The physical map of the northern area of Thailand’s Central Plain shows a maze of watercourses, consisting of seemingly countless creeks, rivulets, streams and rivers. Moreover, the plain is dotted with numerous marshes, swamps, ponds and lakes. An overlay of human-engineered canals crisscrossing the area reflects how this vital natural endowment was optimized, by creating a network geared to supply water, facilitate irrigation and drainage, regulate inundation, and control flooding.
In the northern surroundings the Wang River empties into the Ping River, and the Yom River empties into the Nan River, and ultimately the greenish water of the Ping River converges with the reddish water of the Nan River. At this confluence, near the western rim of the huge wetland named Bueng Boraphet in Nakhon Sawan Province,Thailand’s main stream, the Chao Phraya River, is formed to run its entire
course southward within the country.
The upper great plain straddling basins of the major rivers, known in Thai as Mae Nam, the principal water-ways, include the Chao Phraya River, with the Lop Buri and Pa Sak rivers to the east, and to the west the Sakae Krang as well as the Noi rivers and the long river which is variably known as Khlong
Makham in its upstream section, as Suphan Buri River in its upper-middle section, as Nakhon Chaisi River in its lower-middle section, and as Tha Chin River in its downstream section and estuary.
This wide plain of rivers flowing in parallel forms the historically oldest “rice bowl” of Siam, also the
largest, contiguous one in Thailand. It is the cradle of the ‘hydraulic society’ with it riparian way of life,
perfectly attuned to seasonal changes. Availing of inundation by rainfall and its run-off carried by tributaries as the source of water for extensive wet rice growing, early settlements were founded on slightly elevated, firm and dry ground as well as on hillocks in the plain and in foothills of mountains. It is in such environment where the so-called ‘floating rice’ used to be cultivated, with stalks of up to five metres in length, particularly in low-lying parts of the present-day provinces of Uthai Thani, Chainat, Sing Buri, Suphan Buri and Ang Thong. To this day, a characteristic feature of the upstream river basins in the central plain are the hillocks, hills and mountains crowned with monasteries. Examples of perfectly adapted two-level settlements have remained visible in places like the market of Ban Li of Song Phi Nong District in Suphan Buri Province.
This abundant source of water has given rise to successive civilizations, in the course of being contested
by regional powers. Its early history is evident from the sites with prehistoric remnants, monuments of the
Dvaravati Period, ruined outposts marking the historical expansion of the ancient Khmer empire with its
characteristic grid of regional nodes, and the heritage rich in traits and treasures of Thai culture.
PREHISTORY AND EARLY HISTORY
Following the north-south direction of the major rivers, archaeological evidence of prehistoric and early
historical settlements covers the area between sites at the northernmost latitude, in Uthai Thani Province, and the southernmost latitude, in Suphan Buri Province.
The hill named Khao Pla Ra, situated in Uthai Thani Province, is the site with 40 three-thousand-year old cliff paintings that depict humanand animal figures ostensibly engaged in agriculture and hunting. Objects found there include stone axes and three-legged pots. At short distance, downstream the Chao Phraya River in Nakhon Sawan Province, is Mueang Chansen, an ancient city of the Dvaravati period, where many pre-historic relics were found made of baked soil, stone, or bronze. The Wat Chansen Museum has an extensive collection of local antiquities that attest to prehistoric iron smelting and bronze casting such as earrings, spear tips, iron tools, bronze idols, and polished stone axes.
In contemporary Lop Buri Province, two sites render archaeological evidence of Neolithic settlements.Mueang Sap Champa, built at an elevated site on the edge of the Central Plain, shows the remains of a rather scattered, rectangular settlement surrounded by two-metre high earthen walls measuring 834 x
704 metres, with a ten-metre high inner wall. Bangles made from stone and marlite, and earthenware
fragments suggest that this site was inhabited some 2,500 to 3,000 years ago.
Clustered in the area of presentday Ban Khu Mueang in Ang Thong Province are numerous sites, altogether 41 as of recent archaeological evidence, that dot the prehistoric delta of the Chao Phraya River. Remains of another such ancient coastal town in the province’s Mueang District are shaped like a square with rounded corners, measuring 400 metres in length and surrounded by a moat. Inside, earthenware fragments were found.
At high altitude toward the east, in mountainsides of Saraburi Province, caves held objects dating
from the Stone Ages. In the cave named Phra Phothisat, also known as Phra Ngam or Khao Nam Phu,
ancient tools found are dated as of the Middle Stone Age and, hence,8,350 – 11,000 years old. Excavations in the cave named Thep Nimit Thara Thong Daeng yielded bits of pottery, traces of ashes, and ornaments made of a kind of shell, all of which are dated as of the late New Stone Age, between
5,400 and 6,400 years ago. At a site known as Ban Di Lang, excavations yielded stone tools.
Of complex prehistoric and historical significance is the area of the contemporary town of U Thong
in Suphan Buri Province. Its site had been inhabited since Neolithic times. In early history, during the heydays of the Funan and Sivichaya empires, there was a town on the high plain above the banks of the Suphan Buri River. Its remains are oval in shape, surrounded by a moat, with the longest extensions measuring 700 and 1,700 metres. Roman lamps, silver coins and earrings as well as beads and terra-cotta busts found at the site date from the Funan Period (3rd to 6th centuries)1. Bronze figures refer to the Sivichaya Period (3rd to 13th centuries).
