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A brief history of the Thai Lanna Kingdom, which inherited the Hariphunchai Buddhist tradition and prospered in northern Thailand for centuries.


Fast Facts

Name: Lanna Kingdom

Origin: Nyoenyang Kingdom in Chiang Saen, Thailand

Language: Tai Yuan (Lanna Thai)

Religion: Theravada Buddhism

Era: 1293-1775 CE

Location: Northern Thailand, western Laos

Capital: Chiang Mai (Wiang Nopburi Si Nakhon Ping Chiang Mai)

Decline: Conquered by the Burmese Taungoo dynasty, and subsequently absorbed into the Siamese Kingdom after forming a military alliance to drive out Burmese occupation.

The city of Chiang Mai in Thailand is often referred to at the capital of the north, a reference to its position as a large and historic city long-established in the northern region of the country. It’s an apt name, but not an entirely accurate one. Chiang Mai, like the historic cities of Sukhothai and Ayutthaya, was once the center of a wholly independent kingdom for most of its existence: The Kingdom of Lanna.

Who Are the Lanna Kingdom?

The Lanna Kingdom existed during a period of many concurrent ancient kingdoms of Southeast Asia. Its territory existed mostly in current-day northern Thailand, with small overlaps in Myanmar, China, and Laos. The Lanna Kingdom took shape after Tai ruler Mangrai conquered the Mon kingdom of Hariphunchai and created a new city that became the capital of Lanna, and was called Chiang Mai.

The Lanna Kingdom was an ethnic Tai state founded in the late 13th Century CE that ruled over the northern regions of Thailand for several centuries. During the late 1500s CE, the kingdom began to experience internal conflicts, power struggles, and financial difficulties. This combination factors paired with the aggressive expansionist policies of the Burmese Taungoo dynasty led to the Thai ruler of Lanna (and their southern Thai neighbor, Ayutthaya) falling to Burmese control.

Lanna disbanded officially in 1884 when Siam adopted it as one of its northern provinces, evolving into the modern nation-state of Thailand in 1949, where most of the Lanna Kingdom’s history exists today.

Although it is easy (and common) to include Lanna in with the overall history and culture of Thailand, the Lanna Kingdom’s long period of independence garnered it a distinct character in art, culture, and language which persists to this day.

Origins of the Lanna People

The people of Lanna, known internally as Kham Muang, were mostly made up of Tai (Thai) peoples who migrated from China’s southern Yunnan Province. Also known as the “Tai Yuan”, they were one of several waves of people who had moved south from China and Vietnam to try and escape the tirade of the Mongols who ruled central China and much of Asia.

The Lanna kingdom was formed after the Mongols conquered and disbanded the historic Burmese Kingdom of Bagan. Nearby the Tai Yuan warlord, Mangrai, who was king of the Ngoenyang Kingdom at Chiang Saen at the time, started to expand his kingdom after Bagan fell. He took to gathering the cities that had previously fallen into the Kingdom of Bagan and adding them to his own, growing kingdom.

Mangrai moved his base to the city of Chiang Rai and brought parts of China and Burma to his territory. Once Mangrai added the Kingdom of Hariphunchai to his territory, which included the long-established cities of Lamphun and Lampang, the Kingdom of Lanna was born.

Although the majority of the Lanna people were ethnically Thai (Tai Yuan), the population included several other ethnic groups who were subsequently integrated into Lanna society. These included the local, indigenous Lawa people as well as the Mon inhabitants of the Hariphunchai Kingdom, who made up the population of cities of Lamphun and Lampang, whose rich cultures came to be an important part of the Lanna culture.

Name Origins

The most commonly held belief about the name “La Na Thai”, as it was properly known, is that it means “Thai Kingdom of a Million Rice Fields”. There exists some debate as to whether this name was ever used by the rulers of the kingdom itself, however, it has long been fixed as the name to any historical reference of the culture, kingdom, and region making up Northern Thailand.

Culture and Beliefs of the Lanna Kingdom

Throughout the 7 centuries of its existence, whether under self-rule or outside rule by Siam or Burma, the people of Lanna have forged and retained much of their own distinct cultural identity. These have taken form not only in religion and architecture, but unique practices in Lanna cooking, metalwork, and weaving. Dancing, in particular, became a valuable part of the Lanna culture.

