The ancient land which is now called Thailand is a prosperous, beautiful, and peaceful state. More than ninety per cent of its population takes up Theravada Buddhism as their religion. Back to the 3rd century BC in the countries of Lord Buddha Himself, King Ashoka the Great organised several missionary journeys to the east. This is how the religion made its way into Southeast Asia. With temple being the centre of all religious rites, several structures for different purposes are built within a compound. The temple compound comprises of two main areas. The Buddhavāsa is a group of buildings used for hosting the main image (Buddha) and for conducting religious rites. The buildings are of mezmerising design reflecting each period’s architectural fashion. The Sanghavāsa is another group of simple construction used to host the monks (Sangha). According to the present-day Department of Religion Affairs, Thailand is home of more than 30,000 temples.
From the ancient times until today, the belief carved into all Thai hearts has always been that the donation for construction of a temple is of a great merit. Time after time, temples’ architectural and artistic fashion is constantly changing to reflect ways of life, societal structures, and local traditions of the respected region and its people. Temples in the Northern region are compact, built under the idea of living alongside the mother nature, while temples in the Northeastern and Central regions are more embellished and grandiose. As seen throughout Thailand, ruins of ancient temples, stupas, and pagodas are regularly restored, maintained as the country’s prominent landmarks.
It can be said that most archaeologically significant religious structres in Thailand are of more than a thousand years of age. Despite their different styles and materials over several periods, the main objective of building them is durability. Sandstone temples and laterites are among the most used materials in ancient Khmer architecture to create the air of sacrament and solemnity under the Devaraja doctrine, where monarchs are considered divine beings. Terra cotta and plaster are used in Sukhothai and Ayutthaya kingdoms. Although the use of processed naturally-acquired materials signifies the kingdom’s technological advancement, it is obvious that the durability of these temples could not surpass the more ancient sandstone temples.
To determine the age of Thailand’s religious constructions by means of historical accounts, it has been written in ancient Chinese almanacs that the construction of such religious edifices commenced around 3th century AD in the northeastern and southern regions. As for the northern region, the evidence indicates that the construction started around 7th century AD.
Dvaravati: ancient civilisation of the Chao Phraya’s great plain
Dvaravati is the oldest civilisation ever to flourish on the great plain of Chao Phraya river delta during 7th-13th century AD. Called “Duo·lo·buo·di” by Chinese historians of the time, Dvaravati was composed of several principalities and colonies. Some time in the Buddhism’s golden age during 11th-13th century AD, the older religion of Hinduism — that worships Shiva, Narayana and Brahma — conquered the lower northeastern region in Ubon Ratchathani, Roi Et, Buriram, Surin, Si Sa Ket, and ancient Khmer empire, whose main doctrine was Devaraja, built large sandstones to worship their monarchs, who were considered one of the divine beings in Hinduism. The fashions of Shivalinga and enormous sandstone temples were diffused into the area since then.
Khmer sandstone temples: Aesthetics within immensity
A sandstone temple in Khmer civilisation is a structure built of sandstones with heavily ornamented prangs. Being a residence of a monarch and gods, these sandstone palaces are much more decorated and embellished than houses of ordinary people. Among the many names of this kind of palace are Devalaya, Devasthan, or Vimana.
Guidelines of construction are written in the holy manuscript, already there for engineers, workers and artists to take heed of. Therefore, the designated location of every door and window, wall and colon, cannot be outdone by additional designs, including the ornating elements and motifs.
Sukhothai, Si Satchanalai and Kamphaengphet: Cities of Buddhism
Sukhothai, Si Satchanalai and Kamphaengphet were ideal cities of Buddhism during 13th-15th century AD. The kingdom was enriched with natural resources and presenting strategically advantage for citybuilding, with rivers flowing through each city and mountain ranges on both sides. With Ping river in Kamphaengphet and Yom river to feed Sukhothai and Si Satchanalai. The three cities are connected using the ancient ‘Phra Ruang’ way from Kamphaengphet in the West to Sukhothai and ends at Si Satchanalai in the North.
