Sunday, April 23, 2017

Mon to Monkeys: The Evolution of Lopburi

                                                             by Jim Goodman

the 12th century Khmer monument Prang Sam Yot
       The small town of Lopburi, about three hours north of Bangkok, began its existence around the 6th century as Lawo, part of the Mon state of Dvaravati that dominated central Thailand long before any Thais lived there.  At that time the sea levels were higher and reached further inland than today.  Lawo lies beside a river connected to the Menam Chao Phya, the main waterway through this part of the country, and it conducted trade with Indian merchants via the Gulf of Thailand.
        In the 8th century Lawo’s ruler, at the invitation of Mon missionary monks, dispatched his daughter Chamadevi to rule as Queen of the new city of Haripunchai, today’s Lamphun, in northern Thailand, three months journey by boat.  Lawo officials, merchants, artisans and five hundred Theravada monks accompanied her.  She subdued the local Lawa population and created a replica of the Lawo realm.  This was the furthest extension north of Mon civilization and it lasted until its conquest by King Mengrai of Lanna in the late 13th century.
Prang Khaek
       Lawo itself, and most of the Menam Chao Phya Valley, fell in the early 11th century to invading Khmer armies of the expanding Angkor Empire.  How much destruction Lawo suffered at this time is not recorded, but Lopburi’s relics today do not include any Mon structures.  The oldest relic in Lopburi is Prang Khaek, in the center of town.   
       The prang is a typical Khmer monument like an upright cylinder, tapered towards the top, with a blunt end.  It sort of resembles a bomb or a bullet, though such things didn’t exist in Angkor times.  It was usually, but not always, erected behind a viharn, or main assembly hall.  The prangs of Prang Khaek stand close together and are not very tall, with the remains of the viharn close by.  Though they have lost much of their exterior decorations, considering they have stood there over a thousand years, they’re in pretty good shape.
ancient Lopburi Buddha
       More impressive, and in better condition, are the three towers of Prang Sam Yot, dating from the 12th century, on a small mound near the railroad tracks at the eastern edge of town.  Connected by a building along their bases, standing a little apart from each other, the trio of prangs, originally intended as a display of Khmer power, has become the ionic image of contemporary Lopburi.
       At the time of Prang Sam Yot’s construction, Lawo was the most important western outpost of the Angkor Empire.  Suryavarman II, who commissioned the building of Angkor Wat, used Lawo as a base to control the former Mon states and try to extend Angkor’s frontiers.  But the last Mon state, Haripunchai in the north, successfully resisted three Khmer invasions.
chedis at Wat Phra Si Rattana Mahathat
       The first of these was not actually a battle, but rather a contest to see which side could excavate a reservoir faster.  Haripunchai won and the Khmer forces retreated.  Apparently this was not a once-and-for-all verdict, though, as Suryavarman II launched two more invasions.  They both failed and Haripunchai remained independent until Mengrai’s conquest.
       In the 13th century the mighty Angkor Empire began to decline and its hold over its most distant provinces weakened.  Taking advantage of this, the Siamese ruler of Sukhothai, in western central Thailand, renounced his allegiance in 1238, defeated a Khmer force sent from Lawo, and established an independent state.  
       For the time being, Lawo remained under Khmer control and it still enjoyed prestige among its neighbors.  In 1254 the teenaged Prince Ngammueang, of the small northern state of Phayao, went to Lawo for his studies.  There he met and befriended fellow student Prince Ramkamhaeng of Sukhothai. 
the 'watermelon chedi
Khmer and Ayutthaya style chedis
        Four years later Ngammueang became King of Phayao and in 1279 Ramkamhaeng ascended the throne at Sukhothai.  The two friends later formed an alliance with King Mengrai of Lanna, not against the Khmer, who were no longer a serious threat, but against the Mongols.  They also helped Mengrai design and lay out his new capital at Chiang Mai, founded in 1296.
sculptures on the central prang
Ayutthaya style chedi
       Ramkamhaeng greatly expanded Sukhothai’s territories, including the absorption of Lawo.  He was the kingdom’s last strong ruler, though, and after his death in 1300 Sukhothai went into decline.  By mid-14th century the new Kingdom of Siam, founded in Ayutthaya in 1350, began challenging its pre-eminence.   In 1438 Ayutthaya extinguished Sukhothai’s last vestiges of autonomy and annexed its territory.  
