Rama I: Founder of the Chakri Dynasty

Rama I
As the Siamese saw the fall of the once great kingdom of Ayudhya, a new kingdom rose from the ashes. Under a great general named Taksin, the Siamese saw the foundation of the Kingdom of Thonburi. It reunited the lands of the fallen Ayudhyan kingdom and began to expand its domains. It became a powerful kingdom to strike a blow to the power of its equally domineering neighbor – the Burmese Kingdom of Ava. However, Thonburi and Taksin won’t last for a century. Because only few decades, a new man rose to power and establish a new dynasty that would rule and symbolize the Siamese or Thai people, the Chakri Dynasty. It founder – Rama I – would continue the works of Taksin and built a powerful Kingdom of Siam.

King Buddha Yodfa Rama I (1737 – 1809) was the founder of the Chakri Dynasty and the King of Siam or the Rattanakosin Kingdom (1782 – 1809). Like Taksin, he came from a distant Chinese heritage. He served the Ayudhyan family and met in the process, the governor of Tak – Taksin. The two became close until in 1782, Rama took control and establish the Chakri Dynasty.

The life of King Rama I began on March 20, 1737. His original name was Thong Duang. He came from a noble family. His father, Phra Akson Sundara Smiantra, was an aristocrat with Burmese Mon ancestry. His mother, Daoreung, came from a heritage of Siamese and Chinese. With his noble background, Thong Duang had the privilege of education. And like all other sons of nobles, he received his education from a Buddhist monastery. Under the guidance of Buddhist monks, he became entrenched to Buddhism and Indian arts and culture. During the course of his study he studied the Pali text. He also became aware of different Indian literary works, among his favorite was the Ramayana. From his years as a student of Buddhist monks, he respected the monks for their wisdom and intellectual capacities and later during his reign, he would sought their guidance.

After his studies he began a career in royal Ayudhyan court. His father entered him to serve in the household of King Uthumpon. Later, he became the governor of Ratchaburi under the King Ekatat. In the process of becoming the governor and a high official, he met a fellow rising official. His name was Sin, who became the Governor of Tak and turned to be known as Taksin.

In 1767, the capital Ayudhya, along with its Kingdom, fell in the hands of the Burmese King Hsinbyushin. The capital was sacked and the kingdom disintegrated into five powerful principalities. Among this principalities was in the east, in the coastlines of the Gulf of Thailand. That principality was under the leadership of Taksin. During the fall of Ayudhya, Taksin, and Thong Duang escaped along with 500 loyal supporters. From their headquarters in the east, they captured Chanthaburi, and later marched back west and captured the port of Thonburi in 1768. There, Taksin established his rule and the Thonburi Kingdom. Thong Duang served as a general of Taksin’s army and contributed to the fall of rival Siamese principalities and the unification of the former lands of Ayudhya. Later on, Thong Duang helped also in defeating Burmese armies attempting to invade Thonburi. As a reward and a sign of appreciation to Thong Duang, Taksin elevated him to the position of Chao Phraya Chakri or Prime Minister. Later on, he was then given the title Somdetch Chao Phraya Maha Kashatriya Suk, which was equivalent to the position Grand Duke.

Chao Phraya Chakri’s position as a great military general further as he became involved in several campaigns. In 1778, Chao Phraya Chakri led an attack against Vientiane in the north, in modern day Laos. The attack was successful. Among the spoils of war was the Emerald Buddha, which was returned to Siamese hands and graced the capital city of Thonburi. Chao Phraya Chakri also led a campaign against the Cambodians.

During his campaign in Cambodia, conditions in Thonburi deteriorated. In 1782, Taksin became unpopular to most of the nobles and the Buddhist monks. During the late 1770’s Taksin underwent a huge transformation from a great military leader to an insane religious fanatic. Taksin claimed himself as a Buddha and forced all to recognize it. Refuse to recognize Taksin statues meant arrest, torture, and, ultimately, death. This brutality and insult to Buddhism caused nobles to lose faith on Taksin. Furthermore, they saw Taksin as lunatic and insane. In anger, the nobles revolted and toppled down Taksin. Chao Phraya Chakri rushed back to Thonburi and rescued Taksin.

However, in a surprising turn, Chao Phraya Chakri turned against Taksin. Some historians said that he had Taksin executed. But some believed that Taksin was sent into exile in the south where he lived in seclusion as a monk. Nevertheless, the fact is that Chao Phraya Chakri made Taksin disappear, paving the way for the start of a new dynasty.

Chao Phraya Chakri had a large support. Nobles supported him because they prefer him rather than a mad king and also for his great contributions in military affairs. He also received support from the Buddhist hierarchy after Chao Phraya Chakri promised to support and provide patronage to Buddhism.

With support from the high echelons of society, Chao Phraya Chakri established a new dynasty. The Chakri began under his rule. He took the name Buddha Yodfa Chulaloke. But he was better known for another name. A name that mirror his admiration for Prince Rama of Ramayana and the glory of the founder of the once great Ayudhyan King Ramathibodi – Rama I.

