Monday, September 8, 2014

Ramkhamhaeng: Great Sukhothai King

Ramkhamhaeng depicted in Civilization V
From the flames of rebellion against the Khmer rulers, a new Kingdom rose in the fertile lands of central Thailand. The latter half of the 13th century saw the rise of the first Thai Kingdom – the Sukhothai Kingdom. From its productive lands, an Empire would be made under a great ruler. Ramkhamhaeng would preside and lead the great Thai people to new height of glory with conquest and diplomacy.

Most of the thing known about King Ramkhamhaeng were mostly based from an old stone stele. Discovered by the late King Mongkut during his stay in the countryside, he discovered the stone stele that had an inscription about a certain King Ramkhamhaeng. Some doubt its credibility. But some supported it as it could be match with other sources from other countries, like China. It is from this stone stele that the life and reign of Ramkhamhaeng is told.

Ramkhamhaeng or Ramakamhaeng was the third king of the fledgling Sukhothai Empire. His exact date of birth is unknown, due to the lack of records. His birth name was also unknown as Ramkhamhaeng was his given title after he fought bravely in one battle. He was the third son of Kangrateng An’ Pha Muang sri Indrapatindraditya to Queen Suang. His eldest brother died for unknown reasons. Thus, he became second in line for the throne.

The Kingdom of Sukhothai, the Kingdom from which Ramkhamhaeng, was a young Kingdom. Before 1220, the land it occupied was once controlled by the powerful Khmer Empire of Lavo. Then, two Thai chiefs rose up against the Khmer conquerors. Pha Muang and Bang Klang Thao fought the Khmer governor of the area. By 1220, the two had gained the upper hand. Bang Klang Thao then established the Kingdom of Sukhothai or the Dawn of Happiness. Bang Klang Thao then took the title of Kamrateng An’ Pha Muang Sri Indrapatindraditya and later fathered Ramkhamhaeng and his brothers and sisters.

Ramkhamhaeng was a brave and loyal servant to the King. During the wars of his father, he fought bravely against all odds. His father waged a war against a rival chief named Khun Sam Chon. The enemy seemed to have advanced against the Sukhothai forces that began to retreat. Then, the young prince Ramkhamhaeng, ridding an elephant, charged against the Khum Sam Chon’s war elephant. A duel ensued. Ramkhamhaeng showed his fighting prowess and defeated his enemy. After the fall of their leader’s elephant the enemy of the Sukhothai forces retreated. The brave young prince received the name Ramkhamhaeng or Rama the Brave.

Ramkhamhaeng was supposed to be unlikely to become King. When their father died, Ramkhamhaeng’s older brother, Ban Muang took the reins of power. However, it was also to short. Died just a while after taking the throne. Suddenly, Ramkhamhaeng became the new King of Sukhothai. He would preside over the golden age of the Kingdom.

His reign saw a great expansion of territory from all directions. In the east he subdued Saraluang (modern day Phichit), Song Khwae (modern day Phitsanulok), Lum (modern day Lom Sak), Bachai, Sakha, and across the Mekong River towards Wiangchan and Wiangkham. In the south, his exploit reach Khonthi, Phraek (modern day Paknam Pho), Suphannaphum, Ratburi, Phetchaburi, and down to the Isthmus of Kra then to Nakhon Si Thammarat. In his west, he invaded the lands of Muang Chot (modern day Mae Sot) and Hongsawati (in modern day Pegu region of Myanmar). To his north, his conquest reached Muang Phrae, Muang man, Muang Phlua, and then to Muang (Luang) Phrabang.

His rapid military exploit could be credited to self-sufficiency of the Sukhothai Kingdom. The numerous water systems and rivers allowed the creation of fertile plain. These plains produced bountiful harvests of rice and different food crops. The overwhelming produce allowed the creation and sustain a large army fit to fight a lot of battles. With war elephants and well fed soldiers, Ramkhamhaeng was able to annex vast tracts of land.

