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Khmer influence at Si Satchanalai

Tentative ideas on the UNESCO World Heritage site's early history

Although inscribed on UNESCO’s Thailand world heritage list as far back as 1991 the ancient city of Si Satchanalai remains firmly in the shadow of its better-known and more frequently visited neighbour Sukhothai. Indeed, the extensive ruins don’t even get a namecheck, merely falling into UNESCO’s category of ‘associated historic towns‘. (1)

Si Satchanalai Historical Park today – combined with the adjacent ancient settlement of Chaliang – certainly rivals Sukhothai in terms of the sheer number of ancient vestiges although it does lack Sukhothai’s larger, better-preserved, temple sites while a slightly remoter location some 50kms north of its sister city, also lacks the convenient location and tourist infrastructure of modern-day Sukhothai city.

Vibrant modern-day Sukhothai city makes for an interesting destination in its own right and lies a short distance from the Old City
Vibrant modern-day Sukhothai city makes for an interesting destination in its own right and lies a short distance from the Old City

The site includes a well-restored walled and moated core area backing on to the west bank of the Yom River and forming an irregular rectangular shape aligned approximately northwest-southeast. To the southeast, the walls appear to connect to those of the contiguous settlement of Chaliang which is situated within a tight loop in the river. From Chaliang the river turns south and together with a low ridge of hills to the north and west of Si Satchanalai creates a naturally enclosed triangular area of agricultural land to the south and west of the walled city. Smaller ruined temples litter the small plain while a line of additional sites top the ridge. (2)

Si Satchanalai
Si Satchanalai; eastern moat

With a proliferation of ancient kiln sites in the area the settlement would appear to have functioned as an early industrial centre and a convenient location on the banks of the Yom meant pottery products were a significant export to both points north and south. Such a strategically positioned and naturally protected site possibly held more importance in early times than Sukhothai itself and archaeological evidence points to the site having been occupied for a lengthy period prior to the late 12th-century Khmer administration as well as the mid-13th-century rise of the Sukhothai kingdom. (It’s tempting to see Chaliang as the port area, Si Satchanalai as a more industrial/agricultural settlement with perhaps Sukhothai holding an administrative/religious role though this of course is pure speculation on our part.)

A pre-existing Mon/Lawa settlement on the site is recorded as having been, at least partially, controlled by the rulers of Lavo (modern-day Lopburi) to the south which, according to inscriptions, in turn, fell under Khmer control during the early 11th century, Suryavarman I period. (3) However, neither confirmed vestiges, nor inscriptions attest to any direct Angkor control of more northern outposts such as Chaliang or Si Satchanalai during this era so it’s probably safest to view them as at least semi-autonomous client kingdoms or trading partners until the late 12th-century. (Although, to speculate once more, with at least indirect control exerted, it’s not beyond the realms of fantasy to hypothesize the presence of earlier, 11th-century – structures with Sukhothai’s San Ta Pha Daeng being a case in point.)

Si Satchanalai
Although lacking decoration there is something of a Khleang-style feel to San Ta Pha Daeng

To date, no confirmed Khmer sites in the Sukhothai region have been assigned to this pre-late 12th-century period so we have to look at the Jayavarman VII era before any form of direct Angkorian control was exerted thus far north. (1180 is offered by certain sources as the date of direct Khmer intervention in the area.) Even then we are undoubtedly looking at a small number of administrators, traders, priests and military leaders rather than any mass migration and the population would have remained overwhelmingly Mon/Lawa. Excavations by the Thai Fine Arts Department have identified Bayon-period vestiges underlying many later sites although this could equally refer to the late-Bayon, Indravarman II era. Khmer inscriptions in the region from this period are notable by their absence so any more precise information on the extent and nature of an Angkorian timeframe at Si Satchanalai and Sukhothai is impossible to determine.