To start fresh, Rama decided to establish a new capital. A capital that would embody the authority and the glory of his new dynasty. Just near Thonburi, in the island of Rattanakosin, he established his new capital. From the name of the island, his new kingdom became known as Rattanakosin. In order to begin the construction of his majestic new capital, Rama moved the Chinese community settling in the area to another place known as Sampheng. Then, construction of the palaces, administration buildings, monuments, and temples began in the earnest. For three years, Rama waited for his capital to rise up from the banks of the Menam Chao Phraya. In 1785, the city was finally inaugurated. It was given the longest name ever for a city. The name translates: “The city of angels, the great city, the residence of the Emerald Buddha, the impregnable city (of Ayutthaya) of God Indra, the grand capital of the world endowed with nine precious gems, the happy city, abounding in an enormous Royal Palace that resembles the heavenly abode where reigns the reincarnated god, a city given by Indra and built by Vishnukarn.” Or known today as Bangkok. The new capital had edifices and monuments with the phrases venerating the city, like “The City of Angels” and “Grand Capital of the World.” At the middle of Rama’s new capital was the Grand Palace and the temple Wat Phra Kaew that housed the treasured Emerald Buddha.

Indeed, the Grand Capital of the World became a center of a military power. Following his rise to power, Rama began an active military campaign. The first notable campaign was in the east, in neighboring Vietnam. In 1784, Lord Nguyen Anh, the future Emperor Gia Long, requested King Rama I for military assistance in order to topple down the Tay Son Dynasty. Rama agreed to send a huge military expeditionary force. However, the venture in Vietnam failed tragically. In a single battle, Siam lost a huge number of men and ships. Casualties were estimated to be more than 18,000. The disaster in Vietnam, however, was sufficed by victories in west, against Burmese kingdom Ava. The Burmese began another invasion of Siamese lands under the leadership of King Bodawpaya in 1785. However, Rama managed to repel the invasion and in 1786, he hit them with a blow that would eliminate the threat of Burma for decades. In 1795, Rama invaded Cambodia and installed a pro-Siam King, Bodawpaya. Bodawpaya in exchange, gave Battambang and Siem Reap to Siam. Following the fall of Cambodia to Rama’s influence, Vientiane, bowed to the suzerainty of Rattanakosin. In 1802, Rama turned his attention to the south. Pattani, a province near the Malay Peninsula, was in rebellion. Rama sent an army to crush the rebellion and finally decided to annex the province. As a result of the invasion, Many Malay Sultans, like Kedah, bowed to Rama’s dominance and power. They paid homage to the King by sending him a Bunga Mas or Golden Leaves. Rama through sheer military forces expanded the reaches of the Rattanakosin.

Besides military affairs, King Rama also dealt with domestic affairs, like administration. King Rama formed a Kingdom with a centralized government headed by the King wielding absolute power. For local administration, he divided the Kingdom into 48 provinces. Each provinces placed under the care of a governor who served for 3 years. In order to aid in watching over the provinces, three ministers were appointed: the Minister of the North or Mahat Thai, the Minister of the South or Kalahom, and the Minister of Finance or Khlang. Much of this positions became under the dominance of Persian descent families known as the Bunnags. For decades to come, the Bunnags would play a huge part in politics. In the field of law, in 1795, Rama appointed a commission composed of 11 men to review the laws made during the time of King Ramathibodi, the first king of Ayudhya. Then in 1804, he promulgated the Tra Sam Duang or the Laws of the Three Seals which covers military, economic, and domestic affairs.

Other than administration, Rama made true of his promise as a patron of Buddhism. Among his first act was making an edict that banned sinful activities like cock fighting. He also 1784 up to 1801, Rama also launch a crackdown against corruption and heresy within the ranks of the Buddhist monk-hood. In 1788, Rama organized a 250-member council with monks and scholars to recreate and improve the religious Tripitaka. In order to cement the Kings role as patron of Buddhism, Rama made the decision to make the position Supreme Patriarch for he and other future kings to hold.

His devotion to administration and religion also mirrored his passion for arts and letters. As part of his religious devotion as well, Rama ordered the translation of the Ceylonese text, Mahavamsa, into Siamese language. The Mahavamsa was a historical and also religiously significant work. Also, dance dramas, like Datang, flourished under Rama’s rule. He also patronized the composition of the Phra Rajanibonh or royal writings. But his greatest cultural achievement was his part in the creation of the Thai version of the Indian epic Ramayana known as the Ramakien.

The reign of King Rama I ended on September 7, 1809. The King passed away at the age of 73. In his wake, he left his kingdom to his son. He left a powerful kingdom which would remain independent even in the face of overwhelming might and pressure from the growing imperial ambitions of the west. He left a dynasty which even today inspire and symbolize the Thai people. He left a majestic capital, which is today considered one of the top destinations in Asia. 

Chandler, D. et. al.  In Search of Southeast Asia: A Modern HistoryHonolulu: University of Hawaii Press,1987.

Mishra, P. The History of Thailand. California: Greenwood, 2010.


"Chao Phraya Chakri Buddha Yodfa Chulaloke [Rama I]." Thailand's World. Accessed May 9, 2013. http://www.thailandsworld.com/en/thailand/thai-people/chao-phraya-chakri-rama-1/index.cfm

"PHRA BUDDHA YODFA CHULALOKE MAHARAJ KING RAMA I (1782-1809)." Huahin Tourist Information. Accessed May 9, 2013. http://www.huahin-tourist-information.com


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