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Ayutthaya Period (1350-1767)

 

 

For 417 years the kingdom of Ayutthaya was the dominant power in the fertile Menam or Chao Phraya Basin. Its capital was Ayutthaya, an island-city situated at the confluence of three rivers, the Chao Phraya, the Pasak, and the Lopburi, which grew into one of Asia's most renowned metropolises, inviting comparison with great European cities such as Paris. The city must indeed have looked majestic, filled as it was with hundreds of monasteries and criss-crossed with several canals and waterways that served as roads.

An ancient community had existed in the Ayutthaya area well before 1350, the year of its official "founding" by King Ramathibodi I (Uthong). The huge Buddha image at Wat Phananchoeng, just outside the island-city, was cast over twenty years before King Ramathibodi I moved his residence to the city area in 1350. It is easy to see why the Ayutthaya area was settled prior to this date since the site offered a variety of geographical and economic advantages. Not only is Ayutthaya at the confluence of three rivers, plus some canals, but its proximity to the sea also gave its inhabitants an irresistible stimulus to engage in maritime trade. The rice fields in the immediate environs flooded each year during the rainy season, rendering the city virtually impregnable for several months annually. These fields, of course, had an even more vital function, that of feeding a relatively large population in the Ayutthaya region. Rice grown in these plants yielded a surplus large enough to be exported regularly to various countries in Asia.

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Ayutthaya's first king, Ramathihodi I, was both a warrior and a lawmaker. Some old laws codified in 1805 by the first Bangkok king date from this much earlier reign. King Ramathibodi I and his immediate successors expanded Ayutthaya's territory, especially northward towards Sukhothai and eastward towards the Khmer capital of Angkor. By the 15th century, Ayutthaya had established a firm hegemony over most of the northern and central Thai states, though attempts to conquer Lanna failed. Ayutthaya also captured Angkor on at least one occasion but was unable to hold on to it for long. The Ayutthaya kingdom thus changed, during the 15th century, from being a small state primus inter pares among similar states in central Thailand into an increasingly centralized kingdom wielding tight control over a core area of territory, as well as having looser authority over a string of tributary states.

The greater size of Ayutthaya's territory, as compared with that of Sukhothai, meant that the method of government could not remain the same as during the days of King Ramkhamhaeng. The paternalistic and benevolent Buddhist kingship of Sukhothai would not have worked in Ayutthaya. The king of the latter therefore created a complex administrative system allied to a hierarchical social system. This administrative system dating from the reign of King Trailok, or Borommatrailokanat (1448-1488), was to evolve into the modern Thai bureaucracy. The Ayutthayan bureaucracy contained a hierarchy of ranked and titled officials, all of whom had varying amounts of "honour marks" (sakdina).

Thai society during the Ayutthaya period also became strictly hierarchical. There were, roughly, three classes of people, with the king at the very apex of the structure. At the bottom of the social scale, and the most numerous, were the commoners (freemen or phrai) and the slaves. Above the commoners were the officials or "nobles" (khunnang), while at the top of the scale were the princes (chao). The one classless sector of Thai society was the Buddhist monkhood, or sangha, into which all classes of Thai men could be ordained. The monkhood was the institution that could weld together all the different social classes, the Buddhist monasteries being the center of all Thai communities both urban and agricultural.

The Ayutthayan kings were not only Buddhist kings who ruled according to the dhamma (dharma), but they were also devaraja, god-kings whose sacred power was associated with the Hindu, gods Indra and Vishnu. To many Western observers, the kings of Ayutthaya were treated as if they were gods. The French Abbe de Choisy, who came to Ayutthaya in 1685, wrote that, "the king has absolute power. He is truly the god of the Siamese:

no-one dares to utter his name." Another 17th century writer, the Dutchman Van Vliet, remarked that the king of Siam was "honored and worshipped by his subjects more than a god."

The Ayutthaya period was early Thai history's great era of international trade. Ayutthaya's role as a port made it one of Southeast Asia's richest emporia. The port of Ayutthaya was an entrepot, an international market place where goods from the Far East could be bought or bartered in exchange for merchandise from the Malay, Indonesian Archipelago, India, or Persia, not to mention local wares or produce from Ayutthaya's vast hinterland. The trading world of the Indian Ocean was accessible to Ayutthaya through its possession, for much of its 417-year history, of the seaport of Mergui on the Bay of Bengal. This port in Tenasserim province was linked to the capital by a wild but ancient and frequently used overland trade route.

