Thursday, September 28, 2017

Making a New Hanoi—French-style

                                                              by Jim Goodman

Palais du Résidence-Superieur, the first French administrative building
In 1884 French military forces seized Hanoi.   Two years later, while the French army was still battling resistance beyond Hanoi, Paul Bert arrived as the first civilian administrator.  He and his staff set out to immediately impress upon the Vietnamese that they were a conquered people and that their new overlords were here to stay.  They launched an assault on places most associated symbolically with the imperial regime they had just displaced, starting with the Citadel.  To open a new residential area for the anticipated influx of colonists and administrators, the French demolished the walls and filled in the moats around them to make new streets.
St. Joseph's Cathedral
Hòa Phong Tower
       The next target was the examination ground on today’s Tràng Thi Street.  They built a military post in its place and widened the road on the south side of Hoàn Kiếm Lake, demolishing the lakeside houses, and, since they intended to introduce French currency, tore down the mint on Tràng Thi and turned the area over to French merchants for shops.  They renamed the street Rue Paul Bert, starting a trend they would continue as they built more new roads, naming them after colonial administrators or soldiers.
the former Báo Ân Pagoda
       The colonial adventure included mission civilatrice as part of its policy, with the spread of Catholicism a main factor.  So the French decided they needed a cathedral right away, too, both for themselves and for Vietnamese converts.  But instead of finding an appropriate empty lot, of which there were many, they chose to erect it on the site of Chùa Báo Thiên, one of the city’s most venerable pagodas, dating from the reign of Lý Thánh Tông, that had been standing there for over eight centuries.  The French leveled the pagoda, expropriated much of the compound of the Lý Quc Sư Temple next to it and constructed the Gothic style, twin-spire St. Joseph’s Cathedral.  It held its first services Christmas Eve, 1886, though it took several more years to finally complete. 
Chwvassiwux Fountain
      Across the lake the relatively new Báo Ân Pagoda was the next target.  In 1892 the French destroyed the entire compound to build a post office on the land facing the lake.  Only the Ha Phong Tower, which was outside the proposed new road, was left standing.  Beside the post office they erected a standing statue of Paul Bert, with a cringing Vietnamese mandarin below his right side.  Further up, they demolished the Temple of Reason, built to commemorate Vietnamese victories over the Chăm, to erect a new Town Hall.
       The new French buildings were in the European, neo-classical design, massive, ornate, and, in the mind of the government’s chief architect, Henri-Auguste Valdieu, were expected to overawe the local population and remind them of France’s might and majesty. This attitude partly stemmed from their perceived need, in the face of ongoing resistance to their rule, to overwhelm the conquered population with highly visible symbols of their own power. 
the French bandstand, used for Sunday concerts
       But the early French administrators also held a low opinion of Vietnamese culture and arts and expected the Vietnamese to recognize the superiority of French civilization.  They would build their own version of Paris by developing little-used portions of the existing city, but they would also introduce modern improvements into the old city, expecting the grateful residents to then realize the value of their “civilizing mission.” 
      The largely vacant area south of Hoàn Kiếm Lake was to be the main colonial residential neighborhood.  The French constructed wide parallel streets intersecting at right angles and houses in the French style.  Unlike homes in the old quarter, jammed together with shared walls, those constructed in the new French Quarter were two- and three-story mansions surrounded by a wall enclosing gardens and trees.
ex-Governor-General's Palace, now Presidential Palace
       As the government began constructing ministries and palaces further away from Hoàn Kiếm Lake, new neighborhoods began springing up, especially around the old Citadel in Ba Đình and on today’s Quán Thánh Street, leading to West Lake.  Still the French Quarter remained the social center.  It was close to the lake with its big, shady trees and mixture of old and new buildings, a favorite place to stroll.  The main business outlets serving the foreign community were there, as well as the Hotel Métropole, which would long be rated among the finest in Asia, and the Resident’s Palace just opposite.  In a small triangular park just up from the Métropole was the Chevassieux Fountain, built in 1901 in a blend of styles, with spouting dragons around the edge of the pool of a basically French-style fountain.  The bandstand, with its free Sunday concerts, was in the vicinity, too, so a colon in the French Quarter could wander around in neighborhoods near his home that resembled, and suggested, life in the mother country.