Theravada Buddhism in the Lanna Kingdom

The Lanna Kingdom came to be known for its large Buddhist culture. Although this Theravada Buddhist tradition extends back to the Ngoenyang Kingdom during its time in southern China, Lanna in particular adamantly embraced the Buddhist culture of the Hariphunchai Kingdom, which had emerged from the ancient Dvaravati culture. Mangrai himself opted against making his capital at Hariphunchai (Lamphun) due to its established and revered perception as a “city of Buddhism) This, in essence, provided a vessel for Dvaravati Theravada traditions to carry on into the modern Thai society.

The 9th king of Lanna, King Tilorokarat, was a devout Theravada Buddhist. His involvement in Theravada Buddhism spread throughout the kingdom, and much of his reign was focused on renovating and expanding Buddhist temples both in Chiang Mai and throughout the Lanna domain. He commissioned the erection of many bronze Buddha statues, temples, and shrines. This helped spread and solidify the Buddhist presence in the Lanna Kingdom. This era under King Tilorokarat also saw the widespread growth of the “Lanna Style” of arts, also referred to as the Phra Singha style or the Chiang Saen style.

These temples stood as centers of the communities, bringing people together and forming a unity throughout the many regions. This new era of artwork included the purchase and installment of many statues of Buddha (Buddha images). These bronze figures are still famous attractions throughout northern Thailand today, with one of the most famous, the Phra Saenswae image, as the centerpiece exhibit at the Chiang Mai National Museum.

As Buddhism spread throughout the Lanna Kingdom, it was also spreading through most of Southeast Asia. Even today, Theravada Buddhism is still the main religion of Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Thailand.

Dancing in the Lanna Kingdom

Traditionally, the dances of the Lanna people were extremely passionate and free. Unlike the neighboring dances from Bangkok, Lanna dances were not performed in rigid, structured lines.

They were more flexible dances that focused on passion instead of perfection.

For these dances, the women would wear beautiful sinhs, and the men would be bare-chested.

Burmese Culture in Lanna

Burmese culture has long occupied a place within Lanna territory. From its adoption of the Mon Buddhist traditions of Hariphunchai to the repopulation of important Lanna cities with Burmese Tai-speaking populations, there have been several waves of Burmese influence upon Lanna. Even during the 200-year Burmese occupation, the riling Taungoo dynasty didn’t force their entire culture upon the Lanna people, but there were many obvious places of influence, including architecture and fashion. One of the most beautiful combinations of the two cultures comes with fashion.

Both Burmese and Lanna women wore long, straight skirts. For special occasions, these skirts were often made of silk and other fine materials. Each culture had its own style for these skirts. Lanna skirts often had patterns that had larger blocks of solid colors, while the Burmese skirts were more intricate in their patterns.

As the Burmese culture influenced the Lanna Kingdom, many skirts were made that combined these two styles. They might also be paired with a Burmese style blouse, instead of the Lanna jacket usually worn.

History of the Lanna Kingdom

The majority of Lanna’s Thai population were originally of southern Chinese descent. They fled from Southern China, going even further south to escape the violent hold of the Mongol-led Yuan dynasty as they were expanding into modern-day Yunnan, Laos, and Myanmar.

These people, the Tai Yuan, settled in what came to be the Lanna Kingdom and are considered the first Thai people. However, they were known then as the Yuan.

The Lanna Kingdom also came to envelop cities that had been established for hundreds of years before, including Hariphunchai (Lamphun), Khelang (Lampang), and the once-independent Thai city-state of Phayao

Early Years of the Lanna Kingdom

The first King of Lanna was Mangrai, who was originally the Ngoenyang Kingdom. After conquering many areas, including the cities of Lamphun, Lampang, and the Kingdom of Hariphunchai, Mangrai formed the Kingdom of Lanna. He chose to base the new kindred within the Ping River valley, not far from the former capital of Hariphunchai. This was considered the best place for the center of the Kingdom of Lanna, as it had plenty of rivers, a pleasant climate, and fertile soil.

Mangrai first established his new, centralized capital at the Hariphunchai satellite city of Wiang Kum Kam, along the East bank of the Ping River. However, successive years of flooding forced the ruler to relocate to a spot 4 kilometers north on the river’s west bank. This location was once the Lawa walled city of Wiang Nopburi, which had long since been abandoned. Here, Mangrai decided to build the city of Wiang Nopburi Si Nakhon Ping Chiang Mai, which became better known as the longstanding Lanna capital city of Chiang Mai.

While founding the new city, Mangrai also made a pact with the neighboring Kingdoms of Sukhothai and Phayao, which led to a Thai King stronghold on the northern parts of Thailand for the next 300 years. This would allow the development of the Lanna culture to have long-term effects on Thailand’s history.

