The  Foundation of Sukhothai

Scholars have suggested that Sukhothai was previous ruled by Pho Khun Sri Now Num Thom. When this ruler  passed  away  Khom Sabaad Khlone Lamphong, identified by historians as a Khmer officer who had been sent to take care of the religious sanctuary in Sukhothai,  took  over  the  Sukhothai and Sri Satchanalai cities. Later, Pho Khun Pha Muang, a son of Pho Khun Sri Now Num Thom, cooperated with Pho Khun Bang Klang How, the ruler of Bang Yang town, attacked and finally defeated the Khmer officer. Pho Khun Bang Klang How was appointed as a new king of Sukhothai and was named Pho Khun Sri Indrathit. When the king Sri Indrathit passed away, his son named Pho Khun Ban Muang took over the power. Later, Pho Khun Ramkhamhaeng, a younger brother of Pho Khun Ban Muang, took the throne when his brother passed away. King Ramkamhaeng was a great warriors and could largely extend the area under his ruling.

Lanna retained a considerable measure of autonomy until the 18th century, and Chiang Mai, which became the permanent capital after 1339, is still a major centre of northern Thai culture as well as being the second city of Thailand. In the mid 13th century, as Khmer power in central Thailand waned, the Thais moved further south to the headwaters of the Chao Phraya River, where at some time in the 1240s a Thai chief named Bang Klang Hao rebelled successfully against his Khmer rulers and was crowned King Sri Indraditya of Sukhothai. The new Thai state of Sukhothai is referred to by the Chinese of the late 13th century as Siem (Siam), a name that occurs in earlier Cham, Khmer and Burmese inscriptions, where it denotes Tai slaves and mercenary soldiers.

Sukhothai, meaning the ''Dawn of Happiness'' was the first free Thai city founded in 1238, by two Thai chieftains, Khun Bang Klang Tao and Khun Pa Muang , this ending Khmer rule from Angkor Wat. In the early 1300s, Sukhothai enjoyed suzeranity over the Chao Phya River basin, westward to the bay of Bengal and the entire Peninsula.  It  is still regarded by Thai historical tradition as the " first Thai Kingdom " , it began life as a chiefdom under the sway of the Khmer empire: the oldest monuments in the city were built in the Khmer style or else show clear Khmer influence.

During the first half of the 13th century the Thai rulers of Sukhothai threw off the Khmer yoke and set up an independent Thai kingdom. One of the victorious Thai chieftains became the first king of Sukhothai, with the name of Si Inthrathit [Sri Indraditya]. Sukhothai's power and influence expanded in all directions by conquest [the Khmer were driven southwards], by a farsighted network of marriage alliances with the ruling families of other Thai states, and by the use of a common religion, Theravada Buddhism, to cement relations with other states.

King Ramkhamhaeng,  conducted diplomacy  maintaining cordial relations with Phya Mengrai and Phya Ngammuang,  both of whom were both Thai rulers. Although some differences existed among them, especially between King Ramkhamhaeng (right) and Phya Ngammuang (left), this did not lead to armed conflict, and was usually left to Phya Mengrai (center, to act as mediator.

About 1279, Ramkhamhaeng, a younger son of Sri Indraditya, became king of Sukhothai and established it as one of the most powerful states in mainland Southeast Asia. According to the inscriptions, he achieved great territorial conquests and extended Thai rule as far as Lower Burma in the west, Laos in the east and the Malay peninsula in the south. He concluded a treaty of friendship with the Thai princes of Chiang Rai and Phayao in the north. Which did much to assist the rise of Lanna. Sukhothai is generally considered to be the cradle of Thai culture and civilisation, and Ramkhamhaeng is revered as the father of the Thai nation. During his reign Sukhothai and its subsidiary capitals of Si Satchanalai, Phitsinulok, and Kainphaeng Phet became centres of Buddhist art and learning.

