Ayutthaya

From the mid-14th century

In the middle of the 14th century, Sukhothai's influence began to be challenged by another Thai kingdom, Ayutthaya. Located over 300 km south on the Chao Phraya River, Ayutthaya was the successor to the Mon Kingdom of Lavo (Lopburi). It seems that from the 11th century, Tais began to settle in the area and were peacefully incorporated into the Mon state, where they gradually gained influence. Finally, in 1351, a Tai lord took control of the area and founded a new capital at the confluence of the Pa Sak, Lopburi and Chao Phraya rivers. He called the city Ayutthaya - after the sacred town of Ayodhya in the
Hindu epic, the Ramayana. This kingdom would subsequently be known as Siam. From 1351, Ayutthaya began to extend its power south as far as Nakhon Si Thammarat,
and east to Cambodia, raiding Angkor in the late 14th century and taking the city in 1432. The palace at Angkor was looted by the Thai forces and the Khmers abandoned their capital, fleeing eastwards towards present-day Phnom Penh. Although Sukhothai and Ayutthaya initially vied with one another for supremacy, Ayutthaya proved the more powerful. In 1438, King Boromraja II placed his seven-year-old son, Ramesuan (later to become King Boromtrailokant), on the throne, signalling the end of Sukhothai as an independent power.

During the Ayutthayan period, the basis of Thai common law was introduced by King Ramathibodi (1351-1369), who drew upon the Indian legal code of Manu, while the powerful King Boromtrailokant (1448-1488) centralized the administration of his huge kingdom and introduced various other civil, economic and military reforms. Perhaps the most important was the
sakdi naa
system, in which an individual's social position was related to the size of his landholdings. The heir apparent controlled 16,000 ha, the highest official 1600 ha, and the lowest commoner 4 ha. A code of conduct for royalty was also introduced, with punishments again linked to position: princes of high rank who had violated the law were to be bound by gold fetters, those of lower rank by silver. The execution of a member of the royal family was, it has been said, carried out by placing them in a sack and either beating them to death with scented sandalwood clubs or having them trampled by white elephants. Even kicking a palace door would, in theory, lead to the amputation of the offending foot.

By King Boromtrailokant's reign, Ayutthaya had extended its control over 500,000 sq km, and the capital had a population of 150,000. Although the art of Ayutthaya is not as 'pure' as that of Sukhothai, the city impressed 16th- and 17th-century European visitors. The German surgeon Christopher Fryke remarked that “there is not a finer city in all India”. Perhaps it was the tiger and elephant fights that excited the Europeans so much. The elephants (regarded as noble and representing the state) were expected to win by tossing the tiger (regarded as wild and representing disorder) repeatedly into the air. The fact that the tigers were often tied to a stake or attacked by several elephants at once must have lengthened the odds against them. (In Vietnam it was reported that tigers sometimes had their claws removed and jaws sewn together.) Despite the undoubted might of Ayutthaya and the absolute power that lay within each monarch's grasp, kings were not, in the main, able to name their successors. Blood was not an effective guarantee to kingship and a strong competitor could easily usurp a rival, even though he might - on paper - have a better claim to the throne. As a result, the history of Ayutthaya is peppered with court intrigues, bloody succession struggles and rival claims.

16th-18th centuries (Burmese invasion)

During this period, the fortunes of the Ayutthayan Kingdom were bound up with those of Burma. Over a 220-year period, the Burmese invaded on no less than six occasions. The first time was in 1548 when the Burmese king of Pegu, Tabengshweti, encircled the capital. King Mahachakrapat only survived the ensuing battle when one of his wives drove her elephant in front of an approaching warrior. Elephants figured heavily in war and diplomacy during the Ayutthayan period: Tabengshweti justified his invasion by pointing out that he had no white elephants, the holiest of beasts (the Buddha's last reincarnation before his enlightenment was as a white elephant). The Ayutthayan king meanwhile had a whole stable of them, and was not willing to part with even one. Although this attack failed, in 1569, King Bayinnaung mounted another invasion and plundered the city, making Ayutthaya a vassal state. When the Burmese withdrew to Pegu, they left a ravaged countryside devoid of people, and large areas of rice land returned to scrub and forest. But a mere 15 years later, Prince Naresuan re-established Thai sovereignty, and began to lay the foundations for a new golden age in which Ayutthaya would be more powerful and prosperous than ever before.

17th century (commercial and diplomatic expansion)

The 17th century saw a period of intense commercial contact with the Dutch, English and French. In 1608, Ayutthaya sent a diplomatic mission to the Netherlands and in 1664 a trading treaty was concluded with the Dutch. Even as early as the 17th century, Thailand had a flourishing prostitution industry. In the 1680s an official was given a monopoly of prostitution in the capital; he used 600 women to generate considerable state revenues. The kings of Ayutthaya also made considerable use of foreigners as advisers and ministers at the court. The most influential foreign family was founded by two Persian brothers, who arrived at the beginning of the 17th century. However, the best known was the Greek adventurer Constantine Phaulcon, who began his life in the East as a mere cabin boy with the East India Company and rose to become one of King Narai's (1656-1688) closest advisers and one of the kingdom's most influential officials before being executed in 1688. He was implicated in a plot with the French against King Narai and his execution heralded 100 years of relative isolation as the Thais became wary of, and avoided close relations with, the West.

18th century (Ayutthaya's zenith)

The height of Ayutthaya's power and glory is often associated with the reign of King Boromkot (literally, 'the King in the urn [awaiting cremation]', as he was the last sovereign to be honoured in this way). Boromkot ruled from 1733 to 1758 and he fulfilled many of the imagined pre-requisites of a great king: he promoted Buddhism and ruled effectively over a vast territory. But, in retrospect, signs of imperial senility were beginning to materialize even as Ayutthaya's glory was approaching its zenith. In particular, King Boromkot's sons began to exert their ambitions. Prince Senaphithak, the eldest, went so far as to have some of the king's officials flogged; in retaliation, one of the officials revealed that the prince had been having an affair with one of Boromkot's three queens. He admitted to the liaison and was flogged to death, along with his lover.

The feud with Burma was renewed in 1760 when the Burmese King Alaungpaya invaded Thailand. His attack was repulsed after one of the siege guns exploded, seriously injuring the Burmese king. He died soon afterwards during the arduous march back to Pegu. Three years later his successor, King Hsinbyushin, raised a vast army and took Chiang Mai, Lamphun and Luang Prabang (Laos). By 1765, the Burmese were ready to mount a second assault on Ayutthaya. Armies approached from the north and west and at the beginning of 1766 met up outside the city, from where they laid siege to the capital. King Suriyamarin offered to surrender, but King Hsinbyushin would hear nothing of it. The city fell after a year, in 1767. David Wyatt, in
Thailand: A short history
, wrote: “The Burmese wrought awful desolation. They raped, pillaged and plundered and led tens of thousands of captives away to Burma. They put the torch to everything flammable and even hacked at images of the Buddha for the gold with which they were coated. King Suriyamarin is said to have fled the city in a small boat and starved to death 10 days later.”

The city was too damaged to be renovated for a second time, and the focus of the Thai state moved southwards once again - to Thonburi, and from there to Bangkok.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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