Sunday, February 14, 2016

Lamphun and the Mon Queen’s Legacy

                                               by Jim Goodman

covered bridge over the northern moat
       Since its foundation in 1296, Chiang Mai has been the most important city in northern Thailand.  But it was not the first one.  That honor belongs to Lamphun, a small, clean, quiet and attractive town today about 25 km south.  One can get there quickly via the expressway or take one of the trains from the Chiang Mai station.  The nicest route, though, is the road beginning on the east bank of the Ping River.  For two-thirds of the distance this road is flanked by very tall, centuries-old trees, each wrapped in a saffron robe to mark its sanctity.  The last third of the way can be equally enchanting in late spring, for then it is full of blossoming trees with red or yellow flowers.
       Once entering the urban area, it’s just a few blocks before you cross the moat and enter the original town of Haripunchai.  The moat, partly connected to the Kuang River, a tributary of the Mae Ping, surrounds an area 450 meters wide north to south and 875 meters long east to west.  Old brick gates and portions of the old city wall stand at the four corners and a covered bridge, with a market inside, spans the northern moat.  One’s first impression of Lamphun is that it is a smaller version of Chiang Mai.  Actually, it was more like the inspiration for Chiang Mai.
one of Lamphun's old city gates
       The city’s foundation dates back to the 8th century, when Mon states dominated the Maenam Chao Phya Valley in central Thailand, the Khmer Empire was beginning to expand in the east and what is now Chiang Mai Province was sparsely settled, mostly by Lawa, a Mon-Khmer people around Chiang Mai’s Doi Suthep.  In 767-8 the Mon ruler of Lawo, today’s Lopburi, dispatched his daughter, Princess Chamadevi, to rule over the newly created city of Haripunchai, now Lamphun. 
       The river journey from Lawo took three months.  Chamadevi’s entourage included artisans, merchants, doctors, teachers, astrologers and five hundred Theravada Buddhist monks.  Thus Haripunchai was a re-created Lawo and Buddhism established its first stronghold in northern Thailand.  Queen Chamadevi subdued the Lawa, established an enduring state and in her old age abdicated in favor of one of her twin sons and retired in the new city of Lampang established by her other son,
Chamadevi's arrival in Haripunchai
       This much is known to history, but contemporary records are absent and over time legends and folklore have embellished Chamadevi’s story.  Much of this is due to a narrative, which included such stories, written by a 16th century monk, long after Haripunchai had been absorbed into the Kingdom of Lanna, about how a Buddha relic was installed in the main temple there in 897.      
       According to the legends compiled by the monk, the new queen had three special animals to assist her.  One was a faithful horse, one a rooster that crowed whenever danger lurked on the horizon, and the other, most important one, was her elephant, named Blackie Purple after the color of its skin.  It had green tusks and whenever it pointed these at an enemy that enemy dropped dead.      
       Her beauty and accomplishments aroused the ardor of King Viranga, the Lawa chieftain of the Doi Suthep area.  He wanted to marry her, but Chamadevi put him off on the grounds she was still weaning her twin sons.  After several years, this excuse was no longer tenable and Viranga’s Lawa army attacked Haripunchai.  Chamadevi’s sons commanded the defense and when the assault reached the city walls used Blackie Purple and his magic tusks to repel the attack.  Unfortunately, the elephant died in the battle.
King Viranga's first throw of the spear
       Stripped of her major defensive asset, Chamadevi opted for a new ploy.  She informed her suitor that if he could hurl a spear from Doi Suthep to within the city of Haripunchai, she would agree to marry him.  The Lawa chieftain then called upon his supernatural powers and hurled his spear all the way to Haripunchai and it landed just outside the city walls.  The deal was that he could get three tries, so now Chamadevi was truly alarmed.
       So she sent him as a present a special cloth turban, which was actually made from her undergarments and soiled by her menstrual blood, designed to negate and cancel out whatever supernatural powers he had.   Flattered by the gift, convinced he was already winning her over, the Lawa chief immediately donned the turban and made ready for his second throw.  This time his spear fell at the bottom of Doi Suthep.  Realizing he had been tricked, he threw his last spear straight up into the sky.  And when it fell it pierced his heart and killed him. The rest of the Lawa tendered their submission and from then on Chamadevi’s realm was secure.