The Mangrai Dynasty at Chiang Mai

The Lanna Kingdom ruled over what is now Northern Thailand for centuries after its founding in 1292 by Mangrai, the first king of Chiang Mai. As one of several Thai polities existing concurrently, Lanna controlled or influenced the northern areas of what is now Thailand, as well as regions in neighboring Laos and Myanmar at its height.

During this golden age of Lanna, Mangrai’s descendants ruled over Chiang Mai and its satellite cities. This dynasty lasted for nearly three centuries and is responsible for establishing the foundation of the unique culture that exists in Northern Thailand to this day. The Mangrai dynasty came to an end after the conquest of Lanna by the Burmese.

The Burmese Occupation of Lanna

During the 1500s, a weakening of the Mangrai dynasty in Chiang Mai resulted in the Burmese Taungoo dynasty conquering the entirety of Lanna. While this period saw rule by Burmese noble and several population centers depopulated, including Chiang Mai and Lamphun. This included many of the historic temples in these cities, which were largely abandoned and which are still standing in ruins to this day.

By using Chiang Mai and Lanna territory as a base, the Burmese launched continued attacks on the central Thai Kingdom of Ayutthaya from both the west and the north. This eventually ended in the near-total destruction of Ayutthaya, resulting in the central Thai kingdom moving its capital to modern Bangkok, establishing the Thonburi Kingdom in 1767.

Lanna as a Vassal of the Siamese Thonburi Kingdom

In order to drive out the Burmese, Lanna nobles formed an alliance with Siam (formerly Ayutthaya), another Thai kingdom existing in the Central Plains. Through this alliance, Lanna reclaimed its kingdom and capital city, Chiang Mai. However, the ties formed through this arrangement were the first step in Lanna losing its independence.

Following the alliance and expulsion of the Burmese, Lanna became a tributary state to the central Siam in the process. During this time, the ruler in Thonburi (Bangkok) put Kawila in charge of Chiang Mai. Kawila went to work rebuilding the cities of Lamphun and Chiang Mai, reinforcing the city walls, building Chiang Mai’s outer city wall Kamphaeng Din, and bringing in Tai-speaking peoples from many Burmese-dominated areas to repopulate the previously abandoned city of Chiang Mai

Eventually, Lanna succumbed to the growing power of the southern kingdom. In 1892, the Siamese King Chulalongkorn merged Lanna into the Siam Kingdom as part of his move into creating a modern nation-state. This eventually evolved into modern-day Thailand. However, Chiang Mai has remained the de facto capital of the north into the present day.

Geography of the Lanna Kingdom

Although often portrayed as or referred to as one region of historical Thailand, the Lanna Kingdom was an influential and independent political entity for much of its existence.

The Lanna Kingdom in Northern Thailand

Lanna’s conquest and annexation of the Dvaravati Hariphunchai Kingdom profoundly influenced its religious tradition and architecture for the next few centuries. Signs of this influence can be found in Lanna-dominated lands not just in Northern Thailand, but also in nearby sections of Laos and Myanmar.

Since its founding, Lanna maintained close relationships with other contemporary Thai kingdoms, even witnessing the fall of some and the rise of others. Lanna’s founder, Mangrai, brought in the kings of the older Sukhothai and Phayao kingdoms as part of an alliance while creating his new domain. However, Lanna would go to war with both these kingdoms later in its existence, conquering Phayao and stalemating Sukhothai. Sukhothai would later be conquered by and absorbed into Ayutthaya, which arose as a regional power also challenging Lanna’s sovereignty. Although they warred with each other, Lanna and Ayutthaya would eventually ally themselves to fight off the Burmese.

Lanna Culture in Greater Southeast Asia

Like its predecessor, Hariphunchai, Lanna never directly faced the Khmer Empire as their cousins in Ayutthaya did. However, Lanna did contend with regional powers along their borders, including China, Burma, and Lan Xang. Despite tense relationships, the Lanna people created a distinct culture in the 300 years that they were their own kingdom, and had a major influence on Thai culture as a whole.

What Happened to the Lanna Kingdom?

Three hundred years after the creation of the Lanna Kingdom by Mangrai, it was conquered and occupied by the Burmese. This began a sequence of events that would unravel Lanna’s independence, eventually culminating in its present status as a part of Thailand.

The Burmese conquerors broke Lanna up into six city-states and forcibly depopulated some areas, including the Lanna capital of Chiang Mai.

Other than this, and a Burmese Prince sitting on the throne in Chiang Mai, the Burmese had limited influence. This kept the Lanna culture alive and well, even though the kingdom had technically been taken.

