At the Dawn of Happiness

27 Feb
Detail of temple exterior - Sukhothai, Thailand (2006)

Detail of temple exterior – Sukhothai, Thailand (2006)

East of Burma, lays the core of Buddhist Southeast Asia – Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia. South of Southeast Asia itself, frenetic socio-economic activity and religious contrast blurs by as Thailand cedes to Malaysia, then Singapore, and across the Strait of Malacca is Indonesia. I pick up then from Thailand. But, I must first lead with a basic overview of the Khmer Empire.  This was an empire that covered most of what is today Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and south Vietnam. The beginnings of the Khmer Empire can be traced to 802AD with the founding of the empire’s capital in Angkor which was the most populated city of its time. The first Khmer Kings were adherents of Hinduism and so stories from the Hindu epic, the Ramayana, along with celestial beings like Apsaras were carved throughout the walls of the city. With each new Khmer King, new temples and structures were added to Angkor. In the early 12th century, the Khmer King Suryavarman II constructed the world’s largest temple complex known as Angkor Wat which today is one of the most visited sites in Southeast Asia. But, what most of the tourist package groups who fly into Siem Reap, Cambodia for day trips to the temple complex may not realize is that the lofty chambers of Angkor Wat were meant to capture a microcosm of the Hindu universe where the supreme-god Vishnu would be able to reside in quiet contemplation of all creation. It was not meant to be a Buddhist temple or shrine.

Wat Traphang Ngoen

Wat Traphang Ngoen

The Khmer people did not absorb Buddhism until a few centuries after Angkor Wat was built and the reason for their capitulation to Buddhism was in part due to the rise of the Thai people in the north and western frontiers of the Khmer Empire. The main Khmer outpost in Thailand up until the early 13th century was in Sukhothai which is about 450km (280 miles) north of Bangkok today.  A large group of Thai tribes and clans got together and drove out the Khmer forces from Sukhothai and established what was to be the first independent Thai kingdom in 1238AD.  One of the sons of the first king of Sukhothai became King Ramkhamhaeng and he ruled Sukhothai for over 40 years. His reign is referred to by Thai historians as a “golden age”. He created the forerunner of what is the modern Thai alphabet in 1283AD by adapting Khmer letters into a form that suited Thai speech, and extended Sukhothai north into Laos and south into the Malay peninsula. Religious art flourished under him in what is viewed now as classical Thai forms.

Wat Sa Si - Sukhothai

Wat Sa Si – Sukhothai

Wat Chana Songkhram

Wat Chana Songkhram

Prior to the advent of Buddhism, most Thais had a religious practice that consisted of a mix of animism and shamanism. Starting in the 11th century, Theravada Buddhism trickled into Thailand from Burma. Sukhothai’s first king, Indraditya (Ramkhamhaeng’s father), made it the state religion in an attempt to unify the Thai people. While it is acknowledged that the Buddha images and temples of Sukhothai were influenced by Burma’s Mon people, during Ramkhamhaeng’s rule the Thai did develop their own unique “chedi” (Thai word for stupa) design – a lotus bud spire. King Ramkhamhaeng also supported the growth of the Sangha — the monkhood in Sukhothai. He did this through inviting ordained monks from Sri Lanka (where Theravada Buddhism already had over a millenia’s worth of history) to Sukhothai so that they would conduct Buddhist teachings there and promote the monastic life. The first stupa constructed at Sukhothai was Wat Maha That (or the royal sanctuary). This stupa rose in a lotus-bud design and within it was enshrined a relic of the Buddha. It is the largest temple at Sukhothai. Most of the buildings in the Sukhothai were built with bricks and contained stucco exteriors. The interiors of many these buildings were painted with murals of the Buddha’s life and featured large bronze castings and stone carvings of the Buddha in various positions — seated,  standing, walking with elongated hands, and bearing a flame-like crown on his head.

Wat Maha That - Sukhothai

Wat Maha That – Sukhothai

Bicycling through the archaeological zone of Sukhothai, I started with Wat Maha That and continued to Wat Si Sawai (known for its Khmer-style tower), Wat Traphang Ngoen (contains faded, standing Buddhas in 4 niches), Wat Chana Songkram (has Sri Lankan-style dagoba design), Wat Phra Phai Luang (remnants of monastery), and Wat Saphan Tin (12.5m tall standing Buddha situated on 200m high hill that overlooks Sukhothai).

Wat Si Chum

Wat Si Chum

I found the most spectacular sight at Sukhothai to be Wat Si Chum —  a “mondop” containing a large sitting Buddha called “Phra Achana”.  The mondop itself is a 15m tall and 32m wide square structure and Phra Achana measures 11m in width from knee to knee. Devotees place gold foil on the right hand of this great Buddha who sits in the “vanquishing of Mara / the earth stands witness” pose (See post “Tempt” at http://wp.me/s2Bq4y-tempt). The words Phra Achana in Thai mean “one who is not frightened” and there are tunnels that run inside the walls of Wat Si Chum where these words are carved along with images and stories of the Buddha’s life. These tunnels are now closed to visitors. Wat Si Chum is a significant religious monument because its Thai builders consciously designed it to mark a break from the other “mandapas” which existed in India and elsewhere in the Khmer Empire at the time it was built.

File created with CoreGraphicsIn those other structures, the shrine or chamber room that was set aside for special ceremonial purposes was built within a larger temple or building. Wat Si Chum is not annexed to a larger religious structure, and instead, is an independent building that serves as its own stand-alone shrine. It allows for a very powerful, yet intimate experience within a uniform space that’s filled only with Phra Achana and the individual. When I entered, I felt boxed in as if in a confessional — as if I had come before Phra Achana to confess to my transgressions. One Thai legend even speaks of an invading Mon force who fled Sukhothai in fear when they peered inside Wat Si Chum and saw the disapproving, lowered eyes of Phra Achana staring back at them. Another interesting achievement of King Ramkhamhaeng was that he traveled to China’s Yunnan region on at least 2 separate occasions. He encouraged trade between his Thai people and the Chinese there, and through his efforts he sparked the Thai production of ceramic ware based on Chinese methods.

Phra Achana inside Wat Si Chum

Phra Achana inside Wat Si Chum

This savvy in being able to broker relations with larger countries is an important hallmark of Thai kings — one that paid off in a big way in the 19th and 20th century when Thailand ultimately emerged as the only nation in Southeast Asia not to fall under the imperial thumb of any of the Western powers that had occupied nearly everywhere else in the region. Through the wily maneuvering of the kings of the current Chakri dynasty, Thailand brokered its way through French, English, and American domination in Indochina.  Sukhothai would ultimately fall within 2 centuries after its founding and become a vassal state of its more powerful southern neighbor, Ayutthaya. The Thai Kingdom of Ayutthaya sacked Angkor in 1431AD, which signaled the end of the Khmer Empire.  The creeping jungle swallowed up Angkor and Sukhothai and both were lost for centuries.

Wat Saphan Hin

Wat Saphan Hin

Near where the royal palace once stood in the center of Sukhothai, a stone marker bearing an inscription was found. This inscription was translated and states in part:

“This realm of 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.”

An enlightened message from the 13th century.

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