       Incidents of Chamadevi’s life, both historical, like the journey from Lawo to Haripunchai, and legendary, such as the Lawa chieftain’s spear throw and Blackie Purple destroying the Lawa assault, have been depicted in the interior murals of Wat Chamadevi and the ordination hall of Wat Prayeun, east of the city.
Chedi Suwan Chang Kot
Buddha images embellishing the chedi
       All legends aside, Haripunchai’s first queen definitely succeeded in establishing a firm foundation for the state.  Its parent Lawo fell under Khmer control in the early 9th century, but Haripunchai maintained its independence and reached its peak in the early 12th century under King Aditayaraj, who repelled three Khmer invasions.  Following this, to celebrate his victory he had a 50-meter high chedi built over the Buddha relic at Wat Haripunchai, the city’s most important temple, as well as a chedi in the compound of Wat Kukut, dedicated to Chamadevi. 
the compound of Wat Haripunchai
       The original collapsed in an earthquake.  In 1218 King Saphsit had it rebuilt and that is the structure still standing today.  Called Chedi Suwan Chang Kot, it is a stepped pyramid on a square base, 21 meters high, of brick and stucco.  Each side of its five tiers features three sculptures of standing Buddhas, relatively well preserved, making 60 altogether.
       Around the corner of the modern temple building is Chedi Ratana, erected the same year.  Similar in style, but on a hexagonal base and only 11.5 meters high, it has standing Buddha sculptures only in the niches on the bottom level.  However, according to popular belief, Chedi Ratana contains the ashes of Queen Chamadevi.  Together, these two chedis are rare and outstanding examples of ancient Mon architecture in Thailand.            
       By King Saphsit’s time the kingdom had been at peace for nearly a century, enjoying its golden age.  Haripunchai was an important post on the trading network connecting areas to the north and inside Burma with the Menam Chao Phya Valley further south.  But demographic changes were occurring already, as Tai Yuan began migrating into the area.  They had assimilated enough into Haripunchai society that some were even part of the nobility.  In 1258 a Tai Yuan faction overthrew the reigning monarch and installed one of its own as king.
the gong tower at Wat Haripunchai
       The change had no apparent effect on the state’s prosperity.  But three decades later that very prosperity aroused the cupidity of Mengrai, originally from Chiang Saen, who ruled a growing Tai Yuan state to the north, with its current capital in Chiang Rai.  While in Fang, to the west, he met several Haripunchai merchants and learned of the city’s wealth.  Believing he was not strong enough to take the fortified city by direct assault, he sent one of his own merchants, Ai Fa, to win the confidence of King Yi Ba and undermine the state’s defenses.
       Ai Fa succeeded so well he became Chief Minister and used that position to promote sedition and instigate chaos.  Mengrai then swooped down on Haripunchai and captured it in 1281.  For a couple of years he made the city his own capital.  Then he had a new city, Wiang Kum Kan, built near the Ping River several km south of present-day Chiang Mai.  His new capital copied the layout of Haripunchai, but it soon turned out it was subject to flooding.  In 1296 he moved locations to the plain at the base of Doi Suthep—Chiang Mai.
       Mengrai captured Haripunchai, but he didn’t sack it.  Though the state lost its independence it still had a profound influence on the character of Mengrai’s new Kingdom of Lanna.  Like Haripunchai and Wiang Kum Kan, Chiang Mai’s layout followed a geometric grid; square in this case rather than oval or rectangular, surrounded by a moat and brick walls.  The first chedi erected in the area, Chedi Liam outside Wiang Kum Kan, copied the style of Chedi Suwan Chang Kot in Wat Chamadevi.  The Lanna alphabet derived from the Mon script of Haripunchai.  The Mon kingdom’s monastic order became the one followed throughout Lanna.  And Wat Haripunchai abbots occasionally were appointed Chief Abbot for the kingdom.
eastern entrance, Wat Haripunchai
the gilded chedi of Wat Haripunchai