Long Biên Bridge
       Bert’s successor, Paul Doumer, sponsored the construction of yet more gigantic buildings intended to overawe the Vietnamese.  In 1901 he ordered a new Governor-General’s palace built on 20 hectares of land in Ba Đình, past the Citadel.  This involved demolishing a Lý Dynasty temple and expropriating private land without compensation.  Completed in 1906, in classical northern French style, four stories high, with rectangular windows on the upper floors and arched windows on the lower floors, all spaced evenly apart, low-angled tiled roofs, lavish ornamentation on the façade and the building painted a mustard yellow, it was the most impressive French building in the city yet.
Municipal Theater
       With the Red River Delta pacified by this time, he ordered the construction in 1903 of an iron bridge, 1.7 km long, across the river, for trains to reach the countryside.  Originally named after himself, it is now called the Long Biën Bridge, bombed during the American War, but restored to its original condition afterwards.
       At the same time, back in the French Quarter, at the east end of Rue Paul Bert, work began on the Municipal Theater, completed in 1911.  Budget constraints kept it from having annexes and more decorative stonework.  Nevertheless, it is still quite a large structure, with pillars on the front façade, a pair of domed, slate roofs, decorative balustrades, the walls a light yellow.  The interior was in the ultra-baroque style, opulent furnishings everywhere, marble floors, high ceilings and a grand staircase.  Commonly known as the Opéra, it could seat 870 patrons, at a time when the French population of the city was around 2500.
Ô Quan Chưởng--the last of the old city gates
       Besides creating neighborhoods for themselves, the French also imposed changes on Old Hanoi.  Admittedly, the city had suffered infrastructural neglect since the beginning of the Nguyn Dynasty.  The dikes were in sad shape and one of the first French actions was to commission their renovation.  They would later fill in parts of the Tô Lch River and the small ponds scattered throughout the old town.  They also demolished the city walls and all but one of the city entry gates
       Vietnamese mandarins, ostensibly working for the French authorities, lobbied to protect one city gate as a symbol of their heritage.  The French agreed to spare it, but not for that reason.  They kept it as souvenir of Francis Garnier’s ill-fated attempt to seize Hanoi in 1873.  This gate, Ô Quan Chưởng, still standing, was the one Garnier passed through to attack the Citadel.
the water tower on Hàng Đậu
       Most of the French projects in the old town aimed to improve sanitation and hygiene and make it easier to get around.  Besides demolishing the walls that separated the old town guilds, they widened the streets by lopping off the fronts of the houses.  In 1895 they installed electric street lamps and in 1900 electric tramways.  Besides filling in the ponds, they also built public urinals and constructed a water tower at the end of Hàng Đậu Street, which piped water to several collection points in the city. 
       French colons were not about to move into the old quarter as a result, but the administrators hoped that by improving the living conditions of the Vietnamese the latter would at least acquiesce to French rule.  Mandarins could occasionally resist the changes and save some ancient trees and the last city gate, but not often.  The French had their own ideas of what Hanoi should look like.
       After World War I this attitude became somewhat modified.  Reformers pushed new ideas like ‘association’ and ‘cultural relativism’ that were designed to incorporate indigenous styles into building designs and make adaptations that took into account the local climate and culture.  In 1923 the colonial government established a Town Planning and Architecture Service, with Ernest Hébrard its first Director.  He expanded the city south and west and created a new administrative zone in Ba Đình.  But it was in architecture that he made his greatest impact.
Hébrard's Cừa Bắc church
       In Hébrard’s view the existing French-style buildings in the city, with their mansard roofs, attics and tiny windows, were ill suited to local weather conditions.  They were also, like the Gothic St. Joseph’s Cathedral with its towering spires, out of synch with the rest of the city’s architecture.  The church he designed—Ca Bc, outside the northern gate of the Citadel—dispensed with Gothic features and exhibited an eclectic set of influences, especially art deco, Hébrard’s own favorite.  And for secular buildings Hébrard favored verandahs, canopied windows, bigger rooms for greater ventilation and indigenous decorative motifs.
       Four other major city buildings, all featuring Hébrard’s Indochinese Style, went up in the mid-1920s.   The Pasteur Institute, several blocks south of the French Quarter, most resembled a French building, in a pale mustard color, but had bigger windows and lay surrounded by gardens.   The long, three-story Ministry of Finance in Ba Đình featured roofed balconies at each level.  The University of Hanoi entrance gate had a double roof and a long, thin arch just above the door.
the former Bank of Indochina
       The masterpiece of the period is the Louis Finot Museum, now called the History Museum, just beyond the Municipal Theater.  With a tall, double-roofed tower in the front, the building has a long, two-story extension in the back, with columned verandahs and tile roofs supported by wooden brackets.  The façade is embellished with chiseled corbels and regular indented spaces of rectangular glass panels, evoking the parallel sentence boards on the pillars of a village communal house.
