Wat Mokhlan: A Shivaite Temple from Panpan

It is sometimes said that there are more than thirty archaeological sites in the districts of Sichon and Tha Sala in Nakhon Si Thammarat province. These are the vestiges of former Hindu sanctuaries, mostly Shivaite, built from the fifth to the seventh centuries. This description might lead you to suspect that this part of southern Thailand offers very rich pickings for history buffs, but in reality the ruins on offer are meager. Many of these sites are mere findspots for Hindu antiquities, small piles of crumbling bricks or even places where piles of bricks once stood. The great age of these temples combined with the fact that they were made from clay bricks has ensured that almost nothing remains of these structures.

Of course, the fact that this part of the country was once home to a thriving Shivaite culture is interesting enough in itself, and the polity which produced it, the Hindu kingdom of Panpan, deserves much more attention in histories of the region than it has usually received. But perhaps the most impressive testimony to this little-known kingdom are its magnificent statues and lingas, not its architectural remains. Still, there are two sites where the remains are a little more substantial. The first of these is Khao Kha, set on top of a forested knoll in Sichon District. The other is at Wat Mokhlan, set amidst a modern wat in a largely Muslim community. Though it is often attributed to the Tambralinga kingdom, the dates do not support this. Tambralinga was a later Hindu kingdom, in some ways a successor state to Panpan. During the fifth to seventh centuries, the predominant kingdom in this part of the world was a Panpan. It even sent a number of trade missions to China. Wat Mokhlan offers a rare opportunity to see ruins from Panpan.

Wat Mokhlan Archaeological Site is named after the modern Buddhist wat its ruins are located amidst, but the ruins are all former shrines from the cult of Shiva. The main remains are some walls and door-frames from these shrines, some of which are carved. It has been said that the doorjambs are designed in imitation of wooden models, which gives us a clue as to what some of the timber architecture of Panpan may have looked like. It is likely there were many more shrines built from organic materials than brick ones. There are also pedestals were lingas and yonis, which would have been focal points for veneration at the site. You may be tempted to think that most of the ruins have disappeared but perhaps they were not very big to begin with. The inner space or ‘cella’ of the shrines from the earliest examples of Hindu architecture in South-East Asia are often tiny: one example would be the eighth-century stone temples on the Dieng Plateau in Java. A Hindu temple did not have to hold a congregation after all, but was merely a place where certain rites had to be performed, such as bathing the linga in water. The lack of a roof to the structures probably suggests that the roof was built of perishable materials such as a wood or thatch. It is one the lowermost portions of the the shrines that we can see today.

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The modest brick remains of Wat Mokhlan Archaeological Site

Apart from the ruins at Wat Mokhlan, the settlement it is located in offers glimpses of workaday Thai village life. If you are interested in souvenir hunting, there is a pottery village just fifty metres from the site. In all likelihood, it was designed to attract visitors coming to the ruins, but Wat Mokhlan is not on many travellers’ itineraries yet, and you are liable to have the ruins to yourself. Though they are not expansive, with some background knowledge of the history of Panpan, and its marginalization in Thai narratives of the South, a visit here can be rewarding.

A New Shiva Linga from Panpan

Last week an exciting archaeological discovery was made in Nakhon Si Thammarat province in Southern Thailand. During a landscaping project at Wat Nong Tra in Tha Sala District, laborers unearthed a Shiva linga buried three metres underground. The excavations also retrieved an ancient water jar (which is presumably shown behind the linga in the picture) and 20 Buddhist gold coins.

The Bangkok Post report about the discovery is somewhat confusing. It states that the linga is thought to be between 1,300-1,400 years old, indicating a seventh century date, but it then mentions that Hinduism flourished in the region between the 10-12th centuries. This shows the problem with the way that Thailand approaches its multi-ethnic past. Thais have been reluctant to acknowledge the presence of non-Thai kingdoms ontheir soil in early periods of history. There is a tendency to never ask which kingdoms produced certain artifacts or ruins, reducing the entire question of which Thai ‘art style’ it embodies. Tellingly, the article in the Bangkok Post refers to the linga as being in the Tawaravadee style of Thai art.

