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Ancient pagoda and big buddha at Sukhothai Historical Park, the birthplace of the Sukhothai Kingdom. Source: somrakjendee / Adobe Stock.

Kingdom of Sukhothai and the Birth of Thailand

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The Kingdom of Sukhothai was an early kingdom located in present day Thailand. The kingdom was established during the 13th century. Before the Sukhothai Kingdom began the majority of the region that is now Thailand was under the rule of the Khmer Empire.

As the Khmers were based in modern-day Cambodia, they may be considered to have been a foreign power. The Kingdom of Sukhothai, however, was founded by a local Tai ruler.

Thus, the kingdom is commonly regarded by the Thai people (one of the major ethnic groups of the Tai) as the starting point of their nation’s history. The Kingdom of Sukhothai came to an end during the 15th century, when it fell to another Tai state, the Kingdom of Ayutthaya.

Before the Kingdom of Sukhothai

In 802 AD, a ruler by the name of Jayavarman II declared himself chakravartin (which translates as ‘king of the universe’) in Phnom Kulen, a mountain range in northwestern Cambodia. This is conventionally regarded to be the beginning of the Khmer Empire , which is also known as the Angkor Empire.

In the centuries that followed, the Khmers came to dominate much of mainland Southeast Asia. At its height of power, i.e. between the 11th and 13th centuries, the power of the Khmer Empire was felt beyond the borders of its base in Cambodia, as it ruled over or vassalized parts of modern Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam. In addition, Angkor, the Khmer capital at that time, has been revealed by satellite imaging to have been the largest pre-industrial urban center in the world, evidence of the empire’s wealth and power.

Map of Southeast Asia in 900, Khmer Empire in red, before the Sukhothai Kingdom. (Jembezmamy / Public Domain)

Map of Southeast Asia in 900, Khmer Empire in red, before the Sukhothai Kingdom. (Jembezmamy / Public Domain )

The last great ruler of the Khmer Empire was Jayavarman VII, whose reign lasted from 1181 to around 1206. Jayavarman’s achievements include a successful war against the Cham (whose kingdom, Champa, was on the eastern border of the Khmer Empire), the re-unification of the empire, and the initiation of several building projects. The successors of Jayavarman were not as capable as he was and the empire began its slow decline.

By 1220, for instance, the Khmers had abandoned many of the provinces that were previously seized from the Cham by Jayavarman. Although the Khmer Empire was still a force to be reckoned with, the Tai, who were the western neighbors of the Khmer, were growing in strength.

In fact, in 1431, the Kingdom of Ayutthaya launched an invasion of the Khmer Empire, and succeeded in capturing the capital, Angkor. The fall of Angkor in 1431 is considered to mark the end of the Khmer dominance in mainland Southeast Asia.

Although the Kingdom of Ayutthaya conquered Angkor in 1431, the rise of the Tai occurred much earlier than that. As a matter of fact, the first Tai kingdom that rose up against the Khmers was the Kingdom of Sukhothai. According to tradition, the kingdom was established in 1238 by a local Tai chief named Pho Khun Bang Klang Hao (which means ‘The Lord who Rules the Sky’).

The First Ruler of the Kingdom of Sukhothai

Pho Khun Bang Klang Hao was the chief of Bang Yang, a small principality in the westernmost region of the Khmer Empire (now the northern-central region of Thailand). As a result of the heavy taxes imposed by the Khmers, Pho Khun Bang Klang Hao decided to rebel against his overlords, and declare his principality’s independence. He was aided in his rebellion by another Tai chief, Khun Pha Mueang, the Lord of Rad.

The rebels seized Sawankhalok and defeated the governor of Sukhothai, who was a representative of the Khmer ruler. The Khmers failed to respond to the Tai rebellion, possibly because they were concentrating their energies on the monumental construction projects in their capital.

Having expelled the Khmers from his lands, Pho Khun Bang Klang Hao established the Kingdom of Sukhothai, and adopted a new name, Sri Indraditya, which, translated from Sanskrit, means ‘The Sun King with the Power of Indra’.

Statue of Sri Indraditya , the founder of the Kingdom of Sukhothai. (Love Krittaya / Public Domain)

Statue of Sri Indraditya , the founder of the Kingdom of Sukhothai. (Love Krittaya / Public Domain )

His popularity among his subjects is reflected in the title that was conferred upon him, Phra Ruang, which means ‘Glorious Prince’. This title was used by all subsequent kings of Sukhothai and became the name of the dynasty established by Pho Khun Bang Klang. The Phra Ruang dynasty of Sukhothai is considered to be the first royal dynasty of Thailand, and therefore the beginning of the nation’s history.

