| Cradle of the Thai nation: Sukhothai,
the dawn of happiness
By Siwanit Phattanarat
A famous stone inscription reads in part: "This Muang
Sukhothai is good. In the water there are fish, in the field
there is rice. The ruler does not levy a tax on the people
who travel along the road together, leading their oxen on
the way to trade and riding their horses on the way to sell.
Whoever wants to trade in elephants, so trades. Whoever wants
to trade in horses, so trades. Whoever wants to trade in silver
and gold, so trades".
Sukhothai is regarded by the Thai people as the cradle of
the Thai nation and of the beautiful culture of which they
are so fervently proud. The name Sukhothai translates as "the
dawn of happiness" and, during the two centuries that
the kingdom was the capital of Siam, many significant influences
and events coloured the fabric of Thai society.
Following a southward migration from Nanchao, the Thai people
settled in numerous areas of the north of what is now Thailand.
They established city-states; each with a ruling family, which
was responsible for the peace and prosperity of the settlement.
However, the over-ruling presence of the expansive Khmer Empire
always encroached upon true freedom. Thai contacts with the
Khmer people led to many Hindu elements entering Thai culture,
particularly in regard to royal ceremonies, classical dance
and literature. Many of these elements can still be found
today in modern Thai culture. There was not a great deal of
connection between city-states until, during the middle of
the 13th century, two Thai princes in the Sukhothai area,
Phor Khun Pha Muang of Muang Rad and Phor Khun Bang Klang
Thao of Muang Banyang decided to combine forces to stand against
the Angkorian influence.
They succeeded in driving the Khmers out of Sukhothai and
established the city as their capital in 1238. Phor Khun Bang
Klang Thao, encouraged by the people to be King, was crowned
with the royal title of Phor Khun Si Sri Inthrathit. Sukhothai
thus became the first kingdom of Thailand. King Si Sri Inthrathit
had two sons, Phor Khun Ban Muang and Phor Khun Ramkhamhaeng.
One of Thailand's greatest warriors, Phor Khun Ramkhamhaeng
ascended the throne in 1278 and made Sukhothai a powerful
and extensive kingdom which extended its influence over an
area stretching from Laos in the north, to the Andaman Sea
in the west and south to the Malay Peninsula. His diplomatic
talents were also significant. King Ramkhamhaeng embarked
on direct political relations with China and made two trips
to China - the first in 1282 to visit the Emperor Kublai Khan
and the second in 1300 after Kublai Khan's death.
The Sukhothai period saw great the Thai people making great
advancements in the fields of art, architecture and literature.
The Sukhothai period is noted for its sculpture and pottery.
From his second visit to China the King brought back Chinese
artisans who taught the Thais the art of pottery. The celadon
crafted in Sukhothai was an important part of trade and the
pieces exported throughout South East Asia were of significant
value. Today, old glazed ceramic Sangkhalok pottery items
are eagerly sought by collectors.
King Ramkhamhaeng was a devout Buddhist. He promoted religion
and through his efforts, Buddhism became strongly embedded
in Thai culture, giving rise to classic forms of Thai religious
art. Graceful bronze sculptures of the Buddha, especially
those showing him in the walking position, are typical of
the period. Sukhothai accepted the Ceylonese school of Theravada
Buddhism beginning with King Ramkhamhaeng's invitation
to Ceylonese monks to come and purify Buddhist practices in
Thailand. This Ceylonese influence is exhibited in the bell-shaped
stupa so familiar in Thai religious architecture.
Yet another major achievement of King Ramkhamhaeng was the
development of the Thai alphabet, a task that required nothing
less than proficiency in both the ancient Mon and Khmer scripts.
The King merged elements of each to create a system suitable
for the writing of Thai words. The Thai alphabet used today
is the same one he invented in 1283.
Much of what is known about this glorious time of growth
and invention comes from a stone inscription scribed by the
King in 1292. It is considered a masterpiece of Thai literature
and describes the prosperity of the era,
"In the time of King Ramkhamhaeng this land of Sukhothai
is thriving. There are fish in the water and rice in the fields.
The ruler does not levy a tax on the people who travel along
the road together, leading their oxen on the way to trade
and riding their horses on the way to sell. Whoever wants
to trade in elephants, so trades. Whoever wants to trade in
horses, so trades. Whoever wants to trade in silver and gold,
Henceforth Sukhothai was regarded as the "golden age"
of Thai history, literally "the dawn of happiness".
King Ramkhamhaeng reigned benevolently for 40 years. His
successors, however, could not maintain such a far-flung empire.
Some of these later kings were more noted for their religious
piety and extensive building activities than for their warlike
exploits. The political decline of Sukhothai was, however,
not wholly owing to deficiencies in leadership. Rather it
resulted from the emergence of strong Thai states further
south, whose political and economic power began to challenge
Sukhothai during the latter half of the 14th century. These
southern states, especially Ayutthaya, were able to deny Sukhothai
access to the areas that has previously been its territory.
It was not without considerable protest and challenge however,
that Sukhothai was eventually incorporated as a province of
the Kingdom of Ayutthaya.
Today, the grandeur of the ancient capital is still evident.
Evocative ruins conjure up images of religious piety, great
artistry and an eminent Kingship. The fascinating Sukhothai
Historical Park has been restored in co-operation between
UNESCO and the Thai Fine Arts Department. In places the sites
are still being restored but most of the process has been
completed and the park offers wonderfully kept gardens suitable
for relaxing strolls around the historic ruins.
The modern city of Sukhothai lies on the Yom River about
13 km by road from the historical area, in a sparsely populated
rice-growing region. It supports textile milling, woodworking
and metalworking, fishing and the manufacture of clothing
and food products.