Sukhothai and Sawankhalok are located on a branch of the Menam or Gom River in north central Thailand, in the midst of a flat, fertile, alluvial planin, with Low Mountain on the northwestern horizon. At the time of their development, they were important river towns; in recent years, however, the errative brown river has left old Sukhothai high and dry, flowing several miles to the east, and Sawankhalok, it has veered close to the temple of Wat Mahathat, threatening it with collapse.
The modern Thais regard the state of Sukhothai as the first political expression of their people. The inscription on the state of Rama Khamheng, third recorded king of Sukhothai, has been called Magna Carta of Thailand, and the inscriptions from Sukhothai are the earliest written in the Thai writing system.
Despite the great important of the state of Sukhothai, the historical documentation is very slim.
The main body of historical material consists of twenty stone inscriptions, fifteen of which have been deciphered and translated by Coedes (1917). The most important inscriptions have been found on the temple ruins, chiefly from Wat Mahathat in Sukhothai.
Other documentary evidence can be found from the dynastic histories of China and Ceylon (Grim 1961; Ray 1959; Geiger 1960) and in scattered relieves from Angkor.
Archaeology is plential source for elucidating the culture history of Sukhothai, yet little excavation has been undertaken. We have the advantage over the pioneer French scholars in that the old city has been partially cleared. On the other hand, a half century of looting of the pottery kilns of Sawankhalok has relieved them of many of their valuable objects and priceless stratigraphy has been lost for ever. Throughout Thailand, numerous bronze Buddha of the Sukhothai period and style, probably manufactured in Sukhothai, await study. Extensive description of the architecture about (Fournerau 1917; Claeys 1931; Parmentier 1948) but a monograph devoted to the problems of Sukhothai architecture does not exist, at least in Western languages.
The problem of this paper is to assess the various external influences responsible for some of the distinctive features of the Thai culture of Sukhothai, to bring Sukhothai into focus by using a binocular approach of history and archaeology. Ceramics, sculpture and architecture have been chosen for this discussion. The peculiar nature of the historical documents at hand can best be elicited by contrasting them with facts garnered from other approaches. I present the details of the historical sources and the products of archaeology, and point up the contrasts between the two bodies of data.
From Chinese source material, it has been hypothesized that the Thai peoples of Sukhothai entered northern Thailand from Nan Chao, a kingdom which had occupied Southwest China in comparative isolation from the end of the Han until the beginning of the Yuan. Much of the manpower for the military exploits of Rama Khamheng may have been provided by recent arrivals from South China as the result of the final collapse of Nan Chao 1254.
When the Mongols moved into Burma, the rulers of Sukhothai were quick to come to terms with them and a tribute system was established. King Rama Khamheng is said to have traveled to the Yuan court on two occasions, in 1294 and in 1300. The Chinese Gaye tacit support to Thai aggression against the Khmers, partly because the Khmers had rudely rejected Chinese envoys. With the passing of the Yuan, the Thai position in the official Chinese histories increased considerably. During the reign of Hung Wu Long series of incoming tribute missions and statement of the regulations which should govern them occupy the text. In the Yung Lo period, the texts are much more concerned with activity abroad. In the list of tribute items, Thailand’s is the longest. Forty four distinct commodities were contributed. In terms of the munber of incoming tribute missions, it is of interest to note that Thailand ranked sixth after Annam, Tibet, Hami and Champa.
Many writers have emphasized the effect of Ceylon on Sukhothai (Quaritch Wales, 1965; Griswold, 1953; and Ray, op.cit.). Ray mentions that “the intimate relations which existed between Thailand, Burma, Ceylon, and Cambodia, from the fourteenth century onward, resulted in a constant exchange of scholars between these countries”. However he is referring to a time period later than that of Sukhothai.
Several Singhalese documents form the basis of the authors’ statements-the Sadhama Samgaha, the Ratanapannam and Sinakamalini. Early kings are said have requested Singhalese Buddha for monasteries in Thailand, but these figures are yet to be discovered.
