Muang Sema: The City Among the Moats

Muang Sema is certainly not a well-known site among travellers. Like most of the other major Dvaravati sites, it is ignored or glossed over by the major guidebooks. It has been visited by a few plucky bike-riders and bloggers, who have raised its profile (at least a little) on the Internet, but they have mostly not been excited about what they have seen either. Without any of the soaring architecture of Khmer temples such as Phimai, it was not an obvious drawcard. Nonetheless, it remained somewhere that we wanted to see, if only for its important role in history. After all, it has been suggested that (along with Si Thep) Muang Sema was one of the two main settlements through which the Buddhist culture of Dvaravati had permeated the Khorat Plateau. The region had long been the ‘gateway to Isaan’.

The site is set about 32 kilometres from the capital of Nakhon Ratchasima province. It is on the banks of the Lam Takhong River, with is one of the major tributaries of the Mun River. As is typical of ‘Dvaravati’ sites in Thailand, Muang Sema is an oval-shaped moated settlement. For archaeologists, these egg-shaped moats are one of the identifying features of a Mon-Dvaravati city. This moated area is especially large, being three kilometres wide and four kilometres long. This was a particularly massive for a city of that era, marking out the site as a former centre of some importance.

This moat is still visible today; in fact, it is possibly the single most prepossessing feature of the site. In coming from the Reclining Buddha- our first stop in Sung Noen- the moat was the first part of the city that we saw. Filled with dark water and partly choked with water-weeds, it has a swampy, frog-accommodating look. There was a man out in a small a wooden boat, fishing in its waters. As so often in Thailand, modern village existed right alongside the ancient past. We also talked about the logistics of building the moat. In terms of the work hours involved, it would have been a sizable project at the time, attesting to the power of the local ruler. Judging from the important Buddhist religious structures in the area, he was probably also a protector of the faith.

The modest remains of Muang Sema, located in a parkland setting

Our driver pulled up inside the moat and we wandered towards the largest of the ruins, a mere, low-lying jumble of bricks. Here we found a metal signboard which announced the site and gave a brief overview of its history. It suggested that the site had been founded in the Dvaravati period, around the 7th to 8th centuries, and had later been occupied by the Khmers. One inscription from the site mentioned the overlord of a kingdom called Sri Canasa, and a later one mentioned King Jayavarman V, who ruled Angkor around the end of the first millennium AD. It mentioned that most of the excavated material was similar to that was other Dvaravati sites, but there was a Khmer overlay. This mixed Dvaravati and Khmer heritage was also evident in the moats; while the larger egg-shaped moat was Mon, it contained a smaller, rectangular moat that was attributed to the Khmers.

With this overview in mind, we set off to explore the monuments of the moated city- as meager as we expected them to be. As it turned out there really was very little above ground level, with only the barest outlines of the original monuments remaining. The largest of them, known as Monument 1, must have been an impressive structure in its day, as it measured 46 by 50 metres. It has been suggested that this was the vihara of a monastery. The second largest ruin was known as Monument 4 and it was probably the ubosot, where the monks performed religious rites. A short staircase was discernible at the front. There were also some leaf-shaped bai sema (Buddhist boundary markers)  outside this structure, which had helped archaeologists to discern its original function. However, unlike in Central Isaan, the bai sema here were very plain and did not contain any narrative art.

The restored base of an octagonal stupa

Apart from these main two monuments, there was five more minor ruins scattered around the area. These were much smaller in size, and are presumed to have been stupas on the grounds of the monastery. Some of them were square-based, and some of them were octagonal, but so scant are the remains that they barely rise above the grass today. Overall, the site showed the value of doing some research in advance: If we hadn’t read something about Muang Sema beforehand, it would have been hard to make anything at all of the slight remains. Having read Steven Murphy’s essay about the place, we at least got the sense of a ruined monastery.

This religious area was only a tiny corner of the ancient city, but it was the only part with any remains at all. Presumably the rest of the city had been built in perishable materials such as timber, which had left no trace at all. Having quickly surveyed the abandoned site, we climbed back into the van and headed back to the main road. From there we got on a bus heading into Nakhon Ratchsima, which turned out to be the same one which had been waiting in Sung Noen market early that day.