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Sukhothai Period (1238-1378 A.D.)



Sukhothai & Lan Na Thai

The state that is still regarded by Thai historical tradition as the "first Thai kingdom" was Sukhothai. There were, in fact, contemporaneous Thai states such as Lanna and Phayao, both in present-day northern Thailand, but the Thai historical imagination has been most stirred by Sukhothai. Even today, the evocative ruins of Sukhothai and its twin city Si Satchanalai conjure up images of material prosperity, artistic greatness, and serene Buddhist piety. Indeed, Sukhothai is remembered as much for its art and architecture as for its political achievements.

Sukhothai began life as chiefdom under the sway of the Khmer empire: the oldest monuments in the city were built in the Khmer style or else show clear Khmer influence. During the first half of the 13th century the Thai rulers of Sukhothai threw off the Khmer yoke and set up an independent Thai kingdom. One of the victorious Thai chieftains became the first king of Sukhothai, with the name of Si Inthrathit (Sri Indraditya). Sukhothai's power and influence expanded in all directions by conquest (the Khmer were driven southwards), by a farsighted network of marriage alliances with the ruling families of other Thai states, and by the use of a common religion, Theravada Buddhism, to cement relations with other states.

Si Inthrathit's son and successor was King Ramkhamhaeng, undoubtedly the most famous and dynamic monarch ever to rule the Sukhothai kingdom. Much of what we know about Sukhothai in the 13th century derives from King Ramkhamhaeng's stone inscription of 1292. The inscription is problematic, but it is considered to be a seminal source of Sukhothai history as well as a masterpiece of Thai literature. It eloquently extols the benevolence of King Ramkhamhaeng's rule, the power and prosperity of Sukhothai. The king was accessible to his people. For example, he had a bell hung in front of a palace gate so that any subject with a grievance could ring it and ask for justice:

"King Ramkhamhaeng, the ruler of the kingdom, hears the call; he goes and questions the man, examines the case, and decides it justly for him. So the people of Sukhothai praise him."

According to the inscription, the king did not levy road tolls or taxes on merchandise. His liberality was such that he did not tax his subjects' inheritance at all. Such a paternalistic and benevolent style of kingship has caused posterity to regard the Sukhothai kingdom's heyday as a "golden age" in Thai history.

Even allowing for some hyperbole in King Ramkhamhaeng's inscription, it is probably true that Sukhothai was prosperous and well governed. Its economy was self-sufficient, small-scale, and agricultural. The Thai people's basic diet was the same as that of many other people in Southeast Asia, consisting of rice and fish as staple foods. Both, according to King Ramkhamhaeng's inscription were plentiful:

"In the time of King Ramkhamhaeng this land of Sukhothai is thriving. There are fish in the water and rice in the fields."

Sukhothai may have been self-sufficient as far as food was concerned, but its prosperity also depended on commerce. During the Sukhothai period glazed ceramic wares known as "sangkhalok" were produced in great quantities at the kilns of Sukhothai and Si Satchanalai and exported regularly to other countries in the South China Sea area, specimens having been found in Indonesia and the Philippines. Sukhothai also traded with China through the traditional Chinese tributary system: the Thai king was content to send tribute to the Chinese emperor and be classified as a vassal, in return for permission to sell Thai goods and buy Chinese products.

Although animistic beliefs remained potent in Sukhothai, King Ramkhamhaeng and his successors were all devout Buddhist rulers who made merit on a large scale. The major cities of the Sukhothai kingdom were therefore full of monasteries, many of which were splendid examples of Thai Buddhist architecture. Sukhothai adopted the Ceylonese school of Theravada Buddhism, beginning with King Ramkhamhaeng's invitation to Ceylonese monks to come over and purify Buddhism in his kingdom. This Ceylonese influence manifested itself not only in matters of doctrine but also in religious architecture. The bell-shaped stupa, so familiar in Thai religious architecture, was derived from Ceylonese models. Sukhothai style Buddha images are distinctive for their elegance and stylized beauty, and Sukhothai's artists introduced the graceful form of the "walking Buddha" into Buddhist sculpture.

Sukhothai's cultural importance in Thai history also derives from the fact that the Thai script evolved into a definite form during King Ramkhamhaeng's time, taking as its models the ancient Mon and Khmer scripts. Indeed, this remarkable king is credited with having invented the Thai script.

King Si Inthrathit and King Ramkhamhaeng were both warrior kings and extended their territories far and wide. Their successors, however, could not maintain such a far-flung empire. Some of these later kings were more remarkable for their religious piety and extensive building activities than for their warlike exploits. An example of this type of Buddhist ruler was King Mahathammaracha Lithai, believed to have been the compiler of the Tribhumikatha, an early Thai book on the Buddhist universe or cosmos. The political decline of Sukhothai was, however, not wholly owing to deficiencies in leadership. Rather it resulted from the emergence of strong Thai states further south, whose political and economic power began to challenge Sukhothai during the latter half of the 14th century. These southern states, especially Ayutthaya, were able to deny Sukhothai access to the area.

The Sukhothai kingdom did not die a quick death. Its decline lasted from the mid- 14th until the 15th century. In 1378, the Ayutthaya King Borommaracha I subdued Sukhothai's frontier city of Chakangrao (Kamphaengphet), and henceforth Sukhothai became a tributary state of Ayutthaya. Sukhothai later attempted to break loose from Ayutthaya but with no real success, until in the 15th century it was incorporated into the Ayutthaya kingdom as a province. The focus of Thai history and politics now moved to the central plains of present-day Thailand, where Ayutthaya was establishing itself as a centralized state, its power outstripping not only Sukhothai but also other neighboring states such as Suphannaphum and Lawo (Lopburi).

sukhothai period2
Many Thais today have a sentimental view of the Sukhothai period, seeing it as a ‘golden age’ of Thai politics, religion and culture – an egalitarian, noble period when all the people had enough to eat and the kingdom was unconquerable. Among other accomplishments, the third Sukhothai king, Ramkhamhaeng, encouraged the use of a fledgling Thai writing system, which became the basis for modern Thai; he also codified the Thai form of Theravada Buddhism, as borrowed from the Sinhalese..

For a short time (1448–86) the Sukhothai capital was moved to Phitsanulok. It was annexed by Ayuthaya in 1376, by which time a national identity of sorts had been forged. Ramkhamhaeng also supported two northern Thai jâo meuang – Phaya Mengrai of Chiang Mai and Phaya Ngam Meuang of Phayao – in the 1296 founding of Lan Na Thai (or Lanna). Lanna extended across northern Thailand to include Wiang Chan along the middle reaches of the Mekong River. In the 14th century Wiang Chan was taken from Lanna by Chao Fa Ngum of Luang Prabang, who made it part of his Lan Xang (Million Elephants) kingdom. Wiang Chan later flourished as an independent kingdom for a short time during the mid-16th century and eventually became the capital of Laos in its royal, French and now socialist incarnations. During the French era it got its more popular international spelling ‘Vientiane’. After a period of dynastic decline, Lanna fell to the Burmese in 1558.

A famous passage from Sukhothai’s Ramkhamhaeng inscription reads: This land of Sukhothai is thriving. There is fish in the water and rice in the fields…The King has hung a bell in the opening of the gate over there; if any commoner has a grievance which sickens his belly and grips his heart, he goes and strikes the bell; King Ramkhamhaeng questions the man, examines the case and decides it justly for him.
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