Ramkamhaeng twice visited the Chinese court and in 1300 imported Chinese artisans to produce pottery and porcelain that was exported to neighbouring countries and is now internationally prized as Sawankaloke celadon and handpainted ceramics. Pottery kilns are still prominently visible among Sukhothai’s magnificent ruins.
Devoutly Buddhist, Ramkamhaeng invited Ceylonese monks to purify the Khmer-corrupted Theravada Buddhism practiced in Sukhothai. As Theravada Buddhism became the predominant Thai religion, numerous graceful temples were built to house the elegantly beautiful Sukhothai-style Buddha images that today rank among the world’s greatest expressions of Buddhist art.
In the most far-reaching achievement of his reign, Ramkamhaeng created the Thai alphabet in 1283 and in one stroke formed the tool for uniting scattered tribes into a nation with an identity of its own. A distinguished scholar of Pali (the ecclesiastic language of Theravada Buddhism) and neighbouring languages, Ramkamhaeng based his alphabet on already-established Mon and Khmer scripts. Once the Thai alphabet found common usage, nascent literary, religious, historical and educational forms took shape and became vital aspects of a truly indigenous Thai culture. With surprisingly few modifications, Ramkam-haeng’s alphabet remains in common use today.
The capital flourished as a trading centre. Besides pottery exports to Java, Sumatra, Pegu and the Philippines, Sukho-thai developed commerce with Indian, Chinese, Burmese, Ceylonese and Persian traders. Its major products were rice, fruits and timber. While barter was the chief trading method, coinage came to assume increasing importance.
Sukhothai and other towns within the kingdom were administrative, religious, military and market centres. The Sukhothai kingdom was loosely governed through towns in a feudalistic system controlled by the king. Nearby provincial towns were ruled directly from the royal palace; those located farther away were ruled by appointed governors who enjoyed absolute power within their own territories. It was the assumed duty of these governors to raise armies to defend the kingdom in time of war. Peripheral vassal states of non-Thai subjects were generally ruled by their own chieftains who swore allegiance to the distant Thai king and received egitimization of their authority from him.
Until the late 19th century, as Thai power centres moved ever southwards down the Menam Chao Phya basin, this mode of administration remained in force throughout the realm.
Ramkamhaeng ruled his ethnically diverse subjects - Mons, Laotians, Malays, Burmese, Khmers and Chinese as well as Thais - wisely and justly. He enjoyed a paternal relationship with his people, em-bodying the open accessibility and closeness between king and subjects that epitomises the ideal Thai monarch. According to a contemporary stone inscription, anyone with a grievance could strike a bell hung outside Ramkamhaeng’s palace and be granted a royal audience.
It is small wonder that modem Thais regard Sukhothai as a place of enviable contentment. A 1292 stone inscription evokes the peaceful, prosperous life its inhabitants must have enjoyed : “This Sukhothai is good. In the water there are fish. In the fields there is rice. The king does not levy a rate on his people...Who wants to trade in elephants, trades. Who wants to trade in horses, trades. Who wants to trade in gold and silver, trades. The faces of people shine bright.”
Ramkamhaeng’s successors were of lesser calibre and Sukhothai’s power gradually declined. By the late 14th century it had become a vassal state of Ayutthaya, a young, dynamically expanding kingdom some 400 kilometres further down the Chao Phya river valley.
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Article Added on Sunday, November 22, 2009
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