Capital of a Kingdom, Part 1
There are many places in our world which remind us of former glories of man's ingenuity, industry, artistry, faith in his beliefs and his inhumanity to his own humankind. Places like Machu Pichu, the Roman Forum, Angkor Wat, the Valley of the Kings, the Acropolis and Ayutthaya. All now nothing more than piles of ruins swept through by the dust of history and, nowadays, trampled through by inquisitive tourists and earnest academics.
Ayutthaya was the great, and Royal Capital of Thailand (Siam). Greater, and certainly more sophisticated and elegant than presentday Bangkok, Ayutthaya was the seat of Siamese power and endeavour for 417 years (approximately twice as long as Bangkok has been, to date). What happened to this once powerful and beautiful city? If you have wandered the ancient stones of Ayutthaya (a "must see" site in Thailand) and using the timemachine of our imagination we can think back and, perhaps, envisage something of those times.
Ayutthaya was established in 1350 by Prince UThong after the demise of Sukhothai (the first Thai capital which, eventually, amalgamated with Ayutthaya). As in other parts of Asia, and Europe, Kingdoms were in a state of flux as barons, petty princes and potential conquerors fought for areas of power and influence. Timur the Lame (Tamerlane) had just assumed the title of Great Khan and, with his Mongol hordes, would eventually invade Russia. For centuries, the Tai (Thai) people had been drifting south from their native Yunnan Province, in China, and had settled throughout what is now North Thailand. This migratory process was speeded thanks to the predatory movements of Kublai Khan (grandson of Genghis Khan). The Thais called this fertile area the "Golden Peninsula" and, to firmly establish themselves, wrested the city of Sukhothai from Cambodian influence. From this background, descended directly from King Chiang Saen, sprang Prince UThong. Upon the founding of his capital, Ayutthaya, 400 miles south of Sukhothai, he was crowned King UThong (Rama Thibordi I) in 1350.
By all the requirements perceived in those days, the site for Ayutthaya was a well chosen, defensive site. The city was founded on an island at the junction of three rivers the Lop Buri River, the Pa Sak River and, most importantly, the Menam (River) Chao Phraya. An excellent site for river transport, trade and commerce. Strategically, the island level was raised considerably to enhance its defensive position and place it well above the floodplain of the surrounding rivers. Slowly the city took shape, grew and prospered as King UThong organized his administration of government systems and enacted a rule of law. He further extended his Kingdom by taking Sukhothai and some parts of, what was then, Cambodia including Chainat and Lopburi. The consolidation of power, and the extension should opportunity arise, was very much the name of the game. King Rama Thibordi I (UThong) ruled his Kingdom of Ayutthaya for 19 years until his death, at the age of 55 years, in 1369.
King UThong's son, Phra Ramesuan, succeeded his father to the Throne of Ayutthaya but, after reigning only one year, he abdicated in favor of his Uncle (who became King Borom raja Thiraj) and returned to live at Lop Buri. King Borom Rajathiraj ruled for a further 10 years and led military excursions as far north as Chiangmai where he failed and, returning from the north, died amidst his army. His young, 15 years old son, Prince Thong Lun, succeeded his father, however, he reigned for only 7 days because his cousin, Phra Ramesuan, returned from Lop Buri, put the teenage King to death, and retook Ayutthaya's Throne for a second time. Such were the goings on during those days of powerstruggle and dominance. Royal rivalries, Court intrigues, betrayals, military campaigns and natural accessions saw Monarchs come and go over the following 150 year period. Nevertheless, the Kingdom of Ayutthaya continued to grow and prosper, extending its influence and power in every direction. During the reign of King Rama Thibordi II (149-11529) a certain Vasco da Gama arrived form Portugal and established a settlement at Malacca (now within Malaysia). However, Malacca was governed by a vassal Malay Sultan and part of the Kingdom of Ayutthaya's influence. The Portuguese, fully aware of Ayutthaya's authority, sent emissaries to negotiate with the Thai King. So the representatives from King Manuel of Portugal were the first to establish a formal relationship between a European country and Thailand (it is interesting to note that Portugal is also the oldest ally of England).
Within the Island Kingdom of Ayutthaya people came to live, work and prosper (King Nakorn Intra actually visited China and many Chinese people began to immigrate to Thailand) Court officials, government servants, craftsmen, artisans and scholars of Buddhist teaching all played their part in the building of Royal Palaces, ornate Buddhist Temples and Chedis and creating a transportation network across and around the island. It was patterned with a lattice of roads and canals and there was a wide, treelined avenue that ran from the Royal palace, in a straight line, to the southern limit of the city. This was the "Royal Way" as the Monarch, atop the most majestic of caparisoned elephants, led his state officers and army on royal procession.
Particularly during the reign of King Chairaja Thiraj (153-41546) waterborne transport and commerce was developed. This King had a new "shortcut" canal engineered and cut from Bangkok Noi Canal to Bangkok Yai Canal and, such was the great flow of water, this canal (klong) eventually became the natural flow of the Chao Phya River. As water was the norm for transport and communication, most of the city's residential and market areas trailed along the line of canals. When the Monarch left his Grand Palace by water, he travelled aboard his Royal Barge which was crewed by splendidly uniformed oarsmen who paddled in rhythm to the beat of a giant drum. It must have been a spectacular sight.
But all was not to last; the Burmese army were in a strong position in the north and had seized Chiangmai. This posed a major threat to Ayutthaya's authority and security so the first war between the armies of Burma and Ayutthaya was inevitable. So, almost 200 years after its foundation, the Island Kingdom of Ayutthaya had war at its city gates.
The great heroine of that war was Queen Suriyothai, wife of King Chakrapat, who gave her own life to save that of her husband.