HISTORY OF SUKHOTHAI
Before the Sukhothai Kingdom was founded in 1238, much of present day Thailand was under control of the Khmer empire. The Sukhothai area was one of its Western outposts.
Remnants of Khmer presence can still be seen today. The earthen ramparts and ancient city walls of Chaliang in Si Satchanalai predate the Sukhothai era.
Founding of the Sukhothai Kingdom
Around the year 1238 Pho Khun Sri Indraditya became the first King of Sukhothai, when he drove out the Khmer and founded the Sukhothai Kingdom.
The Kingdom reached the peak of its power during the reign of King Ramkhamhaeng the Great who expanded the empire during his rule from 1278 until 1298. The Kingdom included most of present day Thailand, its influence reached as far as parts of Laos to the North and parts of Malaysia to the South.
A wealth of knowledge about the King and his reign is gained from an inscribed stone stele discovered at the Wat Mahathat temple in Sukhothai Historical Park. The nearby King Ramkhamhaeng National Monument honours the great King.
Unification with Ayutthaya
Towards the end of the 14th century the power of the Sukhothai Kingdom began to fade and the town came under the control of the Ayutthaya Kingdom. In the mid 15th century Sukhothai was unified with Ayutthaya. After the fall of Ayutthaya in 1767 Sukhothai was deserted and forgotten.
Rediscovery and restoration
Sukhothai was rediscovered by Mongkut, the future King Rama IV who before ascending the throne travelled the Kingdom as a monk. At the time the city was overgrown with thick jungle vegetation. Mongkut discovered the Ramkhamhaeng stele, which is now on display in the National Museum in Bangkok. Other inscribed steles have been discovered, that have provided historians with valuable knowledge about the Kingdom.
In the 1960’s the Thai Fine Arts Department started restoration works in the Historical Park, that was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1991.
Vassal towns of Sukhothai
There were two important vassal towns in the Sukhothai Kingdom. Both Si Satchanalai to the North of the capital and Kamphaeng Phet to the South played an important role in the empire.
Wat Sa Si temple in Sukhothai Historical Park
Wat Sa Si temple
The town of Si Satchanalai, located about 70 kilometers North of old Sukhothai was a Khmer outpost until halfway the 13th century. Parts of the Chaliang area defensive system built by the Khmer can still be seen today. The area’s oldest ruins like the Wat Phra Si Rattana Mahathat temple with its large Khmer style prang were built before the founding of the Sukhothai empire.
During the Sukhothai era the town acted as a second capital of the Kingdom. Around mid 15th century when Ayutthaya took over power from Sukhothai, Si Satchanalai was renamed to Sawankhalok and the town lost its importance. After the sacking of Ayutthaya in 1767, Si Satchanalai was deserted.
The town of Kamphaeng Phet about 75 kilometers South of old Sukhothai played a military role in the Sukhothai Kingdom. It served as a garrison town or “wang” to protect the capital Sukhothai from invasion from the West. The town was situated in a strategically important location. It was well protected with moats, city walls, fortresses and watch towers. The town’s name translates to “wall of diamonds”. During the reign of King Luethai the town was moved to the East of the river and its name changed to Cha Kang Rao. After Sukhothai had become part of the Ayutthaya Kingdom, Kamphaeng Phet served as a garrison town to protect its capital Ayutthaya.
TEMPLES OF SUKHOTHAI
Sukhothai Historical Park contains the remains of dozens of temples, many of which are well preserved. The park covers an area of 70 square kilometers, in which nearly 200 ancient monuments from several era’s remain.
Excavation and restoration works have been performed by the Thai Fine Arts Department. Valuable artifacts and Buddha images discovered during the works are exhibited in the Ramkhamhaeng National Museum.
Zones of the Historical Park
The ruins are spread out across five zones. The central zone contained within the old city walls contains the best known monuments including the Wat Mahathat, the largest and most important temple of the Sukhothai Kingdom.
Outside the city walls in the North, East, South and West zone are well over a hundred monuments in various states of preservation. The smaller temples consist merely of the base of a single viharn or the remains of a chedi. North of old Sukhothai are a few sites where kilns have been excavated where the Sangkhalok wares were made.