Several prehistoric sites had seemingly been well chosen by their earliest settlers. This assumption
is supported by their successive occupation throughout history. Prehistoric finds are, in some
instances,by-products of archaeological research at sites that strike the eye as ancient settlements dating
from the Dvaravati Period.
MONUMENTS AND ARTEFACTS TRACED TO THE 6TH UNTIL 12TH CENTURIES EXAMPLES OF THE DVARAVATI CULTURE
The ancient town of Bueng Khok in Uthai Thani Province shows the Dvaravati style in the layout of its
four city gates, four ponds and moat. Items found include stone axes, bricks, fragments of pots and jars,
knife blades and spearheads made from iron, ornaments, and three inscriptions, one in Sanskrit and two
in Mon language.
In present-day Manorom District of Chai Nat Province are three sites that date from the Dvaravati Period.
They are known as the ancient cities of Nakhon Noi, Nang Lek, and Mueang U Taphao. The latter site,
bearing a frequently occurring topographical designation referring to a water-way suitable for vessels
to anchor, is situated upon the U Taphao River. There, the remains within a trapezoid precinct include
a stone-sculpted Dhamma Wheel inscribed with a Pali text in Pallawa characters, a green stone pillar
characteristic of the Dvaravati Period, the base of a stupa, and human skeletons. Unique are the remains of two ponds complete with a water-work system.
Magnificent are the monuments dating back to the Dvaravati Period that have been preserved in the town
of Sankhaburi, as it is known by now, in Chai Nat Province. Historically an important regional centre by
the name of Phraek Si Racha, also known as Mueang Phraek and shortened to Phraek, renamed Sankhaburi, also known as Mueang San or Sanburi, the town was most likely founded during the Dvaravati Period. Traces of the ancient town are found in the compounds of the monasteries named Wat Phra Mahathat, also known as Wat Hua Mueang, and Wat Phra Kaeo. The Wheel of the Law, latter is adorned with a beautiful Dvaravati-style stupa praised as “The Queen Stupa of Southeast Asia”.
At short distance toward the east, the ancient site called Mueang Chansen dates from the Dvaravati Period. Its square area with four rounded corners, enclosed with trenches, to this day situated on higher ground, covers 48 hectares. Relics found there are on display at the Wat Chansen Museum. They include ceramic ware, earthenware votive tablets, seals, dolls, stone-sculpted Dhamma Wheels, and bases of Buddha statues. Another relic of the Dvaravati Period, the Inscription Dong Mae Nang Mueang, engraved on a green slate, more than 1,000 years ago, relates the history of a town named Thanya Buri.
Farther to the east, Lawo was located, the capital of a Dvaravati Kingdom ruled by a Mon dynasty, beginning some 1,400 years ago until into the 11th century. It is the site of the present-day town of Lop Buri. Inscription # 18 dating from the 7th century at the San Phra Kan shrine in ancient Mon characters relates four religious themes. Another remain is the Dvaravati-style pagoda, called chedi in Thai, in the compound of Wat Nakhon Kosa, a monastery that was built in an ancient site.
In Lop Buri Province, an ancient site built first about 3,000 years ago, known as Mueang Sap Champa, prospered until the end of the 9th century. Apart from remains of three ruined halls and a pond inside the enclosure with a ten-metre high inner wall, artefacts from the Dvaravati Period were found such as Buddha images, dolls, bronze jewellery, household utensils, and five inscriptions in the Pali and Sanskrit languages.
In the Mueang District of Ang Thong Province, at one of 41 ancient sites in the prehistoric delta of the Chao Phraya River discovered to date, earthenware fragments, Buddha images, mortars, and gongs were found that are ascribed to the Dvaravati Period. Similar evidence is reported from a site called U Taphao in Saraburi Province.
There, excavations yielded pottery, human bones, axes, and bead ornaments. Indications are that this was a trading post during the Dvaravati Period, where boats delivered goods. In the mountains of Saraburi Province, the cave called Khao Wong, also known as Narai Cave, has an inscription in Pallawa characters which relates, in the ancient Mon language, a text of the Dvaravati Period dated as of the 12th century. Of the same period are paintings in low relief depicting the life story of Lord Buddha that were detected in the cave named Phra Phothisat, also known as Phra Ngam or Khao Nam Phu.
One of the greatest cities of the Dvaravati Period was located near the present-day town of U Thong in
Suphan Buri Province. It is known for its many ruins of stupas and objects such as Buddha images of different periods and the Wheel of Dhamma sculpted from green stone. Some of the finds are preserved at the U Thong National Museum, while others are displayed at the National Museum Bangkok.
