Forbes / CPA Media 2011.

Category:  Thailand

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