Ban Yarang: The Lost Capital of Langkasuka

Peninsular Thailand- the narrow part of the country between the Isthmus of Kra and the Malaysian border- is blessed with two coasts. Today both coasts are a playground for international tourists, with some travelers favouring the West Coasts island of Phuket or Ko Phi Phi and others preferring the East coast islands such as Ko Samui and Ko Tao. However, in ancient times, it was the East Coast which attracted far more attention for foreigners, with the maritime trade being focused on the Gulf of Siam littoral from the Bay of Bandon down to region of the present Thailand-Malaysia border.

This part of the country threw up at least three different kingdoms of some significance: Panpan, Tambralinga and Langksuka. They were known by different names during different periods of history: during the Sriwijaya era, for example, the territory of the former Panpan was often known as Ligor. They may also have been known by different names by Chinese, Arab and Indian sources, which can make the whole discussion dizzying for the newcomer. It is also worth noting that these ‘countries’ were pre-modern states in which there were no clearly marked boundaries. Moreover, the degree of control which the ruler of these proto-states were able to exert over the peripheral settlements was probably highly tenuous. Nonetheless, there were a number of early polities in this part of the world and they left a substantial artistic testimony to their cultural life in the form of statues, religious shrines and votive tablets.

The southernmost of the three main kingdoms is usually known by the name Langksuka, and it is, in many ways, the most enigmatic of the three. It was not until the 1990s that its capital was definitively located in the modern Thai province of Pattani. The current political troubles in that part of the world have made it difficult to produce with archaeological investigations and few new studies have appeared in the past few years. Nonetheless, at least several structures from its capital have been unearthed, and these provide some material proof of the existence of the kingdom of Langkasuka. The most substantial of these can be found today in the small village of Ban Yarang, about fifteen kilometres from the modern town of Pattani.

According to the Chinese sources, Langkasuka was founded in the second century. This used to seem like an extremely early date, as no remains on the Gulf of Siam littoral date back before the fifth century, but it is not without regional parallel. Recent investigations in South Kedah have pushed the beginning date for that region to the earliest years of the first millennium and the Buni culture of the North Coast of Java and Bali may have been trading with India as early as the second century. Therefore, it may be possible that Langkasuka was already an Indianized kingdom some eighteen or nineteen centuries ago, making it one of the earliest kingdoms of South-East Asia.

The Chinese sources also said that it was to the south of Tambralinga, which would place it in the southernmost provinces of current Thailand. It was said that it took thirty to forty days to walk across, which means that its broader territory may have continued into Malaysian province of Kelantan. The Chinese also inform us that its capital was surrounded by a nine-kilometre long wall topped with towers and pavilions. There had long been historians who argued it must have been located near the modern town of Pattani but archaeologists had a hard time finding the site. This was largely because the Pattani River estuary had changed so much over the centuries, with many canals and water courses along its edge silting up. The site of Ban Yarang is now fifteen kilometres inland, which was not where people in search of a maritime port expected it to be. The discovery of temple ruins at Ban Yarang has now convinced almost everybody that this was the city of the Langkasuka capital, however.

In recent years, there has been a lot of unrest in the Deep South of Thailand, with several thousand people killing in a long-running, low-level conflict. That has ensured that Pattani remains one of the least visited parts of Thailand today. However, there is no reason you can’t visit Ban Yarang should you wish. On our trip, coming from the Malaysian border post at Sungai Golok, we passed a couple of military roadblocks, but they were low hassle and the bus was soon waved on.You would have to be very unlucky to caught up in any sort of trouble. Still, the military presence makes the atmosphere of this part of the country very different. It is a reminder that you are in Malay-majority part of the country, and one with a very different history than the rest of Thailand. Not only was it part of Langkasuka, and latter the Sultanate of Pattani, but also it was owned by the British at one point and did not become part of Siam permanently until 1909. Perhaps some memory of this separate history informs the simmering separatism of today.

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A brick monument at Ban Chalae

There are three mains sites in the area. Easily the most impressive of them is Ban Chalae Ancient Town, which is sometimes referred to as Ban Jalae in the tourist literature. This site preserves an ancient pond and traces of some moats, which provide a hint of its its former life as a waterside city. This estuarine site was once connected to the sea by small canals, much like some of the settlement zones of Satingpra to the north. It also reminded us of ancient Funan, whose presumed capital, Angkor Borei, was connected to the sea by long canals across the Mekong Delta. Funan and Langkasuka were trading partners, so there may even have been some cultural influence. But these remnants will not hold your attention for long; the real draw-card here is an ancient brick monument which is housed beneath a protective modern shelter. Modest as it is, this is the most substantial surviving relic of a kingdom which lasted for over a thousand years.

