Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Ayutthaya Kingdom of Thailand

Fig.1: Stuff like this was a prime target for those Europeans and their label makers.
Typically if you received a visit by the Europeans in the early modern period, soon you would face the unhappy prospect of watching them move in, snag all your resources, diminish your population to a subservient status, and take full control of the TV remote. One of the few places that escaped this fate was the country of Thailand in Southeast Asia (also known as Siam in the European practice of renaming nations whatever the heck they wanted). This was due in part to the actions and policies of the Ayutthaya Kingdom, which ruled the region from the 1350s until 1767. The kingdom was centered on the city of Ayutthaya (fig.1), considered in 1700 to be one of the most populated locales in the world, and unquestionably had the worst rickshaw traffic known to man. When those rascally Europeans came floatin' about, the Ayutthayan government successfully played the different embassies off each other, and even earned the respect and full friendship of Louis XIV of France, the most powerful and fluffy-haired king in the world! Let's find out more about these Thai fighters, and see how they avoided domination from any empires.

The Ayutthaya kingdom began with a prince who had the awesome name of U-Thong. U-Thong married into the royal family of Sukhothai in the center of present-day Thailand, and decided to move his court south and build a brand new city around 1350. Sources argue as to why he did this; some say there was a plague ravaging Sukhothai, others say he wanted a spot closer to the sea which would better facilitate trade, while a special few claim that U-Thong just wanted to show off his new swimwear off at the nearby beach. Regardless, he founded his city and named it "Ayutthaya," which meant "the Invincible City" (I bet $20 that it gets destroyed eventually). U-Thong was renamed King Ramathibodi, but I prefer to keep calling him U-Thong for obvious reasons (it keeps my friend Sisqó happy). U-Thong was an able ruler, creating many just laws, boosting his kingdom's economy through trade with the Chinese, and defending his territory against those Wat-crazy folks from Angkor. When U-Thong died in 1369 from lack of circulation in his private parts, Ayutthaya was well on its way to becoming the center of power of its own parts.

Fig.2: "Mom! Bagan keeps saying he's not touching me
 when he's very nearly touching me!"
Now, it's very tempting for us 21st century people to think in terms of kingdoms with defined borders, clear administrative structures, and jousting tournaments. However, research has shown that this was not the case in Medieval Southeast Asia. Here, power was usually concentrated within specific cities, which may or may not have had control of the lands that surrounded them. Historians of the period refer to this as the mandala (or "circle") model, since the "elliptical" model sounded way to haughty. Cities like Ayutthaya, Angkor, and Vijaya in Champa saw their influence of the villages around them ebb and flow over time, and they often overlapped each other in violation of the "Don't cross the streams" principle (fig.2). That said, Ayutthaya's power exploded over the first few centuries of its existence, assuming control of Thai cities like Sukhothai and Phitsanuloke, influencing other peoples such as the Khmer in present-day Cambodia and the Lan Xang in present-day Laos, and having an off-and-on-again relationship with their frienemies, the Burmese in the city of Bagan.

A possible explanation to Ayutthaya's success is the different way in which they viewed their king. While other Southeast Asian peoples gave the utmost respect to their ruler and dared not speak ill of his ability to govern, wage war, or pick up that 7-10 split, the Ayutthayans took it an extra step by claiming that their monarch was the representative of the gods. The region practiced a mix of Hinduism and Buddhism, which, in Ayutthaya's case, went together better than chicken nuggets and a vanilla milkshake (trust me, that's an excellent combination). The king was simultaneously a manifestation of the Hindu god Vishnu, as well as a bodhisattva, a being which achieves the highest level of enlightenment on par with the Buddha. In his people's minds, the world revolved around the king, who made sure everything ran smoothly and successfully (in other words, he was the Peyton Manning of the offense that is life). Thus, historians have argued that Ayutthaya's initial success came from the belief that the king was the ultimate defender of the people, giving the citizenry the confidence to expand their influence by means of conquest, as well as finally rev up the courage ask that girl out. Unfortunately, this system often collapsed whenever a king died, as many sons and uncles and third-cousins-twice-removed would step up to claim that they were the true Avatar of Vishnu; thus, Ayutthaya's history was bloodied with several palace coups that would make even the Romans feel embarrassed for them.

