If you want to understand the complex and multi-layered history of Thailand, one of the most illuminating cities is Lopburi. Throughout the early history of Thailand, the small city was often a crossroads of culture, and its numerous monuments show a variety of influences ‒ Dvaravati, Khmer and Thai being the most important. Wat Nakhon Kosa is neither the largest nor the most impressive of Lopburi’s monuments, indeed it is rather unprepossessing. But it is one at which the multiple layers of Lopburi’s history are most dramatically juxtaposed. Here, in close proximity, we find a Dvaravati chedi (11th century or earlier), a small Khmer-era prang with some stucco decoration and a 16th century Ayutthaya-era vihaan. Three civilizations rub shoulders in a single complex, showing how cultural influences cross-fertilized in the ancient city of Lopburi.
The oldest of the monuments at Wat Nakhon Kosa is an especially rare treasure: a Mon-Dvaravati chedi which may well date from the first millennium AD. There are very few extant monuments from the whole Dvaravati culture, so for this reason alone, the chedi is valuable heritage. For the most part, it looks like a rather shapeless block of red bricks, but in one corner (pictured) the chedi is still comparatively intact, and we can see the brickwork of the base clearly. It slants inward and then outward, giving it a simple but elegant appearance. It supports a narrow ledge which runs around the edge of the monument. This was where devotees had once circumambulated around the central hump of the chedi, thereby earning Buddhist merit. It gives us a rare hint of the religious life of the denizens of Dvaravati-era Lopburi.
Of the three monuments on the small site, easily the best-preserved is the Khmer-era prang. It is a small, red-brick tower which was once coated in pale, white stucco. The traces of remaining stucco reveal some delicate decorative work. It is markedly different from the stucco work we would find in Cambodia itself, showing the absorption of local influences. The Dvaravati civilization had specialized in stucco decoration and it seems that Khmer prangs in the city had absorbed this aspect of Mon-Dvaravati culture. This process is clearest in the niches which house standing Buddha figures, a common feature in Mon monuments, especially in the city of Lamphun. There is a clearly Mon influence in the Buddha niches on the prang.
The third monument on the site is a vihaan from the late 16th century. By this time the city of Lopburi had been absorbed by Ayutthaya, becoming a satellite city of the great Thai kingdom. However, it is interesting that the Dvaravati chedi and the Khmer prang were now re-purposed as part of a Thai wat. Thai religious culture proved to be very syncretic, especially when meeting other Hindu-Buddhist cultures. During the Ayutthaya kingdom, we would often see Mon-style chedis and Khmer-style prangs incorporated into Thai temple complexes. Part of the richness of Ayutthaya-era architecture was due to its judicious absorption of the built heritage of earlier South-East Asian civilizations. Lopburi was one of the crossroads of culture where this process was particularly pronounced.