       Lawo became Lopburi and to restore its prestige the Ayutthaya Court sponsored the construction of Wat Phra Si Rattana Mahathat in the 14th-15th centuries.  Just opposite the train station today, it is a large compound containing numerous old monuments.  Khmer influence dominates the architecture, from the tall central prang behind the ruined viharn, to the many subsidiary prangs in the courtyard.
ruins of King Narai's palace
       The prang is not the only type of chedi here, however.  A few are in the Ayutthaya style, resembling an inverted bell, with the upper part tapering to a sharp point.  Another features a watermelon shape for its upper tier, without any crown surmounting it.  Sukhothai-style chedis, with a vertical rectangular block just below the crown, are absent.  But the existing sculptures, on the central prang and other chedis, reflect the Sukhothai style.  This is especially true of the occasional Walking Buddha, an image first created in Sukhothai.
       In the 17th century, under the reign of King Narai (1656-1688), Lopburi became the most important city in the country.  When Narai became king, Western powers were already locked in fierce competition over their commercial ambitions in the Far East.  Having supplanted the Portuguese as the dominant naval power in the region, the Dutch were the most aggressive.  When Auytthaya objected to the terms of the trade agreement the Dutch offered, which gave the latter monopoly on prime exports as well as extraterritoriality—the right of its citizens to be free from arrest for violations of local law, the Dutch blockaded the mouth of the Menam Chao Phya River. 
the reception  hall of King Narai's palace
       Without a navy of his own to expel the Dutch, Narai had to agree to the Dutch terms.  The event had two important effects.  It left Narai with the feeling that Ayutthaya, now a large city, was vulnerable to a naval attack.  So he moved to Lopburi, about 55 km northeast.  At first it was just a winter capital, but eventually Narai spent most of his time there.
       The other effect of the successful Dutch blockade was to convince Narai to seek an ally from the Western countries against the Dutch.  He didn’t trust the English, so he opted for an alliance with the French.  In 1862 he gave permission to French Jesuit priests to settle in Ayutthaya.  Their main goal was to convert the king to Catholicism.   Though Narai expressed an intellectual interest in Catholicism, as well as Islam, he never intended to abandon Theravada Buddhism, his own faith and that of his subjects.  Yet French hopes for his conversion persisted throughout his reign.
palace wall to King Mongkut's compound
       Some of the Jesuit missionaries were also architects and engineers and assisted Narai in turning Lopburi into a proper royal city.  For some time (the construction date is uncertain) a large reservoir had lain about eight km east of the city, catching and storing the runoff from the Prabat Hills.  French engineers constructed an underground aqueduct with lead pipes to convey water from the reservoir to the palace.  French architects designed the fortifications, as well as the palace and other secular buildings and the European influence is evident in the use of brick rather than wood as the basic building material, plus the wide windows and general look.  Lopburi became known as the Versailles of the East.
       In 1673 the French sent an ecclesiastical mission to Lopburi, with letters to King Narai from King Louis XIV and Pope Clement IX.  In 1680, still seeking an ally against the Dutch, Narai sent a diplomatic mission to France.  But it got lost at sea somewhere near Madagascar.  The French responded to the effort by dispatching a commercial mission to Lopburi two years later.
Phaulkon's house
Khmer Buddha in the palace compound
       King Narai’s closest advisor at this time was Constantine Phaulkon, the most remarkable of the scores of European adventurers who sought fame and fortune in the Far East that century.  A Greek islander by birth, Phaulkon arrived in Siam as an employee of the British East India Company n 1675.  In his late 20s, already a polyglot who also spoke English, Portuguese and French, Phaulkon learned to speak fluent Thai within a few years and served as a translator in the company’s dealings with the Siamese Court.
