April 24, 2014  Tai |Thai 
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Buddhism in Ayutthaya (1351-1767)

By Sao Indobhasa


The core of what was to become the kingdom of Ayutthaya had in the thirteen century been the western provinces of the Angkorian Empire in the region centered on a province, now called Lopburi.1 Although the personal name of the founder of Ayutthaya was not known, most scholars agree that he was the prince of U Thong, who belonged to the rulers of Chiang Seng, now Suphan on March 4, 1351.2 U Thong, also known as Phrya U Thong after founding Ayutthaya, assumed the title of Ramathibodi, which was to be assumed by many other kings of Siam later.3 The reason that led to the establishment of Ayutthaya is not known, though it may be contributed to the Tai’s4 continued move to southward onto the central plain.5

Geographically situated on an island in the Chao Phraya, a point reachable by seagoing vassals on the northwestern edge of the powerful Khmer empire, Ayutthaya was first only a small city-state.6  However, by the mid of 13C when Angkor’s control over the region faded, Ayutthayan Tai kings succeeded in pushing the Khmer back, and in 1431 the Tai sacked Angkor, the great capital of the Khmer. (Wars against neighbouring powers were to remain endemic throughout the Ayutthayan period.)

In 1438 Sukhothai, once a more powerful Thai kingdom, was made a province of Ayutthaya.7 Whereas Sukhothai was an independent kingdom for only about 200 years (11 – 13 AD), its successor, Ayutthaya—situated in the rich rice plains of the Chao Phraya River basin, about 55 miles north of present-day Bangkok—lasted more than 400 years (1351 – 1767).8 During the Ayutthayan period the Tai consolidated their position as the leading power in what is now central and north-central Thailand, as well as throughout much of its southern peninsular region. Since many of Ayutthaya's neighbours called the country “Siam”, the Tai of Ayutthaya came to be known as the Siamese.9

Khmer Influence and Years of Development

When the Siamese conquered Angkor, they brought many Khmer captives back to Ayutthaya with them. Some had been officials or craftsmen at the Khmer royal court. From them Ayutthaya's rulers adopted many Hindu practices that had been followed by the Khmer, including the concept of the ruler as god-king (devaraja). The power of the ruler was enhanced not only through symbolic and ideological concepts drawn from Khmer-Hindu beliefs about the god-king but also through the centralization of political power.

King Boromma Trailokanat, or Trailok (ruled 1448–88) created a state in which the ruler stood at the centre of a series of concentric circles. He took efforts on reforming the kingdom’s laws and strengthening his administration.10 He was the first king who promulgated the system of law in Siam history.11 He issued two important pieces of legislation—the Law of the Civil Hierarchy and the Law of the Military and Provincial Hierarchies.12 As in the müang system, the outer circles were governed by hereditary lords, or chao. The inner circles, however, were administered by officeholders appointed by the king, and thus these operated to a limited degree on bureaucratic rather than hereditary lines.13

The Tai kings of Ayutthaya also issued formal codes of civil and criminal law based on the ancient Indian body of jurisprudence called the Dharma-sastra. At the same time, a formal and highly complex hierarchical system assigned each person a varying number of units (sakdi na) that designated one's rank within society. At the bottom of the scale, a slave was worth 5 units; freemen were ranked at 25 and above, while the heir apparent was assigned no fewer than 100,000 units.14 For instance, the Chao Phryas, holding important posts, were allowed to hold from 1,000 to 4,000 acres. Subordinate officials, such as Khuns and Luangs, held from 160 acres upwards. Common people held 10 acres.15

The mass of the people in Ayutthayan times were peasant farmers, either freemen or slaves. The latter included war captives, bondsmen, and debtors. Freemen were obliged to work for six months each year for the local representatives of the king, to pay taxes, and to provide military service as required. An intricate patronage system extended throughout society, whereby clients provided their patrons with services in return for the protection of the patrons. Ayutthaya was an under-populated society, and the constant need for manpower helped protect clients from excessive demands by patrons; if the demands of the patrons became too burdensome, the freeman could always move and take up new land as a last resort.16

Despite the introduction of Brahmanism into court ritual and the admixture of animism and superstition that pervaded religious practice at all levels of society, Theravāda Buddhism took deep root throughout Siam during the Ayutthayan times.