       In 1927 authorities set up the Hanoi School of Fine Arts to instruct Vietnamese in the principles of architecture.  Hbrard hoped to instill his Indochinese Style into the students’ consciousness.  But already a competing, international modernist style was appearing with the construction of the Bank of Indochina, completed in 1930.  This long, sleek building featured tall, dark rectangular recesses along the front façade and an entrance tower with a layered dome canopy and stone screens on its upper walls.
Pasteur Institute
       With the economic depression of the1930s fewer official buildings went up, but the newly trained Vietnamese architects found employment with both European and Vietnamese clients and constructed over a hundred villas in the French Quarter and around Ba Đình before the end of World War II.  They featured terraced roofs, curved facades, arched and circular windows and Vietnamese designs in ornamental plastering above doors and windows.  Many of these today serve as foreign embassies.
       They also worked in the southern part of the city, where the land space was far more restricted.  So Vietnamese architects adopted a modified Old Quarter tube-house style, with the fronts employing the features of the villas.  They combined elements of art deco, Western classical and native Vietnamese in a way that went beyond the characteristics of the Indochinese Style.
main entrance to Hanoi University
       After World War II the French were too absorbed in fighting the insurgency to do much building in Hanoi.  And as they faced defeat, some of the original animosity to Vietnamese culture returned.  In a last act of cultural vandalism before their evacuation from Hanoi, the French blew up the One-Pillar Pagoda, which had been standing there for over nine centuries.
       After independence the Vietnamese rebuilt the pagoda, though a little smaller, and demolished the Town Hall on Hoàn Kiếm Lake and replaced it with a very modern building.  But the other colonial administrative buildings they kept and used themselves.  For example, the Governor-General’s palace became the Presidential Palace.  The former Resident's Palace became the State Guest House for visiting foreign statesmen.
Ba Đình villa, Vietnamese-designed
Vietnamese version of the Indochinese Style
       In the 1990s, after more decades of war, isolation and privation, Vietnam’s economy began improving such that suddenly architects were busy replacing old houses with new ones.  Nowadays the results of their mixed architectural heritage are rows of houses with individual facades, balconies, multi-paneled windows, each house a different color, each sporting a different kind of roof, different exterior designs, no two alike.  Different from urban houses anywhere else in Southeast Asia, they exemplify the further elaboration of the Indochinese Style of decades earlier.
       With his patronizing attitude, Hébrard had assumed his Vietnamese students would adhere to the style he taught them.  But as with everything the Vietnamese import from foreign cultures, they added their own notions and wound up creating an indigenous style of their own.

the History Museum--the masterpiece of the1920s
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Sunday, September 17, 2017

Lost and Found: Chiang Mai’s Predecessor

                                   by Jim Goodman

Wat That Kao in Wiang Kumkam
       In the late 13th century, a small Tai Yuan state in the far north of present-day Thailand, under the ambitious King Mengrai, began expanding south.  Assuming power in 1261 when he was just 22, the following year he moved his capital from Chiang Saen to a new city on the Kok River that he named after himself—Chiang Rai.  The new kingdom was Lanna, which translates as ‘a million rice fields.’  The next 15 years he spent consolidating and incrementally expanding his control over his neighbors.  Then at the end of the 1270s he heard about the wealth of Haripunchai, capital of a Mon kingdom in what is now Lamphun.
        After a carefully planned campaign of subterfuge carried out by a secret ally within Haripunchai, Mengrai captured it in 1281.  He stayed there for over a year, then traveled throughout his newly enlarged realm to oversee new fortifications and to endow monasteries. He did not intend to make Haripunchai his own capital, preferring to maintain it as a major Buddhist center.  Instead, in 1286 he ordered the construction of a new capital, on an existing Mon settlement, further north, at Wiang Kum Kam, a few km south of contemporary Chiang Mai.
the original foundations of Wat Chang Kam, from 1290
        Haripunchai was the most sophisticated place Mengrai had ever seen.  His capture of it involved no destruction at all and he seemed determined to preserve it as he found it. He definitely absorbed its influence and sought, by building a city on its model, next to a river, surrounded by walls and moats, to make something just as splendid.  Wiang Kumkam lay on the south side of a bend in the Ping River, and thus on the right bank, as Chiang Mai is today. 
