The Lost Kingdom of Sankhapura

While the great kingdoms of ancient South-East Asia from Angkor to Bagan have been the focus of an ever increasing number of books and studies in recent years, there are still many smaller polities which remain little more than footnotes in the history of the region. One of the most elusive of these kingdoms is Sankhapura; its historical record consists of a single inscription. However, there is also an intriguing archaeological record of a localized kingdom along the lowermost reaches of the Chi River, which offers an independent testimony to its existence.

During the 1980s, an ancient inscription was found at Wat Ban Song Puay, a village wat in the province of Yasothon. It records the existence of a King Paravarasena who ruled from his capital of Sankhapura. Based on stylistic evidence, the inscription comes from either the 7th or 8th century, making Sankhapura one of the earliest recorded kingdoms of Isaan. This dating means that it was probably a small regional polity which was nominally under the control of the Khmer kingdom of Chenla. Perhaps its autonomy was lost altogether when the expansionist kingdom of Angkor began to exercise more direct control over Isaan in the tenth century. 

With only a single inscription to go by, the historical sources are of limited illumination. There it is useful to look at the archaeological record. As soon as you do so, it becomes clear that Yasothon is more interesting historically than it is usually given credit for. A mere kilometer south of Ban Song Puay, the village where the Paravarasena inscription was found, is the archaeological site of Dong Muay Toey. Though its surviving vestiges are modest, consisting mostly of the foundations of stone buildings, they do attest to the existence of a political centre in the region during the 8th century. It has been assumed that this was once the centre of the small kingdom of Sankhapura.

Perhaps even more intriguing are the numerous sites around the province which have turned up bai sema, a form of boundary marker, which have a design unique to this region. They show a stupa-khumba motif, which incorporate a water pot and a Buddhist stupa, often topped by an elaborate finial. The leading expert on these stones, Stephen Murphy, has published an extensive study of about their iconography and distribution. He has found that the stones are very homogeneous and suggests that they may all have been the product of a couple of workshops. Perhaps these workshops received the patronage of the local rulers in Paravarasena’s line. It is very tempting to think that they represent a unique cultural product of a localized kingdom. Perhaps their distribution throughout Yasothon and Amnat Charoen provinces in Thailand is linked to their territory of the former polity of Sankhapura.

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Ho Trai in Isaan

To get the most out of a visit to a Thai wat, it is useful to know the names of the basic temple buildings and their functions. While most well-known temples are famous for their vihaans, ubosots or chedis, this list by no means  exhausts the range of structures which you can find at a Thai temple. One of the lesser-celebrated examples of Thai religious architecture is the ho trai or Buddhist scripture library. In two recent posts, I have highlighted some fine examples from Northern Thailand: two in Chiang Mai and two in nearby Lamphun. However, this kind of building is by no means limited to the North. In our travels around Thailand’s arid Northeast (often known as ‘Isaan’), we encountered two very beautiful examples as well. One in Ubon Ratchathani is quite well-known. But the second example in Yasothon remains seldom visited by tourists. There are doubtless many other fine examples which await the adventurous traveller.

The town of Ubon Ratchathani is a regional centre with most amenities but it is seldom viewed as a tourist destination in its own right. Nevertheless, there are a few sights in the city and its environs, with a wooden ho trai being one of the most compelling. This old scripture library can be found on the grounds of Wat Thung Si Muang about half a kilometre from the Mun River near the centre of town. It is undoubtedly one of the architectural treasures of Isaan.

The beautiful ho trai at Wat Thung Si Muang

The ho trai is said to be a mixture of the Laotian, Burmese and Thai architectural traditions, which is perhaps part of why it has such an unusual look. Dating from the 1820s, it is perched elegantly on wooden stilts above a rectangular lotus-pond. While the pond has undoubted aesthetic appeal, its primary function was to deter termites and other vermin from climbing into the library and nibbling away at precious manuscripts. Accessed by a wooden bridge, the library itself is a masterpiece of wooden construction. Perhaps its greatest feature is its elaborate six-tiered roof, which is said to be Burmese in inspiration. Also of note is the exquisite floral woodcarving on the outer walls and the naga-shaped eave brackets which decorate the exterior.

