Pyramids in Thailand? Discover the Secrets of Si Thep Historical Park!
During the UNESCO World Heritage Committee's 45th session in Riyadh on 21 September 2023, Thailand's "The Ancient Town of Si Thep and its Dvaravati Monuments" in Phetchabun was designated a world heritage site, marking the country's seventh inclusion. Located 340 km from Bangkok, the site reflects the Dvaravati Empire's art and culture, influenced by India. This adds to Thailand's roster of cultural and natural World Heritage sites. To mark this, entry fees to Si Thep Historical Park are waived until 24 September, and an exhibition is on at the Bangkok National Museum until January 2024. Phetchabun, with its scenic mountains, offers archaeological wonders and outdoor attractions, making it a hotspot for history buffs and adventurers alike.
Si Thep Historical Park, located in Phetchabun province of Thailand, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that spans cultural periods from late prehistory to Dvaravati and the Angkorian Khmer Empire. It was one of the largest known city-states that emerged around the plains of central Thailand in the first millennium.
The site was inhabited from around the third to fifth century CE until the thirteenth century. It became abandoned around the time the Thai-speaking cities of Sukhothai and later Ayutthaya emerged as new centres of power in the Chao Phraya River basin.
Si Thep Historical Park is home to a variety of archaeological remains, including temples, shrines, and fortifications. The most notable feature of the park is its collection of Khmer-style temples. These temples were built in the 12th and 13th centuries CE, during the height of the Khmer Empire.
The most famous temple in the park is the Prasat Hin Phimai, which is a large sandstone temple dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu. The temple is decorated with intricate carvings of Vishnu and other Hindu deities. Other notable temples in the park include the Prasat Hin Yang, the Prasat Hin Daen, and the Prasat Hin Phum.
In addition to its Khmer-style temples, Si Thep Historical Park also contains a number of other archaeological remains. These include a Buddhist stupa, a Hindu shrine, and a fortified wall. The stupa is located at the top of the hilltop and is believed to be the burial place of a local king. The Hindu shrine is dedicated to the god Shiva and is decorated with elaborate carvings. The fortified wall surrounds the city and is believed to have been built to protect the city from attack.
The Dvaravati civilization, which thrived in present-day Thailand from the 6th to 10th centuries CE, is the subject of intense archaeological and historical scrutiny, particularly regarding its primary capital. While Nakhon Pathom and Si Thep are frequently proposed contenders, His Highness Prince Damrong Rajanubhab in 1926 posited that Nakhon Pathom was the initial establishment of Buddhism in Siam, sent forth by Emperor Ashoka. This perspective, however, contrasts with other historical interpretations suggesting Dvaravati was predominantly a Brahmanism-Hindu city, potentially linked to Lord Krishna. Modern narratives, influenced by European nation-state concepts adopted in late 19th-century Siam, have further muddled the understanding, occasionally deviating from ancient records like those of Chinese monk Tang Xuanzang.
The historical records of Chinese monk Xuanzang, "大唐西域記" (dà táng xī yù jì), commonly translated as "The Great Tang Records on the Western Regions" (646 C.E.,) offer profound insights into the geopolitical landscape of ancient Asia. Specifically, in Chapter 10, 卷第十 〈十七國〉 (juǎn dì shí (shí qī guó)), he enumerates six states situated in the East. It's surmised that at least three of these states—迦摩浪迦 (jiā-mó-làng-jiā), 墮羅缽底(duò-luó-bō-dǐ), and 伊y賞那補羅 (yī-shǎng-nà-bǔ-luó)—found their territories or parts of them within the confines of modern-day Thailand. The denomination for 墮羅缽底(duò-luó-bō-dǐ) presents variations in its spelling and pronunciation across Chinese documentation. It appears that local interpretations might be excessively anchored to the phonetic renderings proposed by Samuel Beel more than a century prior, potentially eclipsing other potential transliterations, such as "Dvaravati". Another layer of intrigue emerges when examining the sequenced geography of 迦摩浪迦 (jiā-mó-làng-jiā) and 墮羅缽底(duò-luó-bō-dǐ). A subsequent Chinese account aligns a similar locale with 郎迦戍 (Láng-jiā-shù), anglicized as "Lang-ka-su". Despite the close phonetic alignment, there's a noted local conflation of this name with 狼牙脩 (láng- yá - xiū), attributed to their auditory resemblance. Yet, "Lang-ka-su" might precisely depict regions spanning from the mouth of the Tha Chin River to the venerable city of Nakhon Chai Si. The chronicles from these Chinese scholars seem to dovetail seamlessly with the age and nature of archaeological discoveries in the vicinity of Nakhon Chai Si.
