The kingdom of Ayutthaya (อาณาจักรอยุธยา) was a Thai kingdom that existed from 1351 to 1767. Ayutthaya was friendly towards foreign traders, including the Chinese, Vietnamese (Annam), Indians, Japanese and Persians, and later the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and French, permitting them to set up villages outside the city walls. In the sixteenth century, it was described by foreign traders as one of the biggest and wealthiest city in the East. The court of King Narai (1656-1688) had strong links with that of King Louis XIV of France, whose ambassadors compared the city in size and wealth to Paris. Before Ayutthaya fell to Burmese attack in 1767, its vassals included the Northern Shan states of present- day Myanmar, Lanna (Chiang Mai, Yunnan & Shan Sri (China), Lan Xang (Laos), Cambodian Kingdom, and some city- states in the Malay Peninsula.
Ramathibodi tried to unify his kingdom. In 1360 he declared Theravada Buddhism the official religion of Ayutthaya and brought members of a sangha, a Buddhist monastic community, from Ceylon to establish new religious orders and spread the faith among his subjects. He also compiled a legal code, based on the Indian Dharmashastra (a Hindu legal text) and Thai custom, which became the basis of royal legislation. Composed in Pali -- an Indo-Aryan language closely related to Sanskrit and the language of the Theravada Buddhist scriptures -- it had the force of divine injunction. Supplemented by royal decrees, Ramathibodi's legal code remained generally in force until the late nineteenth century.
The Thai kingdom was not a single, unified state but rather a patchwork of self-governing principalities and tributary provinces owing allegiance to the king of Ayutthaya under the mandala system. These countries were ruled by members of the royal family of Ayutthaya who had their own armies and warred among themselves, as well as self governing but subservient Malay states in the south. The king had to be vigilant to prevent royal princes from combining against him or allying with Ayutthaya's enemies. Due to the lack of succession law and strong concept of merit, whenever the succession was in dispute, princely governors or powerful dignitaries gathered their forces and moved on the capital to press their claims.
During much of the fifteenth century Ayutthaya's energies were directed toward the Malay Peninsula, where the great trading port of Malacca contested its claims to sovereignty. Ayutthaya's conquests were unsuccessful, however, due to the military support of Ming China, who backed the Sultanate diplomatically and economically. The Ming Admiral Zheng He had established one of his bases of operation in the port city, so the Chinese could not afford to loose such a strategic position to the Siamese. Under this umbrella of protection, Malacca flourished into one of Ayutthaya's great rivals, until its conquest in 1511 by the Portuguese.
Malacca and other Malay states south of Tambralinga had become Muslim early in the century, and thereafter Islam served as a symbol of Malay solidarity against the Thais. As it failed to make a vassal state of Malacca, Ayutthayan control of the strait was gradually displaced by Malay and Chinese.
However in the mid sixteenth century, Burmese Kingdom of Tounggoo became stronger, it then began the 'imperial expansion'. Its kings Tabinshwehti and Bayinnaung attacked Ayutthaya. In 1569 Ayutthaya eventually fell and became Toungoo's vassal. The royal princes and high officials were taken back to Tounggoo. One of those princes was Prince Naret or widely known later as King Naresuan.
Ayutthaya became great power again after Prince Naret or Naresuan returned to Ayutthaya. He started gathering troops to resist the Burmese . King Naresuan finally defeated Burmese force in famous elephant battle with Toungoo's heir apparent, who was killed in the battle. Since then Ayutthaya became one of the most powerful kingdom in the region. It began expand towards the northern region, Sukhothai and Lanna area, the maritime, southern peninsula and Cambodia due to interest in foreign contact. Foreign trade brought her not only luxury items but also new arms and weapons. In the mid- seventeenth century, in the King Narai's reign, Ayutthaya became very prosperous.
The Thai king also became by analogy "lord of the land," (Pra Cao Phaendin) distinguished in his appearance and bearing from his subjects. According to the elaborate court etiquette, even a special language, Rachasap, was used to communicate with or about royalty. In Ayutthaya, the King was said to grant land to his subjects, from nobles to commoners, even monks and beggars, according to the rule of Sakna or Sakdina.
As devaraja (Sanskrit for "divine king"), the king ultimately came to be recognized as the earthly incarnation of Shiva and,or Vishnu, and became the sacred object of a politico-religious cult officiated over by a corps of royal Brahmans who were part of the Buddhist court retinue. In the Buddhist context, the devaraja was a bodhisattva (an enlightened being who, out of compassion, foregoes nirvana in order to aid others). The belief in divine kingship prevailed into the eighteenth century, although by that time its religious implications had limited impact. The French Abbe de Choisy, who came to Ayutthaya in 1685, wrote that, "the king has absolute power. He is truly the god of the Siamese: no-one dares to utter his name." Another 17th century writer, the Dutchman Van Vliet, remarked that the King of Siam was "honoured and worshipped by his subjects more than a god." Law and orders were issued by the King. For sometimes the King himself was also the highest judge who judged and punished important criminals such as ones who were traitors or rebels.