There are also two descriptions which tell of the nature of Thai Singhalese contacts. One of these is an incomplete Khmer inscription found at Sukhothai, which mentions to the monastery of Mango Grove in Sukhothai (Goedes 1917; 4). One portion of the stele of Rama Khamheng states that in 1283 the king charged a high rangking official to visited Ceylon to study the Scripture.
Theravada Buddhism was not completely new in mainland of Southeast Asia at this time, and religious influence need not have come from Ceylon alone. Theravada influences from Ceylon had previously been active in Cambodia in the 12th century; and in the 13th century the Chinese envoy to the Khmers, Chau Ta Kuan speaks of Theravada as being one of the chief religious of their capital, where it appealed especially to the oppressed masses, and was considered by the Khmer establishment to be subversive.
Probably Buddhist influences from the west were just as strong. From as early as 1050 AD. When Anuradha of Burma received homage from some of the Thai chiefs, there was close communication between the Thais and the Burmese. (Le May 1983; 87, 95).
Thus, there is evidence of interaction on all sides of Thailand, but to sketch more than a brief outline is not possible from the data at hand.
What can we learn from the archaeological record?
The stuff of archaeology has traditionally been ceramics, although archaeological interest in historical ceramics of East Asia has been comparatively recent. We await a monograph on Thai ceramics. Harrison (1965) has identified Sawankhalok stoneware found in Sarawak for the past decades, and scholars are now engaged in following the trade routes of Thai porcelain.
Cary early Thai pottery bears a marked resemblance to the works of the Khmer, not only in form, but in respect to the brittle kind of glaze (Spinks, 1965:63). The earliest glaze of the Khmer was vegetable lacquer, brown in color and not vitreous.
Within the triple earth wall of the old city of Sukhothai, and in one area long the outside of the wall, there are the bamboo chocked remains of kilns which yield only shreds of a hard thick, stoneware with white slip decorated with simple designs in black and brown under a thin, yellowish gray glaze. This particular ware was made for a short time only, after which most of the ceramic production was moved to sawankhalok, where the clay was said to be better. Spinks suggests that the Sukhothai kilns were used for the production of vessels for only fifteen to twenty years, though some artisans continued to make roof tiles and ornaments for a much longer period. From the resemblance of the ceramics of Sukhothai to the wares of Tzu Chou in Northern China, it seems probable that artisans from Tzu Chou arrived in Thailand to help establish the ceramic trade. No doubt Rama Khamheng, on his visit to Peking, saw many of the imperial ceramics, including those of Tzu Chou.
The specialty of the waste of Sawankhalok was hard green stoneware, very often with under glaze incision. Sawankhalok celadon is distinguished from other green wares by the oxidized reddish color of the base. Spinks hypothesized that the stimulus for this ware came from Luang Chuan in south eastern China. The number of the places producing green glazed wares, or celadon, in China in the thirteenth century was great, but the Luang Chuan types come closet to the Thai examples at our present state of knowledge.
There is physical evidence that the Sawankhalok and Lung Chuan processes of manufacture are closely related. Celadon bowls from Sawankhalok, under refiring, change from typical grey to a darker Lung Chuan green. (Black, 1953).
A glaze brown on white ware with design which resemble Thai examples from later period, was produced at Sawankhalok, and may stemmed from earlier wares at Sukhothai.
The important of the celadon trade cannot be exaggerated. The fine green ware, whose pedigree in China extends back to the pre-Tang, were produced in great volume during the Sung, Yuan, and Ming and were traded from Kamakura to Cairo and furthers reaches of Indonesia. In 1962, on the island of Ishigaki in the southern Ryukyu Islands, I found the remains of a wrecked ship bearing hundreds of celadon vessels, apparently destroyed in a typhoon. Such a find illustrates one ill-fated member of trading fleets which sailed from ports such as Chuang Chou.
The are occupied by the kilns at Sawankhalok is in the magnitude of several square kilometers. Hundreds of thousands of sherds are till evident. We know that Sawankhalok ceramics were exported to Japan, Ryukyu, the Philippines, Borneo and Indonesia.
Some of the most aesthetically pleasing productions of the Sawankhalok kilns are brown wares, whose ancestry may be dually derived from the Khmer varnished wares and the higher quality brown glazes of south China made during the Sung. The understand, rounded forms, and the rich, drip pines glazes, were prized by Japanese tea ceremony devotees.
