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Sukhothai Changing Monarchical Styles

A river island city-state founded in 1350 by King U-thong (later crowned King Ramathibodi), Ayutthaya remained the Thai capital for 417 years until its fall in 1767. In all, 33 kings ruled Ayutthaya during its glorious four centuries, but the rise of the island capital heralded radical changes in the concept and style of the Thai monarchy.

Sukhothai rulers had subscribed exclusively to the formalised Buddhist science of kingship, and were both paternal and accessible to their people. Ayutthayan kings, however, while not relinquishing Buddhist ideals, embraced the Brahman concept of divine kingship to become increasingly highly structured and remote.

According to legend, the Buddha, at birth, had the choice of becoming either Buddha or a Chakravartin, the Universal Monarch upon whom ideal Buddhist king-ship is modelled. Based on canonical descriptions of the Chakrauartin -an enlight-tened monarch who ruled according to Buddhist precepts, cherishing righteousness, honesty and charity- the Buddhist ideal of kingship inspired every Southeast Asian monarch after the Indian emperor Ashoka, himself .an ideal Buddhist monarch, sent missionaries to the region during his 3rd century B.C. reign.

Briefly, the ideal Buddhist monarch is a King of Righteousness who abides by the ten kingly virtues of piety, liberality, charity, freedom from anger, mercy, patience, rectitude, mildness, devotion and freedom from enmity. A paragon of virtue, such a king unfailingly upholds the five Buddhist precepts of abstaining from killing, stealing, lying, adultery and intoxicating drinks. Furthermore, he dispenses justice, protects the weak, enriches the poor and diligently guards his human and animal subjects.

Pre-Sukhothai rulers were chosen by tribal elders for their overall wisdom and leadership qualities. New contenders for the throne were continually arising and no ruler was ever in power long enough for dynasties to be established. The Sukhothai period, the first stable era of That history, saw dynastic succession established and kingship embodied in the benevolent paternalism moulded by Buddhist ideals.

Then, during the Ayutthayan period (1350-1767), Thai kings adopted the practice of divine kingship. Thus, Ayutthayan kings, upon coronation were invested with the trappings and ceremony of Brahmanic ritual and retitled with the names of Hindu gods. For example, Ayutthaya’s founder, Ramathibodi, de rived his name from Rama, the god Vishnu’s reincarnation and the hero of the Indian epic “Ramayana”.

Brahmans, the highest caste Hindus, were a hereditary aristocracy who dominated Indian thought. Concerning them-selves with sacred ceremonies, cosmology, esoteric treatises and sublime speculation, the Brahmans viewed kingship purely as the logical karmic reward for spiritually-exalted previous existences. In an age when thrones were more often seized than inherited, such a concept held obvious appeal and was eagerly adopted by Khmer courts. Gradually, Khmer monarchs found Brahmans indispensable as sources of legitimization. Ayutthayan kings came to share the same view. King Ramathibodi specifically imported eight Brahmans from the Hindu holy city of Benares to preside over and legitimize his coronation. Their descendants comprise the Brahmans who conduct various ceremonies in the royal Thai court today.
Essentially, complex Brahman ceremonies endowed Ayutthayan kings with a divine aura. Gradually, their lives assumed supernatural eminence and, apart from obligations to perform sacred ceremonies, they were free to do precisely as they wished, when they wished and how they wished. Universally viewed as being without equals and residing above the law, authentic strong-men who held the power of life and death over their subjects, they appointed all officials and owned all land and all it contained including people. State revenues were exclusively theirs.

Their unique positions were further sustained by the elaborate court etiquette, language, ceremonies and protocol with which they surrounded themselves. Their persons were literally sacred. Commoners were forbidden to look upon them, touch them or even mention their names in public. They ruled through a rigid hierarchy of intermediary courtiers, chamberlains, ministers and court officials. Being a law unto themselves, the greatest Ayutthayan kings were forceful leaders who led as innovators, warriors, statesmen and scholars. Never conforming to any stereotype, they inevitably formed the vanguard in new developments and gradually united fragmented Thai kingdoms throughout the Menam Chao Phya basin into what, at its apex, was the most powerful and brilliant Southeast Asian civilization.
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Article Added on Wednesday, November 25, 2009
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