MONUMENTS AND ARTEFACTS TRACED TO THE 10TH UNTIL 13TH CENTURIES EXAMPLES OF THE KHMER STYLE
Remains of original Khmer-style edifices exist in fewer places than do traces of the preceding Dvaravati Period. Wat Phra Borommathat Wihan in Sankhaburi Town rests on the foundation of a Khmer sanctuary built from laterite. There, an inscription written in Khmer characters refers to the city of Phraek Si Racha, the ancient name of present-day Sankha Buri in Chai Nat Province. In the precinct of nearby Wat Phra Kaeo, an image of Indra riding the elephant named Erawan is what remains of Khmer or Khom artefacts of more than 1,000 years ago, most of which were plundered. Only the said image remained in situ, as well as a delicately carved lintel found recently inside of the back of a seated Buddha image in front of achedi, built blending traits of the late Dvaravati Period with early Khmer Style, are preserved. At Wat Song Phi Nong, the ruins of a sanctuary are dated as of the 8th century, and the ensemble of standing Buddha statues on three sides of a tower, prang, are examples of the Khmer style, which is characteristic of the ancient town of Lawo.
Further downstream the Chao Phraya River, in Sing Buri Province, the monastery named Wat Na Phra That, also known as Wat Hua Mueang, has an ancient brick tower or prang which features klip khanun, decorative pieces likened to the cloves [klip in Thai] of jackfruit [khanun], placed at the corners above the fronton of the tower and at each of its reduced storeys rising towards the tapering cornice, and houses a Buddha statue in seated posture. Built during the Khmer Period, it is almost completely preserved, in contrast to remnants of several Buddha stone statues in a nearby vihara.
One of the important towns of the far-fledged Khmer Empire during the 10th to 13th centuries was Lawo. This capital city of the ancient Dvaravati Realm was conquered by the Khmer during the reign of King Suryavarman I (1007-1050). It remained one of the Khmer outposts until the rise of the Thai Kingdom of Sukhothai in the late 13th century. Khmer architectural and artistic patterns fused with traditional Mon styles resulted in a distinctive style that is known as the famous Lop Buri style, so named after the town at the site of ancient Lawo. One of the oldest and most historic sites in Thailand, many of its major monuments are situated in the old town. Considered the oldest monument of Lop Buri, the pagoda or prang of the small Hindu shrine named Thewa Sathan Prang Khaek, or Prang Khaek for short, with its tapering portal arch was built in the Khmer style of the Preah Ko Style (late 9th century to mid-10th century). As the ruins show, it consisted of three adjoining towers or prang.
A former Brahman shrine named San Phra Kan, a small edifice built from sandstone featuring a doorway
graced with images of the Hindu deity Vishnu and serpents, naga, is situated adjacent to an ancient Khmer style pagoda or prang dating from the 10th century. Throughout history, structures had been built one upon another. Hence, it is locally known as San Sung, the tall shrine. In the past there was, at the ground level, an image of the deity Narai Banthomsin, dated as of the 11th century, with a small vihara at the upper level. All these structures represent a blend with a Mon-style octagonal stone structure. Inside the vihara are two standing stone sculptures of the Hindu deity Narai, sculpted in the Lop Buri style, whose head got lost.
Wat Phra Si Rattana Maha That is one of best examples of Khmer regional art in the Lop Buri style. Its magnificent and imposing tower or prang, the tallest in Lop Buri, was built in that style, with Mahayana
Buddhist features, on the ruins of an earlier temple, likely in 1157. Phra Prang Sam Yot, the “Sanctuary of the Three Towers”, is a well-preserved example of Khmer architecture in the transition period from the
Angkor Wat to the Bayon styles. It was built from laterite during the 12th and 13th centuries. The floor plan of the sanctuary resembles a Greek cross with a central corridor linking the three laterite towers, with corbelled roof porticos on four sides. Originally dedicated to the Hindu Trinity of Brahma the Creator,
Vishnu the Preserver, and Shiva the Destroyer in the Khom Period, it became a Mahayana Buddhist temple.
The monastery named Wat Nakhon Kosa has a Lop Buri style tower or prang and a Buddha statue dating from the period of Khmer rule. Four Buddha images, some sculpted from sandstone, others from quartz, suggest that the forest monastery named Wat Yang Na Rangsi, in the past known as Wat Phanya Yang or
Wat Yang Si Suthammaram, located by the Lop Buri River, had originally been built during the same period. In the southeast of the upstream river basins, in the Ban Mo District of Saraburi Province, remnants at the site of an ancient town called Paruntapa Ratcha Thani are of the same Khmer style like the Phra Prang Sam Yot in Lop Buri Town, particularly statuettes of Phra Phothisat and of deities protecting doorways. Moreover, that ancient town bordered a plain that had been irrigated through the Anusasananant Canals, supplying a rectangular area that is 360 metres wide and 2,000 metres long.
CRADLE OF SIAM’S ‘HYDRAULIC SOCIETY’ WITH ITS RIPARIAN WAY OF LIFE
Acculturation of older, cultural residues and assimilation of groups of people of related as well as different ethnic origins by the emerging, power wielding Thai created a region that made neighbouring powers envious. In making use of the ancient structural substance from the Dvaravati and Khmer periods, through the restoration of ancient buildings and the straightforward transforming of Hindu sanctuaries to Buddhist temples, and ultimately the revival of the Khmer architectural style in the Ayutthaya Period, as manifest in numerous towers, called pagodas or prang, the role of Thai Kingdoms as leading powers in Mainland Southeast Asia was visualized. Though devastated, time and again, at times of warfare, fine examples of the culture germane to this ‘rice bowl’ have survived.
