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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