Between February the 19th and March the 16th, 2017, I travelled to Thailand to investigate the region’s long history of religious kingship, Buddhism and its attendant material culture.
I spent the first ten days in Bangkok, an area rich in temples, monasteries, monuments and lived religious practice. Examples include Wat Phra Kaew, Wat Pho, the Grand Palace and the Erawan Shrine.
Scene from the Rāmāyaṇa mural at the Grand Palace (Phra Borom Maha Ratcha Wang), Bangkok.
The time of my visit coincided with the sad period of mourning for the beloved King of Thailand. This gave me the opportunity to witness first hand both the organised Buddhist rituals of his commemoration among the civil service employees who still dress in black or white as a sign of respect, and also the preparations for the departed king’s cremation due to take place in December 2017.
During this time, I also visited the National Museum, a treasure-trove of artefacts from around Thailand dating from the prehistoric age over 6000 years ago to the Bangkok period. Of especial interest is the time of the Dvaravati city-states (6th–11th centuries CE), which borrowed Mon culture and non-Mahāyāna Buddhism from its neighbours. Numismatic and stone inscriptional evidence suggests that these were based around Nakhon Pathom, west of Bangkok. Like the earlier Guptas, this civilization maintained numerous overland trade routes—including east to what is today Cambodia, west to Burma, and north to Chiang Mai and Laos. These existed in addition to the maritime networks existing from the eighth century under the protection of the empire of Srivijaya, who controlled trade between the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean. Evidence of Dvaravati Buddhist artwork remains, and seems to show that the localised forms of originally Indic design had been interpreted through Mon and other cultures to form a unique local flavour. The Dvaravati city-states lasted until the westward expansion of the Khmer empire (9th–15th centuries) into the region during the eleventh century.
Relief depicting female musicians (Dvaravati style, 8th–9th) from Khu Bua, Ratchaburi province.
While in Bangkok, I had the chance to visit Mahidol University and to present my latest research and the ongoing work of the Beyond Boundaries project to staff and students of the Buddhist Studies international programme within the Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities. I was also lucky enough to participate in a reading group hosted by Mattia Salvini and Harunaga Isaacson on Jñānaśrīmitra’s (fl. 975-1025) Sākārasiddhiśāstra and an opening talk by Shoryu Katsura on the Prajñāpāramitopadeśa of Ratnākaraśānti (c. 1000).
Further afield, I was able to document the archaeological sites of Ayuthaya, Sukhothai and Satchanalai to the north in Thailand. Between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries, Sukhothai was a regional Khmer administrative centre and so lay on one of the main roads connecting the capital at Angkor along which temples in the Khmer style—Brahman and Buddhist—acted as a visible symbol of imperial power. After the Tai expelled the Khmer in the thirteenth century, King Sri Indraditya and his son Ramkhamhaeng made of Sukhothai a large regional power with dependant kings in the four directions. Satchanalai was the northernmost, and second most important of the cities in this kingdom. Lastly, Ayuthaya was the centre of power and basis for booming maritime trade during the eponymous period, from the mid-fourteenth century onwards. The site combines Khmer and local traits, since the Ayuthaya rulers conquered the Khmer in the 1430s and were connected in marriage to the closer kingdoms of Suphanburi and Lopburi and other vassal states. Unlike Sukhotahai, Ayuthaya’s rulers were given the epithet devarājā rather than dhammarājā. The region also maintained ties with China during this period.
Standing Buddha (h. 12m) at Wat Mahathat, Sukhothai archaeological site.
Finally, pursuing my research into Buddhist material culture, I was able to visit several important sites of Thai and Chinese temple bells, photograph them and record their dimensions. This will help to give an account of them during the panel titled “Bell Inscriptions across the Buddhist World” at the International Association of Buddhist Studies conference to be held in Toronto in August 2017.
Shrine and bell & drum tower at Wat Chana Songkhram, Bangkok.