ANCIENT MON, DVARAVATI AND MON KINGDOMS IN MYANMAR AND THAILAND

ANCIENT MON PEOPLE

The first major group of immigrants to arrive in present-day Burma were the Mon who were originally from China and settled in what is now northern Burma around the third century B.C. The Mon where a highly cultured Buddhist people with a classical North Indian heritage who settled in Central Burma. Pegu (50 miles from Yangon) was established by the Mon in the 6th century, it was the capital of southern Myanmar in the 13th century, when the Mons ruled the region. In 1757, it was sacked and almost completely destroyed by the Burmese monarch, King Alaungpaya.

The Mon were heavily influenced by Indian Hindu culture and Asoka Buddhist kingdom in India.. They established the Dvaravati Kingdom (A.D. 6th to 11th century) and several centers in mainland Southeast Asia. The Dvaravatis controlled the Menam Valley area in present-day Thailand from the 6th or 7th century to the 11th century. They were ultimately defeated by the Thais who absorbed much of their culture.

Once a very powerful political and cultural group, today’s Mon population of around 1.3 million has been mostly absorbed into the mainstream of Burmese culture. These Burmese Mons make up only a small part of the Mon-Khmer speakers of Southeast Asia with many of their relatives living further to the east in Thailand and Kampuchea. Although their culture has merged with that of the Burmese, the Mons have continued to use their own language and since 1962 have had their own state. As devout Buddhists, they follow their own ceremonial calendar of Theravadin festivals. Their main source of livelihood comes from the cultivation of rice, but they also grow other crops such as yams, sugar cane, and pineapple.

Mon Enter Southeast Asia

The closely related Mon and Khmer peoples entered Southeast Asia along migration routes from southern China in the ninth century B.C. The Khmer settled in the Mekong River Valley, while the Mon occupied the central plain and northern highlands of modern Thailand and large parts of Burma. Taking advantage of Funan's decline in the sixth century A.D., the Mon began to establish independent kingdoms, among them Dvaravati in the northern part of the area formerly controlled by Funan and farther north at Haripunjaya.

The Mon probably began migrating into the area in about 3000 B.C. and their first kingdom Suwarnabhumi. was founded around the port of Thaton in about 300 B.C. Spoken tradition suggests that they had contact with Buddhism via seafaring as early as the 3rd century B.C. though definitely by the 2nd century B.C. when they received an envoy of monks from Ashoka. Much of the Mon's written records have been destroyed through wars. The Mons blended Indian and Mon culture together in a hybird of the two civilizations. By the mid-9th century. they had come to dominate all of southern Myanmar. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information]

The Mon of Haribhunjaya and Dvaravati kingdoms people in modern Thailand may have entered present-day Lower Burma as early as the 6th century A.D. According to mainstream scholarship, the Mon had founded at least two small kingdoms (or large city-states) centered around Pegu (Bago) and Thaton by the mid 9th century. The earliest external reference to a Lower Burma "kingdom" was in 844-848 by Arab geographers. The Mon practiced Theravada Buddhism. The kingdoms were prosperous from trade. The Kingdom of Thaton is widely considered to be the fabled kingdom of Suvarnabhumi (or Golden Land), referred to by the tradesmen of Indian Ocean. [Source: Wikipedia]

Ancient Mon Culture

Dr. Richard M. Cooler wrote in “The Art and Culture of Burma”: “The first Indianized peoples in Burma were the Mons. An honor shared with their northern neighbors, the Pyus. The Mons, a people of Malayo-Indonesian stock, are related to the early inhabitants of Thailand and Cambodia who also spoke Mon-Khmer languages. The Mons who are considered to be the indigenous inhabitants of lower Burma, established their most significant capital at Thaton, strategically located for trade near the Gulf of Martaban and the Andaman Sea. [Source: “The Art and Culture of Burma,” Dr. Richard M. Cooler, Professor Emeritus Art History of Southeast Asia, Former Director, Center for Burma Studies =]

Little is known of the early history of the Mon people including how long their various kingdoms flourished and the extent of their domains. For example, it is not definitely known if it was the Mon or the Pyu who controlled the lower delta region. Descriptions in Chinese and Indian texts specify their settlement area as being around the present day cities of Moulmein and Pegu in the monsoonal plains of Southeast Burma. This area was first known as Suvannabhumi ("land of gold") and later as Ramannadesa ("Land of Ramanna"); Ramanna being the word for Mon people. The area known as Suvannanbhumi was often connected with the historical Buddha in the later Mon and Burmese chronicles that credit the Mons with first establishing the Buddhist religion in Burma. =