In both religion and art Sukhothai looked to Sri Lanka as the model, while retaining a uniquely Thai character. After Ramkhamhaeng's death, his empire rapidly collapsed. In the north a number of principalities that had formerly been subject to Sukhothai emerged as independent states, although some of them, notably Tak, soon exchanged the suzerainty of Sukhothai for that of Lanna, while in the east both the Lao states of Luang Prabang and Vientiane asserted their independence, and in the south Suphan Buri also threw off Sukhothai rule. According to the inscription, the king did not levy road tolls or taxes on merchandise. His liberality was such that he did not tax his subjects' inheritance at all. Such a paternalistic and benevolent style of kingship has caused posterity to regard the Sukhothai kingdom's heyday as a " golden age " in Thai history.

  Even allowing for some hyperbole in King Ramkhamhaeng's inscription, it is probably true that Sukhothai was prosperous and well-governed. Its economy was self-sufficient, small-scale, and agricultural. The Thai people's basic diet was the same as that of many other people in Southeast Asia, consisting of rice and fish as staple foods. Both, according to King Ramkhamhaeng's inscription  (see Sukhothai Stones..) were plentiful;

  Sukhothai may have been self-sufficient as far as food was concerned, but its prosperity also depended on commerce. During the Sukhothai period glazed ceramic wares known as "sangkhalok" were produced in great quantities at the kilns of Sukhothai and Si Satchanalai and exported regularly to other countries in the South China Sea area, specimens having been found in Indonesia and the Philippines. Sukhothai also traded with China through the traditional Chinese tributary system: the Thai king was content to send tribute to the Chinese emperor and be classified as a vassal, in return for permission to sell Thai goods and buy Chinese products.

  Although animistic beliefs remained potent in Sukhothai, King Ramkhamhaeng and his successors were all devout Buddhist rulers who made merit on a large scale. The major cities of the Sukhothai kingdom were therefore full of monasteries, many of which were splendid examples of Thai Buddhist architecture. Sukhothai adopted the Ceylonese school of Theravada Buddhism, beginning with King Ramkhamhaeng's invitation to Ceylonese monks to come over and purify Buddhism in his kingdom. This Ceylonese influence manifested itself not only in matters of doctrine but also in religious architecture. The bell-shaped stupa, so familiar in Thai religious architecture, was derived from Ceylonese models. Sukhothai style Buddha images are distinctive for their elegance and stylized beauty, and Sukhothai's artists introduced the graceful form of the "walking Buddha" into Buddhist sculpture.

  Sukhothai's cultural importance in Thai history also derives from the fact that the Thai script evolved into a definite form during King Ramkhamhaeng's time, taking as its models the ancient Mon and Khmer scripts. Indeed, this remarkable king is credited with having invented the Thai script.

  King Si Inthrathit and King Ramkhamhaeng were both warrior kings and extended their territories far and wide. Their successors, however, could not maintain such a far-flung empire. Some of these later kings were more remarkable for their religious piety and extensive building activities than for their warlike exploits. An example of this type of Buddhist ruler was King Mahathammaracha Lithai, believed to have been the compiler of the Tribhumikatha, an early Thai book on the Buddhist universe or cosmos. 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 area.

   The Sukhothai kingdom did not die a quick death. Its decline lasted from the mid-14th until the 15th century. In 1378, the Ayutthaya King Borommaracha I subdued Sukhothai's frontier city of Chakangrao     "Kamphaengphet", and henceforth Sukhothai became a tributary state of Ayutthaya. Sukhothai later attempted to break loose from Ayutthaya but with no real success, until in the 15th century it was incorporated into the Ayutthaya kingdom as a province. The focus of Thai history and politics now moved to the central plains of present-day Thailand, where Ayutthaya was establishing itself as a centralized state, its power outstripping not only Sukhothai but also other neighbouring states such as Suphannaphum and Lawo Lopburi. Religious zeal produced extraordinary achievements in the art and architecture that were inspired by the traditions of the Khmer, Mon, Lo, Indian and Sinhalese but blended them in ways that made the results unmistakably Thai.


Copyright 1998 USMTA Inc All rights reserved. Revised: October 16, 2004.