The Elusive Kingdom of Sri Canasa

There were doubtless many early polities in Thailand that we do not even known the names of. Furthermore, historians have sometimes found inscriptions bearing the name of kingdoms which we know next to nothing about. For example, you will have to work hard to find more than a few fleeting references to Sankhapura, Sambuka or Mahidharapura. The number of polities may have been especially large in the Mon-Dvaravati realm, because the Hindu cult of the god-king (devaraja) played a less prominent role there. It has been argued that Mahayana Buddhism, the religion practiced by most of the Mon, placed less emphasis on strong kingship than Hinduism. Consequently, this led to a certain decentralizing tendency. The Mon tended to rule themselves in city-states which shared a common culture, but not a strong central government. This made them much less prone to the practice of empire-building than their (mostly) Hindu cousins from Cambodia. However, in the small polity of Sri Canasa, we may see an exception to this general tendency.

It is arguable at least one strong Mon kingdom called Dvaravati existed around the seventh to eighth centuries, the capital of which was located at Nakhon Pathom. Based on archaeological discoveries and the number of monuments, it seems that the largest of all Mon settlements. But it is not realistic to believe that it could exercise anything like direct control over the small polities of the Khorat Plateau. The settlements of Thailand’s Northeast must have governed themselves in some fashion, and it is highly unlikely that they were reporting on a regular basis to Nakhon Pathom. While the rulers and states of this area largely remain an enigma, there is at least one of which we know the name, its location and a little about its rulers. That polity is Sri Canasa, and it is worth sharing an overview of what he do know. It provides an example of what the earliest kingdoms of the Mon-Dvaravati realm may have looked like.

Sri Canasa is mentioned on a very important stele found among the ruins of the tenth century temple of Bo Ika, located near the important archaeological site of Muang Sema. On one side of the stele is a Sanskrit and Khmer inscription dating to the year 868. It commemorates the foundation of a gold linga, clearly indicating the rulers of the kingdom were Shivaites, as well as a gift of slaves by a ruler by the name of Ansadeva. On the other side there is an earlier seventh century inscription in Sanskrit which commemorates donations of buffalo, cattle and both male and female slaves to a Buddhist community by the lord or ruler (known as the isvara) of Sri Canasa. This gives us some interesting insights into the history of this enigmatic kingdom.

It would seem that in the seventh century it is was a Mahayana Buddhist kingdom, just like Dvaravati in central Thailand. The legitimacy of the ruler was partly based on his support of the sangha (Buddhist monks). We also learn that the economy of Sri Canasa was partly based on slave labour, with the slaves having been captured from unnamed weaker polities. Yet by the ninth century the kingdom had been both Khmerized and Hinduized, with Shiva worship being practiced and Khmer language being used in the inscriptions of the Sri Canasa governing elite. In using the same stele for both inscriptions it is if the later rulers of Sri Canasa were emphasizing both continuity and change. They were acknowledging that their ancestors were Mahayana Buddhists but they were making clear that the main religion was now Shivaism. This probably shows the strong influence of nearby Cambodia in the culture of Sri Canasa; the area is situated not far from the present Thai-Cambodian frontier. It appears likely that this part of the country was one of the first parts of Isaan to be absorbed more into the Khmer cultural realm. By the eleventh century, it appears that much of Isaan and even central Thailand was under control of the kings of Angkor.

phanomwan-small.jpg
Prasat Phanom Wan is a Khmer site that contains possible remains from Sri Canasa-era temples

It has been argued that Muang Sema may have been the capital of Sri Canasa (also known as Canasa and Canasapura). The other site which may be associated with this kingdom is known as Hin Khon, a site which has yielded inscriptions in mixed Mon and Khmer. There is also evidence of earlier temples having been built in sandstone and laterite beneath later Khmer temples from the area. For instance, the Khmer temple site of Prasat Phanom Wan contains traces of earlier monuments which may have been a sanctuary of Sri Canasa. All these sites are found within the modern province of Nakhon Ratchasima, which may be considered the heartland of this former polity. Some people have suggested that the polity may have extended as far as Sri Thep in Phetchabun, but there is no firm evidence for this.

It makes sense that this kingdom should have had a somewhat different history than the Mon-Dvaravtai city states of central Thailand when we consider the role that river systems played in the history of early Thailand. While the rivers of central Thailand are mostly tributaries of the Chao Phraya and all flow into the Gulf of Thailand, the area around Nakhon Ratchasima is part of the uppermost reaches of the Mun River system. Muang Sema itself is situated on the Lam Takhong River, which is a tributary of the Mun. The Mun flows in an easterly direction towards the Mekong, creating links with the Isaan plateau rather than the core of the Dvaravati realm. It appears likely that Sri Canasa was something of a buffer zone between the central and Northeastern part of the Mon world, also absorbing strong influence from nearby Cambodia. It is another example of how complex and fascinating the early history of Thailand was.

4 thoughts on “The Elusive Kingdom of Sri Canasa

  1. I’m curious if you have any more information about the Bo Ika temple you refer to in this post? I’ve never come across that name before.

      • Actually, I just saw the stelle displayed in the Phimai museum today. Not much other information was was given on it though.

        – Sanskrit & Khmer writing
        – 868 CE
        – Ban Boe-E-Ka, Sung Noen Distruct, Nakhon Ratchasima Province

        I was hoping for a translation after reading your take on it here.

  2. Just a follow up when I was reading through some of the museum documentation from Phanom Rung – the informational displays refer to Monument 1 (the Khmer monument) from Muang Sema as the ruins of Bo Ika.

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