Although little is known about actual religious practice, trade connections through the Mon port city of Thaton can be traced to the Indian kingdom of the Buddhist King Ashoka from as early as the 3rd century B.C. Legend maintains that 2,500 years ago the Mon people began the original structure of the Shwedagon Pagoda that today has become the most revered Buddhist stupa in Burma, a true national monument. This theory, though tenable, lacks objective corroboration because the many changes that have been made to the pagoda over the years have repeatedly encased its original structure and there is no contemporary record of its foundation or a description of its form. =

The Mon were receptive to the art and literature of India, and for centuries they were the agents for diffusing Hindu cultural values in the region. The frequent occurrence of Sanskrit place-names in modern Thailand is one result of the long and pervasive Indian influence. In the eighth century, missionaries from Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka) introduced the Mon to Theravada Buddhism. The Mon embraced Buddhism enthusiastically and conveyed it to the Khmer and the Malay of Tambralinga. The two Indian religious systems--Hindu and Buddhist--existed side by side without conflict. Hinduism continued to provide the cultural setting in which Buddhist religious values and ethical standards were articulated. Although Buddhism was the official religion of the Mon and the Khmer, in popular practice it incorporated many local cults.

In Thailand the ancient Mon culture is referred to as the Dvaravati civilization. Joe Cummings wrote in the Lonely Planet guide for Thailand: “Dvaravati is a Sanskrit name meaning Place of Gates, referring to the city of Krishna in the Indian epic poem Mahabharata. The French art historian Georges Coedès discovered the name on some coins that were excavated in the Nakhon Pathom area. The Dvaravati culture is known for its art work, including Buddha images (showing Indian Gupta influence), stucco reliefs on temple walls and in caves, architecture, exquisite terracotta heads, votive tablets and various sculptures. Dvaravati may have also been a cultural relay point for the Funan and Chenla cultures of ancient Laos and Cambodia to the northeast and east. The Chinese, through the travels of the famous pilgrim Xuan Zang, knew the area as Tuoluobodi, between Sriksetra (Myanmar) and Isanapura (Laos-Cambodia). [Source: Joe Cummings, Lonely Planet guide for Thailand]

Mon Kingdoms

Mon kingdoms were political establishments by the Mon-speaking people that ruled large sections of present-day Myanmar (Burma) at various times in the last 1200 years. The kingdoms in chronological order are the Thaton Kingdom (9th. century–1057), the Hanthawaddy Kingdom (1287–1539), and the Restored Hanthawaddy Kingdom (1740–1757). [Source: Wikipedia +]

The first recorded kingdom attributed to the Mon people is Dvaravati, which prospered until around 1000 A.D. when their capital was sacked by the Khmer Empire and a significant portion of the inhabitants fled west to present-day Lower Burma and eventually founded new polities.

Mainstream scholarship holds that the Mon established small polities (or large city-states) in Lower Burma. Both the city of Thaton and Pegu (Bago) are believed to have been established in the 9th century. The states were important trading ports between Indian ocean and mainland Southeast Asia. Still, according to traditional reconstruction, the early Mon city-states were conquered by the Pagan Kingdom from the north in 1057, and that Thaton's literary and religious traditions helped to mold early Pagan civilization. Between 1050 and about 1085, Mon craftsmen and artisans helped to build some two thousand monuments at Pagan, the remains of which today rival the splendors of Angkor Wat. The Mon script is considered to be the source of the Burmese script, the earliest evidence of which was dated to 1058, a year after the Thaton conquest, by the colonial era scholarship.

However, recent research—still a minority view—argues that Mon influence on the interior after Anawrahta's conquest is a greatly exaggerated post-Pagan legend, and that Lower Burma in fact lacked a substantial independent polity prior to Pagan's expansion. Possibly in this period, the delta sedimentation—which now extends the coastline by three miles a century—remained insufficient, and the sea still reached too far inland, to support a population even as large as the modest population of the late precolonial era. (The earliest evidence of Burmese script is dated to 1035, and possibly as early as 984 A.D. Recent research argues that the Pyu script was the source of the Burmese script.)

Though the size and importance of these states are still debated, all scholars accept that during the 11th century, Pagan established its authority in Lower Burma and this conquest facilitated growing cultural exchange, if not with local Mon, then with India and with Theravada stronghold Sri Lanka. From a geopolitical standpoint, Anawrahta's conquest of Thaton checked the Khmer advance in the Tenasserim coast.

Thaton

Thaton (100 kilometers north of Mawlamyine) was the seat of an ancient Mon kingdom also known as Suvannabhumi or the Golden Land, which extended from the Bay of Bengal to the region between the Sittaung and Salween(Thanlwin) rivers, which was known as the Mon kingdom of Ramanyadesa. Ancient Thaton was a flourishing port that traded with Southern India and Pegu. The old city of Thaton appears to have built on a quadrangular plan like the more modern cities of Amarapura and Mandalay. There are two ramparts in a rectangular shape and the moat lies between the two walls. which are faced with laterite stones. As the present town is developed within the old city the remains of the inner city are no longer visible. The chief pagodas were situated between the palace site and the south wall. Silting has resulted in the coastline moving 16 kilometers away from Thaton, which is now a sleepy town on the rail line from Bago to Mottama.