Buddhism in Ayutthaya

Buddhism, with its strong monastic establishment, played an important role in society, forming a focal point for village life, providing young males with an education, and offering those who elected to remain in the monkhood (sangha) a channel for upward social mobility.17 The reign of Boromaraja I was an important period in the history of Ayutthaya which became the famous center of Siam, not only politically but also spiritually. The rulers of Ayutthaya, who sent triennial tribute missions to the Chinese imperial court and emissaries abroad as far a field as Europe, also established Buddhist missions in Sri Lanka.

Contact with Ceylon was maintained as in the Sukhothai period. Monks during the early Ayutthaya period continued to look to Ceylon for authority of Theravada Buddhism. Many of them went to the island for ordination and study. A group of monks consisting of ten bhikkhus came back from Ceylon to establish a new fraternity of gāmavāsīn that became known as gāmavāsī khwa, “town-dweller of the right”. They are said to have been ordained on a raft in the Kalyani River in Sri Lanka in 1423 with Vanaratana Mahāthera as their preceptor. From that time Ayutthaya had three nikāyas, gāmavāsī chai, “the left town-dweller”, araññavāsī, “forest-dweller”, and gāmavāsī khwa, “the right town-dweller”.18 The right town-dwellers formed a new Lankawong (Lankāvamsa), “the Sri Lankan lineage”. The post of sangharājā was usually occupied by the gāmavāsī chai, “the left town-dweller”, the older group of the town-dwellers. The heads of the other two nikāyas assisted the sangharājā in the ecclesiastical administration. The abbot of Wat Mahathat (Mahādhātu), Ariyavamsa, the Sangharājā, is said to have had authority over ecclesiastical affairs in the north, northeast and some part of central Ayutthaya. The head of the right town-dwellers was in charge of the south and some part of central Ayutthaya while the head of the forest-dwellers took charge of all belonging to his sect in all parts of Ayutthaya.19 We are not certain if the structure of the Sangha administration was directly related to the secular model at Ayutthaya.

There were two sangharājās under Naresuan, who was a prisoner at Ava under Bayin Naung before becoming a warrior monarch at Ayutthaya. One of them was a Mon monks who helped him escape from Taung-oo in 1592 saving his life. This monk had jurisdiction over the north section while the former head, Somdech Vanarat became the Sangharājā for the south section.20

The End of Ayutthaya

The kings of Ayutthaya are said to have fought a war every six years.21 Ayutthaya attacked its neighbours such as Cambodia, Malaya and Laos, and was in turn attacked by some of them. In the second half of the sixteenth century Tabinshwethi (1531-1550) of Taungoo with a large army invaded Ayuthaya during the reign of King Maha Chakrapa’t (1549-1564). Then, Bayinnaung (1551-1581), who had his capital at Pegu (Hamsavati), conquered Ayutthaya twice in 1563 and 1569.22 The attack on Ayutthaya continued under the Kon-baung kings, beginning from Alaungpaya (1752-60).23 Ayutthaya was destroyed in March, 1767 resulting in its being abandoned.24 Many captives were taken away. As the political situation was in turmoil, the progress of Buddhism was affected. Despites king Bayinnaung’s great contribution to the cause of Buddhism in Ayutthaya during his rule as a vassal state, many monuments, cultural and religious sites were lost in the last war.25

Phaya Taksin, a Thai general who promoted himself to be king in 1769, abandoned the ruined Ayutthaya and established a new capital further south in Thonburi on the western bank of Chao Phraya River, opposite Bangkok.26 Professor Wyatt said that King Taksin became arbitrary and dictatorial, even requiring Buddhist monks to pay homage to him.27 Thais regained control of their country and thus scattered themselves to the provinces in the north and central part of Thailand.28


End Notes :