Xuanzang didn't visit Southeast Asia, he relied more on the second-hand information, [source]
Though the writings of Xuanzang are officially recorded in Chinese as aforementioned, it's essential to highlight that Xuanzang did not actually travel into Southeast Asia. Even though his records coincide with the era of Dvaravati, his accounts were based on second-hand information. Furthermore, his writing on Dvaravati spans only a few paragraphs in length. Therefore, the accuracy and specifics of places like Dvaravati can be debated. For instance, the region described as "from Chenla (真腊) to Java" which, in actuality, if strictly follow the passage it means the Philippines, not Java. As for 迦摩浪迦 (jiā-mó-làng-jiā), it could refer to any location ranging from Martaban to Sri Vijaya, because Xuanzang's writings merely state it's situated between Sri Ksetra kingdom and Dvaravati. It's also clear that the region following Dvaravati is Isanapura, the Khmer Empire's territory. This demarcation is not necessarily linear, raising questions about why some descriptions are straightforward while others aren't.
A Temporal Repercussion?
Another point of contention centers on the rich culture of Dvaravati. While an examination of their writing script reveals clear Pallava influences from ancient Southern India, questions arise regarding the kingdom's trajectory. How did the kingdom—or the alliance of cities during the Dvaravati era—get overshadowed by the Khmer Empire? Additionally, the subsequent rise of modern kingdoms like Sukhothai and Ayutthaya, which eventually surpassed the Angkor civilization, prompts further inquiry. Why did these kingdoms emerge, and why did they later grapple with Burmese kingdoms?
Here, we propose the following theory to offer a continuation of the story presented earlier from our perspective.
Angkor Wat: Rise, Decline, and the Ayutthaya Conquest
Angkor Wat, one of Southeast Asia's most magnificent monuments, exemplifies the splendor of the Khmer Empire. However, like all empires, the Khmer experienced phases of ascendancy and decline. The emergence of the Ayutthaya Kingdom would significantly challenge the Khmer, resulting in a momentous shift in regional power.
The Rise of Angkor Wat and the Khmer Empire:
Founding Era: King Jayavarman II inaugurated the Khmer Empire in the 9th century, see Mahendraparvata, bringing together local principalities under a unified leadership. The capital, Angkor, subsequently evolved into the world's largest pre-industrial city.
Religious and Architectural Grandeur: Commissioned by King Suryavarman II in the early 12th century, Angkor Wat, initially a tribute to Vishnu, set an unmatched standard in architectural magnificence.
Hydraulic Mastery: Beyond its religious structures, Angkor's distinctive trait was its advanced water management system. The massive reservoirs (barays) and canals demonstrated the Khmer's exceptional engineering prowess, fostering agriculture in a demanding terrain.
Challenges and Decline:
Environmental Factors: Excessive dependence on the water systems, combined with climatic shifts, likely jeopardized the empire's agricultural foundation. Compounded by deforestation, these factors exacerbated the strain.
Internal Strife: The vastness of the empire led to inevitable internal conflicts and evolving religious orientations, notably the transition from Hinduism to Theravada Buddhism, possibly eroding central governance.
External Threats: Beyond internal issues, the Khmer confronted external invasions from neighboring Champa and Vietnam, and notably from the burgeoning Ayutthaya to the west.
The Rise of Ayutthaya and its Challenge to Angkor:
Strategic Location: Established in 1350, Ayutthaya's placement at the nexus of major rivers bolstered its trade, defense, and agricultural endeavors.
Economic Flourishing: Situated near the Gulf of Thailand, Ayutthaya became an essential trade center, drawing merchants from across Asia and eventually Europe.
Military Expansions: Despite facing conflicts, primarily with the Burmese, Ayutthaya progressively expanded its dominion, leading to confrontations with the Khmer Empire.
Angkor's Overthrow: By the 15th century, a beleaguered Angkor underwent frequent Ayutthaya invasions. In 1431, Ayutthaya seized the Khmer capital, signifying a transformative change in regional hierarchy.
The decline of the Khmer Empire isn't ascribable to a singular cause. A confluence of environmental, internal, and external challenges rendered it vulnerable to Ayutthaya's ascendancy. However, Angkor Wat endures, symbolizing the enduring legacy of an empire renowned for its cultural, religious, and architectural feats.