A brief history of the Lawa, the first organized society in Thailand – predating the Thais, Dvaravati, & Khmer Empire.
Origin: Central and Northern Thailand
Language: Austro-Asiatic group, Mon-Khmer branch, Palaung-Wah sub-branch
Era: 500-1200 CE
Location: Central and Northern Thailand
Capital: Unknown, possibly Wiang Misankorn
Decline: Slowly absorbed into encroaching Khmer and Thai expansion.
Who are the Lawa?
Prior to the Thais, the Angkor Empire, or even the relatively unknown Dvaravati culture, central and northern Thailand were inhabited by a people called the Lawa. They are known to have established a handful of walled cities and interacted with several generations of encroaching civilizations.
But, just who are the Lawa and how did their ancestors meet these newcomers migrating into their homelands?
Origins of the Lawa
The Lawa people are considered by archaeologists and, perhaps just as importantly, by the ancestral Thai people themselves to be the original inhabitants of what is now central and northwestern Thailand. Like the Dvaravati culture, who would enter from Thailand’s western frontier, the Lawa language falls under the Mon-Khmer branch of the Austro-Asiatic language family (Palaung-Wah sub-branch) however it is not intelligible to either Mon or Khmer speakers.
Further backing up the Lawa’s ancestral claim, the name of one of the early influential Dvaravati kingdoms is even thought to be named after this people. Lavo (Lawa Buri) was a kingdom set in modern Lopburi which ruled over most of Central Thailand before the Khmer Empire’s expansion into the area. This is also the city from which Camadevi, the legendary first ruler of Hariphunchai in the north of Thailand is said to have come from.
While the Dvaravati kingdoms of Lavo and Hariphunchai used the Mon script as their primary writing system and are considered to be Mon kingdoms, there is no clear evidence that the Mon people were the primary ethnicity of these empires. This has led some Thai and foreign researchers to speculate that the Lawa people may have made up a sizable portion of the population.
In their own language, the Lawa people call themselves as Lavu’a (La-Woe-A). During the Hariphunchai Period, they were referred by to in writings as Milakkha. Meanwhile, they are referred colloquially by northern Thais as Lua. However, modern researchers use the name Lawa to clarify between this group and another ethnic group in Laos know as Lua.
Culture and Beliefs of the Lawa
Current State of the Lawa
Presently, there are estimated to be about 59,000 Lawa living within Thailand. They are concentrated in the Bo Luang plateau in the southwest of Chiang Mai Province as well as in the mountains near Umpai, Mae Hong Son Province.
During the era of the Lanna Kingdom in Northern Thailand, a majority of the Lawa people became absorbed into the Lanna culture through intermarriage. However, some Lawa migrated into the highlands outside of Chiang Mai and established small tribal villages where they carried on with their own culture, with some nominally adopting Buddhism alongside traditional animistic beliefs.
Traditional beliefs of the Lawa include various local forms of animism. In these aspects, Lawa shamans play a very important role as both religious and political leaders. During religious rituals, these shamans are responsible for invoking ghosts, ancestors, or the supernatural. Meanwhile, they also handle several secular aspects of local political life, often being akin to a village headman.
A Lawa shaman’s claim to authority within the community or clan often stems from a perceived inherited lineage as a descendant of Khun Luang Wilangka, the fabled Lawa ruler who warred with Hariphunchai.
Outside of the traditional village setting, most of the Lawa population has long since been integrated into Thai culture, and has likewise adopted the Thai Theravada Buddhism. In some locations, the Lawa have syncretized aspects of both belief systems.
However, there is evidence of Lawa adoption of Buddhism before even the arrival of the Thais. As Hariphunchai was a regional influence, their legends included stories of the Lawa Buddhist hermit Vasuthep along with others.
Archaeologically, this is supported by the presence of Hariphunchai Buddhist artifacts found at Wat Ku Din Khao within the Lawa city of Wiang Misankorn, as well as similar artifacts found at the mountain sanctuary of San Ku, which sits atop Doi Pui and would have fallen under the dominion of the Lawa city at the base of the mountain. Such artifacts found at these two ruined temples suggest a level of cooperation between the two cultures, at least in a common aspect of Buddhist belief.
Much later, Christianity was introduced to the region by way of missionaries who entered the area. To this day, a small percentage of the total population adheres to Christian beliefs. There is even a Lawa church on the northern outskirts of Chiang Mai city.
History of the Lawa
Lawa People in Central Thailand
Despite being the region of the country with perhaps the best-kept records, the specific history of the Lawa within central Thailand is not as clear as their history in the north. It is known that the Lawa inhabited the area in some numbers at the time the Dvaravati began to establish their cities in the central plains.
Archaeologists even speculate that the early names of Lopburi originates from a reference to the land of the Lawa (“Lavapura”), seat of the Lavo Kingdom. Beyond that, it is still a matter of investigation just what ethnicities made up the majority of the Dvaravati domain. Subsequently, any protohistory of peoples living in the region before must be discerned through archaeological excavation without the benefit of written context.
Ping River Valley Kingdoms
Main article: Wiang Suan Dok: Ancient Chiang Mai’s Holy Outer City
Prior to the arrival of the Thais and, as most evidence points, even the Dvaravati, the Lawa had not only inhabited the area, but established organized cities. The remains of three walled cities predating Lanna and Hariphunchai have been found around the modern city of Chiang Mai.
These cities, named Misankorn, Nava Rattha, and Nopburi were all located on the flat plain between Doi Suthep mountain and the Ping River. However, they existed in an era prior to the introduction of writing to the area. This means that the few historical accounts we have of this period come from the writings of later sources, such as the Hariphunchai and Lanna cultures.