       The location was prone to flooding, though, and after a few years Mengrai scouted the area for a new capital, founding Chiang Mai in 1296. Wiang Kumkam continued to exist as a kind of sister city and in fact, most of its ruins date from long after the transfer of the capital to Chiang Mai.  Sometime in the 17th century, however, the Ping River changed its course, forcing the evacuation of its population, burying most of the city under 1.8 meters of sediment, and leaving it on the river’s left bank.
votive tablets unearthed at Wat Chang Kam
         For many generations Wiang Kumkam was just a memory that grew into a legend.  It was the Lost City, the Lanna Atlantis, the underground metropolis.  But nobody knew where it was.  Then in 1984 farmers in the area, while plowing their fields, unearthed some ancient votive tablets.  They turned them over to the Fine Arts Department of Chiang Mai University, who subsequently began excavating on the site.  It turned out to be Wat Chang Kam, the second oldest extant ruins in Wiang Kumkam, originally built in 1290.
       Only the foundations remain, but success here prompted excavations and restorations throughout the area.  At many of these sites just the foundations, and maybe parts of the columns, have been reconstructed.  A few contain well preserved chedis as well, and at Wat That Kao, renovators have restored a prominent Buddha statue by following the remnants of a lime-plastered, brick original found during the excavation.
Chedi Liam, from the west bank of the Ping River
statue of King Mengrai, Wat Phra Singh
         The most attractive remnant of Wiang Kumkam is Chedi Liam, at the western en d of the old city near the river.  Built in 1288, the first monument in the city, it copies the style of the Mon chedi in Lamphun’s (Haripunchai’s) Wat Chamadevi, dedicated to the city’s 8th century founding queen.  Multi-tiered on a square base, with standing Buddha images in niches all around each level, it is unique to temple architecture around Chiang Mai.  The compound, like Wat Chang Kam, also has a new and active temple today, with resident monks.  Other buildings include the assembly hall, ordination hall and a shrine to the four-headed Erawan, the Thai equivalent of the Hindu Creator God Brahma.
Buddha images on Chedi Liam
       If Mengrai had a palace in Wiang Kumkam it hasn’t been discovered yet.  Because of the flooding, Mengrai soon sought a new site and didn’t sponsor any more construction other then Wat Chang Kam.  Always an astute politician, he had earlier in 1287 forged alliances with the rulers of the small state of Phayao and the much larger Kingdom of Sukhothai.  Ostensibly, this was a response to the establishment of the Mongol Yuan Dynasty in China, although the Mongols never did invade Thailand. 
the compound of Wat Chedi Liam
       The alliance did prove useful to Mengrai in another sense, for, when he sought to build a new capital, he solicited the advice of his allies.  He had already scouted the area and roughly selected a site between the mountain Doi Suthep and the Ping Rive.  It was to be set a little distant from the riverbank, but close to tits tributary he Nam Kha River and its natural reservoir, northeast of old Chiang Mai, which would supply water to the city and its moats.
       Wiang Kumkam was a rectangular city, measuring 800 meters by 600 meters.  Mengrai envisioned a much larger city for his new capital, but his allies recommended something a little smaller.  In the end Chiang Mai, which literally means “new city,” was nearly square, 1.2 kilometers by 1 kilometer.  Like Wiang Kumkam (and Haripunchai), moats and walls surrounded the city. 
Sriphum Corner, where construction of Chiang Mai began
       Geomancers and astrologers determined the date and place for starting construction, which began at the northeast Sriphum Corner on 18 April, 1296.  While workers were busy building the city, Mengrai stayed in what is now the compound of Wat Chiang Man, which later became Chiang Mai’s first temple.  Its construction began in 1296, the same year as the foundation of the city. 
         From 1296 Chiang Mai was the most important city in Mengrai’s Kingdom of Lanna.  He subsequently marched his army south against the Mon kingdom of Hanthawaddy, centered around Pegu (now called Bago) in Lower Burma, but the Mon king there offered submission and bestowed his daughter as Mengrai’s bride.  Campaigning next against Bagan, he secured their submission as well.  Back in Lanna, he promulgated a law code that served the country throughout its existence.
bronze Buddha head found in Wiang Kumkam
the reconstructed Buddha at Wat That Kao
       Mengrai died in 1317 when struck by a lightning bolt while in the market at what is now Chedi Luang, in the center of the city.  Lanna then extended from the northern border of Thailand down to Lampang, with allied states or vassals on its southern borders.  Mengrai’s dynastic successors continued to rule until after the Burmese conquest in the mid-16th century.
