The Buddhist and Hindu Remnants of the Sukhothai Empire

Part 1

The question of which is the oldest country still in existence today isn’t one that has a definitive answer, but all nations can trace their roots back through the centuries. Before Thailand, there was Siam, and before Siam there was Sukhothai – a powerful kingdom in Southeast Asia. Between the 13th and 16th centuries, they ruled over a land roughly equivalent to modern-day Thailand, and over this period, employed different architectural styles as time went on. The perfect way to see this is by visiting the Sukhothai Historical Park, located where the capital of the kingdom once was.

Wat Si Sawai, Sukhothai, Thailand. Photo ©GH Photos
Wat Si Sawai, Sukhothai, Thailand. Photo ©GH Photos

These days, Thailand is a heavily Buddhist nation, with around 95% of the country’s 68 million inhabitants adhering to the religion. However, this hasn’t always been the case, as when temples such as Sukhothai’s Wat Si Sawai (above) was built, the area was one which subscribed to the Hindu religion. Indeed, the influence of the Hindu religion stretches far beyond the Indian subcontinent which we associate with it today. Angkor Wat, the national symbol of Cambodia, was originally a Hindu temple, and the Indonesian island of Bali is majority Hindu to this day. 

Wat Si Sawai is one of the oldest temples in what is now the Sukhothai Historical Park, predating the Sukhothai kingdom by several decades. The style in which it was built is typical of Hindu temples in Southeast Asia, being characterised by three tall laterite prangs (towers) and long halls which are in front of it. However, the layout of what the hall we see today was adapted into a Buddhist temple in later centuries. Architectural features such as Viharas (the open spaces in front of a shrine for worship) are still present today. The temple was originally dedicated to Vishnu, one of the principal deities of Hinduism. The reason why there are three towers is that they symbolise the Hindu Trinity of Brahma (the creator), Shive (the destroyer) and the aforementioned Vishnu (the preserver).

Close-up of Wat Si Sawai, Sukhothai, Thailand. Photo ©GH Photos
Close-up of Wat Si Sawai, Sukhothai, Thailand. Photo ©GH Photos

A closer look reveals the exquisite detail which is still present on the towers to this day, despite centuries having passed since the temple was regularly in use. You can still see where the statues of Visnhu were once placed, and some of these were found when excavations of the historical park took place during the early 1900s. Each tower is made up of distinct levels, each of which have different decorations adorning it the higher you go up. Modern Hindu temples still have a similar layout at the top, with colours that are marvellous to gaze at in the sunlight. What these very towers were used for is a mystery, but it’s likely that they were podiums for Lingams (a method of worship to Shiva) and also crypts.

Around the 14th century, Sukhothai converted to the Buddhist religion, and all of the temples built in the old capital city after this point in time were dedicated to the Theravada branch of the faith. Theravada Buddhism is one of the three main denominations of the Hindustani religion – the faith which most of continental Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka follows. The most important and central site is Wat Mahathat (shown above), one of the most impressive Buddhist temples in not only Thailand but the whole of the SE-Asian subcontinent. There are examples of Buddhist temples that are constructed using gold (most notably, the Golden Temple in Nepal) but the Sukhothai temples have been constructed using brick. However, much of the gold – such as Wat Traimit’s Seated Gold Buddha – has now left the area since the relocation of Thailand’s capital.

Wat Mahathat, Sukhothai, Thailand. Photo ©GH Photos
Wat Mahathat, Sukhothai, Thailand. Photo ©GH Photos

When most people in the west think of the Buddha, the image of a large and bald smiling man comes to mind, but that’s not normally the image you see in Asia. The Buddha in the image above is the more common type that’s found in this part of the world, a statue of the Gautama Buddha, which is a figure that is distinctly taller, thinner and with notably long earlobes. Statues of the Buddha are scattered throughout the park’s 27 square mile site, with the most notable being in Wat Si Chum in the northern area of the area. 

See part 2

Words & Images: George Howson


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