SIAMESE & THAI HISTORY & CULTURE      Part 4

 

AYUTTHAYA

The new kingdom of Ayutthaya, (Siam) a raising young Thai state on the Chao Phraya River. It ruled for four hundred years and by the time of its destruction by an envious and jealous invading army from Burma by King Alaungpaya's son Hsinbyushin in 1767, had become one of the most cosmopolitan cities in Asia, with a population of more than a million people and thousands of imposing temples and palaces.

In 1351 a Thai prince named U Thong ('Golden Cradle') founded the city of Ayutthaya on a strategic site at the confluence of the Pasak and the Chao Phraya Rivers and was anointed king of a new Thai state, taking the regal name of Ramathibodi. Under a succession of able and for the most part warlike rulers, Ayutthaya rose rapidly to become the most powerful state in central Thailand. Sukhothai was reduced to vassalage in 1378 and finally annexed in 1438, while Angkor was conquered in 143I - 32, and the Khmers forced to abandon it as their capital soon after.

By the end of the I7th century it had become so rich and powerful that it was considered by European writers to be, with China and the Indian state of Vijayanagar, one of the three greatest kingdoms in Asia and was often described as the 'Venice of the East'. The government of the kingdom was to a great extent modeled on that of Khmer Angkor, and in the early years of Ayutthaya's rise to ascendancy many of the court officials were drawn from the Khmerised aristocracy of Lop Buri and other former outposts of the Angkor empire. It was they who introduced at the court of Ayutthaya the special vocabulary based on Khmer and Sanskrit which is still in use today.

The Kingdom of Ayutthaya 1350-1767 :

  For 417 years the kingdom of Ayutthaya was the dominant power in the fertile Menam or Chao Phraya Basin. Its capital was Ayutthaya, an island-city situated at the confluence of three rivers, the Chao Phraya, the Pasak, and the Lopburi, which grew into one of Asia's most renowned metropolises, inviting comparison with great European cities such as Paris. The city must indeed have looked majestic, filled as it was with hundreds of monasteries and criss-crossed with several canals and waterways which served as roads.

   An ancient community had existed in the Ayutthaya area well before 1350, the year of its official "founding" by King Ramathibodi I (Uthong). The huge Buddha image at Wat Phananchoeng, just outside the island-city, was cast over twenty years before King Ramathibodi I moved his residence to the city area in 1350. It is easy to see why the Ayutthaya area was settled prior to this date since the site offered a variety of geographical and economic advantages. Not only is Ayutthaya at the confluence of three rivers, plus some canals, but its proximity to the sea also gave its inhabitants an irresistible stimulus to engage in maritime trade. The rice fields in the immediate environs flooded each year during the rainy season, rendering the city virtually impregnable for several months annually. These fields, of course, had an even more vital function, that of feeding a relatively large population in the Ayutthaya region. Rice grown in these plants yielded a surplus large enough to be exported regularly to various countries in Asia.

   Ayutthaya's first king, Ramathibodi I, was both a warrior and a lawmaker. Some old laws codified in 1805 by the first Bangkok king date from this much earlier reign. King Ramathibodi I and his immediate successors expanded Ayutthaya's territory, e specially northward towards Sukhothai and eastward towards the Khmer capital of Angkor. By the 15th century, Ayutthaya had established a firm hegemony over most of the northern and central Thai states, though attempts to conquer Lanna failed. Ayutthaya also captured Angkor on at least one occasion but was unable to hold on to it for long. The Ayutthaya kingdom thus changed, during the 15th century, from being a small state primus inter pares among similar states in central Thailand into an increasingly centralized kingdom wielding tight control over a core area of territory, as well as having looser authority over a string of tributary states.

   The greater size of Ayutthaya's territory, as compared with that of Sukhothai, meant that the method of government could not remain the same as during the days of King Ramkhamhaeng. The paternalistic and benevolent Buddhist kingship of Sukhothai would not have worked in Ayutthaya. The king of the latter therefore created a complex administrative system allied to a hierarchical social system. This administrative system dating from the reign of King Trailok, or Borommatrailokanat(1448-1488), was to evolve into the modern Thai bureaucracy. The Ayutthaya bureaucracy contained a hierarchy of ranked and titled officials, all of whom had varying amounts of "honor marks" (sakdina).