Wat E-Khang
       After his death, Mengrai became a kind of cult figure for the northern Thai, right down to contemporary times.  In Chiang Mai, the second oldest temple, now called Wat Mengrai, contains a tall standing Buddha whose face is allegedly modeled on that of Lanna’s first king.  A statue of him stands in the garden behind the temple.  Other Mengrai statues are in Wat Phra Singh and Wat Chedi Luang.  The latter compound also contains the City Pillar, supposedly erected on the spot where lightning struck the king.  As the building is not always open, city folk constructed a new shrine a block north, which is always loaded with flowers and other offerings.
       Venerated just as often is the Three Kings Monument, another block north of the shrine.  This sculpture commemorates the famed 1287 alliance and depicts Mengrai of Lanna, Ngam Mueang of Phayao and Ramkamhaeng of Sukhothai.  Elsewhere, Chiang Rai honors its founder with a huge statue of him in a popular park in the northern part of the city and a big new shrine has recently been built near the highway in Mae Chan district.  In Wiang Kumkam, Wat Phaya Mengrai, near Chedi Liam, is one of the excavated ruins, though only the foundations remain.  But at Wat Chang Kam, at the far end of the ruins, stands a shrine that claims to be the resting place of Mengrai’s spirit.  Thai tourists never fail to stop in to offer incense and prayers.
the chedi at Wat E-Khang
demon statue at Wat Ku Aisi
       Although after the founding of Chiang Mai Mengrai no longer paid attention to his former capital, Wiang Kumkam continued to exist as a kind of ‘sister city’ to Chiang Mai.  Members of the royal family had homes there and Mengrai even returned there for a while in 1311 to recover from an illness.  Royalty and nobility continued to sponsor the construction of more temples.  Its position on the river gave it good commercial connections and among the items excavated were Yuan and Ming Dynasty ceramics from China.  Even after the Burmese conquered Chiang Mai in 1558 Wiang Kumkam continued to function as a city.  Burmese policy at this time was to rule Lanna as a semi-autonomous vassal state and to respect local culture and patronize the religion, which was the same Theravada Buddhism of their own country. 
Wat Nanchang, the north-facing temple
       As a result, still more temples were erected in Wiang Kumkam in the 16th and 17th centuries until the Ping River suddenly changed course sometime in the mid-17th century, swerved west and inundated the city, forcing its abandonment.  All the residents moved far away and the area remained deserted until the beginning of the 19th century.  Wars with Burma had all but depopulated much of the north in the last decades of the 18th century.  After King Kawila from Lampang re-established Lanna in 1796, people began leaving their forest hideouts to make farms and villages again.  And those who settled in the Wiang Kumkam area had no idea an ancient city lay beneath their homes and fields until farmers found those ancient votive tablets in 1984.
Wat Huamong
       For the next twenty years archaeologists excavated and restored as much as possible in over two dozen sites.  Today it is an ever more popular tourist attraction in Chiang Mai, different from visiting ancient cities like Ayutthaya, Phimai or Sukhothai, where all the monuments are enclosed together.  At Wiang Kumkam the ruins lie scattered among village neighborhoods, with houses right next to them.
       The area is too big to cover on foot, so groups take tourist carts or buses and individuals explore by bicycle or motorbike.  Another option is to take a leisurely ride on a pony cart, which seats up to three and costs 300 baht (c. $9) for a tour around nine temples.  Traffic is very light throughout the area and various drink and snack shops exist along the roads and in the two new temple compounds at Chedi Liam and Wat Chang Kam. 
elephants at the base of a Wat Huanong chedi
       The pony carts start from the park’s official entrance, next to the highway around the corner from Wat Chang Kam. Those on bicycles or motorbikes, though, can also start from Chedi Liam and follow the signs indicating the name, direction and distance of the various ruins.  A section of the original moat and city wall remnants lie just east of Chedi Liam, with Wat Phaya Mengrai on the other side.  Further on the road passes Wat That Kao and its large reconstructed Buddha image.  It’s the only Buddha image in any of the sites, though bronze and stone sculptures have been excavated and are now displayed at Chiang Mai’s National Museum.
       The ruined chedi at Wat That Kao rises a little higher than its base, but two other sites a little north feature relatively intact, full-sized chedis,  They are in a different style than Chedi Liam and probably indicative of the type of chedis that used to stand in all the other excavated sites.  The older compound, Wat Pupia, holds the foundations of the viharn and ordination hall, a small water tank in front of the latter and the chedi towers behind the viharn.  The statues in the niches are gone, but some of the stucco sculpture around them remains. 