From the kilns there are objects from a local figure cult. The most common forms are nude mothers holding appliquéd babies to their breast. Other figures include elephants and various animals. They are always glazed either green or brown. They can be distinguished by their crude workmanship from the fine figures of Buddha, or Garuda, produced only by the mastercraftman of Sawankhalok. Animal figures, particular elephants, are known from Khmer sites, but they do not resemble the crude Sawankhalok figurines.
Was the figurine cult an indigenous one which found expression in the brief fluorescence of Sukhothai art, or was it introduced? Harrison (personal communication) has suggested that the figurines belong to a local spirit table cult of considerable antiquity. As far as I know, no similar figurines have been found in Nan Chao.
Spinks (op.cit; 103) has gone to considerable length to show that Sawankhalok ware were not imported directly into Japan during the time that they were produced. According to Wolker (1954) the export of Sawankhalok came to a full stop in 1460 when the town itself was taken by hostile northern forces; the kilns were abandoned in a hurry, with their contents intact. This short span of production is substantiated by finds at the site of the kingdom of Brunei in Borneo which yields very early Ming blue and white porcelain sherds from the time period before it was cut off from direct contact with the Chinese, and ties to the Islamic world. With the early Ming sherds on this site have been fine specimen from Sawankhalok (Harrison 1985).
Foreign porcelain was also used by the inhabitants of Sukhothai. In a drainage ditch behind the new national museum of Sukhothai, I collected sherds of blue and white porcelain Ming China and Annam.
The sculpture of Sukhothai, almost totally involved in figure representation, has been more fully described that the ceramics arts (Salmony, 1925; Coedes, 1928; Dupont, 1934; le May, 1938).
Sukhothai images are usually of metal, cast by the cir Perdue method. Thus, every statute is somewhat unique. Culture influences are more sensitively indicated than if the figures were produced by molds. Stucco figures are similarly made individually.
The iconographic inventory of Sukhothai Theravadism is restricted to four postures. Buddha is represented as sitting, standing, walking or reclining, the latter form being rare, and the portrayals are high relief rather than free standing. The clothing is more summarized than in the gupta, with evidence of the drapery only at the neck, hips, and feet. The snail style hair coils are common on most statues, and the flame ushnishan is widespread.
The walking Buddha, with the hand raised in a gesture of reassurance, is a unique form of Sukhothai art. It is entirely free standing, such as the example of Wat Bechamabopit in Bangkok. Surely the first steps of the faltering kingdom of Sukhothai are symbolized by these figures. These statues, as Bhirasri has pointed out, were meant to be seen in niches, raised from the eyes of the viewer. They require a high degree of skill in casting, because the thin ankles must bear the total weight of the figure. Like all Sukhothai figures, the body consists of a series of attenuated, interlocking curves, of metallic, highly polished surfaces, which through the centuries have been gilded or rubbed with dark oil to make them shine. Total unites, such as the arms and the trunk, describes long curves. Particularly in the high classical styles, we find resonant curses repeated over and over again between intervals of smooth surfaces, producing a distinct lack of tension. The face is a good example-examine the curve of the hair line, the eye lids, and the bottom of the nose, the lips and the chin.
The nose of the Sukhothai figures is long and slightly curved at the tip. The profile has been attributed to a literal imitation of the Thai profile by the artisans (Bhirasri, 1962; 16). One can usually distinguished Thai warriors on the relieves at Angkor by their facial features, since the Cambodian have straight noses. Nevertheless, the Sukhothai nose is not restricted to the representation of Thais, being found in Pala and Sena art in a less pronounced form.
The seated Buddha of Sukhothai is generally in the mudra of subduing Mara. The distinguishing supernatural signs on the forehead and on the soles of the feet were present when the images were cast, but now are usually obscured by successive coats of oil or gold leaf.