   Thai society during the Ayutthaya period also became strictly hierarchical. There were, roughly, three classes of people, with the king at the very apex of the structure. At the bottom of the social scale, and the most numerous, were the commoners (freemen or phrai) and the slaves. Above the commoners were the officials or "nobles" (khunnang), while at the top of the scale were the princes (chao). The one classless sector of Thai society was the Buddhist monkshood, or sangha, into which all classes of Thai men could be ordained. The monkshood was the institution which could weld together all the different social classes, the Buddhist monasteries being the center of all Thai communities both urban and  agricultural.

   The Ayutthaya kings were not only Buddhist kings who ruled according to the dhamma (dharma), but they were also devaraja, god-kings whose sacred power was associated with the Hindu, gods Indra and Vishnu. To many Western observers, the kings of Ayutthaya were treated as if they were gods. The French Abbe de Choisy, who came to Ayutthaya in 1685, wrote that, "the king has absolute power. He is truly the god of the Siamese: no-one dares to utter his name." Another 17th century writer, the Dutchman Van Vliet, remarked that the king of Siam was "honored and worshipped by his subjects more than a god.

   The Ayutthaya period was early Thai history's great era of international trade. Ayutthaya's role as a port made it one of Southeast Asia's richest emporia. The port of Ayutthaya was an entrepot, an international market place where goods from the Far East could be bought or bartered in exchange for merchandise from the Malay/Indonesian Archipelago, India, or Persia, not to mention local wares or produce from Ayutthaya's vast hinterland. The trading world of the Indian Ocean was accessible to Ayutthaya through its possession, for much of its 417-year history, of the seaport of Mergui on the Bay of Bengal. This port in Tenasserim province was linked to the capital by a wild but ancient and frequently used overland trade route.

   Throughout its long history, Ayutthaya had a thriving commerce in "forest produce", principally sapanwood (a wood which produces reddish dye), eaglewood (an aromatic wood), benzoin (a type of incense), gumlac (used as wax), and deer hides (much in  demand in Japan). Elephant teeth and rhinoceros horns were also highly valued exports, but the former was a strict royal monopoly and the latter relatively rare, especially compared with deer hides. Ayutthaya also sold provisions such as rice and dried fish to other Southeast Asian states. The range of minerals found in the kingdom was limit ed, but tin from Phuket ("Junkceylon") and Nakhon Si Thammarat ("Ligor") was much sought after by both Asian and European traders.

   The Chinese, with their large and versatile junks, were the traders who had the most regular and sustained contact with Ayutthaya. The Ayutthaya kings, in order to conduct a steady and profitable trade with Ming and Manchu China, from the 14th to t he 18th centuries, entered willingly into a tributary relationship with the Chinese emperors. The Thais recognized Chinese suzerainty and China's preeminent position in Asia in return for Chinese political sanction and, even more desirable, Chinese luxury goods. Muslim merchants came from India and further West to sell their highly-prized clothes both to Thais and to other foreign traders. So dominant were Chinese and Muslim merchants in Ayutthaya that an old Thai law dating back to the 15th century divides the Thai king's foreign trade department into two: a Chinese section and a Muslim section. Chinese, Indians, and later on Japanese and Persians all settled in Ayutthaya, the Thai kings welcoming their presence and granting them complete freedom of worship. Several of these foreigners became important court officials.

   Containing merchandise from all corners of Asia, the thriving markets of Ayutthaya attracted traders from Europe. In 1511 a small Portuguese force led by Afonso de Albuquerque captured Malacca, an important Muslim trading state on the west coast of the Malay peninsula, and from there sent envoys to Ayutthaya. In 1518 the Portuguese became the first European power to conclude a commercial treaty with Ayutthaya and to establish a permanent settlement there. The Portuguese, receiving permission to settle in Ayutthaya and other Thai ports in return for supplying guns and ammunition to the Thai king. Portugal's powerful neighbor Spain was the next European nation to arrive in Ayutthaya, towards the end of the 16th century.

During the I7th century the Dutch, British and French all established trading relations with Ayutthaya. The Dutch (V.O.C) and the British. The Dutch East India Company played a vital role in Ayutthaya's foreign trade from 1605 until 1765, succeeding in obtaining from the Thai kings a deer hide export monopoly as well as one of all the tin sold at Nakhon Si Thammarat. The Dutch sold Thai sapanwood and deer hides for good profits in Japan during Japan's exclusion period, after 1635. In 1678 a Greek adventurer named Constantine Phaulkon arrived in Ayutthaya in the service of the English East India Company and rapidly rose to become first minister of King Narai, whose pro-French inclinations he did much to encourage. . French missionaries and merchants came to the capital, and during the 1680's splendid embassies were exchanged between King Narai and King Louis XIV.

