Wednesday, 30 September 2020

Sukhothai Historical Park

Designated as World Heritage Site Number 574 on 12 December 1991 by UNESCO, the ancient city of Sukhothai, along with its former vassal towns of Si Satchanalai and Kamphaeng Phet, is considered the cradle of Thai civilization.

To appreciate the once flourishing civilization, Thaiways would like to present the remains of this first kingdom of Siam, which include masterpieces of the earliest Thai architecture, sculptures, and other art objects. This issue covers only Sukhothai Historical Park. The historical parks of the two vassal towns, Si Satchanalai and Kamphaeng Phet, will be dealt with in the ensuing issues.

Sukhothai Historical Park is located in Sukhothai province, about 427 km north of Bangkok. Sukhothai was the capital of the first kingdom of Siam, flourishing between the mid 13th and mid 14th century AD. The kingdom of Sukhothai held a vast territory extending across the Moei, lower Yom, Ping, Nan, and upper Pa Sak river valleys. The area lays between two other kingdoms, Pagan in the west and Khmer in the east.

By the 11th century, Mon and Khmer peoples had occupied the Yom valley but early in the 13th century, two local chieftains, Pho Khun Pha Muang and Pho Khun Bang Klang Hao, joined forces to drive out the Khmers from the area.

Thus began the 'golden age' of the Sukhothai Kingdom. Granted the sword of Victory and the title of Si Indrapatindraditya by his comrade, Pho Khun Pha Muang, Pho Khun Bang Klang Hao became the ruler of Sukhothai and the founder of the Sukhothai (Phra Ruang) Dynasty. As time passed, Sukhothai was gradually subsumed by the growing might of the Ayutthaya kingdom from the mid 14th to the mid 15th centuries AD. when it was annexed by the latter.

The most well-known and revered king of the Sukhothai period was Pho Khun Ramkamhaeng the Great (about 1239-1298 AD). During his reign, which began around 1275 AD, Sukhothai reached the zenith of its influence. The frontiers of the kingdom were extended to embrace much of modern Thailand and local chieftains from as far away as Laos and the Malay Peninsular paid tribute to the Sukhothai King.

According to a stone inscription, Pho Khun Ramkhamhaeng was a model king who acted as both temporal and spiritual leader of the kingdom. During his reign, the kingdom was peaceful under one religion, Theravada Buddhism, and people were content and happy. It is said that the ruler did not require his people to pay tax and they could trade in anything they wanted. In addition, Pho Khun Ramkamhaeng is credited with the creation of the first Thai alphabet.

The reverence with which the Thai people still regard Pho Khun Ramkamhaeng can be seen at a modern shrine just inside the entrance to Sukhothai Historical Park. Here, a massive statue of the royal hero, holding a book in his right hand with his sword lying to his left, gazes down on his modern-day admirers, as they present their offerings of flowers and food and pray to his spirit for good fortune.

The first capital of Thai kingdom, Sukhothai, was firstly rediscovered by King Rama IV (1851-1868), or better known to Westerners as King Mongkut, when he was a wandering Buddhist priest. Before that, nobody realized that there was anything left from the city which was once the nerve centre of a rich and powerful kingdom.

King Mongkut made the trip with a large group of followers in 1833. After breaking through the thick jungle woven with creepers and vines, he found the first stone inscription of Sukhothai beside Wat Mahathat in the centre of the town. It was taken back to Bangkok together with a stone seat known as Manangkhasila throne. The inscription was written in Thai alphabet created by Pho Khun Ramkhamhaeng himself. Now the inscription is kept in the National Museum and the stone throne in Vihara Yot within the compound of the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, both in Bangkok. More such stone inscriptions were discovered later, shedding more light on the condition of the first Thai kingdom.

Later in 1908, Prince Vajiravudh (later King Rama VI) led a team of explorers on a trip to the ancient capital by the old road from Kamphaeng Phet. The road was in a poor state of disrepair and partly covered with grass. With much difficulty the party succeeded in reaching the site. They surveyed the area and drew maps in detail but no digging was made. So Sukhothai was again lost in the jungle soon afterwards.

Then came the first large-scale expedition made by a group of students and lecturers from Silapakorn University of Bangkok in 1952. By that time, the place was sparsely populated with a few houses scattered here and there, and there were still tigers, leopards, bears and other wild beasts roaming the area. When the students went out to survey, they were warned by local residents to go anywhere in groups and to come back before dark to avoid danger.

The forest in and around Sukhothai could be called virgin, since it had remained untouched by human beings for centuries. All temples were hidden in lush growth of trees and vines, which had to be cleared before one could reach the inside. The jungle was so dense that one would easily lose one's way even in the heart of the ruined town in broad daylight. With unwavering determination, however, the students were able to copy down large numbers of architectural designs of the temples.

It was not until 1960 that the government started to build a road to the ancient capital which is 8 km away from the new town of Sukhothai, and to restore the old temples. As a result, the jungle was removed at long last and the place has become another important tourist spot.

Among the ancient monuments within the city wall of Sukhothai, the largest and most impressive is Wat Mahathat where King Mongkut discovered the first stone inscription. Its main chedi (stupa), vihara (assembly hall), mandapa, ordination hall (uposatha), and approximately 200 subordinate chedis, as well as some fine Buddha images are overwhelming. These stupa represent various architectural influences. Apart from the lotus bud shape, which is the definitive style of Sukhothai, there are also chedis in the earlier styles of Hariphunchai, Lanna and Sri Langka. Two impressive statues of the 12-metre-tall standing Buddha, Phra Attharot, enshrined in the mandapa on both sides of the principle chedi.

Wat Si Sawai, 350 metres south of Wat Mahathat, is also impressive, not for its size, but for the distinctiveness of its architecture. There are three massive Lop Buri style, corn-cob-shaped prangs, intricately decorated with stucco images of Garuda, Naga and other beings in Hindu Mythology. This structure indicates the Khmer-dominated style.

Wat Sa Si, northwest of Wat Mahathat, is attractive for its location. Standing in the middle of a reservoir, the ruins are reached via a bridge. Important buildings include a bell-shaped chedi, serving as historical evidence of the prevalence of Singhalese Buddhism in Sukhothai. The ordination hall in the middle of the reservoir points to a Buddhist concept of demarcating an area where monks perform religious functions by enclosing the holy precincts with water as a symbol of purity.

Altogether there are 21 structures within the city wall. Alongside these, a further 70 worthy sites lies in the immediate vicinity within a five kilometre radius.

The sites are open daily from 08.30 - 16.30 hours. They are separated into five zones (north, south, east, west, and central) and admission to each is 30 Baht, with the exception of the central zone where the admission fee is 40 Baht.

Probably, the easiest way to move around the zones is by bicycle which can be rented from the park at 20 Baht a day. However, there is a tram moving from site to site and costing 20 Baht per person.

For the correct pronunciation of romanized Thai words, see Romanization System of the Thai Language.

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