Other than military expeditions, he also was a shrewd diplomat. He was incredibly close to the Mongol Yuan Dynasty in China. He sent numerous envoys to China and became recognized as a vassal state. Sukhothai envoys were received in the years 1282, 1292, 1294, 1295, 1297, and 1299. According to stories, two of this embassies sent were even personally accompanied by Ramkhamhaeng. As a sign of recognition and respect to the King, the Chinese graciously gave to the Thais the art of ceramics making. Meanwhile, China also sent envoys to Sukhothai. In 1282, How Chow Chi went to the the Sukhothai Empire as an envoy from China.

Ramkamahaeng also made diplomatic relations with neighboring countries. He was able to form a triple alliance with two other neighboring countries, Ngam Muang of Phayao and Mangrai of Chiangrai. The alliance of trio was formed just in case of a Mongol invasion came from the north, from China. The alliance, however, was not problem-free. A controversy erupted when Ramkhamhaeng was said to have seduced a wife of King Ngam Muang. The personal level problems could have suddenly erupted to a war. But, the two decided to an arbitration by Mangrai of Chiangrai. Eventually, the dispute was solve, the seducer, Ramkhamhaeng, was made to compensate the Ngam Muang.

Ramkhamhaeng also had an initially shaky relation with King Wareru of Pegu. Wareru once served King Ramkhamhaeng as Makoto. Makoto unexpectedly fell in love with one of Ramkhamhaeng’s daughter. Because of this love, Makoto escaped Ramkhamhaeng’s palace, bringing with him the King’s daughter. Ramkhamhaeng saw this as kidnapping and wanted Makoto dead. Makoto escaped to the west, in Pegu. There he was able to launched a coup against the governor and established himself as King Wareru of the new Kingdom of Pegu. The Wareru might have sent his apologies for the abduction and Ramkhamhaeng needing a partner in the west to gain access to the seas, forgave and started good relations with Wareru.

In the domestic front, Sukhothai Empire experience prosperity. The economy was vibrant. The strong agriculture of the kingdom made the people happy. Trade was encouraged as Ramkhamhaeng never levied taxes. With his visits in China, the art of ceramic came to Sukhothai and local ceramics industry flourished. Kilns were built in Sukhothai and Sanghalok or Sawankhalok. Ceramics from Sawankahalok were then exported to archipelagic Southeast Asia, in particular, Philippines and Indonesia. Trade and agriculture brought huge wealth to the Kingdom of Sukhothai.

The King was also a patron of Theravada Buddhism. He sent missions to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) in order to bring back scriptures and holy relics. Some monks from Sri Lanka went to Sukhothai and established themselves firmly in the south, in Nakhom Si Thammarat. Buddhist temples or wats were built across the Kingdom. They propagated the Theravada Buddhism and also became the centers of learning for the nobles of the Kingdom.

This high level of piety also led to the fatherly image of king Ramkhamhaeng. As King, he saw himself as a father or Pho Khun and his subjects were his children. According to the stone stele, he hang a bell outside his palace where his subjects could ring it and voice their concerns to the King. Also in 1292, he ordered a stone slab called Manangasilabat to be used for preaching by monks or in some case, a throne for Ramkhamhaeng to discuss state matters with his council.

Eventually, his care for his people led to one of his greatest cultural achievement and contribution for the Thai people. In 1283, King Ramkhamhaeng developed the Thai sript. Letter that were heavily influenced by the Khmer and Sanskrit writing. He made it in purpose of giving the people the chance to read and learn.

The exact end of Ramkhamhaeng’s reign was unknown. Some said he died before 1300’s. But some argued he died after the first decade of the 14th century. Nevertheless, his son, Loe Thai succeeded him. For the Kingdom, it was an end of a golden era. For years after his reign end, Sukhothai’s influence and empire began to diminish slowly, until conquered once again by the Khmers. Sukhothai might have ended, but the reign of King Ramkhamhaeng the great is recognized by many, especially in form of his greatest invention, the Thai alphabet.  

Coedes, G. The Indianized States of Southeast Asia. Honolulu: East-West Center Press, 1968.

Fry, G. (et. al.). Historical Dictionary of Thailand. Maryland: Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2013. 

Mishra, P. The History of Thailand. California: ABC-CLIO, LLC, 2010.

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