But it wasn't all about bloody and repressive politics in Ayutthaya; let's not forget about the bloody and repressive social structure lived out by the citizenry! A highly stratified hierarchy existed that ranked somewhere between Europe's feudalism and India's caste system on the "How much can we screw over the peasants?" scale of socioeconomic mobility. This was somewhat alleviated in 1518 by King Ramathibodi II's introduction of the corvée system. Here, the majority of the common people were labeled as phrai, and overseen by a government official or nobleman called a nai. For a specified period of a year (typically three to six months), the spry phrai worked for their sly nai for a payment of nigh, whether their occupation included working with dye, growing rye, fishing to fry, or staring at the sky. This was seen as the phrai's obligation to the government, and in turn did not need to pay taxes (making just death and rising cable bills as certainties in life). Phrai could also be called to die in service to the Thai, comprising the majority of the army (ar-mi?). While it was eventually seen as a form of cruel slavery, the corvée system helped Ayutthaya continue to have economic and military success, forcing me to continue to write this history (hmm, maybe it wasn't a good thing after all).

Fig.3: Ayutthayan hats often doubled as huge 
board game pieces.
All of this gave Ayutthaya a leg up when those big dog Europeans came to town in the 16th century. After Portugal conquered the wealthy port city of Malacca in present-day Malaysia, they sent an embassy up to Ramathibodi II to introduce themselves and probably see if they were conquerable as well. Other nations eventually came along to peek out their blinds at the Ayutthayans, including the Dutch, English, and French in chronological and alphabetical order. During the reign of Narai starting in 1657, European traders were welcome to establish factories within the city to boost economic production. Normally this sort of thing signaled the beginning of the takeover (just ask the peoples of North America, South America, the Caribbean, West Africa, Central Africa, Southern Africa, East Africa, Australia, the Middle East, East Asia, South Asia, and every other place in Southeast Asia), but the Thais worked skillfully to ensure none of their guests got too full of themselves. When the Dutch demanded more access to trade, they used the power of the French against them, and the Netherlands went off with their tails under their nether-regions. Indeed, King Louis XIV took a special interest in Ayutthaya, receiving several embassies from them (fig.3), and working to secure their independence. Narai even named Constantine Phaulkon, a Greek journeyman with French citizenship, as his prime counsellor and, on Thirsty Thursday, his designated driver.

Of course, there were some people who didn't like all the changes that were going on. The conservative nobles hated being replaced by these European intruders, the Buddhist clergy feared the increasing presence of Christianity among the people, and the elderly citizens disliked the introduction of French foods at their family-style buffets. In 1688, when Narai was on his deathbed and European influence was at its height, some saw it was the perfect time to strike. Phetracha, a military general, led a revolution against the throne, killing Narai's heirs (who had previously converted to Christianity), beheading Constantine Phaulkon while he was at the bar, and took the throne away from the dying king. He proceeded to kick all the Europeans out of the country, mostly by kicking a soccer ball towards other Southeast Asian kingdoms and watching them mindlessly chase after it. While Ayutthaya didn't isolate themselves on the level of Tokugawa Japan during this time, they kept their borders shut to everything accept the occasional trade of goods, and preferred the company of the Chinese (yeah, cause they totally just mind their own business).

Fig.4: People just don't war like
they used to.
Without the Europeans poking around, Thai culture flourished in Ayutthaya, producing a golden age of sorts. Unfortunately everything else about the place turned to cubic zirconium, mostly due to the constant fighting within the nobility about everything from succession to which Thai take-out place they should order from. On top of that, the Burmese to the northwest started getting a little full of themselves. The two neighboring civilizations had been at constant odds with each other since the mid-16th century, nearly to the extent that they would fight over who should rake the leaves along the border. The most memorable clash between the two came in 1592, when King Naresuan the Great challenged the Burmese ruler to an elephant battle for all the marbles (I use an euphemism, but it wouldn't be totally surprising if they were literally fighting over marbles). Of course, being "the Great," Naresuan took care of business (fig.4) and achieved a Ayutthayan victory still celebrated today as Thailand's Armed Forces Day. Unfortunately this would not be the case in 1767, when Ayutthaya, weak from all the in-fighting and indigestion from ordering Pok Pok again, fell to the invading Burmese. The city was sacked and burned (I win $20!), destroying precious records and artifacts that hits my soul harder than the thousands of people killed (call me a historian).

The Thais would quickly bounce back, however. An Ayutthayan general named Taksin took back control of the region and established a new city further south, which would eventually become the giggle-inducing capital of Bangkok. A continuation of foreign policies from Ayutthaya days ensured that Thailand would remain independent while the Dutch, English, and French would take over lands to the south, west, and east of them. This allowed for an increasingly-modernized nation to develop with the economic and social wherewithal that many outsiders would be very willing to get to know them (but not on a colonial level). The legacy of Ayutthaya continues in Thailand today, and not just because its ruins are one of the most visited tourist sites in the country, with folks coming from all over to check out the temples (fig.1) and other interesting sights (fig.5).

Fig.5: I believe this Buddhist statue enclosed within tree roots at Ayutthaya 
qualifies as "creepy enough" to suffice as my Halloween tie-in for this post.

No comments:

Post a Comment