Saturday, September 17, 2016

Tigers Out, People In—The Second Founding of Chiang Mai

                                                                by Jim Goodman

Kawila's army on the march, Wat Srisupahn
       Originally founded in 1296, for over two and a half centuries Chiang Mai was the capital of the independent Kingdom of Lanna.  At its peak, Lanna ruled over most of northern Thailand and its authority extended into northeast Burma and Xishuangbanna in Yunnan, China.   But by the mid-16th century the state had fallen into decline and Chiang Mai fell to Burmese armies from Pegu in 1558.  Lanna became a semi-autonomous vassal state of Burma for over a century, then was incorporated into the Burmese Kingdom as a province and ruled directly by Burmese governors. 
       At the pinnacle of its power, in 1767 Burma conquered and destroyed Ayutthaya, the capital of its hereditary rival Siam.  Down but not out, the Siamese recovered under King Taksin and began a long struggle to expel the Burmese from the land.  Some places, like Lampang, 100 km south of Chiang Mai, had already reclaimed their independence from Burma and in an alliance with Taksin’s forces, in 1774 drove the Burmese garrison out of Chiang Mai. 
ruins of the wall and bastion on the nw corner
       Peace didn’t last long, though, for the Burmese launched a nearly successful counter-attack two years later.  Not feeling strong enough yet to withstand another attack, the defenders abandoned the city and removed what was left of its local population to Lampang.  With most of its fortifications, palaces and temples heavily damaged by years of conflict, Chiang Mai became a ghost city, its ruins the haunt of tigers and wild elephants from the forest just to its west.
       In 1782 the Chakri Dynasty took power in Siam and moved the capital to Bangkok.  King Rama I, who had been one of the commanders who expelled the Burmese from Chiang Mai, appointed his ally Prince Kawila of Lampang as King of the re-established state of Lanna.  It would not be fully independent, as in the past, but as a vassal state of Siam, yet would still recoup its former glory.  And so would Chiang Mai, its capital once again.
       The problem was that there were not enough people around to be able to do this.  Decades of war had devastated northern Thailand and all the cities north of Lampang were empty.  Persuading people to leave their forest retreats and return to rebuild didn’t seem to work.  So for the next several years Kawila’s armies embarked on what were called missions of ‘collecting vegetables for baskets and collecting people for the cities.’ 
guardian lions onrth of the city
       Mostly these expeditions went north, to Kengtung in northeast Burma and over into Xishuangbanna.  Their objective was to capture people to repopulate Chiang Mai and other cities.  This was not something unprecedented.  For centuries states in the region had been doing the same thing to each other.  The winners abducted people from the losers’ territories and brought them back to live within their own countries.  They waged war for resources and people were prime resources, especially crafts workers.
       Finally, in 1791, fifteen years after the tigers took over Chiang Mai, Kawila began his reconstruction program.  He had the original moats renovated, rebuilt the brick walls and city gates, restored the most important temples, constructed new palaces and eradicated the wild animal presence.  Reviving old Lanna customs, he reinstalled the sacred city pillar and later built shrines for protective animal spirits at two locations north of the city.  One was a pair of white elephant statues and the other a pair of white lions.  Then he began moving people into the city starting with the former residents who had been shifted to Lampang.  They were Tai Yuan people, from the majority ethnic population in the north.  And for some time only Tai Yuan people were permitted to live within the walled old city.
rounding up theTai Khoen
the chedi at Wat Ku Tao
       The Tai Khoen from Kengtung and the Tai Lu from Xishuangbanna were settled in Haiya, the area south of the old city that used to be inhabited by the Tai Yuan commoners, when only the royal family, high-ranking nobles and monks lived within the walled area.  Both the Tai Khoen and the Tai Lu are culturally close to the Tai Yuan.  Their dialects are very similar.  They use the same alphabet, follow the same monastic orders and their former ruling families were related.  They apparently didn’t have any trouble fitting in to the Tai Yuan polity.