Wat Ku Magleua
       The other extant chedi is at Wat E-Khang, one of the last to be built in the city.  The original name has been lost, but because it was until recently a haunt of wild monkeys, local people began calling it E-Khang, after the Northern Thai word for monkey (khang). 
       Most of the ruins are just reconstructed brick foundations and the bases of vanished chedis, but even a few of these can be interesting.  Wat Nanchang is a rather large compound and, unusual for Thai temples, faced north, to the Ping River’s course at that time.  Wat Huanong, from the 15th-16th centuries, contains the foundations of several buildings, part of the entry gate and four extant elephant sculptures around the base of a chedi.  Wat Ku Aisi features a large demon statue.
       Other ruins, though without any sculpture or chedi, local people continue to venerate by adding  small modern sculptures and a makeshift altar.  At Wat Ku Khao, next to the tree-lined road to Lamphun, it’s a larger bronze seated Buddha.  For local people, they may not be very familiar with the ancient city’s history, but the excavators have uncovered many hitherto unknown holy places that they must recognize and venerate.  The buildings may be in ruins, but the gods are still there.

Wat Pupia
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Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Starting with Sukhothai

                                    by Jim Goodman

the chedi and viharn at Wat Mahathat
       For a long time Thai people believed that their political history began with the foundation of the Kingdom of Sukhothai in 1238.  Modern research has revealed that other Thai states existed before that.  But they have left few traces and were not significant in the formation of Thai culture.  Sukhothai lasted much longer—140 years—than any of its ephemeral predecessors and expanded its territory much further, covering central and eastern Thailand and south to the Malay Peninsula.
       In the late 14th century Sukhothai fell victim to the rising power of Ayutthaya.  But the conquerors absorbed many of the characteristics of the Sukhothai state, from its administrative arrangements to its identity as a Theravada Buddhist nation.  Besides these contributions, and its special style of religious sculpture and architecture, Sukhothai also bequeathed to Thai culture its alphabet, invented in the late 13th century, and the lovely autumn festival of Loy Krathong.
Wat Si Sawat, from the Khmer period
       Sukhothai lies in the Yom River Valley in western central Thailand, 427 km north of Bangkok.  From the 12th century the area was part of the Khmer Empire of Angkor.  Its population was largely Thai, who had migrated over the centuries down from China.  The Khmer Empire reached its peak at the end of the 12th century under Jayavarman VII.  He was the monarch who commissioned the construction of temples and compounds that are among Cambodia’s major tourist attractions today.  But when he died in 1215 the treasury was broke and the government no longer had the means to, for example, maintain tight administrative and military control over its most distant provinces.
Khmer temple of Wat Phra Phai Luang 
       Places like Sukhothai housed a Khmer governor, but a local Thai prince actually ran the province on behalf of Angkor.  His main responsibility was to provide annual tribute to the Khmer Court, including the onerous task of delivering water collected from sacred places for use in Court ceremonies.  As earthen pots held this water and ox-carts were the vehicles transporting it all the way to Angkor, the wares were vulnerable to breakage.  A Thai legend says that around this time a local Thai prince dispatched his water tribute in a far less fragile bamboo container, an act that aroused the suspicion of the Court.
       Whether the legend is true or not, a generation after Jayavarman VII’s death the Thai in this part of the empire were ready to revolt.  And they signaled the start of their insurrection by terminating the water tribute.  Two Thai princes joined their forces, attacked the Khmer garrison at what was then called Sayam, expelled the Khmer and announced the independence of a new state they named Sukhothai, the Thai variant of the Pali word Sukhodaya, meaning “Dawn of Happiness.”
Khmer-style prang
Thai-style seated Buddha
       The establishment of Sukhothai made a profound impression on Thai people, especially those still under Khmer rule.  They gave Sri Intratit, its first king, the name Pra Ruang –Glorious Prince—for his stunning defeat of the hitherto invincible Khmer army.  Its success and subsequent prosperity made it easy to expand later that century by annexing more Thai-inhabited parts of the Khmer Empire, often with local support.