The splendid roof of the ho trai at Wat Sri Trinurak

For visitors to Lower Isaan, another example of a fine ho trai can be found in nearby Yasothon province. Yasothon is a rarely visited province, even by Isaan standards, and you could easily visit this part of the country without seeing another foreigner. However, that doesn’t mean there is nothing to see. One of its minor gems is the ho trai on the grounds of Wat Sra Trinurak, about twenty-five kilometres from the provincial capital. Dating back over a century, it is a fine example of Burmese-style architecture. This ten-metre high structure has a four-tiered roof, an intricately carved front door and an unusual porch, partially enclosed by wooden slats. It was registered as a national monument in 1990 and thoroughly restored.

 

Ho Trai in Lamphun

One of the lesser-sung buildings in the tradition of religious architecture in Thailand is the ho trai or Buddhist scripture library. The best place to see one on a trip to the ancient town of Lamphun is undoubtedly at Phra That Hariphunchai, which is the premier temple in town. There is much to enjoy at the wat including some extremely rare chedis from the Haripunchai kingdom, but it also worth sparing some attention for its library. This one is very much in the Lanna architectural tradition, bearing a close resemblance to the famous cousin at Wat Phra Singh in Chiang Mai.

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The ho trai of Wat Phrathat Haripunchai

It rests on a tall and narrow three-metre high stone base, which is painted barn-red.  This height would have not only have protected it from flooding but also the predations of insects. It is also notable for its naga guardians perched at the top of the slender staircase. The upper portion of the library is an elegantly proportioned teak structure with elaborate woodcarving and the Thai roof ornaments known as chafoh. The ones on the ho trai are of the garuda-shaped variety. Even in a temple overflowing with venerable structures, this one is an eye-catching beauty, an excellent example of old Lanna charm.

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The gables of the ho trai at Wat Mahawan Woramahwihan

By way of contrast, it is worth comparing the solid, stone-based ho trai at Wat Phra That Haripunchai with the one at nearby Wat Mahawan Woramahawihan. Dating from the 1940s, it is not of any great antiquity but it is an attractive example of a rustic, wooden scripture library. It is a two-storey structure with timber balustrades, a multi-tiered roof and elaborate wood-carving on its gables. The wooden panels over the windows are elaborately carved dharmacakras and attendant deers, a reference to the episode of the Buddha’s first sermon at Sarnath. Overall, the structure has of a more humble, village-styled feel than its counterpart at Wat Phrathat Haripunchai. It is surrounded by a wooden belltower and a small shrine, which appear to be of a similar vintage. It is a good example of a more vernacular style of ho trai.

Ho Trai in Chiang Mai

The ho trai is the library of a Buddhist scripture library in Thailand. It is always included as part of a larger ensemble of buildings in a Buddhist monastery. Its primary function is to store the sacred books or palm-leaf manuscripts of the monastery. In the past, they were often built on stilts above ponds, as this would help to protect the manuscripts from rats, insects and other vermin.

In Northern Thailand- the territory of the former kingdom of Lanna- ho trai on stilts are less common than they seem to be in Central Thailand. Here the most common form of ho trai is a narrow two-storey structure with a brick and mortar base and a wooden superstructure. While they are rarely the focus of much attention in travel writing, some of them are aesthetically impressive buildings which a history or architecture buff might get some enjoyment from. On a recent trip to Chiang Mai and Lamphun, we encountered a number of historic ho trai. This article will cover a couple of notable examples from Chiang Mai and a later article will focus on the examples we encountered in Lamphun, just to the south.

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The rear view of the ho trai at Wat Phra Singh

If you were only going to see one ho trai on a trip to Northern Thailand, the obvious choice would be the one on the grounds of Wat Phra Singh. A fine example of Lanna architecture, the library dates back to the fourteenth century, making it one of the oldest monuments in Chiang Mai. It is built on a high stone base, which would have put its sacred manuscripts safe above the periodic flooding of the Ping River. Apart from its functionality, the base of the monument is a thing of considerable beauty, with beautiful, stucco figurines of devata, a kind of heavenly being. The devata on this ho trai are female, with elegant proportions and the elaborate head-dresses and garments associated with royalty. The ones on the corner of the base are performing the wai, the prayer-like Thai greeting, which is performed with palms pressed together. The base is also noteworthy for its long, narrow staircase which is flanked by a pair of guardian figures. The upper story is made from timber, with a multi-tiered, Lanna-style roof. This upper section is decorated with glass mosaics and gold lacquerwork, which greatly adds to its charm.