  1. Wyatt, David K., Thailand: A Short History. p.63.
  2. Wood, W.A.R., A History of Siam. p. 62. [Ayutthaya was founded in 1350]. Hazra, Kanai Lal, History of Theravada Buddhism in South-East Asia, p. 152.; http://sunsite.au.ac.th/thailand/thai_his/ayutthaya.html;
    Wyatt, David K, Thailand, (article), Encarta encyclopedia Online Deluxe Ed., 2002.; http://encarta.msn.com/find/print.asp?&pg=8&ti=76151385&sc=6&pt=1&pn=7.
  3. Ibid, p. 63.
  4. Tai, without aspirated ”h” spelling denotes the early Tai people in general who migrated southward, after the conquered of Kublai Khan Empire from their home land, Nan Chao— to modern Shan State, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam and Assam. The aspirated Thai will be used when refer to modern Thai history in this study.
  5. Wyatt, David K, Thailand, (article), Encarta Encyclopedia Online Deluxe Ed., 2002. http://encarta.msn.com/find/print.asp?&pg=8&ti=76151385&sc=6&pt=1&pn=7.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Encyclopaedia Britannica, CD-ROM Deluxe Edition, 2002.
  8. http://sunsite.au.ac.th/thailand/thai_his/ayutthaya.html; Wyatt, David K., Thailand, (article), Encarta Encyclopedia Online Deluxe Ed., 2002.; http://encarta.msn.com/find/print.asp?&pg=8&ti=76151385&sc=6&pt=1&pn=7; http://sunsite.au.ac.th/thailand/thai_his/ayutthaya.html.
  9. Encyclopaedia Britannica, CD-ROM Deluxe Edition, 2002
  10. Wyatt, David K, Thailand, (article), Encarta Encyclopedia Online Deluxe Ed., 2002. http://encarta.msn.com/find/print.asp?&pg=8&ti=76151385&sc=6&pt=1&pn=7
  11. Hall, D.G.E, A History of South-East Asia, p. 193.
  12. Wyatt, K. David. Thailand: A Short History, p.73.
  13. Encyclopaedia Britannica, CD-ROM Deluxe Edition, 2002.
  14.   ibid.; Wyatt, K. David, Thailand: A Short History, p.73;  Hall, D.G.E, A History of South-East Asia, p. 196.
  15. Wood, W.A.R., A History of Siam. p. 85.
    [regarding on rank of sakdi na provisions or measurements were varied from one another in the above mention sources.]
  16. Encyclopaedia Britannica, CD-ROM Deluxe Edition, 2002.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Swaeng Udomsri, Karn Bokkhrong Khanasong Thai, pp. 69-70.
  19.   Ibid.
  20.  Prince Dhaninivat Bidyalabh, A History of Buddhism in Siam, p. 19.
  21. Col. Damnoen Lekhakun, Kanthahan samai ayuthaya, in Ruam Pathakatha ngan anuson ayuthaya 200 pi, 2 Vols. BKK, 2510 (1967), II, p. 153.
  22. Ibid. p. 164-5
  23. Wyatt, David K, Thailand, (article), Encarta Encyclopedia Online Deluxe Ed., 2002; http://encarta.msn.com/find/print.asp?&pg=8&ti=76151385&sc=6&pt=1&pn=7.
  24. http://sunsite.au.ac.th/thailand/thai_his/ayutthaya.html; Wyatt, David K, Thailand, (article), Encarta Encyclopedia Online Deluxe Ed., 2002; http://encarta.msn.com/find/print.asp?&pg=8&ti=76151385&sc=6&pt=1&pn=7.;
    Hall, D.G.E., A History of South-East Asia, p. 434.;  Wyatt, David K, Thailand, (article), Encarta Encyclopedia Online Deluxe Ed., 2002; http://encarta.msn.com/find/print.asp?&pg=8&ti=76151385&sc=6&pt=1&pn=7.
  25. Encyclopaedia Britannica, CD-ROM Deluxe Edition, 2002.; Hall, D.G.E. A History of South-East Asia, p. 434.
  26.   Wyatt, David K, Thailand, (article), Encarta Encyclopedia Online Deluxe Ed., 2002; http://encarta.msn.com/find/print.asp?&pg=8&ti=76151385&sc=6&pt=1&pn=7
  27. Ibid.
  28. http://sunsite.au.ac.th/thailand/thai_his/ayutthaya.html





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