Sukhothai kingdom rose to its full prosperity during the reign of King Ramkhamhaeng the Great. He was the first monarch in Thai history to rule the kingdom under Buddhist faith. According to historical accounts, it is believed that King Ramkhamhaeng observed the religious precepts every Buddhist holy day, as written on the Ramkhamhaeng stele that:
“Sukhothai people like to keep themselves under the given precepts and make merits during holy days. The great father Ramkhamhaeng, the father of the city, men and women of noble and commoner statuses believe in the way of Buddhism”
It is widely discussed that King (Lithai) Dharmaraja I, the author of the popular Tribhumi codex, reigned the kingdom in the same time Theravada Buddhism spread and flourish to the peak. Mahathat temple was built in the heart of the city to host the city’s most revered Buddha images, also as written on the Ramkhamkhaeng stele that:
“In the heart of Sukhothai city, there lies Traphangphoi stream, as fresh and clear as river Mekong in dry season. There stand grand temples, beautiful Buddha images, priests and high priests…”
Sukhothai kingdom was situated on a slope. In water season, therefore, lots of water rolled down and inundated a great deal of land allocated for plantations. Furthermore, the kingdom’s geographical nature of sandy soil caused crop yield to wither easily. King Ramkhamhaeng then solved this problem by ordering construction of a big dam at the city’s southwestern wasteland, and a large reservoir in the heart of the city for his people to have sufficient water during dry season. The dam and the reservoir was connected by a long underground pipe made of baked clay ‘à la Sangkhalok’. It was of King Ramkhamhaeng’s sharp wit that he diverted the reserved water to several ponds located within temples’ compounds all over the city. In regard to the people’s strong faith for Buddhism, people, as a result, used the water moderately, and with respect. Therefore, constructions of dam and reservoir are considered a great advancement of Sukhothai’s irrigation system.
Kamphaengphet city was situated on a large plain on the banks of Ping river. Its geographical characteristics permitted Khamphaengphet to communicate easily with neighbouring townships. After the reign of King (Lithai) Dharmaraja I, Sukhothai kingdom’s centre of administration and religion has been moved to the eastern bank of Ping river, the area that would become present-day Kamphaengphet province.
In mid-15th century, Kamphaengphet became an important province under the northern division of Ayutthaya kingdom. The city served as a northern frontier. The city not only protected the kingdom’s centre from Burmese invasion attempt, but also was home of important barracks and troops’ provisions during wars with Burma.
Ancient Kamphaengphet’s architectural style, as seen from what is left, though influenced by southern Maha Nikaya sect from 14th century AD (during King Lithai’s reign), is a mellow mixture of Sukhothai, Ayutthaya, and Lanna architectural styles, which later was dubbed ‘Kamphaengphet style’.
In the hinterland slightly away from the northern gate, a group of some forty ancient temples of red earth have been found. The red earth or laterite seemed to be popular amongst engineers at the time. The small vicinity full of ancient red temples is now a famous tourist attraction in Kamphaengphet and its environ. Some of the well known temples are Wat Phra Si Iriyabot, Wat Chang Rob, Wat Phra Non, and Wat Avas Yai. During rainy season, these temples are covered with greeneries and shades provided by many ancient trees. Furthermore, the area is filled with mild fragrances from various flowers.
The city of Si Satchanalai, situated on the bank of Yom river, was a city in warm embrace of mountains. The city was erected as part of Sukhothai kingdom with regard to ancient hindu faith of cityplanning. The city wall kept Phanom Pleung mountain inside the city area while Khao Phrasi mountain also covered the wall as a spiralled-shape shell. Furthermore, coinciding with the old belief on the sacred mountain, Si Satchanalai city was located on the curvature of Yom river. When looked from above, Si Satchanalai city would be outlined in a spiralled-shape conch, which is considered a shape of auspice — a symbol of Narayana’s good triumph over evils.