Chakravartin Buddha at Wat Ku Tao
Shan girls at Wat Ku Tao
       In 1796, five hundred years after its original birth, with enough people on hand now to cheer his procession, Kawila had himself crowned as king in resurrected Chiang Mai.  With a further nod to tradition, he and his entourage entered the old city by the northern gate, the same route taken by Mengrai, Lanna’s first King, and all of his successors.  Security was still a priority, though, for the Burmese were still a threat.  Kawila had an earthen wall built around the southern and eastern suburbs and this helped stop a final Burmese attack in 1802.  Shortly after this, Kawila expelled the Burmese from their last stronghold in Chiang Saen and from then on northern Thailand lived in peace.
music at the Wat Ku Tao festival
Wat Papao
       With this victory, followed by more ‘collecting people’ among the Tai Yong and Shan, Kawila assured the revival of the Lanna state and the prestige of Chiang Mai.  But just as it was not quite the Lanna state of old, it was not the same kind of Chiang Mai this incarnation.  In the past, Chiang Mai had some resident foreign traders and diplomats, but now it had entire neighborhoods settled by outsiders.  From now on it could no longer be identified as a Tai Yuan city.
       This trend continued for the next century as other Lanna cities revived and the north became more integrated with the rest of Thailand.  The last of the people-collecting missions ended with the captured Tai Yong of northeast Burma, removed to resettle Lamphun, 30 km south.  Afterwards it was a normal immigration process, though communities settled in certain exclusive areas.  The Tai Yai, or Shan, moved into the area north of the old city and in the early 20th century Chinese settled along the Ping River, where today they dominate the big riverside markets.
lacquer ware at Wat Nantharam
       Though they have long been an integral part of Northern Thai society, many of these ‘outsiders’ have kept up their own distinct customs.  The Chinese have their Mahayana Buddhist temples and stage elaborate New Year celebrations in the riverside Warorot Market.  The Shans took over maintenance of Wat Chiang Yeun, the only temple undamaged by the Burmese wars, and erected two of their own.
       Wat Ku Tao, about two km north of the old city, is distinguished by its unusual old chedi, shaped like a stack of begging bowls.  It was built in the late 16th century during the Burmese occupation and holds the ashes of the first Burmese prince appointed to the throne of Lanna.  The two-story viharn, or main worship hall, is new and in the Thai style.  The large, seated Buddha in the upper floor hall wears a crown, regal garments and ornaments, a style known as the Chakravartin—Universal Ruler.  It symbolizes a period when the Buddhist Dharma will prevail all over the world.
Wat Nantharam
       At the beginning of the Buddhist retreat season the local Shan hold a festival in the compound.  Dressed in their best traditional clothing, they throng the compound from mid-morning.  Festivals are market venues as well, so some set up stalls to sell temple offerings, jewelry, clothing, fruits, drinks and snacks.  Others light incense sticks and place flowers at the shrines and inside the viharn, paste gold leaf wafers onto Buddha images and, more and more often every year, use their cell phones and selfie-sticks to record their devotional exercises.
       The activities are both religious and secular.  Inside the ground level hall devotees listen to monks’ sermons and beneath one of the compound’s leafy big trees sit while monks recite passages from scriptures.  In another area an impromptu music session takes place, with flutes, gongs and a long ‘elephant-leg’ drum. 
      The other main Shan temple is Wat Papao, across the moat on the other side of the northeast corner of the old city.  With its triple-roofed entrance gate, bell-like chedi and multi-tiered viharn, it follows the Shan style in northeast Burma.  It’s also more of a Shan cultural center, for the signs are in the Shan language and script and stalls in the compound sell Shan specialties like cheroots. 
Wat Srisuphan--the Silver Temple
       The biggest Shan festival, Por Sang Long, takes place here late March or early April.  It is a rite of passage for boys 7-14, who dress like princes in gorgeous clothes and jewelry to symbolize the life of the Buddha before he left his royal palace to seek Enlightenment.  After three days of music, dancing, games and a colorful procession, the boys exchange their fancy garments for monastic robes and enroll in the monastery as novices for a few months.