What is documented however is a revolt by a coalition of local Tai (and presumably Lawa) chiefs in 1238/39 to reassert independence in the face of what was reported to be overbearing Khmer taxation. (4) The rebels had chosen their moment well as it coincided with a radical decline in Angkorian power during the mid-13th-century and the onset of a period of instability during the final years of Indravarman’s reign. The ancient cities of Si Satchanalai and Sukhothai were subsequently extensively expanded and renovated with the newly found kingdom retaining its independence for some 200 years until a Lanna conquest in 1451 was followed by annexation by Ayuthaya some 20 years later. The vast majority of sites seen today at Chaliang, Si Satchanalai and Sukhothai date to this 200-year era, known correspondingly as the Sukhothai period.

So far so good and a reasonably accurate general timeframe of the sites is easily established. However, what is far more problematic – at any of the 3 ancient settlements – is any accurate dating of individual temple sites. With a few exceptions the vast majority of the ruins as seen today display characteristic Sukhothai features; that is to say classic mid-13th to 14th-century Theravada-style dispositions with a core area featuring one or more brick chedis preceeded by a rectangular laterite worshipping hall. The Bayon-style hospital chapel or arogyasala Wat Chao Chan at Chaliang – with the exception of the later, brick, mondop – and the classic form of San Ta Pha Daeng at Sukhothai are 2 of the rare, largely unreconstructed, examples. (Note that if Chao Chan’s laterite tower was simply replaced by a brick chedi then the resulting temple would immediately take on all the appearances of a very typical Sukhothai ruin.)

Wat Chao Chan, Chaliang
Wat Chao Chan, Chaliang

While it is notable that nearly all Thai Fine Arts Department excavations so far undertaken at sites in the area have been said to reveal Khmer features – foundations or minor vestiges – it is also notable that only a very few temples have so far undergone any in-depth research. Aside from the 2 aforementioned exceptions, very few temples display any superficially visible indications and Fine Arts Department evidence generally appears to be based on invisible, underlying foundations, and or relatively minor details such as the style of roof tiles or shape of laterite blocks. (5) While later, Sukhothai-period, temples featured extensive use of brick – particularly with chedis – and Bayon-era sites substantial laterite construction there is of course a potentially large overlap.

Unlike much late-period Khmer architecture sandstone is almost completely absent in the 3 historical sites which rely entirely on either laterite or brick for building materials. Sandstone outcrops are present in the province but with few signs of extensive period quarrying, either it was the wrong kind of sandstone or more likely, the resources to quarry, transport and carve the rock were unavailable. It’s plausible that, in addition to time and financial restraints, willing manpower and skilled craftsmen were simply in short supply in such a remote outpost – especially during a period when such massive projects were underway closer to Angkor. Consequently, the nagas and lions as well as lintels, pediments and inscriptions commonly seen at other Khmer sites are not present. Decoration was certainly limited to stucco and plasterwork which unfortunately hasn’t survived the test of time. (6)

 Wat Chom Cheun - a Sukhothai-style site at Chaliang. which revealed Khmer vestiges
Wat Chom Cheun – a Sukhothai-style site at Chaliang. which revealed both Mon and Khmer vestiges

If early 13th-century Khmer structures employed locally sourced and easy to use laterite then it is logical to assume early Sukhothai period structures adopted the same materials. While brick was also readily available locally – and much more practical for building tall, rounded chedis – large quantities of laterite blocks from earlier Khmer sites would have been lying around waiting to be reused. It is notable that while the ubiquitous, rounded, laterite columns seen at Sukhothai sites may at first glance appear atypical of a Khmer-style, identical columns do feature, albeit rarely, in certain Indravarman II, late-Bayon, additions at Angkor. (The 2-storey eastern annex temple at Bayon includes several such columns while the similar 2 storey structure at Preah Khan has rounded sandstone ones.) Such structures alone are not conclusively proof of a Sukhothai-period date.