In present days, the Si Satchanalai Historical Park covers the area of both Si Satchanalai and its neighbouring Chaliang township. Most interesting sites in the old town area are some dozens of ancient temples e.g. Wat Chang Lom, Wat Chedi Chet Taeo, Wat Nana Phya, Wat Khao Phanom Pleung, Wat Khao Suvarnagiri; and in Chaliang township there are Wat Mahathat, Wat Chao Chan, and Wat Chomchuen.
The aforementioned structures and historical parks in Sukhothai, Si Satchanalai and Kamphaengphet are on the list of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites. It can be said that it was an important step of Thai architecture after the decline of Khmer empire, namely, the increasing fashion of temple building instead of religious statue sculpting; the imported style of Maha Nikaya bell-shaped pagodas from the South to develop a newer style for use in Sukhothai.
After a century of Sukhothai’s prosperity, the kingdom fell under administration of Ayutthaya kingdom in late 15th century AD. At the same time, the Lanna tri-states of Chiang Mai, Hariphunchai, and Chiang Saen flourished and developed their own architectural styles based on influences from the predecessor Dvaravati and the newly-imported Buddhism-inspired architecture style from India via Burma. Lanna was in a good relationship with Sukhothai. People commuted to and from freely between the two kingdoms. It is inevitable that exchange in knowledge and architecture were on the road as well.
After King Mangrai established Lanna kingdom at Chiang Mai in 1296 AD, the kingdom prospered for more than two hundred years. It was also inevitable that the waves of neighbouring Sukhothai architectural style reached this northern kingdom. Furthermore, as Lanna kingdom had Burma as its closest neighbour, several temples in the kingdom e.g. Wat Sri Chum, Wat Sri Rong Muang, Wat Pong Sanuk (in Lampang), and Wat To Phae (in Mae Hong Son) has a twist of Shan and Burmese arts in them.
However, the most unique Lanna art can be seen at Vihara Chaturaphimuk in Wat Bhumin, and Wat Nong Bua of Nan province. It is believed that the plumestrokes seen in mural paintings from these two temples were of a genuine Lanna artist namely “Nan Buaphan”. Every cultural aspect of Lanna society was depicted in these mural paintings — lifestyles, hairstyles, body tattooing, Tai Lü women’s topless tradition, architectural styles, royal palaces, trees, and even animals. It is said that the method used by the artist to express his sentiments into the work was open yet clever. Lanna artists have been well known for their distribution of personal emotions in their works.
Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya: Capital of Ruins
In 14th century AD, while Lanna kingdom was thriving in the North, a kingdom in the South called by its people “Ayutthaya Kingdom” was also prospering and getting stronger. The Ayutthaya kingdom had just captured Sukhothai, Si Satchanalai, and Kamphaengphet, but not only cities and its people that they had captured, but also several fields of arts. Ayutthaya kingdom took anything they could get from Sukhothai and developed it with Ayutthaya’s preference of enormity, ornaments and decoration with expensive items — golden plates on windows and doors. Sadly, the only temple where Ayutthaya was untouched by Burmese second invasion is in Wat Na Phra Meru.
Ayutthaya or “Ayodhya Sri Ramdevanagara”, meaning “The invincible and unconquerable city of Rama” was established by King Ramathibodi I (Uthong) at the point where three rivers of Chao Phraya, Lop Buri, and Pa Sak rivers meet. It was believed that the location for this new kingdom was perfect and suitable for future trades with neighbouring cities in Suvarnabhumi and the farther free states. Consequently, Ayutthaya kingdom was the most prosperous capital in written history.
Ruled by a monarch whose power equals that of gods, a monarch who was the patron of all religions, and a monarch who rules under Dasavidha Rajadharma or the Ten Commandments of the Ruler, King Uthong promoted liberated domestic and international commerce, thus attracting many countries in both Asia and Europe into Ayutthaya’s large market. With Portuguese empire, the Dutch republic, Kingdom of France, and China in the list of main trading partners, Ayutthaya kingdom possessed so much political and economic power in the region.
