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The establishment of urban societies
in the Chiangmai - Lamphun Basin

The establishment of urban societies in the Chiangmai - Lamphun Basin (Based on pronunciation, the spelling should be "Lumpoon") began in the Hariphunchai period, from the 8th to the 13th centuries A.D. Prior to the 8th century various tribal states had developed, based on loose collections of villages located primarily along the Ping River, with some located on the plateau nearer Lamphun. The chronicles of the period tell us that the natives had already reached a level of basic knowledge of social organization, the rotation of crop planting and the making of iron tools. This kind of knowledge became more advanced with the emergence of the city state of Hariphunchai.

The birth of Hariphoonchai was achieved on the basis of pre-existing prosperous local communities. The previous development of the indigenous peoples helped forge networks with already more advanced outside communities, making possible further development of the region. In addition, there were incentives from the trading network that existed between the coastal harbors in central Thailand and those river ports deep inside the North. Hariphoonchai, situated as it was on the Ping River between them, gained wealth from that network. It served as a supplier of forest products which were sent to the coastal harbors of the central region.

Five ancient towns of the wiang type (having ramparts and moats) dated from the Hariphoonchai period, i.e., Lamphun (Hariphoonchai), Wiang Mano, Wiang Tho, Wiang Tha Gaan and Wiang Hord. Additionally, there were communities of the village type, having neither ramparts nor moats, scattered around the Hariphoonchai vicinity. These communities were all located in the valley of the Ping River, and had close cultural and trade relationships with Hariphoonchai. At one time, the city state had an estimated 7,000 villages under its control, sprawling along the banks of the Ping.

The majority of the towns were situated in the southern parts of the Chiangmai-Lumphun Basin. The northernmost town in the region was located only about 8 kilometers northwest of present day Lamphun. This means that the southern section, which was an extensive plain, and probably more fertile, was also the more densely populated. The northern part of the Basin comprises areas of the districts of Mae Taeng, Mae Rim, San Zai, San Kampaeng, Doi Saket and Chiangmai. The plain here was narrower and probably less populated, as no evidence of any wiang or art objects from the Hariphunchai period have ever been found here. It is likely that the upper part of the Basin was the periphery of the Hariphoonchai state where the ruler's effective control was weak.

There were several conditions which enabled Hariphoonchai to develop from a tribal state into a kingdom:

1. Buddhism : Queen Jaammathewee, the first ruler, established Buddhism firmly in the Hariphunchai region in order to fuse the consciousness of different ethnic groups. The later kings of Hariphoonchai unified the state and organized the society through Buddhism, which gradually replaced a variety of local traditional beliefs. The common belief in Buddhism led to the building of temples and religious objects that represent the unique art of Hariphoonchai.

2. The founding of urban communities : The state took its roots from the founding of Hariphoonchai town as its center. Thereafter, other towns were formed around it. In this process, people from various places were gathered to form larger political units, which contributed to the strengthening of the state. The founding of urban communities marked an important process of political change.

3. Cultural and trade networks : Hariphoonchai took its original shape from the culture with roots from the Dvaravadi culture in the plain of the Chao Phraya River. Eventually, this culture merged with the local culture creating the unique culture of Hariphoonchai. Apart from culture, trade played a further unifying role by forging networks between trade centers. Towns founded near the river could contact each other by water, and served as trading gateways to other states.

Between the early 13th and the mid-16th centuries, the government in the Chiangmai-Lumphun Basin prospered considerably as the regions of Hariphoonchai and Yonok (to the north) became unified in a kingdom of large size and sophisticated political structure. This was the beginning of the Lanna Kingdom. During this time, the number of newly established communities which were surrounded by earthen ramparts and moats increased. This brought together people who were scattered. In the Lanna period, settlements expanded considerably in the northern section of the Chiangmai-Lumphun Basin, which had been sparsely populated or waste land during the Hariphoonchai period preceding. Ancient communities during the Lanna period can be divided into three categories:

  • Communities with ramparts and moats in the vicinity of Chiangmai
  • Communities with ramparts and moats in other areas
  • Communities without ramparts and moats

The Mengrai Dynasty The founding of an extensive state by King Mengrai late in the 13th century resulted in the expansion of the frontier and an increase of population. These changes required a powerful capital with continuous and stable political institutions. This grand idea stood behind the founding of Chiangmai by King Mengrai. After having found a suitable site (the site of present day Chiangmai), the King devised a city plan according to which the city was built on high, level ground, surrounded by water. The physical structure of the city was made up of two compartments: the first was the square-shaped wiang of the inner city, the other was the enclosing outer earthen rampart whose shape resembled a crescent.

The use of space in Chiangmai was based on concepts different from older ones. The capital was no longer just a royal residence, but also had space allotted to members of the royal family, the officials and the commoners. In addition, land was reserved for state institutions such as the government office, granaries, large meeting grounds, markets and temples. Chiangmai thus became the center of economic wealth and administrative power of the Lanna Kingdom under King Mengrai.

Other ancient towns were scattered around and, unlike the towns of the "Chiangmai group", were not closely knit. These small-sized towns were situated in the former sparsely populated outer regions of Hariphunchai close to mountain areas or along tributaries to the Ping River.

The founding of towns during the Mengrai Dynasty reflected great prospering of the country. Urban expansion was considerable compared to the number of towns which had existed during the Hariphoonchai period. Various factors contributed to these changes. First of all, the Lanna adapted several aspects of Hariphoonchai culture. The Mon alphabet was used to create the Dhamma script as a medium of communication in administration and culture. The indigenous form of Dvaradi Buddhism was continued. Architectural styles of Hariphunchai were retained. The state of Lanna not only adopted many aspects of Hariphunchai culture, but also other indigenous cultures, such as that of the Lua. From the fusion of these different cultures, a unique Lanna culture emerged, unifying all the communities in the Chiangmai-Lumphun Basin.

Secondly, Lanna used Buddhism as a tool to instill spiritual unity among its population. The kings of the Mengrai Dynasty were ardent devotees of Buddhism and their policies helped Buddhism prosper throughout the Lanna Kingdom. Large numbers of wat (temples) were built at that time, even in small towns. Each town had its main wat, and also several others. Lanna seemed to have been far more successful in promoting and spreading Buddhism than Hariphoonchai.

And, thirdly, the founding of towns along trading routes which occurred in response to the importance of trade and commerce during the Lanna period. These towns were places to exchange goods and offered facilities and protection for merchants. During the Lanna period, the commercial network along the Ping River and its tributaries expanded as never before.

During the Burmese rule from 1558 to 1775, there is no evidence of new towns being built in the Chiangmai-Lumphun Basin. As a result of wars and internal unrest, Lanna became both deserted and depopulated. In 1782, King Gawila was appointed the vassal king of Chiangmai. The city was deserted, and trying to restore it proved to be difficult due to a serious shortage of manpower and the control of most of Lanna by Burmese troops. It took fourteen years, but King Gawila was finally able to restore Chiangmai in 1796. When he did, he rebuilt the city wall and various forts near its corners, because the Burmese threat had not yet disappeared.

It can be argued that the reign of King Gawila was the last period of the founding of fortified towns in Lanna. Later the military threat gradually diminished and traditional methods of warfare disappeared. The city wall of Chiangmai lost its military function and, due to neglect, fell into decay. However, civic efforts over the past several years have seen all four of the original corners of the old inner city wall restored, along with some portions of the wall itself. And, of course, the original moat is still in place, so even today, it is possible to visualize the original Chiangmai city plan as it was conceived and constructed under King Mengrai over 700 years ago.


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