The monument is a squat brick structure on a large square base. It may once have been much more massive than it is today. It is difficult to imagine its original form, though it definitely looks more like a Buddhist religious monument of some kind. Unlike many monuments in the region, which have been over-prettified, this one has been left more as it was found and the uneven lines of brick make it clear that this is an authentic ruin. Apart from some simple patterns in the brickwork, there is little to speak of in the way of decoration. Some websites describe it as a chedi, and it may have been a stupa or chedi of some sort; certainly, the sculptural finds suggest that Mahayana Buddhism was practiced there between the fourth and eighth centuries. It is also said that crumbled pieces of hundreds of thousands of clay tablets were found around the site, so clearly it was an object of veneration by the locals of ancient Langkasuka. In that sense, it is a forerunner of the hundreds of revered chedis and stupas which attract devotees around modern Thailand. Yet in some ways, it reminded us more of the large brick monuments of the Taruma civilization in West Java, which were of a similar age.

Apart from Ban Chalae, it is worth heading out to Ban Prawae, where there are some other minor remnants, including some time-worn canals and fortifications. The fortifications are in a square shape here, and traces of a double gate remain. These are nowhere near as old as the monument at Ban Chalae, which could date back to the middle of the first millennium AD. They appear to be a late Ayutthaya-era restoration of walls that date back much further. But even if they were not original fortifications of Langkasuka, they do bring to mind the reports from the Chinese sources that the capital of Langksuka was surrounded by nine-kilometre-long walls. Digs at Ban Yarang suggest that the total archaeological site covers some nine square kiloemtres, which make it easily the largest south of Chaiya. In coming out here, you do get a sense that you have glimpsed the crumbled and time-worn ruins of one of Southeast Asia’s vanished capitals.

The Vishnu of Takua Pa

The beginning of a deeper interest in the ancient history of Southern Thailand can traced to a museum visit in 2008. On that trip we had arrived on Thailand’s largest island, the resort island of Phuket, and was planning to drive around some of the main sights of the South with two friends from Australia. Before leaving Phuket, we had decided to stop in at the Thalang Museum in the centre of the island, which was a recommended stop for anyone wanting to get an understanding of the multi-ethnic history of Phuket. The museum contained a number of interesting displays about the traditional lifestyles of Thai and Chinese residents of the island, but the most interesting displays were about the ancient history of the West Coast of Thailand. These included an interesting display of ninth century trade beads from the little-known site of Ban Thung Tuek, but the undoubted highlight was a magnificent more-than-two-metre high statue of Vishnu said to originate from “the jungles of Phang-Nga”, a neighboring mainland province. This was one of the most impressive Hindu statues I had ever seen in Thailand, and the early ninth-century date made me curious about the civilization or kingdom that produced it.

Southern Thailand was usually designated as being within the Sriwijayan sphere during this period. Yet Sriwijaya was described as a Mahayana Buddhist kingdom. Why had Sriwijaya been producing major pieces of Hindu art? I also considered the possibility that there had been a little-known Hindu chieftancy on the West Coast during this era. If it really had existed, what had its relationship been with Sriwijaya? Alternately, was the existence of this statue a sign that Sriwijaya’s suzerainty over Southern Thailand was confined to the Gulf Coast region from Chaiya down to Langkasuka? Had smaller polities continued to exist over on the West Coast? Furthermore, I wondered if there were any surviving temple ruins associated with this statue. It had to have been enshrined in some sort of structure in its heyday. Had a few walls of this temple or even just the foundations survived until the present day? These were questions that I was not to find answers to for many years. In the meantime, I did get a look at the statue, one of the most famous statues-in-the-round in the entire canon of South-East Asian art.

Located in the centre of a well-lit room, the statue of Vishnu is a commanding presence. Standing two metres and thirty-five centimetres tall, the statue is larger than life-sized, helping to emphasize the supernatural nature of the deity. Unfortunately, his face has been badly damaged, but the high mitre of the top of his head is in good condition. This headdress lends the statue a regal appearance and it reminded me of other famous Vishnus from South-East Asia including those found at Phnom Da in Cambodia and Sri Thep near the centre of Thailand. The four arms of the deity are damaged but the portions that have survived are enough to reveal the beautiful naturalism with which the limbs have been rendered. Although the legs are largely covered by a dhoti, which is pleated with greater intricacy, we can also see that they have been carved naturalism. The dimensions of the torso are also particularly fine.

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The Vishnu of Takua Pa

While it is easy to find out that the statue was discovered in “the jungles of Phang-Nga”, a phrase which appears all over the Internet, I found it very difficult to find out anything more specific than this. What I did learn is that in the ninth century a trade entrepot sprung up near the mouth of the Takua Pa River on the west coast of Thailand. This settlement was associated with Tamil traders and a number of Hindu shrines were built in the area. There were some minor temple remains at a village called Ban Theung Tuk on the sand island of Ko Khao Ko. I wondered whether the Vishnu I had seen in Phuket had come from this site.