The Kingdom of Portugal and the Algarves was the first western power to have an official relationship with Ayutthaya kingdom. The Portuguese came with lots of precious knowledge and sciences, notably contruction of fortress, manufacturing of firearms, military management, and the science of warfare. Being friends with the Portuguese made Ayutthaya rise to the top nation in the region in terms of military power, compared to Lanna and Lan Xang kingdoms which were in the verge of declining. The French came with a toy — a pair of binoculars — to show King Narai a solar eclipse in 1687.
As for Buddhism-related architecture and art in Ayutthaya kingdom, there left a large area of Srilankan circular-shaped Chedis scattered in and around the old city. This indicates that Ayutthaya kingdom was influenced by Sukhothai’s architecture of Chedi, whereas Prang Ko It in Wat Phutthaisawan indicates Lop Buri art.
Later, During King Trailokanat’s reign, he announced himself a ‘Buddharaja’ as he decided to enter monkhood while on the throne. In his reign, Buddhism in Ayutthaya was at its apex. Royal rites included Buddha image building, temple restoration, and building many new temples to replace the kingdom’s principal temples — Wat Phra Si Sanphet replacing Wat Mahathat as the kingdom’s official temple. It is believed that the tradition of temple building during the reign of King Trailokanat was one of his royal policies.
During Ayutthaya’s lifetime of 417 years, more than 400 temples had been erected, by the will and money of both the monarch and the people. It is even heard that the upper classes and the riches were once in a trend to build a family’s temple, to keep their own and their relatives’ ashes within the temple, for their children and followers to use as a playground.
In rainy season, lots of water would flow from the North into Chao Phraya river and then overflow into the fields, making a large flooded plain most suitable for rice farming. Ayutthaya people made use of this phenomenon to learn to profit from the irrigation system. Many canals were excavated to use as irrigation channels and as transportation route. Therefore, the city of Ayutthaya boasted more than 40 markets and abundant boat-for-hire piers around the city, making the city the largest community with water transport — so much that Westerners would later call it “Venice of the East”.
Thonburi and Rattanakosin: Through the wind of change
After 417 years in Ayutthaya kingdom under five dynasties, namely, Uthong, Subarnabhumi, Sukhothai, Prasatthong and Ban Phluluang dynasties, passing through the highs and the lows until its end when the Burmese forces invaded the kingdom. After a long siege, Ayutthaya kingdom faced with famine and chaos. In 1767, the Ayutthaya kingdom was reduced to ruins and ashes. Phraya Taksin (later King Taksin of Thonburi) gathered forces and struck back. He took what was left of Ayutthaya to the new location down south of the river Chao Phraya, established a new capital of Thonburi, and ascended the throne. He became the revered King Taksin since then.
Back at the ruins of Ayutthaya, some of its inhabitants who had fled the old capital into nearby hinterlands and forests later came back after the establishment of the new capital and did what they could to restore the ‘old capital’.
King Taksin spent only one decade to fortify his new capital on the west bank of Chao Phraya river. As for the rest of his reign, it is said that he spent his life waging wars, driving groups of Khmer, Burmese and other rebellious groups out of Siam.
Not long after establishment of the new capital, the new city named Rattanakosin replaced Thonburi as the capital of Siam by the first Chakri King (King Buddha Yodfa Chulalok or Rama I). Rattanakosin was just across the river from Thonburi and took everything from architectures and other sciences from the lost Ayutthaya kingdom. The Royal Palace is said to have a large portion of Ayutthaya art.
After that, the reign of King Jessadabodindra (Rama III) was the time the Chinese art entered the kingdom and received much popularity. Later, architectural styles and other arts from the Western World entered the kingdom and then diffused into the mainstream aesthetics, becoming Thai comtemporary art as seen in the present day.