Two hundred years after this, the liberation of Siam, (Ayutthaya and surrounding Thai Kingdoms) began. This saw the Burmese thrown out of Siam, and slowly removed them from places of power across the cities and regions they had inhabited.

Eventually, the Kingdom of Lanna became part of Siam. The different regions of Lanna became known as the northern provinces of Siam.

In 1949, Siam became known officially as Thailand. While the Lanna Kingdom is no longer a physical region, the arts, cultures, and influence of the Kingdom of Lanna live on.

Cities of the Lanna Kingdom

Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai, Thailand
GPS: 18.7883, 98.98543

Chiang Rai
Chiang Rai, Thailand
GPS: 19.91054, 99.83249

Wiang Kum Kam
Chiang Mai, Thailand
GPS: 18.75017, 98.99756

Hariphunchai (Lamphun)
Lamphun, Thailand
GPS: 18.57769, 99.00728

Khelang (Lampang)
Lampang, Thailand
GPS: 18.29581, 99.50949

Chiang Saen
Chiang Rai, Thailand
GPS: 20.27418, 100.08706

Wiang Suan Dok
Chiang Mai, Thailand
GPS: 18.78879, 98.96765

Wiang Chet Lin
Chiang Mai, Thailand
GPS: 18.8102, 98.95057

Wiang Lo
Phayao, Thailand
GPS: 19.44771, 100.08991

Phrae
Phrae, Thailand
GPS: 18.14426, 100.13869

Nan
Nan, Thailand
GPS: 18.7758, 100.77155

Fang
Chiang Mai, Thailand
GPS: 19.92307, 99.21456

Wiang Tha Kan
Chiang Mai, Thailand
GPS: 18.55048, 98.88093

Monuments of the Lanna Kingdom

Wat Chedi Luang
Chiang Mai, Thailand
GPS: 18.78713, 98.98656

Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep
Chiang Mai, Thailand
GPS: 18.80496, 98.92156

Wat Phra Singha Worawihan
Chiang Mai, Thailand
GPS: 18.78855, 98.98197

Wat Suan Dok
Chiang Mai, Thailand
GPS: 18.78812, 98.96778

Wat Chiang Man
Chiang Mai, Thailand
GPS: 18.79381, 98.98949

Wat Jed Yod
Chiang Mai, Thailand
GPS: 18.80816, 98.97205

Wat Tham Chiang Dao
Chiang Mai, Thailand
GPS: 19.39371, 98.92858

Wat Phrathat Lampang Luang
Lampang, Thailand
GPS: 18.217, 99.38925

Wat Phrathat Hariphunchai
Lamphun, Thailand
GPS: 18.57732, 99.00782

Wat Umong Suan Phutthatham
Chiang Mai, Thailand
GPS: 18.78345, 98.95121

Wat Chedi Liam
Chiang Mai, Thailand
GPS: 18.75412, 98.99585

Wat Pa Sak
Chiang Rai, Thailand
GPS: 20.27419, 100.07718

Fast Facts

Name: Lanna Kingdom
Origin: Nyoenyang Kingdom in Chiang Saen, Thailand
Language: Tai Yuan (Lanna Thai)
Religion: Theravada Buddhism
Era: 1293-1775 CE
Location: Northern Thailand, western Laos,
Capital: Chiang Mai (Wiang Nopburi Si Nakhon Ping Chiang Mai)
Decline: Conquered by the Burmese Taungoo dynasty, and subsequently absorbed into the Siamese Kingdom after forming a military alliance to drive out Burmese occupation.

Glossary

Ayutthaya
City in central Thailand and historic capital of the Ayutthaya Kingdom, which was succeeded by the Thonburi Kingdom in 1767.

Buddhism
Dharmic religion centered on the belief of karma and release from the cycle of reincarnation. Based on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama.

Chiang Mai
City in northern Thailand and historic capital of the Lanna Kingdom founded by King Mengrai in 1293.

Chiang Saen
City in northern Thailand and historic capital of the Ngoenyang Kingdom until the establishment of its successor, the Lanna Kingdom, in 1293 CE.

Doi Suthep (ดอยสุเทพ)
A revered mountain on the western edge of Chiang Mai. The mountain peak has been used by both the Hariphunchai and Lanna Kingdoms to house sacred Buddhist relic temples.

Dvaravati
Mon-Burmese ethnic group based in modern Nakhon Pathom, Thailand. Responsible for the introduction of Buddhism (Theravada sect) to Thailand.

