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 Home > About Thailand > Historical Settings > Sukhothai

SUKHOTHAI

The Sukhothai kingdom was a kingdom in the north of Thailand around the city Sukhothai. It existed from 1238 till 1438. The old capital, now 12 km outside of New Sukhothai in Tambon Muang Kao, is now in ruins and is an Historical Park.

Sukhothai, meaning the ''Dawn of Happiness'' was the first free Thai city founded in 1238, by two Thai chieftains, Khun Bang Klang Tao and Khun Pa Muang , this ending Khmer rule from Angkor Wat. In the early 1300s, Sukhothai enjoyed suzeranity over the Chao Phya River basin, westward to the bay of Bengal and the entire Peninsula.


The state that is still regarded by Thai historical tradition as the " first Thai Kingdom " was Sukhothai, There were, in fact, contemporaneous Thai states such as Lanna and Phayao, both in present-day northern Thailand, but the Thai historical imagination has been most stirred by Sukhothai. Even today, the evocative ruins of Sukhothai and its twin city Si Satchanalai conjure up images of material prosperity, artistic greatness, and serene Buddhist piety. Indeed, Sukhothai is remembered as much for its art and architecture as for its political achievements.

Sukhothai began life as a chiefdom under the sway of the Khmer empire: the oldest monuments in the city were built in the Khmer style or else show clear Khmer influence. During the first half of the 13th century the Thai rulers of Sukhothai threw off the Khmer yoke and set up an independent Thai kingdom. One of the victorious Thai chieftains became the first king of Sukhothai, with the name of Si Inthrathit [Sri Indraditya]. Sukhothai's power and influence expanded in all directions by conquest [the Khmer were driven southwards], by a farsighted network of marriage alliances with the ruling families of other Thai states, and by the use of a common religion, Theravada Buddhism, to cement relations with other states.

Si Inthrathit's son and successor was King Ramkhamhaeng, undoubtedly the most famous and dynamic monarch ever to rule the Sukhothai kingdom. Much of what we know about Sukhothai in the 13th century derives from King Ramkhamhaeng's stone inscription of 1292. The inscription is problematic, but it is considered to be a seminal source of Sukhothai history as well as a masterpiece of Thai literature. It eloquently extols the benevolence of King Ramkhamhaeng's rule, the power and prosperity of Sukhothai. The king was accessible to his people. For example, he had a bell hung in front of a palace gate so that any subject with a grievance could ring it and ask for justice:
" King Ramkhamhaeng, the ruler of the kingdom, hears the call; he goes and questions the man, examines the case, and decides it justly for him. So the people of.....Sukhothai praise him. "

According to the inscription, the king did not levy road tolls or taxes on merchandise. His liberality was such that he did not tax his subjects' inheritance at all. Such a paternalistic and benevolent style of kingship has caused posterity to regard the Sukhothai kingdom's heyday as a " Golden Age " in Thai history.

Even allowing for some hyperbole in King Ramkhamhaeng's inscription, it is probably true that Sukhothai was prosperous and well-governed. Its economy was self-sufficient, small-scale, and agricultural. The Thai people's basic diet was the same as that of many other people in Southeast Asia, consisting of rice and fish as staple foods. Both, according to King Ramkhamhaeng's inscription were plentiful;
"In the time of King Ramkhamhaeng this land of Sukhothai is thriving. There are fish in the water and rice in the fields."

Sukhothai may have been self-sufficient as far as food was concerned, but its prosperity also depended on commerce. During the Sukhothai period glazed ceramic wares known as "Sangkhalok" were produced in great quantities at the kilns of Sukhothai and Si Satchanalai and exported regularly to other countries in the South China Sea area, specimens having been found in Indonesia and the Philippines. Sukhothai also traded with China through the traditional Chinese tributary system: the Thai king was content to send tribute to the Chinese emperor and be classified as a vassal, in return for permission to sell Thai goods and buy Chinese products.

Although animistic beliefs remained potent in Sukhothai, King Ramkhamhaeng and his successors were all devout Buddhist rulers who made merit on a large scale. The major cities of the Sukhothai kingdom were therefore full of monasteries, many of which were splendid examples of Thai Buddhist architecture. Sukhothai adopted the Ceylonese school of Theravada Buddhism, beginning with King Ramkhamhaeng's invitation to Ceylonese monks to come over and purify Buddhism in his kingdom. This Ceylonese influence manifested itself not only in matters of doctrine but also in religious architecture. The bell-shaped stupa, so familiar in Thai religious architecture, was derived from Ceylonese models. Sukhothai style Buddha images are distinctive for their elegance and stylized beauty, and Sukhothai's artists introduced the graceful form of the "Walking Buddha" into Buddhist sculpture.

Sukhothai's cultural importance in Thai history also derives from the fact that the Thai script evolved into a definite form during King Ramkhamhaeng's time, taking as its models the ancient Mon and Khmer scripts. Indeed, this remarkable king is credited with having invented the Thai script.

King Si Inthrathit and King Ramkhamhaeng were both warrior kings and extended their territories far and wide. Their successors, however, could not maintain such a far-flung empire. Some of these later kings were more remarkable for their religious piety and extensive building activities than for their warlike exploits. An example of this type of Buddhist ruler was King Mahathammaracha Lithai, believed to have been the compiler of the Tribhumikatha, an early Thai book on the Buddhist universe or cosmos. The political decline of Sukhothai was, however, not wholly owing to deficiencies in leadership. Rather it resulted from the emergence of strong Thai states further south, whose political and economic power began to challenge Sukhothai during the latter half of the 14th century. These southern states, especially Ayutthaya, were able to deny Sukhothai access to the area.

The Sukhothai kingdom did not die a quick death. Its decline lasted from the mid-14th until the 15th century. In 1378, the Ayutthaya King Borommaracha I subdued Sukhothai's frontier city of Chakangrao [Kamphaengphet], and henceforth Sukhothai became a tributary state of Ayutthaya. Sukhothai later attempted to break loose from Ayutthaya but with no real success, until in the 15th century it was incorporated into the Ayutthaya kingdom as a province. The focus of Thai history and politics now moved to the central plains of present-day Thailand, where Ayutthaya was establishing itself as a centralized state, its power outstripping not only Sukhothai but also other neighbouring states such as Suphannaphum and Lawo [Lopburi]

The Kings of Sukhothai

  • Pho Khun Si Indrathit ( 1249 - 1257 )
  • Pho Khun Ban Muang (1257 - 1277 )
  • Pho Khun Ramkhamhaeng (Ramkhamhaeng the Great) (ruled 1277 - 1298 or 1317 )
  • Pu Saisongkhram: After Ramkhamheang's death, ruled temporarily in absence of loethai who was on trip to China. He was not styled Pho Khun.
  • Pho Khun Loethai (1298 - 1347 )
  • Pho Khun Nguanamthom (1347)
  • Pho Khun Lithai or Thammaracha I (1347 - 1368 / 1374 )
  • Thammaracha II or Phya Sai Leu Thai (1368/1374 - 1399 )
  • Thammaracha III or Phya Sai Luthai (1399 - 1419 )
  • Thammaracha IV (1419 - 1438)


See also..| The four areas | The Thai tribes | Animism |


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