Sri Indraditya ruled the Kingdom of Sukhothai until his death in 1270. Throughout his 32 years on the throne, the Sukhothai Kingdom existed as a minor local state. In fact, it would remain as such during the reign of Sri Indraditya’s successor, Ban Mueang, the king’s second son.

Compared to his father, Ban Mueang had a short reign, ruling the Kingdom of Sukhothai for about nine years. Ban Mueang was succeeded by Ramkhamhaeng, his younger brother. It was during his reign, which lasted until 1298, that the Kingdom of Sukhothai emerged as a regional power.

Statue of King Ramkhamhaeng, the third ruler of the Kingdom of Sukhothai. (Supanut Arunoprayote / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Statue of King Ramkhamhaeng, the third ruler of the Kingdom of Sukhothai. (Supanut Arunoprayote / CC BY-SA 4.0 )

The Ramkhamhaeng Inscription of the Sukhothai Kingdom

Although we have a fair amount of information regarding Ramkhamhaeng today, he was largely forgotten in the centuries after his death. It was only in 1834 that the memory of the king was brought back from oblivion. In that year, King Mongkut of Siam (who was a Buddhist monk at that time) discovered the Ramkhamhaeng Inscription (known also as the Sukhothai Inscription One), which was erected in 1292.

Since then, Ramkhamhaeng has been considered to be a national hero in Thailand. Much of the information we have about this king is derived from this inscription. Incidentally, during the late 1980s and the 1990s, some scholars casted doubts on the authenticity of the inscription. This is a controversial issue that has yet to be fully resolved.

The Ramkhamhaeng Inscription is a stone pillar that is 3.76 feet (114.5 centimeters) in height. It has four sides, each of which has a width of 1.16 feet (35.5 centimeters). The first and second sides of the pillar have 35 lines of inscription each, whereas the third and fourth have 27 lines each.

The Ramkhamhaeng stele contains inscriptions regarding the Sukhothai Kingdom. (Iudexvivorum / Public Domain)

The Ramkhamhaeng stele contains inscriptions regarding the Sukhothai Kingdom. (Iudexvivorum / Public Domain )

These inscriptions are considered to be the earliest examples of the Thai script in existence. According to the inscription, the script was invented by Ramkhamhaeng himself,

“Formerly these Thai letters did not exist. In 1283 AD, a year of the goat, King Ramkhamhaeng set his mind and his heart on devising these Thai letters. So these Thai letters exist because that lord devised them.”

Apart from information about Ramkhamhaeng, this inscription also provides some of the earliest historical information about the Kingdom of Sukhothai. For instance, at the beginning of the inscription, Ramkhamhaeng states that his father was Sri Indraditya, while his mother was a woman by the name of Nang Suang.

Ramkhamhaeng also mentions that he has two brothers and two sisters. In addition, we learn that Sri Indraditya’s eldest son died as a child.

The primary goal of the Ramkhamhaeng Inscription, of course, is the glorification of the king and his achievements. As an example, the inscription states that the Kingdom of Sukhothai prospered during Ramkhamhaeng’s reign,

“There are fish in the water and rice in the fields. The lord of the realm does not levy tolls on his subjects for traveling the roads. They are free to lead their cattle or ride their horses to engage in trade. Whoever wants to trade in elephants, does so; whoever wants to trade in horses, does so; whoever wants to trade in silver or gold, does so.”

The inscription also tells its readers about the king’s (positive) character. For instance, the king is depicted as a filial son,

“In my father’s lifetime I served my father and mother. When I caught any game or fish I brought them to my father. When I picked any sour or sweet fruits that were delicious and good to eat I brought them to my father. When I went hunting elephants and caught some, either by lasso or by driving them into a corral, I brought them to my father.”

In addition, Ramkhamhaeng depicts himself as a ruler who cares for all his subjects. For instance,

“There is a bell hanging at the palace gate. If any commoner in the land has a disagreement and wants to make his case known to his ruler and lord, it is easy; he goes and strikes the bell that the King has hung there. King Ramkhamhaeng, the ruler of the kingdom, hears the bell; he calls the man in and questions him, examines the case, and decides it justly for him.”