One such legend found in Hariphunchai’s ‘Cāmadevivaṃsa‘ records that the Lawa King Wilangka attacked Hariphunchai with some 80,000 men after his marriage proposal was rejected by Hariphunchai’s Queen Camadevi. While this is likely an embellished tale and number, it does paint the Lawa as not only settled in the area, but well-established and able to organize great numbers.
Lawa People in Northern Thailand
The Lawa people had long established themselves in the north by the time the Lanna Thais arrived in the region. Conflicting accounts tell the story of the long relationship between the Hariphunchai and the Lawa.
Archaeological evidence such as Doi Pui’s ruined temple of San Ku demonstrates a level of cordiality. Meanwhile, tales of conflicts in the writing of the Hariphunchai, as well as the mostly abandoned state of Lawa cities upon their discovery by the Thai King Mangrai seem to show a more tense relationship.
When Mangrai’s armies arrived in the Ping River valley, he allied himself with the Lawa people in order to overthrow and conquer the Hariphunchai Kingdom, who by this point seem to have destroyed and disbanded the Lawa settlements surrounding Doi Suthep Mountain.
Mangrai went on to honor the Lawa claim to the region by incorporating Lawa succession rituals into his coronation ceremony, thereby legitimizing his rule in accordance with local customs. He also incorporated the name of their fallen city, Wiang Nopburi into the full title of his new capital, “Nop Buri Sri Nakorn Ping Chiang Mai”.
After the establishment of the Lanna Kingdom, the Lawa people were mostly absorbed into Thai society. There are notable exceptions of populations and villages inhabiting the forested mountains of Mae Hong Song province and other nearby areas in the country’s north. However, for the most part, the Lawa people have become a part of the unified modern Thailand.
Cities of the Lawa
Wiang Nopburi (Chiang Mai)
Chiang Mai, Thailand
GPS: 18.79381, 98.98949
Monuments of the Lawa
Wat Ku Din Khao
Chiang Mai, Thailand
GPS: 18.80723, 98.94547
Chiang Mai, Thailand
GPS: 18.81589, 98.89466
Legendary Lavo princess and first ruler of Hariphunchai who brought Buddhism and Dvaravati culture to northern Thailand.
City in northern Thailand and historic capital of the Lanna Kingdom founded by King Mengrai in 1293.
Sacred mountain on the eastern edge of Chiang Mai. The mountain peak has been used by both the Hariphunchai and Lanna Kingdoms to house sacred Buddhist temples.
Mon-Burmese ethnic group based in modern Nakhon Pathom, Thailand. Responsible for the introduction of Buddhism (Theravada sect) to Thailand.
Dvaravati kingdom in northern Thailand centered in the modern town of Lamphun. Eventually conquered by the Lanna Kingdom.
Thai kingdom based in northern Thailand and northwestern Laos. Its capitals included Chiang Rai, Wiang Kum Kam, and Chiang Mai.
Dvaravati kingdom in central Thailand centered in the modern town of Lopburi. Eventually conquered by the Khmer Empire.
Ethnic minority group who constructed three walled cities in the Chiang Mai valley: Wiang Nopburi, Wiang Ched Lin, and Wiang Suan Dok. They are also referenced in historic writings as Lua, Milukku, Tamilla, and La.
Common local name for the Lawa people of northern Thailand. Not to be confused with the Lua people of Laos.
City in northern Thailand and historic capital of the Lavo Kingdom founded by the Dvaravati culture. It was subsequently ruled by the Khmer Empire and the Ayutthaya Kingdom.
Final ruler of the Ngoenyang Kingdom (Chiang Saen) and founder of the Lanna Kingdom from 1291-1311 who established Wiang Kum Kam in 1286 and its successor Chiang Mai in 1293.
Ethnic group originating in Myanmar who established the first civilizations in modern Thailand. The Mon kingdoms in Thailand are collectively referred to at Dvaravati.
Ruined Buddhist temple atop Doi Pui dating from the Hariphunchai Period.
“The “Doctrine of the Elders” branch of Buddhism which draws its teachings from the Pali Canon. This sect is popular in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand.
Fabled Lawa hermit monk who is said to have founded Wiang Misankorn and Hariphunchai, and invited Camadevi to rule Hariphunchai.
Wiang Chet Lin
Fortification built by Lanna King Sam Fangkaen over the ruins of Wiang Misankorn.
Lawa city at the base of Doi Suthep founded before the Hariphunchai Period.
Abandoned Lawa walled city used as a based from which to build Chiang Mai. Located in the northwest corner of Chiang Mai’s Old City in the current location of Wat Chiang Man.
Wiang Suan Dok
Abandoned Lawa walled city used by Lanna royalty as a garden. In 1371, Wat Suan Dok was established in the center of Wiang Suan Dok.
Legendary ruler of the Lawa people who waged war on Hariphunchai with 80,000 men after being rejected by Camadevi.
- “Ancient City in the Protohistoric Era” display. Chiang Mai National Museum, Chiang Mai, Thailand.
- Damrikul, Surapol. “San-Ku Archaeological Site, Doi Pui Hill: Sacred Site of Wasuthep Hermit.” Journal of Fine Arts, vol. 5, no. 1, 2014, http://cmuir.cmu.ac.th/jspui/handle/6653943832/65062.
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- “History of Northern Thailand: Hariphunchai Region” display. Chiang Mai National Museum, Chiang Mai, Thailand.
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- Williams, Benjamin. “Wiang Chet Lin: Ancient Chiang Mai’s Lost City of the Lawa.” Paths Unwritten, 7 Feb. 2020, https://pathsunwritten.com/chiangmai-wiang-chetlin/.