The stucco, or rare stone examples of Sukhothai sculpture which are still in good condition, emphasize smooth surfaces. They are direct translations of metal prototypes. Metal sculpture was carrying the innovative load during the Sukhothai period. From photographs we cannot distinguish stone figures from weathered metal ones. Whereas the surface of Cambodian sculpture is porous and allows the eye to penetrate, the surface of Sukhothai sculpture is meant to reflect, to give the appearance of a thin shell. It is puzzling that if the Thais moved directly into Northern Thailand from Yunan, we can find no evidence of their having brought with them Chinese canons of art. A group of Avalokitesvara statues by Chapin (1944) is of great importance to this discussion. All of the statues have elongated limbs a long oval face, and stiff upright posture. They appear to be portrayals of a tutelary deity of the ruling family of Yunan; whose rule lasted from 937 A.D. to 1254 A.D. the style is derived from sculpture of Pala dynasty (8th to 11th centuries) and the influences spread to Yunan through either Nepal or Srivijaya. Some years after the publication of Chapin’s research, Wenley (1961) was able to date a Yunanese. Avalokitesvara from the freer gallery at about 700 A.D. by radiocarbon analysis of the contents inside the back of the figure, which had been sealed with the application of gold lacquer. Thus, Pala influences were left in the northern part of Southeast Asia long before the emergence of Sukhothai art and these influences fostered a number of closely related styles which in future should be studied as a group.
The Sukhothai style fluoresced with surprising rapidly. We know that the state of Sukhothaai was not securely established until about 1250. Fournerreau illustrates two bronze statues of Bramanical gods from Sri Satchanalai; these statues were inscribed about 1360, and they are not in the Sukhothai style. Their headdresses clumsiness of the form, the thicker, straight-line limbs, and the straight facial we must acknowledge the shortness of the Sukhothai art. On rare figure, such as the one at the back of the temple of Wat Mahathat at Sri Satchanalai, the proportions of Lopburi Khmer art are evident.
It has been customary to present the development of Thai art as going from the Northern or Chiengmai schools. Most writers believe that influences from Ceylon were vital in the formation of the Sukhothai style. Bhirasri suggests that in the Wat Chedi Chet Thaew the Sukhothai paintings show the images of Buddha in the pure Sukhothai style, while many of the worshippers retain the character of Singhalese art. Further evidence has been adduced from the drawings of females in the interior staircase of wat Sri Chum. These definitely resemble the painting from Polon naruva and Sigira in Ceylon. Although there are records such as those cited above of sculpture having been brought from Ceylon to Thailand, Nome of the reputed examples, including the Emerald Buddha of wat Phra keo, stylistically skin to contemporary Singhalese examples. In the fifteenth century, Chiengmai possessed the Emerald Buddha, now in Bangkok, and the Ceylon Buddha which is sometime identified with the mutilated image still at wat Phra Singh in Chiengmai (Hutchinson 1934; 115). Another Buddha, the stone Buddha, was also supposed to have come from Ceylon. In the account of these images, the common factor is their passage through Ceylon from India, their escape from danger on the sea between Ceylon and Southeast Asia and their temporary residence at Sawankhalok before going to the Northern Province.
The Polonnaruva figures of Ceylon bear less facial and textural resemblances to Sukhothai than do the Pala and Sena styles of Bihar and Northern India (CF. Kramrish, 1920). The Pala and Sena metal and highly polished stone figures resemble the Sukhothai figure body proportions, smile, surface finish, and even the occasional occurrence of the flame Ushnisha. Pala and Sena are the late in heritors of the Gupta School, the smooth Gupta skin, the metallic luster which gives the appearance of a surface stretched taut. The surface cannot be note on any examples from Ceylon at a similar time period. Pala and Sena art on the other hand, flourished in a geographical area next to Burma, and had great influence of Burmese art styles.
Several statues of Chiengmai have been assigned to the Pala style; they closely resemble the Lion Style of Griswold would place the true Lion style later than Sukhothai because of the 15th and 16th century dates which he found inscribed on many of the examples he studied in northern Thailand. It may be that certain examples of the style are late and its beginnings were much earlier. To move the entire style, rather than late example of it, forward to two centuries, renders obsolete the sequence created by early scholars such as le May. It is to be recommended that styles of Thai art, particularly in the early periods, should not be seen as mixing traditional supported by different groups of people who were sensitive to any message which accompanied the Theravada message. The Chiengsen or Lion Style may have been prolonged for a greater period that Sukhothai because of greater stability in the northeastern of Thailand, and greater proximity to Burmese or Mon religious influence.