Dr. Richard M. Cooler wrote in “The Art and Culture of Burma”: “The early Mon kingdoms that were in power during the prehistoric period, were situated between the Sittang and Salween rivers and were referred to as Ramannadesa. Thaton, the seat of this kingdom, is believed to have been Suvannabhumi (“Golden Land”), a term that was also used to refer to the whole region of continental Southeast Asia bordering the Bay of Bengal. Thaton is thought to have been founded by King Siharaja during the lifetime of the Buddha, which would place it in the fifth century B.C. [Source: “The Art and Culture of Burma,” Dr. Richard M. Cooler, Professor Emeritus Art History of Southeast Asia, Former Director, Center for Burma Studies =]

Thaton was once a flourishing port community that communicated with and transported goods from as far away as Southern India. Later Burmese chronicles credit the Mon people of Thaton with bringing the Buddhist religion to Burma. In these chronicles it is also stated that Buddhist manuscripts from Sri Lanka were translated into Mon characters around 400 AD. Although scholars have questioned this fact, it is known from local inscriptions that Theravada Buddhism definitely existed in Lower Burma by the fifth century AD. Although the exact founding date of Thaton and the extent of its kingdom has yet to be discovered, it is known that Thaton fell under Burmese control during the 11th century when the first great King of Pagan, Anawrahta, sacked the city and returned to Pagan with Thaton’s King Manuha as his captive. Thaton remained under Burmese domination until the fall of Pagan in 13th century. Thenceforth, the Mons re-established their independence, although the capital was later moved to other locations including Marataban and Pegu. =

Thaton’s quadrangular city plan resembles that of the later Burmese cities of Amarapura and Mandalay. Four walls surrounded the old city creating a rectangular shape that enclosed the walled palace compound that was located at its center. From north to south the palace site measured 1, 080 feet and 1, 150 feet from east to west. Two chief stupas were situated between the palace site and the south wall. Today, the old city of Thaton is no longer visible as growth of the modern town has obscured the earlier settlement.

Pagodas in Thaton

Shwezayan Pagoda (in Thaton) is often called Thaton Shwezayan to differentiate it from another Shwezayan between Mandalay and Pyin Oo Lwin. The pagoda as it stands today has a height of 360 feet (110 meters) from base to the finial and by its configuration seems to be quite modern. A number of stone inscriptions, of which five display Old Mon writing, attest to its antiquity. The festival for this Pagoda is held on the 8th waxing day of the month of Dabaung which roughly corresponds to March.

The Shwezayan pagoda is said to have been built in the 5th century B.C. It has been built over and has now assumed a modern shape with a circular base and a bell-shaped superstructure. Within the precincts of the Shwezayan pagoda were found seven inscribed stones: five in early Mon of the 11th century, one medieval and the seventh illegible. Among the stone sculptures collected in the same building is a figure of standing Buddha depicted in relief on a sandstone slab.

Kyaikhtee Saung Pagoda (in Thaton) is an ancient laterite stone pagoda. It is the one of earliest hair relic pagodas in Mon State. Kyaikhtee Saung Pagoda is located on the Laterite Stone hillock, which has been formed by laying the laterite stones on top of one another forming a big square that has gradually shrunk, keeping the form of square but gradually getting smaller until it reaches the top platform. In 1971 a monk named U Pyinnyadipa (the abbot of Kyaikhtee Saung Sayadaw monastery) was visiting his native village, Zoke Thoke, and found the old pagoda under some bushes. He organized his disciples and villagers to clear the bushes. Then he rebuilt and renovated the old pagoda and old laterite hillock. Now, the Kyaikhtee Saung Golden Pagoda is surrounded by the new religious buildings.

Bago (Pegu)

Bago(80 kilometers north along the Yangon-Mandalay train line) is seldom visited by tourists. Established in the 6th century, it was the capital of southern Myanmar in the 13th century, when the Mons ruled the region. In 1757, it was sacked and almost completely destroyed by the Burmese monarch, King Alaungpaya.

Bago was frequently mentioned by earlier Europeans visitors as an important seaport. Bago kingdom was under the rule of Pagan empire during the reign of Pagan Kings, from King Anawrahta in 1057 to King Narathihapati in 1287 AD. Later it became the capital city of Mon. Many pagodas and monuments were built during the rule of Kings in Bago.