Emerald Buddha
Common English name of Phra Kaew Morakot, a legendary Buddha image which is currently housed in Bangkok after changing hands through several empires.

Hariphunchai Kingdom
Dvaravati kingdom in northern Thailand (c. 750 – 1292 CE) centered in the modern town of Lamphun. Eventually conquered by the Lanna Kingdom.

Kawila
Lanna prince who led successful campaigns against Burmese domination, liberating Chiang Saen. He led the rebuilding of Chiang Mai after becoming governor of Lampang under the Rattanakosin Kingdom.

Khmer Empire
Hindu-Buddhist kingdom which ruled much of Southeast Asia from their capital at Angkor (modern Cambodia).

Kuena
Lanna king from 1355-1385 CE. He expanded the Lanna domain to its largest extent and founded the Lankawong school of Buddhism in Lanna.

Lampang
City in northern Thailand historically known as Khelang Nakhon. Founded by the Hariphunchai Kingdom to control the Wang River Basin, the city was later absorbed by the Lanna Kingdom.

Lamphun
City in northern Thailand and the historic capital of the Hariphunchai Kingdom.

Lankawong
A sect of Theravada Buddhism based on Sri Lankan teachings

Lanna Kingdom
Thai kingdom based in northern Thailand and northwestern Laos. Its capitals included Chiang Rai, Wiang Kum Kam, and Chiang Mai.

Mangrai
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.

Mon
Ethnic group originating in Myanmar who established the first civilizations in modern Thailand. The Mon kingdoms in Thailand are collectively referred to as Dvaravati.

Ngoenyang Kingdom
Tai kingdom based in Chiang Saen, which was succeeded by the Lanna Kingdom after the establishment of Chiang Mai.

Phra Kaew Morakot
The legendary “Emerald Buddha” image carved from a single piece of jade which is currently housed in Bangkok’s Wat Phra Kaew.

Rattanakosin Kingdom
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.

Siam
The unified Thai state that began in the Ayutthaya Kingdom and continued through the Rattanakosin Kingdom into modern Thailand.

Sumanathera
Sri Lankan monk who resided in Sukhothai before being invited to Chiang Mai by King Kuena, He gifted the Lanna King a Buddha relic which is now housed at Wat Suan Dok and Wat Phra That Doi Suthep.

Sukhothai
City in central-northern Thailand and abandoned capital of the Sukhothai Kingdom.

Sukhothai Kingdom
Thai kingdom establishing in north-central Thailand after overthrowing Khmer Empire rulers of Sukhodaya. The kingdom prospered for over a century before succumbing to the growing power of Ayutthaya.

Taungoo dynasty
The ruling dynasty of Myanmar from 1510–1752. It waged wars with and conquered several surrounding kingdoms, including Siam, Lanna, and Lan Xang.

Thonburi Kingdom
The historic successor of the Ayutthaya Kingdom founded in 1767 in modern Bangkok. It was succeeded by the Rattanakosin Kingdom in 1782.

Tilokaraj
Lanna king from 1441-1487. An ardent patron of Sri Lankan Theravada Buddhism, he renovated many temples and artworks during his reign.

Theravada Buddhism
“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.

Wat Phra That Hariphunchai Worawiharn
The central temple of Lamphun founded by the Hariphunchai king Athitayarat in the 1150s CE to enshrine relics supposedly originating from Siddhartha’s ancient visit to northern Thailand.

Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
Sacred mountaintop temple in Chiang Mai, Thailand which is said to house a Buddha relic brought by the Sri Lanka Monk Sumanathera.

Wat Suan Dok
“Flower Garden Temple”, a historic temple west of Chiang Mai built to by King Kue Na to house the Buddhist Relic from the Sri Lankan monk Sumanathera.

wiang
Lanna Thai word for “walled city”

Wiang Kum Kam
The first city established by the Lanna Kingdom in the Chiang Mai valley. Abandoned after successive years of flooding to establish Chiang Mai.

Yuan dynasty
The ruling dynasty of China from 1271-1368 CE. Yuan was founded after the Mongol conquest of China and continued expansion of their territory.

Sources

Benjamin

Benjamin

Hi all, my name is Ben. I’m a native Michigander with a passion for human culture and new places, and more than that, new experiences. I have degrees in archaeology and writing, pursuing a career in the latter. However, I never quite lost that fascination for archaeological theory. For the past 9 years, I’ve been living and travelling in Asia, documenting ancient sites and the peoples who built them, and then adapting them into practical archaeological travel information at PathsUnwritten.com.

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