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.