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The front of the ho trai at Wat Chiang Man

For a point of contrast, you could also check out the simpler ho trai on the grounds of Wat Chiang Man, which is sometimes referred to as Chiang Mai’s oldest temple. This ho trai is set over a pond, which would help to deter termites and other unwanted pests. The wooden structure reflects in the waters of the pond below, not only protecting its treasures but enhancing the aesthetics of the scene. The structure itself has a simple fretwork balcony but a subdued elegance is achieved through the foliate gold lacquerwork which adorns the front of the building. The roof, in the Lanna style, features steeply upturned chofah decorations. It appears this structure is much more recent than the one at Wat Phra Singh, but it still offers a modicum of old Lanna charm.

 

 

The Multi-Layered Heritage of Wat Phra Yuen

Even among the select group of visitors who include Lamphun on their itineraries to Northern Thailand, the temple of Wat Phra Yuen is likely to be passed over. This is a shame because it is arguably one of the oldest temples in the region and one which has vestiges from three different kingdoms: Haripunchai, Sukothai and Lanna. In this it can be seen as a composite of a millennium of different political and cultural influences in this small part of the world. Yet in spite of these claims, it retains a very unassuming appearance.

Unlike most of Lamphun’s sights, it is nowhere near the walled and moated core of the old town. Instead, it is a few kilometres away, amidst the rice-fields which surround the small city. When we arrived around lunchtime on a Sunday, we found no one else around. Parking the motorbike on the leafy grounds of the wat, we wandered around, taking a look at the ensemble of temple buildings. There are two main structures at the site: a comparatively modern vihaan and an ancient stupa. Though you will see both as soon as you enter the compound, we decided to examine the vihaan first and save the stupa for last.

While the vihaan is relatively modern, probably dating to within the last few decades, it is a colourful example of a Northern Thai temple which is worth at least a few minutes of your time. On the outside you can see wooden naga finials on the tips of the eaves, stone temple guardians crouching on the balustrades of the staircase and elaborately decorated windows with coloured glass inlay. The inside of the temple is even more lively; the focal point is a large Buddha depicted in the touching-the-earth posture. Seated at the far end of the hall, before it are a row of slender, wooden columns with lotus-bud capitals. Both the columns and architraves are painted red and decorated with gold stencil work. The overall effect is surprisingly elegant. There are also some beautiful carvings in the window panels, most of them depicting standing Buddhas with flowing robes. However, a brief look around will probably suffice as the wat’s greatest treasure is outside in the yard.

On the grounds of the wat is a large, white stupa which is one of Lamphun’s links back to the kingdom of Haripunchai, an ethically Mon kingdom which, it is claimed, ruled the region between the seventh and thirteenth centuries. The prevailing mythology about Haripunchai also propounds that the kingdom was founded by a legendary ruler by the name of Queen Chamadevi. A statue of her graces the centre of town to the present day. In truth, the surviving monuments and statues of Haripunchai go back as far as the tenth century but no earlier, so the kingdom may not be quite as old as legend would have it. Nonetheless, Lamphun is certainly an ancient city which was founded and ruled by the Mon ethnic minority for many centuries before it was incorporated into the dominant Northern Thai kingdom of Lanna. And recent archaeological work at Wat Phra Yuen has confirmed that the lowest level of the stupa at the temple (consisting of the foundations and some monk’s prayer cells) are, indeed, of Haripunchai heritage. This monument has more than a thousand years of history behind it. On the other hand, its present form bears scant resemblance to how it would have appeared in the days of Queen Chamadevi.

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A standing Buddha in one of the prayer niches

Its first major renovation was when a huge Sukothai-style mondop was built over the original Mon monument. It was at this point that it first attained its current monolithic proportions. In this Sukothai-era reconstruction, it would have had a large, pointed roof on top. Local residents suggest that this may have been extent as late as the early twentieth-century when the crumbling monument was reconstructed again as a squarish stupa. This third version shows a clear influence from the Pagan style of Burma. It is worth noting, however, that, apart from these three major renovations, numerous minor adjustments would also have been added over the centuries.