As it turned out, the findspot for the Vishnu of Takua Pa was not at Ban Theung Tuk but on a nearby mountain on the other side of the river. It had been found at a height of about 60 metres up on the mountainside, at a site with a view over the estuary of the Takua Pa River. Though next to nothing of the temple which housed it had survived, the foundations could be made out, and these suggested that the original temple was a brick and timber structure of some size. The structure had also housed two other statues and it is argued that these flanked the main statue of Vishnu in attitudes of veneration. This arrangement is said to closely mirror a bas-relief of Vishnu from a rock temple in Mamallapuram in Tamil Nadu. Once again, the links between the Takua Pa region and Tamil Nadu in Southern India had been established. Hence, the magnificent Vishnu of Takua Pa is a reminder of the ancient links between Southern Thailand and India. It is also one of the most important cultural treasures of the region.

A Fearsome Bhairava from Panpan

The current Thai provinces of Surat Thani and Nakhon Si Thammarat were once the territory of a pair of early Hindu kingdoms, Panpan and Tambralinga. The earlier of them was Panpan (also known as Pan Pan) and its capital was probably at Chaiya, the city which has turned up the greatest wealth of architectural and sculptural finds. The histories generally say that Panpan lost its independence when Sriwijaya extended its suzerainty over the whole of the Malay Peninsula as far up as the Isthmus of Kra in the eighth century. According to this dominant view, Sriwijaya was an imperialistic thassalocracy which imposed its will over its far-flung maritime ’empire’. At the same time we are told that Sriwijaya was an esteemed centre of Buddhist learning comparable to Nalanda in India. This rather more peaceful view of the kingdom asserts that there was a monastery with a thousand monks studying Buddhist scriptures in the capital of Sriwijaya (known today as Palembang). As part of all this, we are told that Sriwijaya brought Buddhism as the official faith of this empire, with Mahayana Buddhism replacing Hinduism on the shores of Panpan.

Yet there are some historians who have said that Western historians have imposed an overly imperialistic view of history on South-East Asia. In the 1980s, there were some who doubted that Sriwijaya had existed at all, writing articles such as, “Sriwijaya: Myth or Reality?” Others have taken the more moderate view that it existed but it was a very loose trade confederation rather than a true kingdom or thassalocracy. They argue that the vast sea-voyages from Palembang to Chaiya mitigated against the possibility of any sort of direct control being exercised. Panpan only went under the Sriwijayan umbrella in the broadest of senses. It may have stopped sending diplomatic missions to China, for example, but it continued to exercise its own daily affairs.

One fact that supports this view is that Hinduism continued to be practiced in the territory of the former Panpan well after it passed under nominal Sriwijayan control. The whole area between Chiaya and Songkhla on the Gulf of Thailand has continued to turn up lingas, yonis and statues of Hindu dieties ranging from the ninth to thirteenth centuries, indicating that there was no strict imposition of the Buddhist faith of the subjects of Sriwijaya. Local cults of various Hindu deities continued to flourish not only in the major settlements of the peninsula but also in the hinterlands. One particularly interesting example is the Bhairava of Wiang Sa, a forested district inland from the Bay of Bandon.

Bhairava was the fearsome, annihilating aspect of Shiva and his cult was popular in Tamil Nadu during the tenth and eleventh centuries. There are memorable depictions of Bhairava from the great Cola temple of Thanjavur and his cult was also popular in Nepal. He usually has a fearsome visage with bulging eyes and long fangs, and he carries a skull, a trident, a drum and a noose. He is naked apart from some garlands around his neck. Bhairava is often accompanied by a hunting dog, who is sometimes depicted licking the blood of one of Bhairava’s victims off the ground.

The Bhairava of Wiang Sa

Most of these elements are present in the Bhairava of Wiang Sa, Surat Thani. He has a third eye in his forehead and his flaming hair creates a wild impression. His nakedness is only covered by a long garland which falls as far as the knees and he wears heavy anklets. Of the four iconic items he carries, the trident is most clearly discerned. You can also see a wolf-like dog’s head to one side, presumably looking down at a pool of blood on the ground. Overall, the workmanship is said to be mediocre, with the proportions being somewhat awkward. This may have reflected the fact it is produced at a workshop far from the royal court to serve a local cult. The statue is 55 centimetres tall and it is now kept in the National Museum in Bangkok, where it is now presented as an example of Sriwijayan Art. Yet it is not really clear what it has to do with Palembang. What it really shows is that Hinduism continued to flourish in the former Panpan after it passed under the umbrella of Sriwijaya’s confederacy.