       Phaulkon’s talents eventually came to the attention of the Siamese Court and in 1681 he began working directly for King Narai, serving as interpreter during negotiations with the French mission of 1682.  Phaulkon rose quickly in Narai’s favor, received the title Phra Chao Wichayen and became Narai’s chief minister.  He had his own mansion in the diplomatic quarter and entertained lavishly.  He also converted from Anglicanism to Catholicism and shared the French priests’ ambition to turn Siam into a Catholic country.  
modern chedi at Wat Manee Choklakham
temple dancer in the Lopburi ruins
Diplomatic missions traveled back and forth between Siam and France the next few years, resulting in the alliance Narai had long sought.  Though he did not convert to Catholicism, Narai allowed the French to build forts and station troops in Bangkok.  Phaulkon helped achieve this, though in loyalty to his patron he insisted on terms that put the French garrison under Narai’s direct command.
       Nevertheless, the very idea of stationing foreign troops on Siam’s territory outraged conservative factions at the Court.  In 1688 Narai fell seriously ill.  The leader of the Court dissidents, Phra Petracha, staged a coup, arrested and executed both Phaulkon and Mom Pi, Narai’s adopted son and heir, whom Phaulkon had persuaded to become Catholic. 
       Narai died soon afterwards and Petracha assumed the throne, abandoned Lopburi and expelled the French.  Versailles of the East fell into ruins, though parts of the palace, its walls, gates and reception hall, as well as the houses built for Phaulkon and foreign ambassadors, still remain.  Only its shell stands today, yet Phaulkon’s house is the oldest extant private house in Thailand, mainly because it was built of brick and stucco and not more perishable wood.
stars of contemporary Lopburi
       Since Lopburi was no longer the seat of royal government, many of its residents returned to Ayutthaya and the once glorious city reverted to a small town.  It regained a little of its importance in the mid-19th century when King Mongkut (Rama IV 1851-1868) chose to make Lopburi one of his summer homes.  Rather than restore the ruins of Narai’s palace, he added a new walled compound to the rear of the original and erected his own quarters there, as well as other buildings, including one for his concubines, two-story white houses with balconies and sloping tiled roofs.
       Mongkut’s successor did not maintain the Lopburi residence and gave the new palace to Lopburi for use as its City Hall.  Another building became a museum.  Lopburi vanished from official thoughts until Marshal Pibul Songram, who ruled Thailand 1938-1947, decided to establish a military base in its eastern suburbs.
       The final phase in Lopburi’s development began in the last decades of the century in the role of tourist destination.  Naturally, its historic relics made it worth a visit, but it became more popularly known as the City of the Monkeys.  Great numbers of these creatures congregate around the railroad tracks on the eastern side of town.  Dozens of them hang out around Prang Sam Yot, though they don’t seem to enter the Si Rattana Mahathat compound. 
guesthouse in the monkey heartland
       They are the species called crab-eating macaque.  Lopburi doesn’t have enough crabs for so many monkeys, of course, so they feed on seeds, fruits, flowers, bird eggs and whatever else they can scavenge, including the sandwiches and noodles of unsuspecting tourists who dine too close to them.  Hotel staff guides and agencies warn visitors not to give food to the monkeys, or eat anything near them, and keep a firm grip on their cameras, cell phones and shoulder bags.
       Local mythology says that Hanuman, Rama’s Monkey General in the Hindu epic Ramayana, came here in ancient times and the monkeys today are his descendants.  Because of the religious connection, the city never tried to expel them.  Since 1989, thanks to the initiative of a local businessman, every November the city stages a Monkey Buffet Festival.  Residents lay out thousands of kilograms of fruits, seeds and other snacks for the monkeys to feast upon. 
       Intended to boost tourism, it did just that.  Now Lopburi is a popular excursion, especially as a day trip from Ayutthaya or Bangkok.  That’s actually sufficient time to see the historical sights, all of them within walking distance of the town center.  As for the unique presence of over 3000 monkeys, that will be a bonus for every traveler, and for those who’ve never been in an environment dominated by so many ‘creatures of the wild,’ perhaps a reason to stay longer.

Wat Phra Si Rattana Mahathat
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