Sukhothai, the dawn of happiness - Thailand
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Sukhothai, the dawn of happiness - Thailand
 Sukhothai, the dawn of happiness

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, so trades"
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.



- January 2003, Volume 6 Issue 1

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