The architecture of Sukhothai presents many unsolved problems (Fournereau, op, cit; Claeys, op, cit; Permentier, op, cit; Seidenfaden, op, cit). For this paper, I prefer to one temple at Sawankhalok, wat Mahathat; and three temples at Sukhothai Wat Sri Chum, wat Mahathat and Wat Srisavai.
Wat Mahathat at Sawankhalok apply demonstrates Thai eclecticism. The site, on a sharp bend of the Yome River, looks almost as if it were on an island. The site is surrounded with a late rite triple railing, like those which surrounded early Buddhist stupas. The gate is covered with two large stone lintels decorated in the Cambodian style with makara. Besides four openings at the cardinal points, there is an extra opening on the west, for the dead, as in Angkor. On the long axis of the site there is a large prang of mixed Cambodian style preceded by a columned vihara, the columns of which are made of drums of poor quality laterite placed on top of each other and smoothed over with stucco in true Sukhothai style. Buddha figures of varying sizes were placed at the bottom of the tower, including one standing relief figure the base of which is in a well several feet below the level of the rest of the floor. Behind this building is a large circular prang in Cambodian style. To the right of the entrance of the compound is a small shrine containing a statue of Buddha in front of a multi-headed Naga. At Singhalese sites such as Polonnaruva, there is on evidence of discreet architectural units having been aligned along a long axis such as we see in Wat Mahathat. Rather, individual buildings show an axially symmetrically plan, the standard one derived from the circumambulatory program evident in monuments as old as the east Indian sites of Lomas of Lomas Rishi and Karli.
The namesake of Mahathat at Sukhothai is the largest temple in the old city. If we count the accompanying chedis or stupa, there are almost two hundred architectural units in the total complex. In front of the temple, to the east, there are two large reflecting pools, no doubt originally filled with lotuses. The entire site is walled, although the wall in no way resembles the unique railing wall at Sawankhalok. At the present, one looks along rows of columns to the back of the vihara which is reached after ascending two small sets of stairs. On either side of the main temples are small site chapels and large group of chedi containing the bones of deceased monks. The main tower has become elongated, perhaps as a compromise between the Singhalese and the Khmer. To the sides of the chapels are huge standing figures in narrow brick mondops.
To the south of Wat Mahathat another temple stands in direct contrast. Wat Srisavai termed Wat Jai by Fournereau, consists of three Cambodian towers, of the modified beehive type, approached by a long vihara with columns. The towers retain much of their stucco decoration which consists of elegant makaras and plant forms. No statues remain, but many years ago a member of the royal family found a Hindu figure in the ruins and surmised that the temple may have been used for Hindu worship before it was adapted to Buddhism.
Wat Sri Chum, the final temple in the series, was built on an elaborate scale. The main reconstruction, completed in 1956, features a standing Buddha in a brick mondop which is 16 meters high. The mondop would prevent the viewer from seeing the Buddha from a distance. The seated Buddha figure is 11 meters across at the lap. The worshipper looks straight up from the lap into the Buddha’s face, the proportions of which are not as long as on smaller figures, perhaps in order to make it easier to read from immediately below.
The center of the settlement at Sukhothai seems to have been laid out on a grid which included the walled temples and perhaps the buildings for each temple’s retainers. Such a well ordered plan is common to Chinese capital cities and Indian unremoncal complex as. One wonders what other craftsmen accompanied the Chinese potters to Sukhothai and Sawankhalok. Angkor is laid out on a rectangular plan but Polonnarva in Ceylon seems to have grown rather randomly, perhaps because of the restricted nature of the site on which it is situated.
Seidenfaden (1933) in his review of Claeys’ L’Arechologie du Siam sums up the nature and dimensions of foreign influence on Sukhothai architecture.
“Indian through the Mon gave the stupa or chedi to the Thai; from the Khmer, they inherited the prang, besides most other things while the elephants acting as Cariatides for the two Wats Chang Lom came as a motif from Ceylon” (p.119).