Indeed, as is notable of the Bayon period generally, the sheer number of construction projects undertaken led to often sloppy building techniques and necessitated numerous architectural shortcuts. With the extension of direct Khmer control over the Sukhothai region appearing to be a late and perhaps hasty policy then this would be particularly true in these remote parts. Direct Khmer occupation of what would have been a significant border/trading post as well as a useful defensive/military position lasted less than 60 years and it’s reasonable to assume that with such an important, multi-functional addition to the empire, a large number of sites were rapidly raised over a short time span. Additionally, if any substantial conflict had occurred during the settlement’s 1239 rebellion is also possible to envisage the new post-Khmer rulers inheriting a rather dilapidated, possibly partially destroyed, and certainly unimpressive collection of sites. Furthermore, in so far as Jayavarman VII and Indravarman II Mahayana Buddhist and new rulers were of the Therevada persuasion it is likely that the existing sites didn’t hold much prestige or respect for the latter. It’s not hard to envisage that, on attaining liberation from overbearing foreign rulers, deliberate destruction of what would have been seen as archaic, oppressive symbols took place.

The mid-13th century consequently saw large-scale renovation, reconversion and reconstruction of existing sites although with materials and at least pre-existing foundations readily to hand it is doubtful that many, if any, new structures would have been added from scratch. Work presumably began on the more central, larger sites with renovations reaching smaller more accentuated temples over the subsequent decades. As expected the former are those that have received the most attention from the Fine Arts Department so it is somewhat ironic, although significant, to note that the most extensively remodelled and ‘least Khmer’ temples in appearance are also those that have been proven to be the most conclusively Khmer in origin. Wat Chedi Jet Taew at Si Satchanalai, Wat Phra Sri Rattana Mahathat at Chaliang and Wat Mahathat at Sukhothai being cases in point where either strong Khmer design influences and/or actual vestiges have been identified by Thai archaeologists.

Si Satchanalai, Wat Chedi Jet Taew
Si Satchanalai, Wat Chedi Jet Taew

Most minor sites at Si Satchanalai remain poorly researched and while frequently resting on suspiciously Khmer-looking laterite platforms, are as yet inconclusively dated.

However, in our opinion and taking an overview of the historical park, the rather simple criteria of alignment could well be a significant factor. The 4 principal temple sites within the ancient walls; Wat Chang Lom, Wat Chedi Jet Taew, Wat Suan Keow Utthayan Yai and Wat Nang Phaya are all aligned on an identical, 45 degree, northwest-southeast axis with the main entrances to the southeast. The vast majority of minor sites – both within and outside of the city walls as well as at Chaliang – are orientated west-southwest and east-northeast, (precise alignments varying from a few degrees off the east-west axis up to 30 degrees or so), with their main entrances facing east-northeast.

While we can’t find any conclusive religious or architectural significance of the southeast alignment for Theravada shrines, a slight WSW-ENE orientation is a common feature of numerous Khmer sites of wide-ranging periods. (7) Orientation determinants aside, that the quasi-totality of Si Satchanalai temples conform to one of these 2 alignments is, in our opinion, indicative of 2 different construction periods.

Although only a detailed survey of the site foundations could confirm the original orientations of the above mentioned 4 temples the important hilltop temples of Wat Khao Suwankhiri and Wat Phanom Pleung – both lying within the main walled area – are interesting in that their clearly visible foundations overlie what is largely bare rock. Both sites are built upon rectangular laterite platforms aligned WSW-ENE although the original superstructures are long since gone. Despite the 2 temples being remodelled during the Sukhothai period with the addition of substantial-sized brick chedis, geographical constraints on the relatively narrow ridgeline precluded any reorientation of the sites to the southeast. There was simply not enough space and so entrances to the refurbished shrines remained to the east-northeast.

