Some 400kms(240 miles) north of Bangkok in amongst the orchards and paddy-fields, in the heavily forested flat-lands that spread across the valleys of the parallel rivers flowing down from the northern mountains near the Chinese border, where the Mekong River also rises.
Behind a screen of mango’s and coconut palms,the tall towers, the domes with their pointed steeples and the giant statues emerge proudly from the tangled undergrowth clinging to their base and almost smothering dozens of smaller monuments.
This is all that is left of a once formidable city, and the buildings still standing, apart from the ramparts and the ruins of the moats, are all shrines, temples and monasteries, though the men who built the city, and made their own dwellings out of mud and wood, had wanted to leave only the testimonies of their spiritual quest to posterity.
Sukhothai -“the dawn of happiness”, is the name of this city, which between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries was the capital and whose history sums up the beginnings of the Thai nation.
A Kingdom and a dynasty were founded here in the middle of the thirteenth century, and the Thais gradually brought under their sway the whole of the land that has remained theirs, from Burma to Cambodia and, to the south, down as far as the Malay Peninsula.
For 200 years Sukhothai was the moving spirit behind this development. Its decline came about only in the first half of the fifteenth century, when a new capital farther south, Ayuthaya, was set up and became the new political centre, asserting its authority over all the cities in the new state.
The first Thai princes no doubt brought with them the Mongol hierarchical organization of society, for theirs was divided into warriors, commoners and serfs.
The Thais had already been initiated intoTheravada Buddhism and before long adopted the culture of the Khmers,with its strong Indian influence, and also their customs. King Ram Khamhaeng the Great, who succeeded to the throne of Sukhothai, invented the Thai script, an adapted version of Khmer writing, which is derived in turn from a southern Indian alphabet, as attested by a stone inscription of 1283.
He is also attributed with working in co-operation with both King Ngam Muang of Phayao & King Mengrai of Lan Na helping with the choosing of the site where the new capital of Lan Na would be built, the site they collectively chose is better known as Chiang Mai today. The Three Kings Monument proudly stands today in the old centre of Chiang Mai as testiment to their co-operation.
It was the same King Ram Khamhaeng, who rebuilt the city of Sukhothai, conferring upon it the eminently religious character still so striking today.
Buddhism, the official religion,espoused with such fervour that one of the king’s successors became a monk for some time, co-existed peacefully not only with Hinduism but with the traditional ancestor worship and worship of spirits, including the guardian spirit of the city.
But it was Buddhism that through its doctrine and traditions was to exert a guiding influence over the development of the capital and the surrounding areas. A Sukhothai stone inscription gives a magnificent narrative of this kingdom, which at the height of its power must have had a population of nearly 300,000.
The inscription names the ramparts, lakes and ponds, designating the orchards and the fields, of which it is said that “whoever cultivates them, possesses them” and, especially, enumerating the buildings erected by its kings in testimony to the irreligious zeal.
In the centre were the sanctuaries, Buddha images of all sizes in gold, bronze and stucco; to the west a monastery containing a large sanctuary enshrining the statue of a seated Buddha,eighteen cubits high( 9 metres / 30 feet); to the east, more sanctuaries; to the north towering above the houses, coconut palms and paddy fields, large Buddha images; and to the south, monasteries and temples.
Even with the waning of their prosperity, the last princes of the line were,to the end, as bountiful as their predecessors in their architectural and religious zeal.
Within the perfect rectangle, measuring 2,000 by 1,600 metres, traced out by the ramparts of this carefully planned city, there are today seventy-six of these monuments, and there are fifty outside the walls.
This profusion of religious architecture enabled the ruling elite to proclaim both its faith and the stability of the state, and the stone inscriptions can no doubt be believed when they stress the loyalty of the inhabitants “all without exception, without distinction of rank or sex”, and the justice and harmony that reigned in the Kingdom and far beyond its borders, since the sovereign called upon the subjected peoples to observe with love and mutual respect the “Law of Enlightenment and Compassion”.
One thing is certain, this attitude,inspired by the Sri Lankan doctrine of Hinayana – “the Little Vehicle”, better known as Theravada Buddhismtoday, was to have a profound effect on culture and the arts and leave its imprint on the development of the Kingdom for many centuries to come.
This influence was felt first and foremost in the art of building,which, with the exception of the walls, small forts and possibly the royal palace, of which only the foundations remain, can be seen in monumental architectural complexes, nearly all comprised of the same elements but laid out in an extraordinary variety of ways.
The masonry is either brick bonded with limestone mortar or (usually for the walls and basic structure) laterite blocks, and the main architectural features are the high towers surmounted by a majestic lotus-bud dome, known in India as “stupas” and in Thailand as “chedis”,which were originally used for storing relics of the Buddha.
There are also other towers, either central monuments within the sacred precinct or, alternatively,structures built to enclose the chedi. The “mondop” is square, with a tapering roof, and the “prang” is reminiscent of the Khmer prasaton which it is modelled upon, with slender lines and highly decorative sculptures.
Another characteristic feature is the Viharn, sometimes to be found in the centre of a monastic complex but more often in front of the chedi; it is a large assembly hall divided into naves by bonded brick pillars, with a timber-frame roof and a solid apse as a background for the monumental Buddha images.