The French tried to convert King Narai to Christianity and also attempted to gain a foothold in the Thai kingdom when, in 1687, they sent troops to garrison Bangkok and Mergui. The death of King Narai in 1688 was followed by  a succession conflict which broke out in 1688 an anti-French official seized power, drove out the French garrisons, and executed King Narai's Greek favorite Constantine Phaulkon, who had bee championing the French cause in a vain attempt to convert Narai to Catholicism. This caused the expulsion of the Jesuit missionaries. After 1688, Ayutthaya had less cont act with Western nations, but there was no policy of national exclusion. Indeed, there was increased trading contact with China after 1683,and there was continued trade with the Dutch, the Indians, and various neighboring countries.

   Ayutthaya's relations with its neighbors were not always cordial. Wars were fought against Cambodia, Lanna, Lanchang (Laos), Pattani, and above all, Burma, Ayutthaya's powerful neighbor to the west. Burmese power waxed and waned in cycles according to their administrative efficiency in the control of manpower. Whenever Burma was in an expansionist phase, Ayutthaya suffered. In 1752 Alaungpaya, a Burman leader from Shwebo, gained recognition as king of Ava and founded the Konbaung dynasty, In 1757 he captured Pegu and in 1760 launched his first attack against Siam.

In 1767, after almost eight years of war, Ayutthaya suffered the last and most terrible of all the many invasions to which it had been subjected by the Burmese. King  Hsinbyushin led his armies consisting of 1,500,000 soldiers and 6,000 elephants into Siam and besieged Ayutthaya for a year, the Ayutthayian defenders fought with great ferocity and skill, but the great city fell to the tenacious attacks of the Burmese troops. The Pagodas temples monasteries, relics and other irreplaceable artistic, cultural and historical treasures were completely destroyed.

   After the destruction and sacking of the great city of Ayutthaya, the invading Burmese king was so appalled at the terrible destruction committed by his invading troops, that he wept in sadness and had a temple built in an act of sorrow and forgiveness of the great city he had destroyed. (The Burmese people to this day carry the burden of guilt for the total demolition of one of the great cultural and religious centers of Asia.) Thousands of Ayuttayans families including King Mahin and Prince Naresuan were taken to Burma as slaves of war. The Burmese sacked and looted the city so thoroughly that the court was compelled to abandon it and move almost 90km downstream to Thon Buri on the west bank of the Chao Phraya River near the estuary.

Here in 1770 General Phraya Tak or Taksin, governor of Tak and commander of the Thai forces, who was the son of a Chinese father and a Thai mother, revolted against the Burmese. The Siamese troops rallied behind him pushing the invading army back to its borders and forcing the Burmese to sue for peace. Taksin was proclaimed King. Battles such as these produced great leaders and hero's such as Phraya Pichia Hap Dak. The Siamese began to establish other capitols, first at Thonburi and then at Bangkok farther down the Chao Phraya.  The Siamese determined to regain all their lost territories and to revenge the Burmese destruction of their capital Ayutthaya, signed a pact with Great Britain. The British Indian armies attacked Burma from the West, and British Naval bombardments from the South. Siamese forces attacked from the West forcing Burma to sue for peace, where Siam regained her lost land.

In 1782 Taksin. who had become prone to bouts of religious mania and acts of arbitrary and wanton cruelty. was declared insane and deposed on the orders of General Chaophraya Chakri. who shared the command of the Siamese army with his younger brother Chaophraya Surasi. Taksin is traditionally believed to have been executed, but another tradition has it that a substitute was put to death in his place and that Taksin was sent secretly to it palace near Nakhon Si Thammarat, where he lived until 1825. Chaophraya Chakri, who came of an old Ayutthayian noble family on his father's side, but whose mother was Chinese, ascended the throne as King Ramathibodi and so became the founder of the Chakri dynasty. The title of Phra Phuttha Yotfa Chulalok was bestowed upon him posthumously, but he is generally known as King Rama 1.

    

Copyright 1999 USMTA Inc All rights reserved. Revised: October 16, 2004.