The Buddhist and Hindu Remnants of the Sukhothai Empire – Part 2

How to Tell the Difference Between Buddhist and Hindu Temples

Wat Mahathat, Sukhothai, Thailand_Photo ©GH Photos
Wat Mahathat, Sukhothai, Thailand_Photo ©GH Photos

The biggest differences between the Hindu and Buddhist temples are that the towers of Hindu temples are more or less cylindrical and rounded at the top, while their Buddhist equivalents have wider bases with thin and tall stupas at their summit. Like everything in religious architecture, stupas are symbolic, with some believing the five different shapes which can make up the general shape to symbolise the five elements (earth, wind, water, fire and space). In this case, the ones at Sukhothai are predominantly representations of fire. Others believe that it’s a representation of monks’ five main possessions; folded robes, inverted alms bowl, drinking cup, staff and parasol while an alternative theory states that the stupa silhouette represents Buddha seated in meditation on a throne.

Of course, this is a generalisation, there are many types of Buddhist temples at the Sukhothai site alone, showing how their design has evolved over the centuries. The design of these temples in Thailand aren’t too dissimilar to those in India in the second century A.D.

Wat Sa Si, Sukhothai, Thailand-Photo ©GH Photos
Wat Sa Si, Sukhothai, Thailand-Photo ©GH Photos

Like pre-colonial societies in the Americas – such as the Aztec Empire – the site of Sukhothai is defined as the temples which are surrounded by the main moat that was dug around the old city. Wat Sa Si (pictured above) is surrounded by water on what is in effect an island, thanks to the Traphang-Trakuan lake enveloping it. Like a lot of areas where ruins are located, one can’t help but wonder what the city would’ve looked like during its heyday. 

Wat Sa Si, Sukhothai, Thailand -Photo ©GH Photos
Wat Sa Si, Sukhothai, Thailand -Photo ©GH Photos

There are far too many temples to go into detail about them all – there’s dozens in total – but Wat Sa Si is a good example of what most of the Buddhist temples of Sukhothai look like, as they were likely produced during the empire’s peak in the 14th Century. The temples of this period are characterised by a tiered base, bell-shaped mid-section and a long and thin stupa that gradually reduces in circumference. Many temples in Thailand, Myanmar and Laos loosely follow this design to this day.

What happened to Sukhothai?

The empire had been on the decline for centuries, merging with the rival Ayutthayan Empire during the 15th and 16th centuries. Sukhothai was given equal status in the union but was completely absorbed into Ayutthaya in 1592 thanks to wars with the Burmese and a devastating earthquake. The city remained populated after the incorporation of Sukhothai into Ayutthaya, but wars with Burma damaged the settlement. The site which now makes up the historical park was abandoned in 1793 when New Sukhothai was formed. Crown Prince Vajiravudh excavated the site in the early 20th Century, and the Historical Park was established in 1988, three years before it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Most people from outside Eastern Asia have no knowledge of the Sukhothai Empire or many of the other South-eastern Asian kingdoms which predated European colonialism, but this place is one of best examples of middle ages Asian ruins in the world. Sukhothai is off the usual tourist routes in Thailand – which usually concentrate on Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Phuket – but its fascinating historical park offers a unique look into the history, religion and architecture of what was once a proud kingdom. 

See Part 1

Words & Images: George Howson


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