Keeping in mind that the upstream river basins of the central plain are adjacent to the historic Sukhothai
Kingdom, their exposure to Thai culture and Thai way of life materialized first in this area of immediate and lasting contacts.
From the Sukhothai Period date two monasteries in Nakhon Sawan Province, Wat Woranart Banphot, also known as Wat Khao Kop, and Wat Chom Khiri Nak Phrot, both situated on hills. The former is known for its pagoda, called chedi in Thai, and vihara housing Buddha’s footprint. The latter houses a fine Ayutthayastyle Buddha. Its ubosot is surrounded by two circles of sandstone stelae known as bai sema in Thai.2 Another monastery, Wat Kriangkrai Klang, has a late-Ayutthaya-style chedi, a ruinedmondop housing Buddha’s footprint, and attractive mural paintings.
To the west of and at safe distance from the Chao Phraya River, in present-day Nong Chang District of
Uthai Thani Province, is the site of the old town of Uthai Thani, an important centre of both the
Sukhothai and Ayutthaya kingdoms. This is evident from such remains as the monasteries named Wat Hua Mak, Wat Yang and Wat Kuti. Solely Wat Chaeng is still in good repair, with its Khmer-style tower or prang built in 1538. Late in the Ayutthaya period, Wat Thammakhosok was built, also known as Wat Rong Kho. It is famous for its ubosot with some of the finest mural paintings and its vihara housing twenty ancient Buddha statues and featuring stucco reliefs on its outside walls depicting themes of the Ramayana epic. Situated on the bank of Khlong Makham, farther downstream variably known as Suphan Buri River, Nakhon Chai Si River and Tha Chin River, and surrounded by old tamarind trees, is the very old monastery of Wat Pak Khlong Makham Thao. It is known well beyond Chai Nat Province for its traditional monk quarters, kudi, and its mural paintings of much more recent origin.
The historical centre of the area, now a small town in Chai Nat Province, is Sankha Buri on the banks of the Noi River. Already an old settlement by the name of Phraek Si Ratcha, or Mueang Phraek, or elsePhraek, for short, by the time when it became a border town of the Sukhothai Kingdom, its name changed to San Buri in the Ayutthaya period. Remnants include sections of the city wall and moat. Two monasteries attest to its historical importance, Wat Phra Maha That and Wat Phra Kaeo. The landmark of Wat Maha That, also known as Wat Hua Mueang, which was built in 1354, are three Khmer-style towers or prang of a shape called klip mafueang, owing to their fluted spires that look like starfruit, also known as carambola. Moreover, there are the remains of an octagonal pagoda built early in the Ayutthaya Period, ruined chapels with seated Buddha images, and an ubosot with a gunwale-shaped base housing a statue of the Buddha seated beneath a hood or canopy of heads of the Naga, known as Phra Nak Prok, in the U Thong style, and a seated Buddha statue, sculpted of sandstone in the Lop Buri style.
Another ancient monastery, Wat Phra Kaeo, built in 1457, is known for a chedi constructed in the
Ayutthaya Period, blending elements of the Dvaravati with Khmer or Lop Buri styles. It houses an 800-year old Buddha image and a wooden, arched relic repository with ornamental details in the Sukhothai and Ayutthaya styles.
Authentic architectural features of the U Thong style erected upon a Khmer-style foundation characterize the monastery named Wat Phra Borommathat Wora Wihan, situated on the Chao Phraya River near Chai Nat Town. Its chedi of the U Thong Period shows Sivichayan influence, owing to its four facades with niches encasing seated Buddha images. Built on the ridge of a hill above the Chao Phraya River, in 1577, the monastery of Wat Thammamun Wora Wihan is a landmark of Chai Nat Province. Its Buddha statue of
an imaginary epoch, with a lotus blossom on its head, looks like a blend of the late Chiang Saen and early Sukhothai styles with certain Ayutthaya style elements. The artisan’s imagination in creating an image seems to have been guided by Indian tradition such as Wheels of the Law and decorative grids depicted on palms of hands and soles of feet, and ankles decorated like those of a king lion. Other curious features are stelae, bai sema, made from red sandstone with chiselled Ayutthaya-style ornamentation.
At some distance downstream the Noi River, in Bang Rachan District of Sing Buri Province, is the ancient Noi River Pottery Site. Kilns were built there during 1371-1378, when King Phra Ngua had skilled people settled from defeated northern towns. As the nine excavated kilns show, they were large, of the roofed-boat shape, ruea prathun, and built of brick. Hence, they are called roofed kilns, tao prathun. Items manufactured include four-handled pots, jars, bowls, mortars, bottles, vases, gable tops, floor tiles, and water pipes. This archeological site, excavated since 1966, is located in the vicinity of Wat Phra Prang, a monastery with a Khmer-style tower or prang presumably constructed during the reign of King Narai [1656-1688]. Other noteworthy monasteries include Wat Phra Non Chak Si Wora Wihan, with one of the biggest reclining Buddha statues in Thailand that likely is very old owing to frequent references in historical documents, and Wat Pho Kao Ton, also known as Wat Mai Daeng, with the statue of the liberator Phra Achan Thammachot in its vihara. The monastery was registered as a national monument
in the year 1955.
