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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