Laterite terraces overlying the rocks at the hilltop site of Phanom Pleung
Laterite terraces overlying the rocks at the hilltop site of Phanom Pleung

Phanom Pleung, of course, is a Khmer title meaning volcano or literally fire mountain, despite the fact that, unlike Surin, Buriram etc, the area has no, and likely never had any, substantial Khmer-speaking population. Unlike Buriram’s Phanom Rung, this low ridge is not volcanic in nature and displays no volcano-like form so It must be assumed that the contemporary name is derived from the original name or description of the site by its Khmer builders or resident priests – i.e. literally fire mountain – rather than because of any geographical resemblance. Khmer settlements of any size generally included both an arogyasala and dharmasala – hospital chapel and fire temple. An example of the former has been identified as nearby Wat Chao Chan while to date no dharmasala or fire temple has been discovered. Wat Khao Phanom Pleung – or ‘Fire Mountain Temple’ – could well be a strong candidate.

A sandstone dharmasala at Ta Prom although provincial ones often employed laterite
A sandstone dharmasala at Ta Prom although provincial ones often employed laterite

Standard Bayon-period arogyasalas include a square shrine with an entrance porch and rectangular enclosing wall while dharmasalas feature rectangular halls. The foundations of either of which would lend themselves to a small Sukhothai-style shrine however any settlement site is unlikely to feature more than 1 or perhaps 2 of each structure. Aside from possible city walls themselves any additional Khmer-period structures would be restricted to small shrines. Late Bayon-style smaller shrines invariably consisted of single cruciform-shaped towers with eastern entrance or porches whose footprints may be hard, although not impossible, to reconcile with that of the standard, minor Sukhothai temple.

Si Satchanalai
The Northeast Chrung; a small Bayon period shrine at Angkor Thom

Laterite foundations – if not too deeply buried – would be easy to rearrange, reorientate or reshape and would provide useful platforms for a subsequent brick chedi. If the major temple sites are confirmed as having been constructed atop earlier Khmer sites then it would be logical to assume at least some of the smaller sites were too. It’s conceivable that the Thai Fine Arts Department merely struck lucky with their limited number of surveys and that only a clutch of larger Sukhothai-period sites are situated atop earlier Khmer ones. Alternatively, the totality of minor laterite ruins littering Si Satchanalai could all reveal Khmer vestiges if surveys were undertaken. (Both extremes are of course unlikely but..!)

Si Satchanalai
Reused early 13th-century blocks or freshly-made late 13th-century ones???

Extensive digging and/or brick and laterite analyses are essential and for now, as to precisely which sites are indeed built atop earlier temples and what form those shrines could have taken, is pure guesswork.

(1) In addition to Sukhothai the UNESCO listing includes the ancient sites of Kamphaeng Phet, Si Satchanalai and Chaliang.
(2) The range of low hills actually cuts through the northern section of the main walled settlement and features temple sites such as Wat Khao Suwankhiri and Wat Phanom Pleung.
(3) The Lawa ethnic group are closely related to the Mon, speak an Austroasiatic language, and were the original inhabitants of what is now north and central Thailand prior to the migration of Tai peoples. In addition to Lavo, Lopburi was also at various times known as Lavapura.
(4) Tai refers to the broader ethnic group which includes Tai Lu, Lao, Shan etc while Thai is used to refer to the modern-day nation of Thailand.
(5) The ubiquitous laterite is a locally sourced, iron-rich clay which can be moulded into blocks and hardens as it naturally oxidizes in contact with the air.
(6) This is a similar situation to another important Bayon-period frontier post – Muang Singh in Kanchanaburi Province, where a substantial-sized Khmer temple survives in brute laterite form and also lacks any sandstone frills or decoration.
(7) In the case of the aforementioned temples at Si Satchanalai the Sukhothai-period alignments seem simply to follow the overall site topography.

In conclusion, note that – with personal suspicions but no conclusive evidence and not wishing to offend the sensibilities of either Khmers or Thais – our Beyond Angkor, Si Satchanalai section, does, for now, list the majority of sites but with a definite ‘unconfirmed’ or ‘requires verification’ status.