LOP BURI - THE SECOND-RANK CAPITAL CITY OF SIAM
In the eastern part of the central plain, in the upstream basin of the Lop Buri River, restoration of
Khmer-style monuments in the town of Lop Buri, largely abandoned after the demise of the Khmer
Empire, was started by royal command of King Ramesuan [1369-1370 and 1388-1395]. At that time, Wat
Phra Si Rattana Maha That with its magnificent and imposing pagoda, prang, the tallest in Lop Buri, was rebuilt on the ruins of an earlier Mahayana Buddhist temple. Likewise, Wat Nakhon Kosa was built in an ancient site with remnants from both the Dvaravati and Khmer periods. The existence of a natural water reservoir, Ang Sap Lek, since time immemorial, provided secure water supply to the revitalization of the former town of Lawo. Renamed Lop Buri, the town was made a second-rank capital of the Kingdom
of Siam, or Ayutthaya Kingdom rather, as it was widely known.
During the relatively short span of time of about three decades, in the reign of King Narai the Great [1656-1688], construction activities of an amazing array were launched and completed. That period is the
more astounding as simultaneously entirely new buildings were constructed, the Ayutthaya-style architecture was refined, with Persian and European architectural details blended in, some edifices were built in European style, and ruins of the preceding Dvaravati, Khmer and Sukhothai periods restored. The
intentions of conserving the local cultural heritage in its rich diversity, the appreciation of foreign styles
along with appropriate techniques, and the creation of what is known as the Lop Buri style have turned into unique monuments, to lasting effect. Prominent among structures built in the second half of the 17th century is the palace of King Narai, known as Phra Narai Ratchaniwet. Built during 1665-1677, this palace was originally situated by the Lop Buri River, with connecting ramps and stairs, owing to the fact that communication and transportation were largely waterborne, exclusively so the movements of the royal court between Ayutthaya and Lopburi. From the waterfront, it once offered a grandiose view of palace walls and some of its eleven gates.
Remnants of fortifications are the historical city fort known as Pom Tha Po, situated at the river bank to the north of the royal palace, and the one called Pom Chai Chana Songkhram located to its east.
On an island in the Chup Son Lake, Thale Chup Son, a reservoir created by constructing a dam, once
the main source of water supply for the city of Lop Buri, King Narai had a residence built, probably well
before the year 1685. It was there that King Narai, accompanied by Jesuits and French envoys, observed the lunar eclipse on 11th December 1685 and the solar eclipse on 30th April 1688. Where the lake and island were, ruins remain of foundations, terraces and water gates.
The reservoir named Chup Son Lake served as the main source of water for the city of Lop Buri. King
Narai had ordered the construction of a water supply system, designed by French and Venetian experts.
Through water gates, elevated terracotta pipes laid out on specially designed walls, and cast-iron water pipes, fresh water was channelled to the palace.
Dilapidated monuments restored on the order of King Narai include the edifice with the three-pagoda silhouette, Phra Prang Sam Yot, the monastery named Wat Phra Si Rattana Maha That, and the shrine called Thewa Sathan Prang Khaek, also known as Prang Khaek. The three-pagoda silhouetted Phra Prang Sam Yot, originally a Hindu sanctuary and transformed into a Mahayana Buddhist temple during the reign of King Jayavarman VII [1181-1220], was converted to a Therawada Buddhist temple, upon the addition of a vihara with European style portals and windows, and its consecration with Ayutthaya-style Buddha images dating from the 14th to 15th centuries.
The restored Wat Phra Si Rattana Maha That is one of best examples of Khmer regional art in the Lop Buri style. Its exceptionally large vihara, with Thai style portals and windows in Gothic French style, showing Persian influence in its pointed arch windows, houses splendid images of the Buddha. U Thong-style Buddha images were added at a later date. Built in the said reign, the ubosot has French style portals and windows. Within the outer perimeter of the monastery, there are pagodas called prang rai in the Ayutthaya Style, shaped like starfruit or carambola and, hence, known as klipmafueang, which are decorated with images of mountain deities showing facial features, square chin and connected eyebrows, in the U Thong style. In short, this monastery is a feast for the eyes.
The shrine named Thewa Sathan Prang Khaek is considered the oldest monument of Lop Buri. When a vihara was built in front of the shrine during the reign of King Narai, the main edifice of the shrine was restored. By royal command, a residence was built for the visiting ambassador of the King of France,
Chevalier de Chaumont. Its compound included a Roman Catholic chapel serving as a Jesuit church, locally known as Wat San Paulo, various living quarters, water tanks, and fountains. Called Vichayen House, it served as the residence of Constantin Phaulcon alias Vichayen, advisor to King Narai.
At the monastery of Wat Lai on the banks of the Bang Kham River, the stucco decoration of the chapel displays a masterpiece of exquisite craftsmanship in the Ayutthaya Style.
IN THE PROVERBIAL “RICE BOWL” AND THEREABOUTS
In the midst of the fertile plain that is eminently suitable for wet rice cultivation, in the proverbial rice bowl as reflected in the name of Ang Thong Province, lies Kham Yat Palace, residence of King Uthumphon , the 33rd king of Ayutthaya. The ruin of the edifice with five rooms and front and rear verandahs, built on elevated ground, is a registered historical monument.