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The newly discovered linga of the Panpan kingdom

In fact, it appears much more likely that the linga was a product of the Panpan Kingdom, an independent Hindu kingdom which sent a flurry of embassies to China during the sixth and seventh centuries. There have been around twenty different Shiva linga discovered in the neighboring districts of Sichon or Tha Sala over the years, suggesting that this part of the country was some sort of ritual centre for Shivaism in Panpan. This new linga seems highly unusual however. It has a floral frieze along the base which distinguishes it from all the other examples in the guides. It would certainly have been enshrined in a temple of some sort, so perhaps further excavations will reveal some bricks or even structures at the site. Having said that, there was no mention of brick finds in the newspaper report. Yet perhaps Wat Nong Tra will prove a fruitful site for further investigations.

Wat Satingpra’s Unique Chedi

Situated in the north of Songkhla Province, the Satingpra Peninsula is a sandy spit of land which encloses the Thale Sap Songkhla, the lagoon system in South-East Asia. Situated at the top of the northern end of the peninsula, Satingpra is a remote Southern backwater of around 6,000 souls, which precious few tourists ever trouble themselves to visit. Yet between the years of approximately 650 to 1350, it was home to an urbanized population of some size and economic importance. There is ample evidence that not only did Chinese ships from the port-city of Quanzhou regularly frequent this part of the country, trading Chinese ceramics for local products such as exotic gharu wood, but that it was also home to a local ceramics industry which made kendis (a sort of pot) for export to the islands of the Indonesian archipelago. In this era Satingpra produced kilns, canals, religious architecture and even a fortification known as ‘the citadel’. Yet by around 1350 this early civilization collapsed and by the seventeenth century, the power centre of the area was Songkhla, known then as the Sultanate of Singgora.

However, there is at least one impressive monument from Satingpra’s glory days at Wat Satingpra (also known as Wat Chatingphra, Wat Satingphra and even Wat Jatingphra). According to Thai legend, the wat was founded in the year 999 AD, which was the era when Sriwijaya claimed suzerainty over the former kingdom of Panpan. However, other sources state that the main chedi is a a few hundred years more recent than that. These reports claim it was built sometime between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries. If this was the case, then the structure was possibly a product of Tambralinga, an early kingdom on the Gulf Coast of Thailand, whose capital was Nakhon Si Thammarat. Jacq-Herlouac’h, a prominent historian, has suggested that both sources could be partially correct. It may have been a Sriwijayan chedi which was converted to its present form during the Tambralinga era at the time when Theravada Buddhism became the state religion.

In official Thai accounts, the monuments from this era are known as examples of ‘the Southern school’, ‘Southern Art’ or even ‘Srivijaya art’, which is a roundabout way of acknowledging that they were not built by ethnic Thais. Back then Malays, Mons and possibly Khmers were a large component of the local population. The chedi of Wat Satingpra is one of the main examples of this Southern school of architecture. Whether it is a product of Sriwijaya, Tambralinga or both, it is a very rare piece of architecture.

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The chedi of Wat Satingpra

There a few minor attractions at the wat apart from the chedi. There is a large hall with a huge Reclining Buddha, the walls of which have some interesting murals in a folk style. One section shows a procession of monks receiving alms; they are wrapped in white or indigo robes and carrying three lotus blossoms in their hands. There are also scenes of a Thai palace, a slender chedi and one wonderful scene of a robed Buddha descending from a hill while standing on a lotus blossom. These figures are all rendered against a golden background, adding to the richness of the scene. Apart from the murals, there is a large Reclining Buddha were a serene, dreamy expression. The entire figure is clothed in a long, gold robe. On its huge, upturned palm, positioned by his head, locals leave votive offerings. In front of the main figure, there is a second much smaller Reclining Buddha too. Yet these attractions are not more than about a century old. It is the Southern style chedi on the grounds which is the real historical treasure.

The chedi’s full name is Chedi Phra Maha That and it is certainly one of the more arresting monuments in this part of the world. Unlike the traditional bell shape which we associate with Sukothai chedis, this one has a slightly concave cylinder on top of a cruciform base. Above the cylinder is a narrow band where there are golden standing Buddhas and Buddhas seated in niches. Above this level, there is a large finial. At the time of our visit the whole chedi had been freshly painted, giving the whole thing a brilliant white appearance. It is a rare reminder of the time when Nakhon Si Thammarat was the centre of independent kingdoms, some of which sent their own embassies to China. Whether it is a product of Sriwijaya, Tambralinga or another Southern kingdom, it is an important reminder of the time before the Thais ruled this part of the world.