Wat Si Chum, housing an enormous seated Buddha
       The greatest expansion took place under Sukhothai’s third king, Ramkamhaeng the Great (1279-1300).  He extended the kingdom’s rule all the way to Luang Phabang and south to Nakhon Si Thammarat.  He made alliances with the northern Thai kingdoms of Lanna and Phayao and opened diplomatic relations with China.  He was also an accomplished linguist and Pali scholar, familiar with the writing systems of the Mon and Khmer.  Under that influence he created an alphabet for the Thai language.  With some small changes over the centuries, it is still basically the Thai alphabet used today.
       After Ramkamhaeng’s death many of the territories he’d added to the kingdom broke away.  Sukhothai continued its existence in its smaller size and under King Lithai, who ruled from 1347 until sometime between 1368 and 1374, Sukhothai reached its greatest achievements in Buddhist art and architecture. 
Sinhalese-style chedi at Wat Chana Songkhram
       By then the new state in Ayutthaya had already seceded from Sukhothai and Lithai, accurately gauging the strengths of the two states, refrained from trying to bring Ayutthaya back into the fold.  After his death, though, Ayutthaya began campaigning against Sukhothai.  By 1378 it had reduced Sukhothai to the status of a vassal and in 1438 absorbed it as part of its own kingdom. 
       The original, abandoned city fell into ruins and never revived.  When a new Sukhothai arose centuries later, it was sited 12 km east.  Sukhothai submitted to Ayutthaya before it could be attacked, so did not suffer destruction and looting by enemy armies, which was to be the eventual fate of Ayutthaya.  When it was declared a World Heritage site in 1991 its extant ruins were in fairly good condition, particularly the large Buddha images.  The monuments now get constant attention, others have been partially restored, and the ponds reflecting them kept clean.
       The Thai were originally animist, venerating (and fearing) a variety of spirits inhabiting natural phenomena like ancient trees and special springs.  This animism has never disappeared from the Thai mind-set, even after the adoption of Buddhism.  Although Jayavarman VII was a Mahayana Buddhist, in his time the Theravada (Way of the Elders) form had already taken hold among the Khmer commoners, as well as the Mon and Thai subjects in the empire.  This was a result of a strong overseas promotion by the Theravada Buddhist Kingdom of Sri Lanka in the 12th century.
Phra Attharot at Wat Mahathat
Phra Attharot at Wat Saphan Hin
       From its foundation, Sukhothai identified itself as a Theravada Buddhist kingdom.   By this move it adopted the cultural influence of South Asia, Hindu and Buddhist, that characterized the societies of its Khmer, Mon and Burmese neighbors.  It absorbed these influences and produced religious monuments and imagery that replicated those of the states around them.
       Although no roofs have survived, the parallel rows of extant columns indicate that one such borrowed characteristic was the shape of the temple’s viharn--assembly hall.  At the end of many of the temples among Sukhothai’s ruins stands a chedi in either the Khmer prang-style, resembling an upright corncob (or to the modern eye a bullet), or in the shape of a bell, a style imported from Sri Lanka. 
elephants around the chedi base at Wat Sorasak
       Sukhothai’s ruins are preserved today as part of Sukhothai Historical Park.  The oldest monuments are actually those erected by the Khmer in the late 12th and early 13th centuries, before the Thai expelled them.  The prang is the dominant feature of these compounds and, while largely stripped of its exterior decorations, the building in the best condition.  The prang in Wat Phra Phai Luang, for example, in the neighborhood outside the northern gate of the old city, retains its white stucco surface and stands in sharp contrast to the dilapidated chedis and shrines in the compound.  At Wat Si Sawat, though the viharn has all but crumbled, the trio of prangs behind it, minus their exterior sculptures, stands intact.
       When Sukhothai became independent they employed the Khmer style to some extent, with a few prangs here and there and Khmer-style towers over the gates of the city walls.  They also began building chedis in the Lanka style, shaped like an inverted hand-bell on a square.  The chedi at Wat Chana Songkhram, in the center of the old city, is a well-preserved example, and this form of chedi is the most common in the Park and its environs.
sculptures at a chedi base in Wat Mahathat
       The neighboring Mon people, also Theravada Buddhist, had been building this type of chedi for a long time already, so the Thai simply adopted the style when they made Theravada Buddhism the state religion.  They also adopted the Mon style of Buddha images, particularly the seated Buddha.  Usually this depiction is the Earth Witness posture, with the Buddha’s eyes open and one hand over his knee with the fingers nearly touching the ground.  This refers to his moment of Enlightenment, when he called on the Earth to witness his achievement.  Most of the Buddha images in the Park and its environs are in this style, often very large, and sculpted in a much more accomplished and aesthetically pleasing way than the Mon models.