The Mon cities: Bago and Hanthawaddy were nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1996. According to a report submitted to UNESCO: The ancient Mon cities built between the Ayeyawady Valley and the Sittaung Valley. Residencal Palace area of Mon King is under excavation. Contemporary with Innwa and built from the 11th to 17th centuries [Source: Department of Archaeology of Myanmar]

Archeological Bago

Bago is one of the richest archaeological sites in Myanmar. Apparently Mons were the first to settle at this site. Two Mon brothers Thamala and Wimala from Thaton. first founded the city about 825 A.D. In 13th century A.D. The site. which was then on the Gulf of Martaban. had already been earmarked as the location of a great city by Gautama. the historic Buddha. Bago was made the capital of the Mon Kingdom and it came to be known as Hansavati (Hanthawaddy). It was also the seaport of ancient Mon kings. Then it became the Second Myanmar Empire founded by King Bayinnaung. See History.

Kanbawza Thadi Palace (in Bago) is the famous palace of King Bayinnaung (1551-1581 A.D.). Built for the king in 1556, it consisted of 76 apartments and halls. It was burned down in 1599 and reconstructed between 1990 and 1992. King Bayinnaung was the founder of the Second Myanmar Empire, which stretched from the borders of India to parts of Thailand and Laos. In 1566 A.D. he built a new capital city called Hanthawadi in what is now Bago. To the south of the Shwe-Maw-Daw Pagoda he built a grand palace, which he named Kanbawza Thadi.

Excavations at the palace site were started on 25th April 1990. The Archaeological Department has up to now excavated six mounds, which revealed the brick foundations and bases of the old palace. Many teak pillars, some with inscriptions, were also found. The Settaw Saung, one of the main rooms of the palace, has been reconstructed and the work is 90 percent finished. Also the main Audience Hall(the Lion Throne Room) is being rebuilt. The palace site is overseen by the Myanmar Archaeology Department and covers 9.6 acres. The reconstructed 16th century palace of Hanthawadi and the whole palace site will become a main tourist attraction in the near future. Hours: 9:00am to 5:00pm daily. Admission Fees: US$4 per person.

King Bayintnaung was a popular Myanmar king. After two years of his reign, in 1553, he built Kambowzathadi Palace which was the heart of Myanmar. The Italian merchant Caesar Fredaricke and the British merchant Ralph Fitch stated that the Hanthawadi City was a glorious and magnificent capital. It was a great city built on plain and flat site. The royal palace was at the center of the new city. The Chamber of the Royal Palace was grand and richly gilded. Some apartments of the palace were roofed with gold plates depicting the magnificence and beauty of the royal palace.

Hanthawaddy (1287–1539): Mon Culture in Burma

In 1287, the Pagan Empire collapsed due to Mongol invasions, and all its vassal states became independent. In present-day Lower Burma, Wareru established a kingdom for the Mon-speaking people called Ramannadesa by unifying three Mon-speaking regions of Lower Burma: Martaban (Mottama), Pegu (Bago), the Irrawaddy delta. The kingdom's first capital was at Martaban but the capital was moved to Pegu in 1369. [Source: Wikipedia +]

King Wareru (ruled 1287-96) was a Tai adventurer of humble origins who had married a daughter of King Ramkhamhaeng of Sukhothai and had established himself as overlord of Martaban on the Salween River in 1281. Wareru and his ally. Tarabya. a Mon prince of Pegu. drove the Myanmar out of the Irrawaddy Delta and reestablished the independence of the Mon. Subsequently, Wareru killed Tarabya and made himself the sole ruler of the Mon, with his capital at Martaban. Although he was nominally a vassal of Ramkhamhaeng, he conducted independent diplomatic relations with the emperor Kublai Khan in China. A legendary achievement of his reign was the compilation of the Dharma-shastra. or Dhammathat. the earliest surviving law code of Myanmar. Wareru was murdered by his grandsons. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information]

For its first 100 years, the Mon kingdom was merely a loose collection of three Mon-speaking regions. The high kings at the capital had little substantive authority over the vassals. Indeed, Martaban was in open rebellion from 1363 to 1389. A more centralized rule came with the reign of King Razadarit, who not only firmly unified the three Mon-speaking regions together but also successfully fended off the northern Burmese-speaking Kingdom of Ava in the Forty Years' War (1385–1424). The war ended in a stalemate but it was a victory for Hanthawaddy as Ava finally gave up its dream of restoring the Pagan Empire. In the years following the war, Pegu occasionally aided Ava's southern vassal states of Prome and Toungoo in their rebellions but carefully avoided getting plunged into a full scale war. +

After the war, Hanthawaddy entered its golden age whereas its rival Ava gradually went into decline. From the 1420s to the 1530s, Hanthawaddy was the most powerful and prosperous kingdom of all post-Pagan kingdoms. Under a string of especially gifted monarchs—Binnya Ran I, Shin Sawbu, Dhammazedi and Binnya Ran II—the kingdom enjoyed a long golden age, profiting from foreign commerce. Its merchants traded with traders from across the Indian Ocean, filling the king's treasury with gold and silver, silk and spices, and all the other stuff of early modern trade. The kingdom also became a famous center of Theravada Buddhism. It established strong ties with Ceylon, and encouraged reforms that later spread throughout the country. +