Many spots in the landscape of Ang Thong Province, which are barely elevated above the water level
of seasonal inundation, in historical time, are dotted with monasteries. While few are deserted ruins such as Vihara Daeng with three seated Buddha images and pediments with stucco decoration, built on a terrace and encircled by a wall, others exist to this day. Riversides are strung with monasteries situated on their high river banks. Some such are Wat Ton Son with a beautiful seated Buddha image known as Somdet Phra Si Mueang Thong; Wat Pa Mok known for its very large sala with a three-tiered roof, one restored vihara showing traces of old frescoes and faded mural paintings and another vihara with a reclining Buddha statue; Wat Tha Sutthawat at a ford where Thai armies heading toward the west used to cross the river; and Wat Khoi on the Noi River, well-known for its fish sanctuary named Wang Pla Wat Khoi and its museum with boats of various types used locally.
Among other monasteries are Wat Sa Kaeo, built in 1699, which houses a large orphanage; and Wat Khian with splendid mural paintings showing scenes from the war with Burma in the 18th century, a rarity owing to its unique compositions.
The town of Saraburi is believed to have been founded in the year 1548 and, hence, constructed during the reign of King Maha Chakraphat [1548-1569]. One of the finest examples of classic architecture in Thailand originally built by Ayutthaya kings and completed during the reign of King Song Tham (1610-1628) is the sanctuary of Wat Phra Buddha Bat in Saraburi Province. Beginning in 1606, upon the discovery of Lord Buddha’s Footprint in the reign of King Ekathosarot [1605-1610], a pagoda of the mondop variant was built over it. Stairs flanked by five-headed, mythical serpents, naga, lead up to the hilltop where the sanctuary stands.
The deserted, ancient site of U Thong in Suphan Buri Province was resettled in the 17th century. Some of its archaeological treasures are preserved at the U Thong National Museum, while others are displayed by the National Museum in Bangkok. Among the latter is the U Thong Copper Inscription which, in Sanskrit, narrates the exchange of gifts between the rulers named Phra Chao Si Hatsavarom and Phra Si Mutta Umratagayasuan.
In the fringe of the old town of Suphan Buri is the sprawling, 13-hectare compound of the magnificent monastery named Wat Pa Lelai Wora Wihan, built during the Ayutthaya period. Its mighty vihara with a gunwale-shaped base typical of the Ayutthaya Period has a three-tiered roof that is about 25.50 metres high, 23.30 metres wide and 30.10 metres long. The Mon-style primary pagoda was built in 1181.
In the compound of the monastery named Wat Phra Sri Rattana Maha That stands a tall pagoda or prang built in the U Thong Period, as evident from the construction technique that differs from that of the Ayutthaya Period. It bears the replica of an inscription in the ancient Khom or Khmer characters and Pali language with the narration of its construction on the order of King Maha Chakraphat, to house the ashes of Lord Buddha. The original is kept at the National Museum in Bangkok.
The monastery called Wat Phra Rup, built early in the Ayutthaya Period, houses a reclining Buddha image named Phra Phuttha Rup Pang Saiyat and locally known as Nen Kaeo. It features the most beatic face among all other images of the same period. Another rare, unique treasure is Lord Buddha’s Footprint
on wood, the only one of its kind existing in Thailand.
RESTORATION OF THE ANCIENT BUILT ENVIRONMENT
The resurrection of the Kingdom of Siam upon the destruction of the ancient capital of Ayutthaya entailed the restoration of a great many historical monuments and the foundation of new buildings, in the process of rehabilitating devastated areas.
One such example is the monastery named Wat Nong Klap in present-day Nong Bua District of Nakhon
Sawan Province, built during the reign of King Rama II [1809-1824]. Its wordly rather than spitirual significance lies in a huge collection of indigenous tools, implements and utensils. In Uthai Thani Town, the monastery of Wat Ubosatharam, formerly known as Wat Bot Manorom, was built beginning in 1781. Its unique structures displaying various architectural features include an octagonal pagoda called mondop, an ubosot with a Sukhothai-style Buddha image and mural paintings, a vihara with a Rattanakosin-style
Buddha image and mural paintings on its inside as well as outside walls, and three chedi, one each in the
Ayutthaya, Sukhothai and Rattanakosin style, built to welcome King Rama V [1868-1910] in the year
1906. From the monastery of Wat Sangkat Rattana Khiri steps lead to the adjacent hilltop. There, buildings house a replica of Buddha’s Footprint and a statue of the father of King Rama I [1782-1809]. Wat Thammakhosok used to be the venue for the ritual of the Oath of Allegiance to the King. Its ubosot has some of the finest mural paintings, and its vihara houses twenty ancient Buddha statues. Outside wall
stucco reliefs depict themes of the Ramayana epic.
On the bank of the Maharat Irrigation Canal in Chai Nat Province, Wat Indharam was built in 1847.