One of the numerous institutional innovations of King Trailokanat (1448-88) was to adopt the position of uparaja, translated as "viceroy" or "underking", usually held by the king's senior son or full brother, in an attempt to regularize the succession to the throne -- a particularly difficult feat for a polygamous dynasty. In practice, there was inherent conflict between king and uparaja and frequent disputed successions.
With ample reserves of land available for cultivation, the viability of the state depended on the acquisition and control of adequate manpower for farm labor and defense. The dramatic rise of Ayutthaya had entailed constant warfare and, as none of the parties in the region possessed a technological advantage, the outcome of battles was usually determined by the size of the armies. After each victorious campaign, Ayutthaya carried away a number of conquered people to its own territory, where they were assimilated and added to the labor force.
Every freeman had to be registered as a servant, or phrai, with the local lord, or nai, for military service and corvee labor on public works and on the land of the official to whom he was assigned. The phrai could also meet his labor obligation by paying a tax. If he found the forced labor under his nai repugnant, he could sell himself into slavery to a more attractive nai, who then paid a fee to the government in compensation for the loss of corvee labor. As much as one-third of the manpower supply into the nineteenth century was composed of phrai.
Wealth, status, and political influence were interrelated. The king allotted rice fields to governors, military commanders, and court officials in payment for their services to the crown, according to the 'sakdi na' system. The size of each official's allotment was determined by the number of persons he could command to work it. The amount of manpower a particular nai could command determined his status relative to others in the hierarchy and his wealth. At the apex of the hierarchy, the king, who was symbolically the realm's largest landholder, also commanded the services of the largest number of phrai, called phrai luang (royal servants), who paid taxes, served in the royal army, and worked on the crown lands. King Trailok established definite allotments of land and phrai for the royal officials at each rung in the hierarchy, thus determining the country's social structure until the introduction of salaries for government officials in the nineteenth century.
Outside this system to some extent were the Buddhist monkhood, or sangha, which all classes of Siamese men could join, and the Chinese. Buddhist monasteries (wats) became the centres of Siamese education and culture, while during this period the Chinese first began to settle in Siam, and soon began to establish control over the country's economic life: another long-standing social problem. The Chinese were not obliged to register for corvee duty, so they were free to move about the kingdom at will and engage in commerce. By the sixteenth century, the Chinese controlled Ayutthaya's internal trade and had found important places in the civil and military service. Most of these men took Thai wives because few women left China to accompany the men.
Ramathibodi I was responsible for the compilation of the Dharmashastra, a legal code based on Hindu sources and traditional Thai custom. The Dharmashastra remained a tool of Thai law until late in the 19th century. A bureaucracy based on a hierarchy of ranked and titled officials was introduced, and society was organised in a manner reminiscent of, though not as strict as, the Indian caste system.
The sixteenth century witnessed the rise of Burma, which, under an aggressive dynasty, had overrun Chiang Mai and Laos and made war on the Thai. In 1569 Burmese forces, joined by Thai rebels mostly royal family members of Siam, captured the city of Ayutthaya and carried off the whole royal family to Burma. Dhammaraja (1569-90), a Thai governor who had aided the Burmese, was installed as vassal king at Ayutthaya. Thai independence was restored by his son, King Naresuan (1590- 1605), who turned on the Burmese and by 1600 had driven them from the country.
Determined to prevent another treason like his father's, Naresuan set about unifying the country's administration directly under the royal court at Ayutthaya. He ended the practice of nominating royal princes to govern Ayutthaya's provinces, assigning instead court officials who were expected to execute policies handed down by the king. Thereafter royal princes were confined to the capital. Their power struggles continued, but at court under the king's watchful eye.
In order to ensure his control over the new class of governors, Naresuan decreed that all freemen subject to phrai service had become phrai luang, bound directly to the king, who distributed the use of their services to his officials. This measure gave the king a theoretical monopoly on all manpower, and the idea developed that since the king owned the services of all the people, he also possessed all the land. Ministerial offices and governorships--and the sakdi na that went with them--were usually inherited positions dominated by a few families often connected to the king by marriage. Indeed, marriage was frequently used by Thai kings to cement alliances between themselves and powerful families, a custom prevailing through the nineteenth century. As a result of this policy, the king's wives usually numbered in the dozens.
Even with Naresuan's reforms, the effectiveness of the royal government over the next 150 years should not be overestimated. Royal power outside the crown lands--although in theory absolute- -was in practice limited by the looseness of the civil administration. The influence of central government ministers was not extensive beyond the capital until the late nineteenth century.