The powerful kingdom's end came abruptly. Due to the inexperience of King Takayutpi, the kingdom was captured by a smaller kingdom to the north, Kingdom of Toungoo in 1539 led by King Tabinshwehti and his deputy Gen. Bayinnaung. Toungoo captured the Irrawaddy delta in 1538, Pegu in 1539, and Martaban in 1541. The kingdom was briefly revived in 1550 after Tabinshwehti was assassinated. But Bayinnaung quickly defeated the rebellion in 1552. +

Restored Hanthawaddy (1740–1757)

Though Toungoo kings would rule all of Lower Burma well into the mid-18th century, the golden age of Hanthawaddy was fondly remembered by the Mon. In 1740, they rose up against a weak Toungoo Dynasty on its last legs, and succeeded in restoring the fallen Hanthawaddy Kingdom. Supported by the French, the upstart kingdom quickly carved out a space for itself in Lower Burma, and continued its push northward. On 23 March 1752, its forces captured Ava, and ended the 266-year-old Toungoo dynasty. [Source: Wikipedia +]

A new dynasty called Konbaung led by King Alaungpaya rose in Upper Burma to challenge the southern forces, and went on to conquer all of Upper Burma by January 1754. After Hanthawaddy's second invasion of Upper Burma failed in May 1754, the kingdom's leadership in self-defeating measures killed off the Toungoo royal family, and persecuted ethnic Burmans in the south, both of which only strengthened Alaungpaya's hand. In 1755, Alaungpaya invaded Lower Burma. Konbaung forces captured the Irrawaddy delta in May 1755, the French defended port of Thanlyin in July 1756, and finally the capital Pegu in May 1757. +

The fall of Restored Hanthawaddy was the beginning of the end of Mon people's centuries-old dominance of Lower Burma. Konbaung armies' reprisals forced thousands of Mons to flee to Siam. By the early 19th century, assimilation, inter-marriage, and mass migration of Burman families from the north had reduced the Mon population to a small minority. +

Hanthawady Site

Hanthawady was a great commercial center in the 16th century. The palace site is 67.3 acres wide. Mound No. 1 is the site of the main shrine hall. When this was excavated archeologists discovered about two thousand damaged Buddha images. Mound No 2. is the site of royal chamber of princess. Her name is Razadatukalya. who was the eldest daughter of King Bayintnaung. Mound Nos. 3 and 4 are the sites of apartments of Chief-queens. It is assumed mound No. 5, as it is connected by a corridor to mound No. 4 is the site of chief queen’s chamber. Mound No. 6 is the site of the royal bed Chamber called Bee throne hall, Bamayarthanapalin hall, where the King’s living Chamber and bed room was well guarded by his most trusted persons. Apart from very important cases, such as military affairs, coming here was strictly prohibited to everyone including his queens and female attendants. When mound No. 6 was archeologists discovered 64 large teak pillars.

The most important findings at the site of the great audience hall site were 167 teak posts, of which 135 were inscribed in Mon and Myanmar languages bearing the names of towns, regions and the royal ministers who brought the large teak posts for the construction of the great audience hall. This is the largest building of the Palace. It was used as a State Audience Hall. Among the eight thrones, the Thiharthana throne, the Lion throne, is set inside the building. The Thihathana throne is made of Yamanay (gmeline abornea) wood. At the top and bottom of two pilasters attached to the upper part of the throne on each side, the figures of four celestial beings can be seen. At the top center piece there is the figure of the Thagyamin (King of the Celestial beings) on whose forehead a legend admonishing the King to rule the Kingdom with justice is written. That very fact shows that the Thihathana throne is virtually the symbol of national sovereignty.

In the middle of left pilaster there is a figure of a peacock representing the sun and in the middle of the night pilaster is the figure of a rabbit, the sign of the moon. They are depicting that Myanmar monarchs are the descendants of the Sun and the Moon. King Bayintnaung not only built a strong, united and enlarged 2nd Myanmar Empire. He also ruled his Kingdom with justice, and his subjects enjoyed peace and prosperity. He encouraged agriculture, trade and commence. Ministers and generals of various nationalities served under him and they were promoted to high positions. Theravada Buddhism flourished under his patronage as he made every effort to promote it. Therefore, his people adored and severed him willingly. In that way. King Bayintnaung realized his vision of establishing a strong, peaceful and developed second Myanmar Union.