       But the Sukhothai artisans not only faithfully transmitted the artistic motifs and styles of Khmer, Mon and Sinhalese models, they created their own as well.  In architecture it was the ‘lotus bud chedi.’  Rather than a round, bell shape, it rose on a rectangular block, surmounted by s lotus bud-shaped central section, topped by a narrow, pointed steeple.  The best example of this is Wat Mahathat, the old city’s biggest and most important temple. 
       Wat Mahathat also boasts the best assemblage of Sukhothai’s innovative art.  Besides the local style of chedi, the compound displays a wonderful seated Buddha at the end of a double row of columns that once supported the viharn roof.  Several smaller chedis stand around the main one.  Interned in one of these are the ashes of King Lithai.  Buddha images sit on all sides of another, with a few surviving sculptures below them of demons and deities, elephants and a girl holding what looks like a gourd or a coconut.
Buddha hand with silver leaf pasted by devotees
Sukhothai Walking Buddha
       The temple also housed an 8 meter-high bronze seated Buddha.  This image survived Sukhothai’s abandonment and remained in place until the foundation of the Chakri Dynasty in Bangkok.  King Rama I wanted to endow the new capital with impressive religious monuments, so he ordered the transfer of famous images in abandoned old temples throughout Thailand to be brought to Bangkok.  Wat Mahathat’s bronze Buddha was one of them.
Wat Tra Phang Ngoen
       Besides the elegant seated Buddhas, Wat Mahathat also features two other kinds of Buddha images, both of them quite novel for the times.  The most readily visible is the giant standing Buddha,12 meters tall, flanked by two walls that rise up to the ears.  A stele stands behind it, with a rounded top slightly taller than the Buddha. The style is known as Phra Attharot and similar statues stand in Wat Chetuphon, outside the old city’s south gate, and at Wat Saphan Hin, beyond the west gate.
       Standing Buddhas of one kind or another were not new to the Buddhist art tradition.  They were just never so big, nor flanked by walls.  Sukhothai’s other creation though, the Walking Buddha, was definitely an original, not found in any other Buddhist country.  The Buddha cocks one arm in front of him, with the palm of his hand upright and giving a blessing.  To indicate motion, the legs are slightly apart, one is a little bent with the heel raised, the other has the foot flat on the ground.  And the Buddha’s gaze is at a slight angle, not straight ahead as in standing or seated Buddhas.
carvings of devotees at Wat Mahathat
       Another Sukhothai innovation was surrounding the base of the chedi with carvings of the front half of an elephant.  Wat Sorasak and Wat Chang Lom are the best examples, with the elephant sculptures well preserved. 
       In the Kingdom of Sukhothai the royal court was the chief patron of the religion.  Its monarchs also established traditions that have persisted to modern times.  King Lithai took time out from his royal duties to become a temporary monk, thus inaugurating a tradition not only practiced by kings but by all Thai families with sons.  The forest monk phenomenon, in which monks lived far from the city, primarily to study and pursue mediation, began in Sukhothai’s time.
taking krathongs to float in the river
       Even while Sukhothai’s political power declined to the point of becoming Ayutthaya’s vassal, its Court continued to patronize Buddhism.  Wats Sorasak and Chetuphon date their foundation to the early 15th century.  Royal patronage of Buddhism passed on to the states that succeeded Sukhothai right down to modern times, along with many other characteristics that have become part of Thailand’s identity. 
       Contemporary Thais may not be fully aware of how many of their Buddhist customs began in Sukhothai.  But they are likely to be aware of its claim to be the origin of the most beautiful annual festival—Loy Krathong, held around the November full moon.  According to Thai folklore, a Sukhothai queen, Nang Noppamas, made the first krathong—a small, banana leaf or tree bark container holding a candle, incense, a coin and flowers, that floats on the water, carrying away the bad luck of the previous year and honoring the river goddess, expecting her in return to make the waters recede now.
       The festival grew and spread across the country and today draws hordes of foreign tourists as well.  Sukhothai Historical Park hosts a spectacular show, where people float krathongs on the ponds, especially in front of Wat Mahathat.
       Doubt exists about this legendary origin, for Nang Noppamas’s name does not show up in any historical records.  She first appears as a character in a late 18th century poem.  For Thai celebrants, however, the legend still prevails.  To them, like so many other Thai customs, practices and cultural characteristics, it all started with Sukhothai.

seated Buddha in the ruins of the viharn at Wat Mahathat
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