A brief history of the Thai Ayutthaya Kingdom, which emerged as a power player in Southeast Asia, unifying the independent Thai kingdoms and laying the foundations for the modern Thailand.
Nearly a millennium ago, the modern nation of Thailand was a patchwork of competing city-states and kingdoms all arising as the influence of the power of Angkor was waning. As the Khmer Empire retreated back into Cambodia, new Thai kingdoms rose to fill the power vacuum. Among these polities were, Sukhothai, Lanna, and Ayutthaya — which would go on to absorb its neighbors as its power grew.
The Ayutthaya Kingdom was a powerful Thai kingdom based in the Central Plains city of Ayutthaya. From the 14th to the 18th Centuries CE, it became a major power in Southeast Asia, replacing the Khmer Empire as the dominant power in the region, uniting the other Thai kingdoms, and establishing diplomatic relations with European powers.
Ayutthaya began as a city founded by King U Thong, a ruler of one of the Lower Chao Phraya Valley cities. He moved his main residence of power to an island between three rivers, the Chao Phraya River, the Lopburi River, and the Pa Sak River, laying the foundations for the powerful kingdom and, unbeknownst to U Thong, the future nation of Thailand.
Who Are the People of Ayutthaya?
The Ayutthayan people were mainly composed of people liberated from the reign of the Khmer Empire. They called themselves “Tai,” and they spoke the Ayutthaya dialect of the Thai language, which would become the precursor to the modern Thai language.
The Kingdom of Ayutthaya was known as Krung Tai in the Thai language.
Origins of the Ayutthaya Kingdom
The Ayutthaya Kingdom came into existence with the founding of its namesake city, Ayuthaya, in 1350. The newly liberated cities of the region were a result of the fall of the Khmer Empire in the 14th century.
It was King U Thong, a local ruler in the Lower Chao Phraya Valley, attributed to the creation of the Ayutthaya Kingdom. In 1350, King U Thong moved his court to an island between three rivers. This is likely to have been to escape a contagious plague on the mainland.
This island also gave advantages such as being protected from floods and attacks from other countries’ sea-borne warships.
Once this city was founded, King U Thong grew its strength through the mandala system. This was a circular system of governing used by the Khmer Empire. It involved having connected people, often from the same family, in places of power in neighboring cities. These kings would then swear loyalty to Ayutthaya, but retain their powers in their own jurisdictions.
It was King U Thong who named the Ayutthaya Kingdom. He named the city after Ayodhya, a holy Hindu city from ancient India of the same name. This name went on to be used for the entirety of the kingdom the Ayutthaya city-state ruled over.
Culture and Beliefs of the Ayutthaya Kingdom
The Ayutthaya Kingdom was a great source of culture for the Tai people who lived there, and much of modern Thai culture can trace its origins back to the Ayutthaya period.
Religion in the Ayutthaya Kingdom
While largely Theravada Buddhists, there was also a population of Mahayana Buddhists. Over time, these religions overlapped and created Tantric Theravada Buddhism.
The influx of French missionaries who arrived in Ayutthaya by way of China also converted a smaller population to Roman Catholicism.
One of the main sources of culture for the Ayutthaya Kingdom was the Ramakien, an epic story of which there are multiple versions. The version that the Ayutthaya peoples had likely stemmed from the one most known in the Khmer Empire.
The Ramakien, which translates as “The Glory of Rama,” was a huge source of culture for the Ayutthaya peoples. From it, they got their Kohn, a dramatization of the Ramakien that was often reserved only for the elite to see.
They also got many inspirations for their artworks and literature, usually poetry, from the Ramakien.
Art in Ayutthaya
The flourishing of the Ayutthaya Kingdom also saw with it the success of art. The Ramakien inspired many of the works.
These included poems, dances, paintings, and other works of literature.
Tai art was often colorful and luxurious. The dances would include practiced motions and slow reveals of characters. Often the players would wear masks to represent monsters and demons.
The plays and stories of the Tai people from Ayutthaya would often be a mixture of drama and humor. Like that of Khun Chang Khun Phaen, these stories would be epic tales of magic and wonder, grounded by likable characters. These stories were passed on for generations, shaping Thai culture, and are still known today.
Dance in Ayutthaya
The dances of Ayutthaya could be broken down into three main categories. They had Khon, Lakhon, and Rabam.
Kohn was the most structured, formal type of dance. It had dancers on stage who did not speak and wore decorated masks. There was often simple string music as the soundtrack and could be narrated by off-stage choruses. These were slow plays, reserved for the elite.
Lakhon was a faster-paced dance performance or play. It could include a mix of dance and on-stage dialogue from the dancers. Some of these performances would last for hours, weaving epic tales often inspired by the Ramakien. These were traditionally performed for royals in court, and the players were all women.
The Rabam was the most common type of dance performed by men and women. It was usually a choreographed dance for a special occasion, though it was enjoyed by both upper and lower classes.