       As for the earlier settlers from Burma, the Tai Khoen forcibly resettled in Haiya, their neighborhood became an important part of the city’s crafts tradition, particularly lacquer ware and silver.  Workshops in the lanes around Wat Nantharam produced bowls, vases, platters, trays and containers of all shapes and sizes, lacquered in red, gold and black.  The lustrous surface finish is so durable that antique lacquer ware, like that on display in the Wat Natharam museum, looks like it was just made yesterday.
craftsman at work,Wat Srisuphan
       Wat Nantharam is also famous as a traditional medicine center.  It is one of several temples serving the Haiya neighborhoods.  But the most important, the cultural hub of Haiya, is Wat Srisuphan, just off Wualai Road, the street that runs diagonally through the district.  Shops selling silver jewelry and other silver items dominate Wualai and craftsmen work at little stalls in the adjoining lanes.
       Wat Srisuphan was built in 1501, when Lanna was still a strong, independent kingdom.  At the time, it was one of the eight holiest temples surrounding the center of Chiang Mai.  Hardly anything remains of the original structures, though, for it has been renovated many times since.  During the Second World War, when Thailand was temporarily allied with Japan, the Japanese Army used the temple compound as a military base, with soldiers quartered just outside the walls.  Consequently, it suffered from a rare Allied bombing raid.  One of the bombs blew up the main worship hall--the viharn.
monk in the workshop, Wat Srisuphan
     After the war the local people gradually restored the buildings, added more, upgraded the decorations, installed new statues and in recent decades turned the compound into a showcase for the Haiya silver crafts community.  From 2005 workers began covering the exterior walls of the ubosot (ordination hall) with sculpted metal plates depicting a great variety of figures and scenes.  The work was completed only a couple years ago and Wat Srisuphan now is famously known as the Silver Temple.
       The plates are only silver in color though, for they are made from aluminum.  Yet the work, carried out in the compound’s own workshop, is truly impressive, both for its skill and for some of its unusual themes.   On each side of the entrance stairs are mythological scenes of devatas (Buddhist angels) flying over churning oceans.  On the back wall is a scene of the Buddha, in gold, preaching to an assembly of devotees.  On the side walls are vignettes of daily life, like riding ox carts, building houses, carrying water and so on.
       Such scenes are also commonly portrayed in the interior wall murals of many temple buildings in the city.  Unique to the Silver Temple are the panels depicting the Haiya community’s history, with Kawila’s army on the march and his mounted soldiers rounding up people in Kengtung.  Also unique are decorative plaques that have nothing to do with religion, like the emblems of the ASEAN nations, pictures of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, capital cities of the modern world, famous buildings like Stonehenge, the Hagia Sophia Mosque, the catacombs of Alexandria, the Porcelain Pagoda of Nanjing, etc. and cartoon characters like Spiderman.
Alexandria catacombs, Hagia Sophia Mosque
       The identifying captions beneath these plaques are all in English, another indication of the temple’s new reach out to the tourist crowds.  Next to the ubosot is a small museum honoring the community’s top silver and lacquer ware specialists, with biographies and samples of their work.  The workshop next to the viharn is still active every day and the temple offers tourists classes in silver craftwork.  It also has a ‘Monk Chat’ program for visitors to talk with English-speaking monks about Buddhism or learn about meditation.
       The moats, bastions, restored old temples and city gates, what passes for the main tourist attractions in Chiang Mai, are the visible legacy of Kawila’s reconstruction.  More important was the demographic change he introduced, the precedent he set for adding to the local population people from far beyond Chiang Mai,  As a result, the culture of Chiang Mai today is richer than it ever was, even in Lanna’s Golden Age.

village life, a panel on the Silver Temple
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