The Mon cities: Bago and Hanthawaddy were nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1996. According to a report submitted to UNESCO: The ancient Mon cities built between the Ayeyawady Valley and the Sittaung Valley. Residencal Palace area of Mon King is under excavation. Contemporary with Innwa and built from the 11th to 17th centuries [Source: Department of Archaeology of Myanmar]

Dvaravati Civilization, Mon Culture in Thailand

Nakhon Pathom in central Thailand was the centre of the Mon Dvaravati culture, which arose in the 9th century and quickly declined in the 11th century under pressure from invading Khmers. A Mon kingdom – Hariphunchai – in today’s Lamphun Province, held out until the late 12th or early 13th century, when it was annexed by northern Thais. In spite of cultural dominance in the region, the Mon were repeatedly subdued by their Burmese and Khmer neighbors.In the tenth century Dvaravati and the whole of the Chao Phraya Valley came under the control of Angkor.

Joe Cummings wrote in the Lonely Planet guide for Thailand: “Dvaravati is a Sanskrit name meaning Place of Gates, referring to the city of Krishna in the Indian epic poem Mahabharata. The French art historian Georges Coedès discovered the name on some coins that were excavated in the Nakhon Pathom area. The Dvaravati culture is known for its art work, including Buddha images (showing Indian Gupta influence), stucco reliefs on temple walls and in caves, architecture, exquisite terracotta heads, votive tablets and various sculptures. Dvaravati may have also been a cultural relay point for the Funan and Chenla cultures of ancient Laos and Cambodia to the northeast and east. The Chinese, through the travels of the famous pilgrim Xuan Zang, knew the area as Tuoluobodi, between Sriksetra (Myanmar) and Isanapura (Laos-Cambodia). [Source: Joe Cummings, Lonely Planet guide for Thailand]

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “Between the seventh and ninth centuries, multiple competing kingdoms emerged in central Thailand and it is at this time that the earliest Buddhist and Hindu sculptures first appear in this region. For a time, the Dvaravati rulers in the central Thai city of Nakhon Pathom maintained power and many scholars have used their name to characterize this period and a people who spoke the Mon language. Unlike the Pre-Angkorian kingdoms of the Mekong delta that were linked to China and India by an international trade network, central Thailand remained relatively isolated. As a result, a distinct and highly sophisticated Mon-Dvaravati style emerged. Buddhism appears to have been the major religion, but the presence of Hinduism is well attested by monumental lingas found throughout the region and images dedicated to Vishnu. By the eighth century, Mahayana and Esoteric Buddhism had begun to take hold in the area of the Korat plateau; especially notable are the many multi-armed bronze bodhisattvas found near the town of Prakhon Chai. [Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org/toah]

Mon–Dvaravati Art in North–Central Thailand

The Mon were receptive to the art and literature of India, and for centuries they were the agents for diffusing Hindu cultural values in the region. The frequent occurrence of Sanskrit place-names in modern Thailand is one result of the long and pervasive Indian influence. In the eighth century, missionaries from Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka) introduced the Mon to Theravada Buddhism. The Mon embraced Buddhism enthusiastically and conveyed it to the Khmer and the Malay of Tambralinga. The two Indian religious systems--Hindu and Buddhist--existed side by side without conflict. Hinduism continued to provide the cultural setting in which Buddhist religious values and ethical standards were articulated. Although Buddhism was the official religion of the Mon and the Khmer, in popular practice it incorporated many local cults.

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “An intriguing site is that of Si Thep, which sits along the Pasak River in central Thailand. The center was already active in the sixth century and its occupation lasted until the thirteenth century. The earliest images are Hindu, a group that can be stylistically related to Pre-Angkorian sculpture such as that found at Prasat Andet. However, characteristics such as the faceted miter sitting high on the forehead make Si Thep production readily distinguishable and the facial features, especially the eyes, relate to the emerging Dvaravati style. During the seventh and eighth centuries, monumental lingas such as one from Si Thep were found throughout Thailand. Kings who identified themselves as incarnations of Shiva would establish such lingas as a religious act and as a symbol of their power over a newly conquered territory. Ideas of perfect geometry help relate the octagonal base to the cardinal and intermediate directions, while the circular pillar is implicitly the cosmic axis. Here, the face of Shiva provides a focus for veneration; he is readily recognized by the crescent in his hair and vertical third eye. In contrast, the Si Thep Buddhist imagery is more closely related to the production of the Mon-Dvaravati period, as can be seen in a rare gold repoussé representation of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara. [Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org/toah ]

“By the seventh and eighth centuries, a characteristic Mon-Dvaravati Buddha type had emerged that, once established, would have a major impact on sculptural production across central Thailand. The Buddha stands with his right shoulder uncovered; while his garments are clearly visible, their smooth understated treatment draws attention to his idealized physical form, which functions as a metaphor of enlightenment. The Buddha has a rather broad face, full rimmed lips, elongated eyes, and eyebrows joined in a sharp ridge that forms an arc with a triple curve. In Thailand during this period, stupas (relic mounds) and temples often were embellished with terracotta and stucco sculptures. In contrast to the stone and metal images that served as the primary objects of worship, these embellishing sculptures executed in plastic media show a greater degree of spontaneity and freedom of expression.