Tang Kuan Hilltop and Its Ancient Chedi

Songkhla is a pleasant coastal town which is better known for its beaches and coastal scenery than its historical legacy. However, both history and seascapes can be experienced together at the 105-metre high Tang Kuan Hill, making it one of the more interesting sights within the city. The best way to appreciate the hill is to climb up from street level and descend on the funicular railway. This will enable you get a bit of solitude during the ascent before meeting a mix of pilgrims, tourists and monkeys on the peak.

It is sometimes claimed that Tang Kuan Hill has been a pilgrimage site for many centuries, perhaps even dating back to the era when “Nakhon Si Thammarat was the centre of independent kingdom” (presumably the signboards are referring to Tambralinga). Whatever the truth of these claims, what you can see today is a late nineteenth century restoration dating from the reign of King Rama V. To get the full sense of these restorations, you need to walk from the bottom of the hill.

The start of the ornamental staircase is marked by a pair of seven-headed nagas which rise up from the banisters. These nagas were freshly covered in gold paint, giving them a rather auspicious appearance. From there, a staircase ascends straight up the hillside, carving a path between the shrubbery and grasses on the hillside. These natural surroundings are one of the most appealing parts of the walk up Tang Kuan Hill, providing a respite from the traffic and development of the downtown area.

About halfway up the hill, you will reach Sala Phra Wihan Daeng, which translates loosely as The Red Pavilion. This handsome, red-brick structure has a decidedly European appearance. Dating to 1889, a time when Thailand was coming into much greater contact with European culture, it is a fine example of Western-influenced architecture of the Rattanakosin period and remains in good condition until the present day. With its heavy brick columns and dark, red color, it is a marked contrast with your typical airy, Thai pavilion. Ascending from here, the trail offers ever better views out over the town and it surrounding waterways. In places the thick vegetation has been hacked away to offer unimpeded views of the sea and hills. However, the best views of all are reserved for Tuan Kuan Hilltop, which is where passengers on the funicular railway come right away.

The top of the hill is marked by an interesting ensemble of turn-of-the-twentieth century buildings which somehow reminded me of Phra Nakhon Khiri Hilltop in Phetchaburi; perhaps it was the combination of troops of monkeys and eclectic architecture. The most unexpected of these structures is a small, white lighthouse in the shape of a salt-cellar. It was evidently placed here to protect the ships coming towards the port of Songkhla, and a number of picturesque but rocky outcrops can be seen in the beautiful, blue-green sea. The other unexpected feature are a pair of structures on other side of the main chedi which are your archetypal small Chinese shrines. These attest to the importance of the ethnic Chinese community of Songkhla going back to the eighteenth century at least. These links may be related to a much more ancient trade between Southern China and the Gulf Coast of Thailand dating back more than a thousand years. Apart from these structures, there are some more touristic modern additions such as a place for amorous young couples to attach love locks and a number of bronze bells which snap-happy visitors can pose with. The most important sight here, however is the Phra Chedi Luang.

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Tuang Kuan Hilltop with its chedi

A signboard here reports that the main chedi dates back to the Nakhon Si Thammarat kingdom. This part of the world was not fully incorporated into Thailand until the eighteenth century, so this was site originated in a time when the far South of Thailand was largely Malay, with a marked Khmer and Chinese influence. Having said that, the chedi reminded us of the so-called Coral Pagoda of Khanom District, which is said to date to the late Ayutthaya period. Both are bell-shaped chedis with a white body and gold finial and both are set on a large terrace. Phra Chedi Luang is far larger than its cousin in Khnaom however. Also, this chedi is inset with numerous decorative niches. They are not used today, but they would have housed Buddha images or votives from pilgrims.

Apart from the chedi itself, it is worth lingering on the peak both for views of the city, with its many multi-storey office buildings and hotels, and the views of the open sea. The casuarina-fringed beaches of this city make it one of Thailand’s most attractive cities. For the lover of history, you can also marvel that traders have been coming here from China, Cambodia and Indonesia for over a thousand years, drawn to this ancient port set between the calm waters of Lake Songkhla, and the Gulf of Siam.