Architecture in Ayutthaya
Of three the ancient capitals of Thailand, the grandest and most numerous feats of architecture were produced in Ayutthaya. While its contemporary in the North, Lanna, gained inspiration from the Dvaravati-Hariphunchai tradition, the architecture of Ayutthaya was directly derived from the Khmer art originating at Angkor, which previously ruled the Central Plains of Thailand.
Most notably in this tradition was the Khmer prang, a stone tower that was the central feature of most Khmer Hindu and Buddhist temples. In most instances, the Khmer prang was a hollow tower usually containing a Shiva lingam-yoni (or a Buddha image, in the case of Khmer Buddhist temples). Khmer prangs can still be found in ruins throughout Thailand to this day, including in the city of Lopburi only 50km from Ayutthaya.
Although there were Khmer prangs present at the earlier Thai city-state of Sukhothai (founded nearly a century before Ayutthaya), Sukhothai did not adopt the prang in the same way that Ayutthaya did.
When the Thais of Ayutthaya began, using the prang shape, they refined the design. The new Thai prang was smoother and narrower, mostly doing away with the interior chamber of their Khmer counterparts. Often described as a “corncob shape” the Thai prang became a commonly used form of Buddhist stupa, as well as an adornment placed on top of older monuments, such as Dvaravati stupa and Khmer temples. They are now commonly seen throughout the nation of Thailand.
History of the Ayutthaya Kingdom
After King U Thong died in 1369, the kingdom faced a series of dramatic events. The mandala system didn’t succeed as well after U Thong wasn’t there to lead it. The throne in Ayutthaya was fought over by U Thong’s son and the nearby ruler of Suphanburi.
These battles continued between want-to-be kings of Ayutthaya for the next forty years. Meanwhile, some of these kings worked on expanding the reach of Ayutthaya. They conquered the Kingdom of Sukhothai and took Angkor in 1394 as well.
Rise of the Ayutthaya Kingdom
Many consider the most prosperous era of the Ayutthaya Kingdom to have come directly before its bloody fall. In the first half of the 18th century, Ayutthaya saw a huge increase in the production of art, literature, and knowledge.
At this time, the Ayutthaya Kingdom had control over much of Southeast Asia, especially the southwest part of that. It had land in current-day Thailand, Myanmar, and Malaysia.
Fall of the Ayutthaya Kingdom
The last half of the 18th century saw a renewal in the bloody battles for the throne of Ayutthaya. Brothers again fought each other to control the city, and the people suffered from the drama.
However, the real fall of the Ayutthaya Kingdom was when the Burmese army marched upon Ayutthaya from the north and the west. In 1767, they successfully overtook the city of Ayutthaya and burned it to the ground.
This saw a huge loss of Tai literature and architecture, and successfully dispersed the hold Ayutthaya had on the land.
Geography of Ayutthaya Kingdom
Ayutthaya in Thailand
The Ayutthaya Kingdom is the basis for much of the Thai culture of today. Buddhism was the main religion in Ayutthaya. The temples that were created in Ayutthaya followed certain styles that can still be seen in modern-day architecture.
There were two main styles of temples in Ayutthaya: the stupa-style temple, which was rounded on top, and the prang-style temple, which featured tall spires.
The prang temples were originally used in India for Hindu temples. They were brought to Ayutthaya from the Khmer reign, and they were reserved for the most important temples in Ayutthaya.
Ayutthaya in Greater Southeast Asia
Ayutthaya became an important port city for Southeast Asia. It developed trade relations with China, Europe, and Japan. The Dutch were also important figures in the trades with Ayutthaya.
Ayutthaya was known for its excellent exports of rice, fish, vegetables, salt, and a liquor known as arrack.
Today, Thailand is still a major exporter in Southeast Asia. The top three food exports are rice, raw sugar, and fish. The trade relations that Ayutthaya started over 700 years ago are still flourishing today.
What Happened to the Ayutthaya Kingdom?
After the Burmese overtook Ayutthaya and burned the capital city of the same name, the kingdom was in ruins. It was never rebuilt in the same capacity, and the people of Siam were in low spirits. They were eventually unified and led by King Taksin, who made great efforts to rehabilitate the Tai lands.
Today, the original city of Ayutthaya is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Current-day Ayutthaya, or Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya, is in Thailand, about 60 kilometers (37 miles) north of Bangkok.
Cities of the Ayutthaya Kingdom
GPS: 14.35703, 100.55314
GPS: 14.79917, 100.61435
GPS: 14.1166, 99.40088
GPS: 13.54603, 99.82299
GPS: 15.05081, 100.16148
GPS: 16.82256, 100.25876
Nakhon Ratchasima, Thailand
GPS: 14.97593, 102.10365
Monuments of the Ayutthaya Kingdom
Wat Mahathat Ayutthaya
GPS: 14.35702, 100.56767
Wat Sri Sanphet
GPS: 14.35576, 100.55815
Wat Yai Chaimongkol
GPS: 14.34529, 100.59312
Wat Chai Wattanaram
GPS: 14.34308, 100.54203
Wat Phutthai Sawan
GPS: 14.33997, 100.55877
GPS: 14.3587, 100.56752
Wat Phu Khao Thong
GPS: 14.36956, 100.53967
Prasat Nakhon Luang
GPS: 14.46517, 100.61154
Wat Phra Si Rattana Mahathat Lopburi
GPS: 14.79864, 100.61387
Phra Narai Palace
GPS: 14.79994, 100.61065
Wat Khun Phaen
GPS: 4.11814, 99.3995
Wat Pa Lay Laig
GPS: 14.12231, 99.40063
Chan Royal Palace
GPS: 16.82966, 100.26165
Wat Phra Si Rattana Mahathat Phitsanulok
GPS: 16.82353, 100.26207
Name: Ayutthaya Kingdom
Origin: Thai inhabitants of the Central Plains who established a new kingdoms after the Khmer rule declined.