Detail, showing the Thai script created by the king of Sukhothai. (Paul 012 / Public Domain)

Detail, showing the Thai script created by the king of Sukhothai. (Paul 012 / Public Domain )

Religion in the Kingdom of Sukhothai

In addition, from the inscription, we learn that Buddhism was extremely important in the kingdom. For instance,

“Inside this city of Sukhothai, there are wihans, there are golden statues of the Buddha; there are statues nine meters in height, there are big statues of the Buddha and medium-sized ones, there are big wihans and medium-sized ones; there are new monks; monks who have been so for five years, monks who have been so for 10 years, and monks who are masters.”

Elsewhere,

“The people of this city of Sukhothai like to observe the precepts and bestow alms. King Ramkhamhaeng, the ruler of this city of Sukhothai, as well as the princes and princesses, the young men and women of rank, and all the nobles without exception, both male and female, all have faith in the religion of the Buddha, and all observe the precepts during the rainy season.”

Of course, Buddhist monks and monasteries benefitted greatly from the generosity of the king and the elites. For example, the gifts presented to the monks accessories to the Kathin ceremony (held annually at the end of the rainy season) amounted to two million cowries each year.

Buddhist statue at Sukhothai Historical Park, location of the capital of the Kingdom of Sukhothai. (W.carter / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Buddhist statue at Sukhothai Historical Park, location of the capital of the Kingdom of Sukhothai. (W.carter / CC BY-SA 4.0 )

In the last part of the Ramkhamhaeng Inscription, Ramkhamhaeng is depicted as a mighty conqueror who extended the boundaries of the kingdom in all directions,

“He was able to subdue a throng of enemies who possessed broad kingdoms and many elephants. The places whose submission he received on the east include Phitsanulok, the banks of the Mekong River, Vientiane, which is the farthest place. On the south they include Nakhon Sawan, Phraek Sriracha, Suphanburi, Ratchaburi, Phetchaburi, Nakhon Si Thammarat, and the seacoast, which is the farthest place. On the west they include Mae Sot, Mottama (Burma), Bago (Burma), the seas being their limit. On the north they include Phrae, Nan, and, beyond the banks of the Mekong, Luang Prabang, which is the farthest place.”

It has been speculated that these areas were not ruled directly by Ramkhamhaeng. Instead, the local rulers probably recognized the suzerainty of the Kingdom of Sukhothai.

From the Ramkhamhaeng Inscription, it is clear that Ramkhamhaeng was an exceptional ruler. Unfortunately, his successors were not as capable as he was and the kingdom quickly lost its power and influence in the region. Soon after Ramkhamhaeng’s death, the kingdom’s vassals, especially those farthest from its center, began to break away.

Nevertheless, since Ramkhamhaeng brought much of modern-day Thailand under his rule, the region gained a new vision of unity and cultural identity. This vision was adopted by Sukhothai’s successor states, especially the Kingdom of Ayutthaya, its immediate successor. This kingdom began as a state to the south of Sukhothai, but gradually expanded into the north.

Approximate extent of Kingdom of Sukhothai’s zone of influence, late 13th century. (Nicolas Eynaud / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Approximate extent of Kingdom of Sukhothai’s zone of influence, late 13th century. (Nicolas Eynaud / CC BY-SA 4.0 )

In 1349, Sukhothai was conquered by the Kingdom of Ayutthaya. Nevertheless, the Sukhothai and Ayutthaya continued to exist as two distinct states, and the former was only absorbed by the latter 1438. This marks the end of the Kingdom of Sukhothai.

The legacy of Sukhothai remains strong in Thailand till this day. The beginning of the nation’s history is traced back to this kingdom, as it is regarded as the first Tai state. In addition, Ramkhamhaeng is still revered as a national hero in the country for his contributions to the Kingdom of Sukhothai, the most important of which being the sense of unity and cultural identity among the Tai peoples.

Lastly, the capital of the kingdom, Sukhothai, is today a UNESCO World Heritage Site , under the title ‘Historic Town of Sukhothai and Associated Historic Towns’. The two other sites in the group are Si Satchanalai and Kamphaeng Phet, both of which are situated not for from Sukhothai. The site is most notable for its Buddhist monuments, faint reminders of the splendor and glory once enjoyed by the city, and by extension, the Kingdom of Sukhothai.

Top image: Ancient pagoda and big buddha at Sukhothai Historical Park, the birthplace of the Sukhothai Kingdom. Source: somrakjendee / Adobe Stock.

By Wu Mingren

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