“Considerable innovation in religious iconography occurred during the Mon-Dvaravati period. It is only during this period that we find Buddhas holding both of their hands in a gesture of exposition or teaching (vitarkamudra) that in India is confined to the right hand. Mon-Dvaravati iconographic developments clearly impacted Burmese sculptural production. A good example is a seated Buddha that was manufactured in the Pyu region of central west Burma. Like the Mon-Dvaravati images, it originally held both hands in the teaching gesture. The Pyu kingdom flourished in central and northern Burma from the early years A.D. to around 832, when Halin, the capital, was sacked by forces of the southern Chinese Nanzhao kingdom. The sculpture in this area displays a fluidity of modeling with an emphasis on soft flowing volumes rather than the linear development of forms that is seen in the best early Southeast Asian sculpture.

“During the Mon-Dvaravati period, a great number of clay or terracotta plaques were produced at Buddhist sites across Thailand. The manufacture of such plaques from sacred earth is a tradition that originated at major pilgrimage sites in the Ganges River basin of India, where the Buddha lived. As the actual act of stamping an image of the Buddha generated great merit, the manufacture of such images took hold in Southeast Asia and other parts of the Buddhist world. The subject matter of plaques produced during the seventh to ninth centuries are mainly related to events in the Buddha's life. With the establishment of Mahayana Buddhism, the iconography of the plaques changed and many show the Buddha flanked by bodhisattvas.

“A large group of bronze Buddhas and bodhisattvas, perhaps hidden during a period of political disruption, were found buried together in eastern Thailand near the town of Prakhon Chai. These bronzes are unlike any other images produced in the major artistic centers of Thailand. They date from the seventh to ninth centuries and exhibit significant stylistic diversity, suggesting that they were collected from a range of sites rather than being the product of one manufacturing center. Since then, related images have been discovered in the vicinity. Ascetic bodhisattvas predominate in this corpus, possibly reflecting the early spread of Esoteric or Mahayana Buddhism in the region. Supporting this interpretation is the fact that most of the bodhisattvas are multi-armed, wear simple clothing, and generally lack jewelry. The silvery sheen on the surface of many of these sculptures derives from the high tin content used in their casting. Silver and obsidian inlay for the eyes of the larger images is typical. By the tenth century, the disparate Mon-Dvaravati traditions began to come under the influence of the Khmers and central Thailand was ultimately invaded by the Khmer king Suryavarman II in the first half of the twelfth century.”

Ancient Si Thep

Ancient Town of Si Thep (in Phetchabun Province, 200 kilometers northeast of Bangkok) is one of the most significant Dvaravati culture sites. It was nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2019. According to a reported submitted to UNESCO: It is located on rolling plains approximately 4 kilometers east of the Pa Sak River, in Si Thep District, Phetchabun Province. The area is approximately 60 - 80 meters above sea level. Si Thep is located next to western margin of the Khorat Plateau, in the central highlands, a significant hub for exchange trade and networks between the central and northeastern regions during the late prehistoric period and Khmer culture period in the 13th century CE. [Source: Thailand National Committee on the World Heritage Convention]

Si Thep was home to a late prehistoric period community that flourished in the Lopburi – Pa Sak river valley 1,700 - 1,500 years ago (circa 3th to 5th centuries CE). Once external cultures, particularly ancient Indian and Khmer cultures were introduced, Si Thep grew into an urban Dvaravati center between the 6th and 11th century CE. After that, it transitioned into an even more complex town quite strong influence of ancient Khmer culture in the 11th and 13th century CE. After a period of approximately 700 years of continuous occupation and regional significance, Si Thep began to decline during the late 13th century and was completely abandoned soon after that.

Si Thep is a major and important town on the ancient trade route and networks in Southeast Asia, and it represents local inhabitants’ wisdom in choosing advantageous location suitable for connecting and diffusing culture and trade goods intra- and inter-regionally since prehistoric time, Dvaravati period, and ancient Khmer culture period. The chronological development of Si Thep indicates that the town play an important role as a hinterland and a center of trade, exchange, and culture through a long period of time. It was also engaged in inter-regional cultural and economic exchange networks, serving as hub on an ancient trade route linking people from central plains in the central region and the Khorat plateau in northeastern Thailand, as well as areas in the east and west of Southeast Asia. The strategic location of Si Thep is an important factor enhancing economic role of the town as a center of trade and culture in Thailand, Southeast Asia. The outstanding characters of Si Thep are numerous, including the followings.