Religion: Theravada Buddhism
Era: 1350-1767 CE
Location: Central Plains of Thailand
Capital: Ayutthaya (Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya)
Decline: Ayutthaya was destroyed after a series of wars with the Burmese in the 1700s. The Thai nation was re-established in modern Bangkok with the subsequent Thonburi and Rattanakosin Kingdoms.
Capital of the Khmer Empire, located near modern day Siem Reap, Cambodia.
City in central Thailand and historic capital of the Ayutthaya Kingdom, which was succeeded by the Thonburi Kingdom in 1767.
Thai kingdom based in central Thailand, later referred to as Siam. Its capital was the city of Ayutthaya until the city was destroyed by the Burmese, forcing the state of Siam to relocate to modern Bangkok and found the Thonburi Kingdom in 1767.
Dharmic religion centered on the belief of karma and release from the cycle of reincarnation. Based on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama.
Mon-Burmese ethnic group based in modern Nakhon Pathom, Thailand. Responsible for the introduction of Buddhism (Theravada sect) to Thailand.
Ancient name of Lamphun, Thailand and the historic capital of the Dvaravati Hariphunchai Kingdom.
Dvaravati kingdom in northern Thailand (c. 750 – 1292 CE) centered in the modern town of Lamphun. Eventually conquered by the Lanna Kingdom.
Dharmic religion centered on the belief of karma and release from the cycle of reincarnation. It stems from Vedic teachings and one of the oldest extant religions in the world.
Austroasiatic ethnic group native to Southeast Asia and the majority inhabitants of the modern nation of Cambodia.
Hindu-Buddhist kingdom which ruled much of Southeast Asia from their capital at Angkor.
Thai kingdom based in northern Thailand and northwestern Laos. Its capitals included Chiang Rai, Wiang Kum Kam, and Chiang Mai.
Red clay-like soil which hardens when dry and is used in many types of construction.
Dvaravati kingdom in central Thailand centered in the modern town of Lopburi. Eventually conquered by the Khmer Empire.
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.
A sect of Buddhism focused on the reverence of bodhisattvas.
Political system found in historic Southeast Asia in which tributary states surrounded a central power without being directly administered by them.
City established in 1656 by the Ayutthaya Empire as a frontier outpost to fortify their control in the area.
Nakhon Si Thammarat
City in southern Thailand and the historic capital of Tambralinga.
Common term in Thai temple names meaning “Buddha relic”, referencing the temple supposedly housing a relic of the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama. Also spelled “phrathat”.
A Khmer Hindu tower representing Mount Meru and taking the form of a lotus bud. Thai architecture later adopted the design into their Buddhist temples.
Thai and Khmer word meaning “castle”, “tower”, or “temple” most often used in reference to Khmer stone prangs and ruins, and occasionally for Thai brick stupas.
Thai kingdom and successor to the Thonburi Kingdom. Based in Bangkok and founded in 1782, the Rattanakosin era lasted until 1932, when political reforms transformed the kingdom into the modern nation of Thailand.
Buddhist monument used to enshrine sacred relics or memorialize important figures. Its dome, bell, or otherwise tower-like appearance is an architectural representation of Mount Meru, the cosmic mountain said to represent the structure of the universe in Hindu-Buddhist cosmology.
City in central-northern Thailand and abandoned capital of the Sukhothai Kingdom.
Thai kingdom based in central-northern Thailand, after the overthrow of Khmer rules. Its capital was the city of Sukhothai, which was later conquered and absorbed by the Ayutthaya Empire.
Ethnic group originating in Southern China that migrated south during the Mongol invasions, eventually founding the kingdoms hat became Thailand and Laos.
The ruling dynasty of Myanmar from 1510–1752. It waged wars with and conquered several surrounding kingdoms, including Siam, Lanna, and Lan Xang.
“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.
The historic successor of the Ayutthaya Kingdom founded in 1767 in modern Bangkok. It was succeeded by the Rattanakosin Kingdom in 1782.
● Ancient History Encyclopedia: Ayutthaya; Venice of the East
● Charles Higham: The Archaeology of Mainland Southeast Asia
● UNESCO: Historic City of Ayutthaya
● Encyclopedia Britannica: Ayutthaya
● Amolwan Kiriwat: Khon
● Facts and Details: Thai Dance
● TIR: Thailand; Food Exports Soaring