The Sukhothai Historical Park contains examples of styles from various periods, including Khmer, Sukhothai, Singhalese, Ayutthaya and Mon Hariphunchai.
Sukhothai developed its own style, mainly influenced by Singhalese architecture. Examples of the Sukhothai style include images of the walking Buddha, the large standing images known as Phra Attharot, the lotus bud chedi, the elephant encircled chedis and the four images of the Buddha in different postures enshrined in a mondop.
Probably the best known example of the Sukhothai style is the images of the walking Buddha. The very graceful images portray the Buddha in a walking posture, the clothing draped loosely around the body, the heel of one foot lifted. The image depicts the Buddha’s descend from the Tavatimsa Heaven where the Buddha taught the Buddhist teachings to His mother. Images of the walking Buddha can be seen at the Wat Sa Si and the Wat Tra Phang Ngoen, both in the central zone.
Phra Attharot standing Buddha images
Large images of the Buddha were popular during the Sukhothai era. The 12 meter high standing images of the Buddha known as Phra Attharot can be found at the Wat Mahathat and the Wat Saphan Hin in Sukhothai.
Lotus bud chedi
The lotus bud chedi, known as Phum Kao Bin, is unique to the Sukhothai era. The chedi stands on a high square base of several receding tiers and is topped with a finial in the shape of a lotus bud. Lotus bud chedis, usually the main chedi of the temple, are found in Sukhothai, Si Satchanalai and Kamphaeng Phet Historical Parks. Both the Wat Mahathat in Sukhothai and the Wat Chedi Chet Thaeo in Si Satchanalai have several lotus bud chedis.
In Buddhism the lotus flower symbolizes purity and divine birth. Although the new flower is born and grown in mud, the unopened flower is like the heart of all living beings; the flower opens and blossoms when the virtues of Buddhism develop in there by following the teachings of the Buddha.
Buddha images in four postures enshrined in a mondop
Another example of Sukhothai style is the mondop or mandapa enshrining four large images of the Buddha in four different postures, namely standing, walking, sitting and reclining, each facing a different direction. Mondops in this style can be found at the Wat Chetuphon and the Wat Phra Phai Luang in Sukhothai.
Ruins of the Wat Mahathat temple in Sukhothai Historical Park
Wat Mahathat temple Sukhothai
Elephant encircled chedis
Several elephant encircled chedis were built during the Sukhothai era. The chedi stands on a square base, out of which the statues of elephants protrude that appear to carry the chedi on their backs. Elephants are a symbol of mental strength in Buddhism and act as guardians protecting temples. Elephant encircled chedis in Sukhothai are the Wat Sorasak in the central zone and the Wat Chang Lom in the East zone.
The oldest monuments in the Historical Park pre dating the Sukhothai era were built by the Khmer, during a time when the area was an outpost of the Khmer empire from Angkor. The best examples of Khmer style architecture are the three well preserved prangs of the Wat Si Sawai in the central zone and the single remaining prang of the Wat Phra Phai Luang in the North zone. The temples were built as Hindu shrines dedicated to Shiva, as can be seen from the linga base of the Wat Phra Phai Luang. The linga base used to support the linga, the representation of Shiva. The prangs are adorned with stuccoed Brahman depictions often found on the temples of Angkor. Khmer temples were converted into Buddhist monuments during the Sukhothai era. Another Khmer structure is the Ta Pha Daeng Shrine, located in the central zone.
Mon Hariphunchai and Ayutthaya style
A few examples of Mon Hariphunchai architecture can be found in the Sukhothai Historical Park. The best known one is the four chedis surrounding the principal chedi of the Wat Mahathat, that resemble the Mahabol chedi of the Wat Ku Kut in Lamphun. After Sukhothai had lost its influence and had been annexed by the Ayutthaya Kingdom, Ayutthaya style structures were added in many of Sukhothai’s temples. Several Ayutthaya era viharns can be found at the Wat Mahathat in the central zone.