No hypotheses about foreign influence can be accepted without scepticism at this point. Seidenfaden and Wales state that Wat Kukut at Lampun is a copy of Mahal Prasada at Polonnarava. Rowland, however, believe that Mahathat Prasada looks like the pre Angkorian shrines of Cambodia. He speculates that the building was constructed deliberately for Cambodian mercenaries, and the unique elevation may be an international imitation of Khmer types (1950; 206) Le May suggest that the building might be the only example of Dvaravati architecture. At the time of Sukhothai, there was a community of ideas, a rich pool of varied forms for artisans to draw upon, rather than one donor and a group of recipients.
I have mentioned the problem of Wat Kukut and Maha Prasada as the beginning of my conclusion. I am sure that the confusion has been caused in part by two heavy reliance on written inscriptions, and a two literal reading of the words in the texts. When we have so few historical facts, uncritical reliance on any one can cause inordinate distortion.
Can we sure that Sukhothai was formed at least in part by a large group of late arrivals from Southwest China? As the picture stands now, we have no way of assessing the strength of Buddhism among the incoming Thais. Buddhist art in Yunnan is restricted to a group of small figures which probably belonged to immigrant Han Chinese or Sinicized local rulers. Two early pagodas are mentioned in the Nam Tchao Ye Che of Sainson (1894; 206) but there is no information as to their date or their date or the nature of their construction. The reduced iconography and mixed architecture of Sukhothai suggest that the Thais were late in experiment with Theravadism.
In the text at hand, the important point is the ritual filiations of Thailand with Ceylon. The Thais flaunted their filiations with the zeal of recent converts, perhaps because they wanted to give their culture depth and validity when the inevitable comparison was made with the civilization of the Khmers. It is not one should doubt the facts that there were contacts with Ceylon, but rather that they were the only contacts affecting the daily life of Sukhothai. Indian Buddhism found expression in the same clay that produced local deity figurines and Chinese ceramics.
Coedes recently asked:
“Have I been wrong in looking to China for the cause of the vicissitudes of the history of Southeast Asian countries?” (1964; 14)
China had a profound effect on the politics of Southeast Asia, and a subtle effect on art and culture. Coedes also keynoted the strong positive position held by the philology and epigraphers concerning the impact of Indian culture on Southeast Asia. Perhaps a reexamination of the archaeological materials with an emphasis on pottery and less dramic “treasure” will reveal, in the same manner as contemporary anthropology, that the Indiannists have overstated their case. In ceramics the influence of India was the least imposing.
The sculpture appears to have been influenced by Pala and Sena art more that by Ceylon and the essence of Sukhothai architecture is a reworking of many elements which had been in Southeast Asia for a long time, rather than direct impact of any one center.
As at present, China loomed large over Southeast Asia but her influence was subtlest in ritual and religious life.
What were the motives behind the establishment of a pottery center at Sawankhalok? Spinks suggests that the Thais were which they learned to imitate, and were encouraged by the Chinese who were looking for ways to Sinicism, them, it may well have been Chinese (or Okinawans) who carried Sawankhalok stoneware to the remote corners of Southeast Asia.
We know that Rama Khamheng was given a Chinese princess to be a wife on his first trip to China. Would the Chinese have allowed the Sukhothai state to produce competing ceramics wares outside of their control? After the first three emperor of the Ming, the Chinese regarded foreign trade and exploration with some disfavor, perhaps because of the terrible pirates which paralyzed the southeast coast, and the very high costs of entertaining so many tribute missions. Nevertheless, unofficial trade with Southeast Asia grew by leaps and bounds. The volume of ceramics found by archaeologists in Southeast Asia and the vast kilns in China which often produced only one kind of export ware keep us from being misled by the official record.
Archaeology and history may be used as tools to supplement and explain the specialized nature of Southeast Asian history and culture. What we need are multiple techniques for attacking the political movements and religious and artistic transformations of the area.
Portions of the research for this paper were undertaken during the tenure of a Canada Council Pre-Doctoral Fellowship and a Lewis Farmington Trust Fellowship at Yale University. Thanks are also due to the Depts. Fine Arts, Government of Thailand, for assistance at Sukhothai and in Bangkok.
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Source: Bulletin of the Institute of Ethnology