       In Lanna’s administrative order, Haripunchai, now called Lamphun, was part of the Inner Circle with Chiang Mai.  Areas beyond, such as Chiang Rai, Fang, Lampang, etc., constituted the Outer Circle and those on the periphery of Lanna’s borders were tributary states.  Lanna kings made regular visits to Wat Haripunchai and funds for its maintenance were always part of the royal budget.  In the late 14th century King Saenmeuangma had its 50-meter high chedi covered in gold.  In 1418 the Mon-style Chedi Suwanna was added to the compound and in 1443 King Tilokaraja had the entire temple renovated.
Lamphun women at a temple fair
       In the early 16th century Lanna began to lose its cohesion as a state and society.  In 1558 Burmese armies swept into northern Thailand, seized Chiang Mai after a three-day battle and extinguished the Kingdom of Lanna.  Burmese rule lasted over two centuries.  Until 1664 Lanna was semi-autonomous and local nobles ruled as deputies of the Burmese government.  After that it was incorporated into the Kingdom of Burma and Burmese administrators took over everywhere.
       This period witnessed increasing local resistance, especially after the mid-18th century, and harsh retaliation, like emptying rebellious cities of their entire population.  When northern Thai forces, supported by Bangkok, finally expelled the Burmese later that century they found themselves in possession of a largely depopulated land.  The most pressing task was to find people to live in abandoned cities like Chiang Mai and Lamphun.
       This was an era of massive population transfers, not all of them willing ones.  Northern forces, for example, went all the way to Chieng Tung, in northeast Burma, to kidnap artisans and move them to Chiang Mai.  Tai Yong from Burma’s Shan State were brought to Lamphun, where their community still lives in the neighborhoods near the covered bridge and are famous for their weaving skills.
Loy Krathong balloon launch
Ku Chang, the elephant's chedi
       Lamphun officially marked its rebirth in 1805.  It never became much of a metropolis and today has only about 14,000 residents.  Probably very few, if any, can trace their family lineages back to the Mon citizens of Haripunchai.  Yet the Mon legacy and the cult of Chamadevi are very much part of the local identity.  Besides the popular Wat Chamadevi that honors her, ancient chedis, Ku Ma and Ku Chang, built for her horse and her war elephant (a unique phenomenon in Southeast Asia), still stand in a compound just northeast of the old town.  Devotees make regular visits here to honor her two animals and leave small sculptures of horses and elephants along the compound’s back wall.
Chamadevi Park
       Even more popular for local worshipers is the statue of Chamadevi just outside the southwest corner of the old town.  Depicting a very beautiful, almost voluptuous Queen Chamadevi, its erection dates to about 35 years ago.  Behind it is a long brick wall with low-relief sculptures of scenes from Haripunchai history.  Lamphun residents come here to make offerings throughout the day.
       Wat Haripunchai, one of the most famous temples in the north, also serves as a Lamphun community center.  Sometimes it is the venue for a local fair, highlighting a local craft like weaving or basketry.  Women dress up in traditional clothing and ornaments for these occasions, as well as for the year’s annual festivals, including one specific to Lamphun--the Longan Festival in August. 
       But the festival programs may differ a bit from elsewhere.  For Loy Krathong, for example, held for two days at full moon in November, Wat Haripunchai is the venue for a balloon-launching contest the morning of full moon day.  When the balloon ascends into the sky it releases small airplanes, rockets and smoke trails.  In the evening they float their krathongs in the moat around the old town, where some fancy large ones have already been placed.
       Lamphun’s sense of local pride is palpable to any visitor who spends some time there.  People are aware that for historical and cultural attractions Chiang Mai is much better endowed, which makes it such a popular travel destination.  Yet Lamphun’s people know that it was their own town, in its Haripunchai incarnation, that brought Buddhism, literacy, cities and civilization itself to northern Thailand.  Lamphun deserves its pride.

traditional Lamphun ornament

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1 comment:

  1. Thank you so much for sharing all this fascinating information! I'm an American tourist currently visiting this area, and really appreciate the info you've given here!