In its current form, it has a monumental square base with four, grand staircases, one located in the centre of each side. A low parapet runs around the edge of the upper terrace, clearly demarcating the upper portions from the base. On the terrace (which is not admissible to visitors), you can see a couple of lesser stupas. In the centre of the terrace is a large block of masonry, which is patchily whitewashed. On each side there is a long, deep niche, where a large, Sukothai-style standing Buddha can be found. While most of the monument shows signs of dilapidation, these images are well-maintained. If anything, their brilliant gold coats of paint might look too clean and bright for some tastes. On top of the monument is an ornate, tiered roof, topped with a golden parasol. The signs of deterioration notwithstanding, this is still a venerable monument, whose mixed heritage makes it worth the time of any historically-minded passerby.

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One of the ornamental staircases of the main stupa

Ku Chang Ku Ma: The War Elephant’s Shrine

The final stop on our trip around the lesser-known sights of Lamphun was Ku Chang Ku Ma, a pair of brick ancient brick stupas reputed to have associations with the legendary Queen Chamadevi. It is set on a quiet, leafy street in the suburbs of the small city. Coming on a motorbike, it only takes a few minutes from the major wats of Lamphun’s old town. While it is certainly not an overwhelming site, for those looking for traces of the old Mon kingdom of Haripunchai, it should definitely be on your list. History aside, it is also notable for the highly unusual design of its main stupa, the shape of which is totally unique among the ancient monuments of Thailand.

Arriving on a Sunday afternoon, we pulled up in the site car-park. There were a couple of street-stall vendors selling rice and drinks to visitors. At the time of our visit there were a dozen pilgrims who had stopped by the venerable brick monuments to lay garlands, burn incense or simply sit around enjoying drinks and snacks. Situated directly opposite the car-park, the main stupa is flanked by spirit-houses and statues of war-elephants with raised trunks (a modern addition), most of which have been liberally decked with garlands. Like so many shrines in Thailand, it has an aura of serene mysticism.

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Ku Chang Ku Ma

The stupa now consists of exposed red brick but traces of plaster remain on the upper portions. It would probably have been entirely covered with plaster originally; the Mon ethnic group were masters at decorating their religious monuments with stucco. In terms of shape, it is a cylinder which tapers towards the top. While this is the only surviving example of the this kind of stupa in Thailand, it is comparatively common in the Mon sites of Myanmar. For instance, there is one beautiful example on the Irrawaddy riverfront at the famous archaeological site of Bagan. This could be a suggestion of cultural exchange between the Mon kingdom of Haripunchai, which was based in Lamphun, and the Mon kingdoms of ancient Myanmar.

According to local legend, Ku Chang Ku Ma was built by Haripunchai’s founder, Queen Chamadevi, who ruled the area in the 7th century. The stupa is said to entomb the tusks of the queen’s most fearsome and revered war-elephant, which obviously explains the surrounding statues. It is also worth mentioning that the Thai word for elephant is chaang, which is reflected in the shrine’s modern name. Behind the main shrine is another more typically shaped stupa, which is said to be the tomb of Queen Chamadevi’s war horse. Whatever the truth of these claims, the shape of the main monument gives some credence to the fact it is of Mon lineage, which means it probably dates back to at least the early 13th century. For this reason alone, it is a must-see monument for anyone tracing the region’s Haripunchai heritage.

 

The Dwarapala of Muara Jambi

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During 2002 on an archaeological dig at Candi Gedong I, a temple at Muara Jambi, the researchers uncovered a complete and undamaged 1.5 metre sandstone statue. Not used to finding large artefacts intact, the archaeologists were greatly surprised and excited by their discovery. Because of the location of the statue (near the entrance door to the temple), it was immediately presumed that they had found a dwarapala (a door guardian in Hindu-Buddhist mythology). The function of the statue would have been to prevent evil spirits from entering the sacred space of Candi Gedong I.

Standing with his legs in a unusual, buckled position, the dwarapala holds a small shield in his right hand and a cudgel in his left hand. The broken cudgel is perhaps the only feature of the statue which is seriously damaged. While it is customary for dwarapalas to have a rather fierce countenance…

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