This Ancient Land of Suvarnabhumi
the Golden Peninsula, Part 1
The terms "prehistoric man" and "pre-history" (meaning before history) are interesting in that they imply that man and his history has no beginning. Of course there is a beginning but the difficulty is in establishing what was what and who was where. Aside from a variety of religious beliefs, the only indications of possible answers are the animal and human remains, which have been unearthed by paleontologists and archeologists. It is now accepted that millions of years ago before the great continental plates drifted apart and before the coming of humankind, large, reptilian like creatures dominated the landmass. This was the age of the dinosaur and, to the great fascination of adults and children, their skeletal remains have been discovered in most parts of the world.
The dinosaur's demise, we are given to understand, was brought about from climate changes after a large asteroid impacted upon the Earth. Fossilized remains of these creatures have been unearthed in the Thai provinces of Chaiyapoom and Khon Kaen. Millions of years later humankind appeared and, experts tell us, the earliest evidence of our ancestors has been discovered in the Great Rift Valley in Africa. Undoubtedly, little groups of people formed in numerous places and, over countless generations, spread like ripples on a pond. Linked by family ties but drawn outward by need, opportunity and simple curiosity, these early peoples moved and migrated to where life best suited them.
The present day Kingdom of Thailand, as a political entity with set borders, does not reflect the full history of this huge area of South East Asia a region, according to known records, called Suvarnabhumi which means the Golden Peninsula. Drawn by the richly watered soils of the river basins Chao Phraya, Maekong, Moon, Ping, Yom, Nan and Kok small, nomadic tribal groups slowly gravitated from the highlands of the Himalayas and China (now Yunnan Province) to the Golden Peninsula. When these nomadic peoples met, they sometimes were friendly towards each other. They would mix, cohabit, perhaps form co-operative alliances with each other but they also often would fight for dominance and territorial gain. Groups and sub groups with names like Tai, Mon, Khmer, Jeen, Muser, Lao and Shan. They arrived and coalesced in the fertile region of Suvarnabhumi.
Hoabinhian the cave dwellers are from the earliest people (up to 50,000 years ago) who have been "rediscovered" from artifacts left behind. Krabi and Kanchanaburi provinces provide evidence of the Hoabinhian as do caves in the northern province of Mae Hong Sorn. Principally hunters and gatherers the Cave People also left artifacts which would seem to indicate the beginning of attempts at agriculture. Perhaps some 6,000 years ago nomadic life and isolation gave way to proper settlements.
This was the beginning of village life and probably the best known example in Thailand is the archaeological dig at Baan Chiang in Udon Thani Province. Thus "civilization" came to the Golden Peninsula 6,000 years ago and evidence at Baan Chiang suggests that our forefathers were already developing pottery, metallurgy, animal husbandry and agriculture. Other communities in the northeast, central and southern areas of Suvarnabhumi have been dated to 3,000 years ago with good evidence of inter-group contact suggesting the exchange of techniques, ideas and culture.
With the progress of contact and exchange, recognition of "who was whom" in the various communities became more important and a hierarchy of the strongest leaders and most influential became apparent. Those persons of little importance remained at their lowly position of servitude while "chiefs" rose to dominance. Villages became small towns, with earthen defensive moats, which began to band together to become small "kingdoms" and, as strength grew, other villages yielded to the power of the "King". There is much evidence of this on the Moon River to the east and, later, in the central area of the Chao Phraya River basin. Spoken language became that of the dominant group although local dialects continued to provide diversity and cultural dimension (as happens to this day).
Religious beliefs of these multi-ethnic and multi-cultural communities were largely animistic but around the 7th Century A.D., to the east on the Moon and Maekhong Rivers, a Hindu culture was showing itself. Meantime, Hinayana Bhuddism was appearing in settlements along the Chao Phraya River basin. Thanks to the increase in contact between communities and the activity in early commerce between Savarnabhumi and other regions (particularly China and the Indian sub-continent), the Golden Peninsula was experiencing other outside influences. Hinduism and Hinayana Bhuddism gave way to Theravada Bhuddism which was introduced from Sri Lanka through Southern Burma and the settlement at Nakhon Si Thammarat.
It is interesting that, to present times, a warm mix of animism co-exists alongside the main Buddhist beliefs of Siam. (NOTE : With the true meaning and representation of the term Hinayana, it means "The Less or Small Vehicle" preserves or limits the Buddhist doctrines to only those canons codified in the early Buddhist era. The term of Theravada refers only to the earliest form of Buddhism practiced during and after the lifetime of the Indian Buddhist Emperor Asoka or Ashoke, 267 B.E. to 227 B.E., dispatched missionaries to spread the Buddhist philosophy throughout the region. Meanwhile the Buddhist term Mahayana "The Greater Vehicle" which was built upon the earlier teachings, was expanded in order to respond more to the needs of lay people).
Thus Savarnabhumi the Golden Peninsula became a great crucible of different peoples who met, loved, worshipped, fought, battled, labored, struggled and survived to emerge as the Kingdom of Siam. Most groups, from even the earliest times, became linked by family ties and also cultural similarities. Two such important groups, one to the west of the Chao Phraya River at Suphanburi and the other to the east at Lopburi were linked by their own common histories of family and culture, however, they followed independent paths.
The group at Suphanburi used the name "Siam" while those at Lopburi were "Lavo" Eventually their best interests overcame their differences and, in the 14th Century, they amalgamated to create the Kingdom of Siam. The city of Ayutthaya would become the Kingdom's centre of culture, commerce and political power. Ayutthaya was situated on the great Chao Phraya River and with its sophistication, refinement, wonderful architecture, glistening spires of gold, tree-lined canals and seat of the King's Royal Court would be described by early European visitors as the Venice of the East. This was Golden Ayutthaya at the heart of Savarnabhumi the Golden Peninsula recorded (by non-Siamese writers) as being one of the most beautiful cities in the known world.
This is part of the legacy which this Ancient Land of Savarnabhumi the Golden Peninsula has gifted to modern day Thailand. A rich culture of diversity and also togetherness. A developing history of dance, music, craft, talent, architecture, design and the unique, definitive title of the Kingdom of Siam. Many people, whose ancestors helped shape the region of Savarnabhumi, cherish its name and that which it was to become the Kingdom of Siam. And who are we to disagree?