Throughout its long history, Ayutthaya had a thriving commerce in "forest produce," principally sapanwood (a wood which produces reddish dye), eaglewood (an aromatic wood), benzoin (a type of incense), gumlac (used as wax), and deerhides (much in demand in Japan). Elephant teeth and rhinoceros horns were also highly valued exports, but the former was a strict royal monopoly and the latter relatively rare, especially compared with deerhides. Ayutthaya also sold provisions such as rice and dried fish to other Southeast Asian states. The range of minerals found in the kingdom was limited, but tin from Phuket ("Junkceylon") and Nakhon Si Thammarat ("Ligor") was much sought after by both Asian and European traders.

The Chinese, with their large and versatile junks, were the traders who had the most regular and sustained contact with Ayutthaya. The Ayutthaya kings, in order to conduct a steady and profitable trade with Ming and Manchu China, from the 14th to the 18th centuries, entered willingly into a tributary relationship with the Chinese emperors. The Thais recognized Chinese suzerainty and China's preeminent position in Asia in return for Chinese political sanction and, even more desirable, Chinese luxury goods. Muslim merchants came from India and further West to sell their highly-prized clothes both to Thais and to other foreign traders. So dominant were Chinese and Muslim merchants in Ayutthaya that an old Thai law dating back to the 15th century divides the Thai king's foreign trade department into two: a Chinese section and a Muslim section. Chinese, Indians, and later on Japanese and Persians all settled in Ayutthaya, the Thai kings welcoming their presence and granting them complete freedom of worship. Several of these foreigners became important court officials.

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Containing merchandise from all corners of Asia, the thriving markets of Ayutthaya attracted traders from Europe. The Portuguese were the first to arrive, in 1511, at the time when Albuquerque was attempting to conquer Melaka (Malacca). They concluded their first treaty with Ayutthaya in 1516, receiving permission to settle in Ayutthaya and other Thai ports in return for supplying guns and ammunition to the Thai king. Portugal's powerful neighbor Spain was the next European nation to arrive in Ayutthaya, towards the end of the 16th century. The early

17th century saw the arrival of two northern European East India Companies: the Dutch (V.O.C.) and the British. The Dutch East India Company played a vital role in Ayutthaya's foreign trade from 1605 until 1765, succeeding in obtaining from the Thai kings a deerhide export monopoly as well as one of all the tin sold at Nakhon Si Thammarat. The Dutch sold Thai sapanwood and deerhides for good profits in Japan during Japan's exclusion period, after 1635.

The French first arrived in 1662, during the reign of Ayutthaya's most outward-looking and cosmopolitan ruler. King Narai (1656-1688). French missionaries and merchants came to the capital, and during the 1680's splendid embassies were exchanged between King Narai and King Louis XIV. The French tried to convert King Narai to Christianity and also attempted to gain a foothold in the Thai kingdom when, in 1687, they sent troops to garrison Bangkok and Mergui. When a succession conflict broke out in 1688 an anti-French official seized power, drove out the French garrisons, and executed King Narai's Greek favorite Constantine Phaulkon, who had been championing the French cause. After 1688, Ayutthaya had less contact with Western nations, but there was no policy of national exclusion. Indeed, there was increased trading contact with China after 1683, and there was continued trade with the Dutch, the Indians, and various neighboring countries.

Ayutthaya's relations with its neighbors were not always cordial. Wars were fought against Cambodia, Lanna, Lanchang (Laos), Pattani, and above all, Burma, Ayutthaya's powerful neighbor to the west. Burmese power waxed and waned in cycles according to their administrative efficiency in the control of manpower. Whenever Burma was in an expansionist phase, Ayutthaya suffered. In 1569, King Bayinnaung captured Ayutthaya, thus initiating over a decade's subjection to the Burmese. One of the greatest Thai military leaders, Prince (later King) Naresuan, then emerged to declare Ayutthaya's independence and to defeat the Burmese in several battles and skirmishes, culminating in the victory of Nong Sarai, when he killed the Burmese Crown Prince in combat on elephant back.

During the 18th century Burma again adopted an expansionist policy. The kings of the Alaunghphaya Dynasty were intent on subduing the Ayutthaya kingdom, then in its cultural and artistic prime. During the 1760's, the Burmese armies inflicted severe defeats on the Thais, who had been somewhat too fortunate and complacent in having enjoyed over a century of comparative peace. In April 1767, after a 15-month siege, Ayutthaya finally succumbed to the Burmese, who sacked and burnt the city, thus putting an end to one of the most politically glorious and culturally influential epochs in Thai history.

An exceptional episode unfolded in Ayuthaya when Constantine Phaulkon, a Greek, became a high official in Siam under King Narai, from 1675 to 1688. Wisely courting royal favour by fending off would-be colonisation by the Dutch and the English, he nevertheless allowed the French to station 600 soldiers in the kingdom. Eventually the Thais, fearing a takeover, expelled the French and executed Phaulkon. Siam sealed itself off from the West for 150 years following this experience with the faràng (a Westerner or foreigner of European descent; from faràngsèt, meaning ‘French’).
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