The Archaic of Thailand (Part I)

Siam Society trips are organized around Asia and elsewhere, and can be simple daytrips to 3 week tours. There, we can get a chance to visit the ruins of an ancient 6th century civilization, and handle a 2,000 year old bracelet.

The first ruin was the ruins of Wat Phra Men in Nakhon Pathom. Likely built in the 7th century in the Dvaravati style, it was later abandoned, along with the rest of Nakhon Pathom. The four seated buddha statues that would have adorned four alcoves in the central prang, or tower, appear to have been moved to other temples. Bricks were later taken to rebuild the chedi or Wat Phra Pathom, and much of it was looted by robbers. Still, a considerable amount of artifacts were uncovered by archaeologists in the early 20th century, but they were removed from the site and now reside at various museums.

We went to Chula Pathon Chedi, near the center of the old moated city of Nakhon Pathom. There were actually two Pathon Chedis--this was called 'Chula' because it appears to have been much smaller than 'Phra' Pathon Chedi. It has been built and rebuilt several times, and the additions, usually extending the base, can clearly be seen in places. While researching this chedi, a series of bas reliefs were found that had survived the ages--some had been covered by later additions, while others had been simply been covered with dirt and sediment over the centuries. This is still an active archaeological site, and there had been a dig going on only a week before we had arrived.

Phra Pathon Chedi has long been in use, but only recently 'discovered'. The old structure was covered in earth and hidden, and only the new prang-style chedi at the top was visible. Excavations have uncovered the actual brickwork, and in some instances you can clearly see where the newer brick was laid over the old.

Our last stop in Nakhon Pathom was Wat Phra Pathom, one of the oldest Buddhist sites in Thailand and now one of the tallest chedi in the world. The current structure was actually built by King Rama IV, and is built over the old chedi, like a shell. Because of its size, engineers had to build a slight slope into the rising walls to support the weight, and beneath it all are support beams linked with a giant iron chain to help spread the load evenly in all directions. This is one of the most visited pilgrimage sites in Thailand, and it houses a museum of archaeological artifacts from around the region.

We continued up the road to Pong Tuk, in the Tha Maka district. This unassuming site, with its remains of a laterite brick structure, has yielded some important--if potentially controversial--finds for the understanding of Thai history. One such find are these:

They have been called 'stone bells', and have been hung like this for display. Some archaeologists--our guide among them--posit a different theory. You see, in the 6th century, much of inland Thailand was actually part of a large bay. Slowly the bay silted up through deposits left by the rivers flowing in from all sides. In its day, however, there would have been major shipping lanes throughout what is now inland Thailand. Charting out the various Dvaravati sites on top of this extended bay, one sees that most of them sit along the edges of the water--likely for the obvious purposes of fishing and trade. These large stones, left over when the waters receded, were likely boat anchors, similar to ones found in the Mediterranean. The concept of drilling a hole through a stone and then using it as an anchor or anchorage point is not new, and may explain these large stones.

This was also the site where archaeologists found a rare Roman or Byzantine lamp (experts disagree, though the 6th century Byzantine provenance seems much more likely, in my opinion). Apparently it was found in two separate pieces by villagers, who didn't Together with evidence such as 3rd century Roman coins, marked with Victorinus, it shows the extent of trade in the early centuries of the first millenium. We saw a replica of the lamp in the treasure storeroom of a nearby temple.

Our final destination on the first day is at Prasat Muang Singh, in the modern province of Kanchanaburi. After passing through one more archaeological site and museum at Ban Kao we hit the westernmost outpost of the Angkorian Khmer Empire of Jayavarman VII. Built in the Angkorian style of laterite stone during the 13th century, it was probably built to express the power of the Khmer kings on their western frontier.

King Jayavarman VII spread Buddhism to all corners of his empire, and is responsible for perhaps building more Buddhist temples of the Khmer style than any other king. It was not, however, an entirely altruistic gesture, for Jayavarman VII used himself as the model for the statues of the Buddha which he sent out. Thus, he used these constructions to express his power and rule throughout his kingdom.

While Khmer structures often used laterite, the buildings in Angkor, at the heart of the kingdom, covered most exposed sections in carved sandstone. The structure at Prasat Muang Singh was more likely covered in plaster. The relief above would have been the rough carving, with the plaster used to create a more detailed image. I would guess that plaster would have been cheaper--being on the edges of the empire, it would not be expected that the king would exert as much time or resources. This is shown in tremendous detail with a later structure behind the main complex:

While Khmer structures were usually very symmetrical, this later structure shows obvious errors, with many of the rooms being offset slightly--possibly due to an error on the part of the engineers. Such lapses are probably indicators that the knowledge of the building techniques were being lost on the fringes of the empire, corresponding with a general decline in the Khmer empire's power in the outlying regions. Soon, the local Thai people--the Siem or Siam--would begin to carve out their own kingdoms in places like Ayutthaya and Chiang Mai.

That evening we returned to Kanchanaburi, to a hotel on the Kwai river--yes, the one from the movie. The famous bridge was just down the river (Ellen went down to get the shot the next morning). From there we headed up to U-Thong and Suphanburi, but that will have to wait for another post...

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