Distinctive features include twin belfries, a swan pillar, and a hall set in the middle of a pond holding a large collection of Buddhist scriptures in Khom characters. On the west bank of the Chao Phraya River,
Wat Phra Borommathat Wihan was built in 1867, incorporating remnants of a laterite, Khmer-style foundation and a pagoda or prang of the U Thong period showing Sivichayan influence such as its four facades with niches encasing seated Buddha images, and stone inscriptions dated as of the reign of King Thai Sa [1709-1733]. The very old monastery of Wat Pak Khlong Makham Thao features mural paintings by H.R.H. Prince Chumphon Khet Udomsak and his disciples. The lettering of the captions of some paintings is in the ancient Khom language, albeit written in the year 1890.
In Sing Buri Province, the monastery named Wat Sawang Arom has upheld a singularly significant artisanship. It is the centre of craftsmanship for the construction of chapels, both of the ubosot and vihara types, and for Buddha image sculpting. There, a technique has been preserved that was handed down from the Ban Chang Lo School in Thon Buri, now part of the Bangkok Metropolis. Moreover, the collection of 300 Nang Yai shadowplay puppets kept at this monastery is considered the most complete in
The town of Lop Buri, largely deserted upon the demise of King Narai in 1688, and its palace, allowed to go to ruins, were gradually restored. King Rama III [1824-1851] re-established Lop Buri as an alternative, second-rank capital to Bangkok, and restored the Chanthara Phisan Throne Hall, which was refurbished to serve as a royal residence for King Rama IV [1851-1868], who used Lop Buri as a recreational residence. By royal command, the palace restoration was resumed in the Fourth Reign, resulting in the conservation of the edifices named Dusit Sawan Thanya Mahaprasart and Sutha Sawan, King Narai’s residence, the reception hall in the inner courtyard, and the twelve treasure houses. Added was the edifice named Piman Mongkut as the residence of King Rama IV.
The shrine called San Phra Kan, restored in the 17th century and yet fallen into disrepair again, houses a small statue of a Hindu deity sculpted in the Sukhothai Style and a statue in the Lop Buri Style whose head got lost. At the taller statue’s rearside, a stone-head of the Buddha in the Ayutthaya style was attached, giving the ensemble a somewhat incongruous appearance. Given the fact that this image has been venerated by the people of Lop Buri, the crumbled roof of the shrine was repaired during the Fifth Reign (1868-1910).
During the reign of King Rama IV, the colossal seated Buddha image named Phra Maha PhutthaPhim, in the posture of meditation, was constructed in the monastery called Wat Chaiyo Wora Wihan, also known as Wat Ket Chaiyo, located in Ang Thong Province. The Somdet Wat Chaiyo amulets originating from
there are deemed highly potent and, hence, very popular.
The sanctuary of Wat Phra Buddha Bat Ratcha Maha Wora Wihan in Saraburi Province, destroyed by
Burmese invaders in 1765, was restored by royal command of King Rama I [1782-1809], early in the
Rattanakosin Period. On the Pa Sak River, in Saraburi Province as well, the unique monastery named Wat
Chanthaburi is situated. Although in poor repair, this Rattanakosinstyle monastery, built in the Third Reign [1824-1851], has preserved walls covered with frescoes that presumably are the work of a Chinese artist. They feature ensembles of keenly observed real-world life scenes and render proof of the artist’s remarkable talent for colour.
The landmark of Suphan Buri Town, its magnificent Wat Pa Lelai Wora Wihan, was preserved upon royal command by King Rama IV [1851-1868]. The City Pillar Shrine, originally built in Thai style, was altered to a Chinese pavilion design.
HARNESSING OF WATER RESOURCES
The natural setting with its abundant water resources and fertile soils explains the wealth and might of realms. Moreover, it was conducive to fast recovery upon devastation caused by warfare.
Since historical time, the distribution of water for productive and strategic purposes was a growing concern. The many natural watercourses in the upper central plain with the entire provinces of Nakhon
Sawan, Chai Nat, Sing Buri and Ang Thong, and large parts of the provinces of Uthai Thani, Lop Buri, Saraburi and Suphan Buri were harnessed by creating a network of canals. Examples are the irrigation canals, called khlong and named Cholaprathan, Nueng Sai, Song Sai and U Thong in Chai Nat Province, which typically are very long, running in north-south as well as east –west directions and intersecting many natural streams. Two large rivers, Chao Phraya and Noi, together withthe canals called Bang Pun, Bang Chom Si, Lam Pho Chai and Karong virtually dissect the whole province of Sing Buri. Ang Thong Province and the lowland area of Suphan Buri Province, its larger part, are crisscrossed by waterways, natural and human-engineered.
One of the earliest rice bowls of Thailand, and the largest at that, owing to its vast area under seasonal inundation that ensured wet rice cultivation, including the now rare variety of floating rice, ancient and successive civilizations shaped this cradle of culture, society and economy. While permanent settlements in history were situated on high ground, the rural habitat adjusted to changing conditions, moving upward with the rising water level. One such example was the rural market of Ban Li in Song Phi Nong District of Suphan Buri Province, where the entire habitat was duplicated. Upon the onset of the rainy season, everyone and everything used to be moved upstairs for the period of waterborne interaction.
This way of life characterized what scholars described as a hydraulic or amphibian society, referred to above as riparian society, owing to its proximity and dependency on water courses.