History of Si Thep

According to a reported submitted to UNESCO: The ancient town of Si Thep is the most important and the largest hinterland settlement in Dvaravati culture. It was developed from a prehistoric farming village in the Pa Sak valley approximately 2,500 - 1,500 years ago. This community was talented in selecting a location that linked the plains in the east-central region and the highlands in northeastern region, allowing the effective control and connection of the exchange of goods and culture. It became an important hub of exchange where goods from multi-directions were imported, being coastal communities, highland communities in the Northeast Plateau, as well as those from the central Chao Phraya basin in the west. Furthermore, Si Thep also served as a leading center of religious network by incorporating Dvaravati culture Theravada Buddhism from the Upper Chao Phraya Basin, and Mahayana Buddhism and Hinduism from the Khorat Plateau in the northeast. [Source: Thailand National Committee on the World Heritage Convention]

Archaeological and historical evidence indicates the areas where ancient town of Si Thep and its vicinity are located have continuously been used since the late prehistoric period, approximately 1,700 – 1,500 years ago. That time saw a dramatic increase in population number and density, coupled with intensive salt and iron production, leading to widespread occupation across the Lopburi-Pa Sak river valley. A survey of area in the radius of 15 kilometers from the ancient town of Si Thep has identified at least six various prehistoric sites, including habitation sites, stone ornament workshop sites, and ritual or burial sites.

The prehistoric communities in the area of Si Thep were agriculturally-based, and consisted of several small villages and each village had a leader. People excellently knew how to live and manage themselves to co-exist with natural environments. They practice rice cultivation and animal domestication, as well as hunting and collecting available natural resource. In addition, weaving, pottery-making, and metal smelting were also performed in the community. People might have believed in the afterlife or the next world as they buried the dead with a variety of grave goods. A radiocarbon AMS dating of a human canine from the site yielded an age of 1,730 ± 30 years ago. In addition, Indo-Pacific beads and accessories were discovered, including agate and carnelian beads, jade bracelets, and engraved ivory combs, providing evidence for inter-regional trade and exchange.

Si Thep was prosperous for more than 700 years before gradually losing its significance during the late 13th century CE due to the emergence of the new Lavo and Phimai cities in the northeast. After the breakdown of the Khmer Kingdom in the late 13th century CE, Sukhothai emerged as a new political hub in north of Chao Phraya River along with Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya on the Chao Phraya basin, causing a shift to the original inter-cities trade and exchange route and the gradual decline leading to the abandonment of Si Thep.

Si Thep Site

According to a reported submitted to UNESCO: Advantageous Settlement Location and Wise Land Use that Enhances the Steady Growth of Trade and Culture The town is located in the well-chosen area consisting of alluvial plains flanked by Pa Sak river and the Phetchabun range on the western margin of the Khorat Plateau. In the area, there are rivers that served as waterways and perennial sources of water, as well as abundant natural resources including minerals and forest products for subsistence and exchange. There is also a large mountain located approximately 15 kilometers west of the town. This mountain served as landmark to facilitate transportation between communities. The town is located between the Khorat Plateau in the Northeast and the region just east of plains in the Central Plains region which could be linked to a maritime trade route. A combination of strategic advantageous location, abundant natural resources, and unique landscape has led and supported Si Thep to play a significant role the prehistoric exchange and trade networks, which led to cultural, technological, and political changes that culminated in the emergence of Dvaravati culture between the 6th and 11th century CE. [Source: Thailand National Committee on the World Heritage Convention]

Si Thep was a large, complex and important city during the Dvaravati Period. The town plan was sophisticatedly designed to facilitate the occupation. Moats were constructed to bring water to numerous reservoirs in the town for consumption and religious use, and earthen walls were built to protect the town to facilitate the flow of water. The city plan was divided into zones of different activities and purposes. For example, the inner city was both a residential quarter for high status people and also for public religious activities and ceremonies. This is attested by major religious monuments, including Khao Khlang Nai, Prang Si Thep, and Prang Song Phi Nong. It is clearly noticeable that the monuments in the Outer Town are smaller and less impressive than those in the Inner Town. It is also possible that the outer city was designed as a habitation area for commoners and agricultural purposes.

The fact that numerous large monuments were part of the Inner Town, it is therefore believed that such monuments, particularly Khao Khlang Nok (1,200 BP) which is the largest monument of the town, might have served specific functions, probably pilgrimage and sacred religious activities. In addition, the location and position of Khao Khlang Nok and the orientation of Prang Si Thep and Prang Song Phi Nong is linked to Khao Thamorat, a sacred and important Buddhist cave filled with Buddha images, bas-relief of Buddha, the Wheel of the Law (a Buddhist symbol),and Bodhisattva image (8th – 9th centuries CE). On top of the mountain also stands a Dvaravati Period brick monument, symbolizing the significance of a Buddhist and Hindu cosmology on interrelationship between mountain and important religious monuments.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, The Irrawaddy, Myanmar Travel Information Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, burmalibrary.org, burmanet.org, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014


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