The new strain grew easily and abundantly, producing a surplus that could be sold cheaply abroad. Ayutthaya, situated at the southern extremity of the floodplain, thus became the hub of economic activity. Under royal patronage, corvee labor dug canals on which rice was brought from the fields to the king's ships for export to China. In the process, the Chao Phraya Delta--mud flats between the sea and firm land hitherto considered unsuitable for habitation--was reclaimed and placed under cultivation.
Foreigners were cordially welcomed at the court of Narai (1657–1688), a ruler with a cosmopolitan outlook who was nonetheless wary of outside influence. Important commercial ties were forged with Japan. Dutch and English trading companies were allowed to establish factories, and Thai diplomatic missions were sent to Paris and The Hague. By maintaining all these ties, the Thai court skillfully played off the Dutch against the English and the French, avoiding the excessive influence of a single power.
In 1664, however, the Dutch used force to exact a treaty granting them extraterritorial rights as well as freer access to trade. At the urging of his foreign minister, the Greek adventurer Constantine Phaulkon, Narai turned to France for assistance. French engineers constructed fortifications for the Thai and built a new palace at Lopburi for Narai. In addition, French missionaries engaged in education and medicine and brought the first printing press into the country. Louis XIV's personal interest was aroused by reports from missionaries suggesting that Narai might be converted to Christianity.
The French presence encouraged by Phaulkon, however, stirred the resentment and suspicions of the Thai nobles and Buddhist clergy. When word spread that Narai was dying, a general, Phetracha, killed the designated heir, a Christian, and had Phaulkon put to death along with a number of missionaries. The arrival of English warships provoked a massacre of more Europeans. Phetracha (reigned 1688-93) seized the throne, expelled the remaining foreigners. Some studies said Ayutthaya began the period of alienation from the western traders, while welcoming more Chinese merchants. But some recent studies argue that, due to wars and conflicts in Europe in the mid- eighteenth century, European merchants reduced their activities in the East. However it was apparent that the Dutch East Indies Company or VOC was still running business in Ayutthaya despite political difficulty.
During the early 20th Century, Thailand, after learning lessons from Burma–a militarily stronger neighbour that failed to protect itself from western powerhouse Britain in 1885–mostly used flexible and significantly compromising approach towards its counterparts including numerous western nations and Japan.
After a bloody period of dynastic struggle, Ayutthaya entered into what has been called its golden age, a relatively peaceful episode in the second quarter of the eighteenth century when art, literature, and learning flourished. There were foreign wars. The Ayutthaya fought with Nguyen Lords (Vietnamese rulers of South Vietnam) for control of Cambodia starting around 1715. But a greater threat came from Burma, where the new Alaungpaya dynasty had subdued the Shan states.
In 1765 Thai territory was invaded by two Burmese armies that converged on Ayutthaya. The only notable example of successful resistance to these forces was found at the village of Bang Rajan. After a lengthy siege, the city capitulated and was burned in 1767. Ayutthaya's art treasures, the libraries containing its literature, and the archives housing its historic records were almost totally destroyed, and Burmese brought the Ayutthaya Kingdom to ruin.
The country was reduced to chaos. Provinces were proclaimed independent states under military leaders, rogue monks, and cadet members of the royal family. The Thais were saved from Burmese subjugation, however, by an opportune Chinese invasion of Burma and by the leadership of a Thai military commander, Phraya Taksin.
All that remains of the old city are some impressive ruins of the royal palace. King Taksin established a capital at Thonburi, across the Chao Phraya from the present capital, Bangkok. The ruins of the historic city of Ayutthaya and "associated historic towns" in the Ayutthaya historical park have been listed by the UNESCO as World Heritage Sites. The city of Ayutthaya was refounded near the old city, and is now capital of the Ayutthaya province.
Smithies, Michael. A Siamese Embassy Lost in Africa 1686: The Odyssey of Ok-Khun Chamman. Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books, 1999.
Dissertations Retrieved from ProQuest-Dissertations and Theses on Aug.16,2006
Subject: Art History
Listopad, John A. "The art and architecture of the reign of Somdet Phra Narai." Diss. U of Michigan, 1995.
Subject: Buddhist literature
Chrystall, Beatrice. "Connections without limit: The refiguring of the Buddha in the Jinamahanidana." Diss. Harvard U, 2004.
Smith, George V. "The Dutch East India Company in the Kingdom of Ayutthaya, 1604-1694." Diss. Northern Illinois U, 1974.
Subject: Buddhist literature
Chrystall, Beatrice. "Connections without limit: The refiguring of the Buddha in the Jinamahanidana." Diss. Harvard U, 2004.
Peerapun, Wannasilpa. "The economic impact of historic sites on the economy of Ayutthaya, Thailand." Diss. U of Akron, 1991.
Some of these are available in Cushman, Richard D. (2000). The Royal Chronicles of Ayutthaya: A Synoptic Translation, edited by David K. Wyatt. Bangkok: The Siam Society.