The characteristic alluvial clay is another important natural resource that has been used, to this day. In addition to the various types of earthenware and ceramics known for centuries, new lines of production have emerged recently such as the court dolls manufactured at Ban Bang Sadet in Ang Thong Province.
Numerous wetlands, large and small, have a salutary effect on the environment and its plant as well as animal wildlife. Bueng Boraphet in Nakhon Sawan Province, Thailand’s largest swamp covering more than 200 sq km in the rainy season, is the habitat of 148 animal and 44 plant species. The Chawak Marsh in Chai Nat Province is both a breeding ground particularly for migratory birds, given its shallow ponds in the dry season, and a food crop producing area.
The native people are of mixed ancestry. While their majority are immersed into the mainstream of Thailand’s cultural and social traditions, several clusters of population retain traces of an earlier identity which make for the attractive and enriching diversity of the populace-at-large.
People from Chiang Saen in the far north of contemporary Thailand had been settled in Saraburi Province, where they have upheld their craft of producing hand-woven Sao Hai fabrics.
Various groups of people from areas east of the Mekong River, in contemporary Laos, were settled in the Central Plain. Those who identify themselves as Lao Khrang have formed communities in the provinces of Nakhon Sawan and Uthai Thani. The Lao Kung in Chai Nat Province trace their origin back to either Vientiane or Luang Prabang in present-day Laos and settled late in the 18th century and early in the 19th century, respectively. In Suphan Buri Province, the Lao Wiang preserved old crafts and skills. Common to these population groups are their distinctive patterns of woven fabric from home-spun yarn, originally dyed using natural, locally available substances.
Communities in the upstream river basins are few, where people identify themselves as Mon. Examples are five communities in Nong Saeng District of Saraburi Province. In Mueang District of this province, some people refer to their ancestors as being Khom.
About 200 years ago, a group of Karen were granted permission to settle in Dan Chang District of Suphan Buri Province. In Taphoenkhi, their descendants have preserved their ancestors’ culture and way of life. About 400 years ago, before the reign of King Naresuan [1590-1605], a group of Bugi captives, notorious pirates plying the sea routes between the pensinula under Siamese suzerainty and the island sultanates, were settled in the present-day subdistrict of Chawai in Chaiyo District of Ang Thong Province. Their descendants are known as the Ban Chawai Muslims.
Descendants of Chinese immigrants cluster in the cities and towns in the upstream river basins of the Central Plain. For example, Nakhon Sawan Town is home to numerous Thai citizens whose ancestors migrated from China, over a century ago. The first settlers took up trade and commerce. As their business prospered, the town became an important trading centre.
In Lop Buri Province, the monastery situated on the Khao Wong Phra Chan mountain ridge, Wat Khao Phra Chan, attracts worshippers of Chinese descent from near and far. On the occasion of the annual Mahayana Buddhism pilgrimage, they would come in large numbers to venerate the Buddha image, in conjunction with worshipping at Wat Phra Phuttha Bat Ratcha Maha Wora Wihan in neighbouring Saraburi Province.
As stated in a document published by the Office of the National Culture Commission, “all these ethnic groups are fully assimilated and consider themselves Thais.”
INTERFACING OF DEVELOPMENT WITH PRESERVATION
Throughout this subregion, modernity and tradition co-exist. Extending southward from the topographical point where the vast central plain of Thailand has its origin, in hydro-geological perspective, its significance as the source of life-bearing water for the erstwhile rice bowl downstream was further enhanced, in the recent past. There, the large Chao Phraya Dam is located, completed in 1957, with 16 outlets channelling water into irrigationcanals that serve several areas in the central plain. The dam’s lock chamber makes the river navigable over its entire length, from Nakhon Sawan inthe north to Samut Prakan at the Gulf of Thailand. The modern, northernmost river harbour of Nakhon Sawan was built to handle bulk transportation by container vessels.
Nature reserves, no-hunting zones, conservation of the built environment, and establishment of museums highlight the significance and appreciation of the diverse cultural heritage by the public and private sectors in contemporary Thailand.
Such museums as the provincial branches of Thailand’s National Museum, the Phoet Ban Pong Manao
Museum displaying objects of early history excavated at a site called Ban Chiang Ton Plai and the Wat Yang Na Rangsi Boat Museum, both in Lop Buri Province, or the Thai Rice Farmers Museum focused on tools,rites, and the role of royalty in paddy cultivation, in Suphan Buri Province, shed light on the broad spectrum of past accomplishments that constitute not solely the subregion’s historical foundation but an essential cornerstone of the national identity.
Tradition is upheld in many ways. Given the vital importance of the waterways, two appropriate examples are the living on raft or boat houses and the boat races. Moored against both banks of the Sakae Krang River in Uthai Thani Province are scores of boat-houses, erected on bamboo rafts. They reflect the simple and serene way of life of people who make a living from fishery using traps and creels. Boat races are important cultural and social events. In October, such major annual regattas take place in Ang Thong Province on the Chao Phraya River and on the Noi River. Famous boats from all over the country would compete for the coveted trophies.
Taken from: Thailand: Traits and Treasures. The National Identity Board, Royal Thai Government 2005.
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