These buildings were partly covered with ornamental stucco sculpting, both inside and out. They usually had very intricate decorative motifs in bas-relief: demons, vast floral panels, and seven-headed snakes (nagas).
But there were also ceilings with finelyworked engravings illustrating countless scenes from Buddha’s previous lives Qataka. Several of the bas-reliefs were painted, but unfortunately all that is left are traces of the pigments used.
The statuary, however, is there, an abundant, impressive testimony to the genius of its sculptors, who were past masters in all the forms of sacred imagery employed at the time, and their masterpieces include several effigies of Hindu divinities, Siva, Urna,Lakshmi, and Vishnu.
But nothing is more characteristic of the art of Sukhothai than the innumerable Buddha figures, cast in bronze or moulded in stucco on a laterite core, which for more than two centuries were both an internal and external feature of every temple and monastery.
Their own particular form, although there is usually evidence of Sinhalese influence, reflects what may be taken to be a dogged, clear determination to employ every possible means to portray the supernatural morphology ascribed to the Buddha by the sacred texts.
Thus the fact that the large statues measured eighteen cubits with arms like elephant trunks, a torso like a lion, and a nose like a parrot’s beak has nothing to do with workshop technique, but with symbolic tradition.
The same applies to the high protuberance from the top of the head, the flame of the Enlightenment, the markedly arched brows and the sharply moulded curves of the eyelids, lips and the whole of the face, which is particularly long and bears an expression of detachment from this world, or has the eyes closed in eternal meditation.
Certain canonical postures are particularly characteristic of the Sukhothai Buddhas upright, impassive figure, his right hand raised as a token of the suppression of fear; the Buddha seated in the half-lotus position in the attitude expressing the “calling of the Earth to witness” or the victory over illusion; and, above all, the portrayal of the Buddha appearing to move forward in an extraordinary supple and vital surge of energy, the walking Buddha, a theme practically unknown in India and illustrating perhaps the most moving spiritual quest in medieval Thailand.
Whoever contemplates these works cannot fail to be aware of that quest, or even feel part of it, for it transcends all religious and secular barriers.
But it does not exclude admiration of the craftsmanship for its own sake. These anonymous artists succeeded in producing something delicate and powerful out of raw matter with merely a play of curves on the simplest of cylindrical shapes.
The same craftsmanship is to be found in the all too rare Wood Carvings that have been preserved on doors and ceilings decorated in bas-relief and in the works of the ceramists.
Indeed,more and more treasures of ceramic art are being brought to light as a result of excavations (including marine excavations).
For centuries Sukhothai was famous for its roofing end-pieces, statuettes,figurines, vases of all kinds, glazed terracotta ware, and the celadon wares close to the techniques used in the Sung era.
Pottery seems to have been the kingdom’s chief industry in the fourteenth century;and ceramic wares were exported to Malaysia, the Philippines,Indonesia and Japan, where they were worthy competitors for those produced by the famous Chinese craftsmen.
The general impression left by this artistic production is one of an illustrious civilization in the flower of its youth, responsive to contacts with the outside world and yet already confident in its own identity.
We can understand why the Thai people are anxious today to recover the most ancient and glorious testimonies of their cultural identity in Sukhothai and the other historic cities of the ancient Kingdom (Satchanalai and Kampaengpet).
But the Thai people know, too, that Sukhothai may be recognized by all the nations of the world as one of the summits of human creativity, as though the lofty, rhythmic, melodious words of Ram Khamhaeng’s stone inscription glorifying the observance of the sacred precepts by all people were also ringing out for us today to proclaim that order, beauty and peace are possible.
From abandonment to rebirth: – In stepping down from its political leadership in the fifteenth century,Sukhothai neither sustained disaster nor entered into immediate decline.
Its economic and administrative role was challenged, but there was little weakening of its religious activity. This enabled it to continue buildingfor a long time, and several of its monuments were restored by the crowned heads of Ayudhya.
But in the eighteenth century the neglect of the city coincided with the founding of Bangkok, so that its Ruins were beyond remedy. A new Sukhothai, the capital of the province, was established twelve kilometres to the east, and the old capital was handed over to farmers and herdsmen.
Since then its history has been the sad tale of deserted cities in all lands, regardless of the academic respect laidupon them from afar: ramparts and moats assailed by vegetation, crumbling edifices whose bare bricks offer scant resistance to the elements,ruined towers, collapsed temples, sculptures torn away and statues decapitated by treasure-hunters, monuments ripped apart by clandestine diggers.
The fields sloped up to the edge of the sanctuaries,where buffaloes and oxen pastured and hamlets snuggled alongside silted-up canals.
Then came “progress” and with it a few little factories with tall chimneys, a few office buildings, a surfaced road dividing the old city in two, power poles, and so on; and the hawkers’ stalls huddled around the feet of the statues.
Visitors arriving by the hundreds on holidays during the dry season did little to check a decline that a few years ago looked fatal.However, the Thai authorities did not bow to such fatality.They decided that Sukhothai would be armed against the dangers besetting it,preserved and restored!.
The abandoned city, the surrounding plain and the hills in the back-ground are now called the Sukhothai Historical Park, and in December 1991 it was declared a World Heritage Site as nominated by UNESCO. The park covers an area of 70sq kilometres (42sq miles) & contains 193 ruins of international architectural importance, and is a major tourist attraction within Thailand.