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Thailand - Sukhothai Period (1238-1438)

The Thai have traditionally regarded the founding of the kingdom of Sukhothai as marking their emergence as a distinct nation. Tradition sets 1238 as the date when Tai chieftains overthrew the Khmer at Sukhothai, capital of Angkor's outlying northwestern province, and established a Tai kingdom. A flood of migration resulting from Kublai Khan's conquest of Nanchao furthered the consolidation of independent Tai states. Tai warriors, fleeing the Mongol invaders, reinforced Sukhothai against the Khmer, ensuring its supremacy in the central plain. In the north, other Tai war parties conquered the old Mon state of Haripunjaya and in 1296 founded the kingdom of Lan Na with its capital at Chiang Mai.

Situated on the banks of the Mae Nam Yom some 375 kilometers north of present-day Bangkok, Sukhothai was the cradle of Thai civilization, the place where its institutions and culture first developed. Indeed, it was there in the late thirteenth century that the people of the central plain, lately freed from Khmer rule, took the name Thai, meaning "free," to set themselves apart from other Tai speakers still under foreign rule.

The Sukhothai of small villages scattered along the Yom and the Nan River basins formed in AD 1157. During that time these villages prospered from the expansion of interstate transport and trade to the extent that they finally amalgamated and established their own territory. Sukhothai was governed in the style of "the Father of the Town," or paternal kingship, and was ruled by nine consecutive kings. This kingdom lasted approximately two centuries from its inception until it was merged with the Ayutthaya Kingdom.

The current concept of Thai kingship has evolved through 800 years of absolute rule. The first King of a unified Thailand was the founder of the Kingdom of Sukhothai: King Sri Indraditya in 1238. During his reign the kingdom was extended by amalgamation with other towns. The next most significant was the second son of King Si Inthrathit, King Ram-khamhaeng, the third king, who was also the most renowned of the Sukhothai monarchs. Ram-khamhaeng (Rama the Great, 1277-1317) was the first ruler of Sukhothai for whom historical records survive. He was a famous warrior who claimed to be "sovereign lord of all the Tai" and financed his court with war booty and tribute from vassal states in Burma, Laos, and the Malay Peninsula. During his reign, the Thai established diplomatic relations with China and acknowledged the Chinese emperor as nominal overlord of the Thai kingdom. Ramkhamhaeng brought Chinese artisans to Sukhothai to develop the ceramics industry that was a mainstay of the Thai economy for 500 years.

He also devised the Thai alphabet in AD 1283 by adapting a Khmer script derived from the Indian Devanagari script. He created the Inscription Stone to tell the stories of his period. According to the Inscription Stone, the northern border spread to Phrae, Nan, and Vientiane, the South covered the area down to Nakhon Si Thammarat, the East reached the Mons' Hongsawadi (Pegu in Myanmar), and the West ended at the west bank of the Mekong River. The invention of an alphabet enabled moderns to have detailed information about the people 700 years ago based on the first Inscription Stone ordered made by King Ramkhamhaeng.

The idea of this early Kingship was based on two grand concepts based from Hinduism (which the Thais inherited from its previous rulers the Khmers) and Theravada Buddhist beliefs. The first concept is based on the Vedic-Hindu caste of: “Kshatriya”, or warrior-ruler, in which the King derives his powers from military might. The second is based on the Theravada Buddhist concept of “Dhammaraja”, Buddhism having been introduced to Thailand somewhere around the sixth century AD. The idea of the Dhammaraja (or Kingship under Dharma), is that the King should rule his people in accordance with Dharma and the teachings of the Buddha. These ideas were briefly replaced in 1279, when King Ramkhamhaeng came to the throne. Ramkhamhaeng departed from the Khmer tradition and created instead a concept of “paternal rule”, in which the King governs his people as a father would govern his children. This idea is reinforced in the title of the King, as he is still known today, Pho Khun Ramkhamhaeng (“Pho” is Thai for Father). However this lasted only briefly, by the end of the Kingdom the two old concepts had returned as symbolized by the change in the style of the Kings; “Pho” was changed to “Phya” or Lord.

During this time, Sukhothai prospered in art, culture, and trade. It was a significant trade junction because of its " duty-free " tax policy and permission for people to trade freely. Through contact and trade with various groups from the nearby kingdoms, Sukhothai became the center of civilization in many aspects such as religion, art, culture, and tradition.

During the reign of King Ramkhamhaeng, the Sri Lankan derivation of Hinayana Buddhism was introduced through Nakhon Si Thammarat and strongly influenced Sukhothai art. It was regarded as the most beautiful art, with its own individual style. Sukhothai created beautiful bronze Buddha images under the influence of Lankan art. In addition, at this time a style of chinaware was adopted from Chinese craftsmen trading with Sukhothai.

Through him Sukhothai became ever more prosperous and the Sukhothai holdings expanded greatly. Sukhothai declined rapidly after Ramkhamhaeng's death, as vassal states broke away from the suzerainty of his weak successors. After the reign of King Ramkhamhaeng, Sukhothai lost much of its power, so King Li Thai, who ruled Sukhothai during AD 1347-1370, attempted to use Buddhism to restore and strengthen the government. Following his reign, the Sukhothai Kingdom declined further and, in AD 1437, it finally merged with the Ayutthaya kingdom. Despite the reputation of its later kings for wisdom and piety, the politically weakened Sukhothai was forced to submit in 1378 to the Thai kingdom of Ayutthaya.

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Page last modified: 08-04-2012 18:43:20 ZULU