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Thailand Cultural History

Now for some of historical background to complete the view of Thailand's culture. A thousand or more years ago, most of Thailand, apart from the southern area in the Malay Peninsula, was under the domination of the hinduiz ed Mon-speaking people of Dvaravati (457-657 A.D.) and the Khmer or Cambodian Empires (957-1257 AD); while the Malay Peninsula was under the suzerainty of Srivijaya, the hinduized Sumatran Empire (657-1157 A.D.). During these times the Thai, as a race, emigrated gradually from their home in Southern China into the Indo-Chinese Peninsula.

During these times many off-shoots of the Thai tribes migrated by slow degrees into the Indo-Chinese Peninsula. One of the western off-shoots became the Shans of Burma. On the other side of the Peninsula many of the Thai tribes come into Tongking, including the Laos of the Lao State who settled down in the Mekhong basin. Further west of the Lao State in a northernly direction were the northern Thai of Chiang Sen which was on the north border of Thailand. There is no doubt that the words Shan-san, the name of Nan-Chao Kingdom and Chiang Sen may be identified as one and the same work. All these Thai tribes established themselves in the Peninsula in many small independent states of principalities which engaged in s trifes and warfare not only among themselves but also with the neighbouring tribes (1117-1547 A.D.).

Further South particularly in the now central area of Thailand the land was within the empire of the Mon (Dvaravati Kingdom), a race ethnologically akin to the Khmer, who subsequently became included in the Empire of the Khmer. By this time the Northern Thai of Chiang Sen had gone further south and founded a city of Chieng-mai, which means "new city", and succeeded in taking away the northern remnants of the decaying Mon empire. The frontier of the Northern Thai now touched the border of the Khmer Empire in the Northern parts or Central Thailand which was called Siam or Palized into Samadesa. There is no doubt that the Thai had been befor e that time already in the land of the Mon and The Khmer Empire but they were only a minority and formed themselves into semi-independent states under the suzerainty of these empires. Traditionally these Thai who settled in Central Thailand or Siam were called Thai Noi or Lesser Thai in contrast to Thai Yai or Major Thai who are the Shans of Burma. Traditionally the Thai Noi or Lesser Thai came from the north of Thailand. It was therefore presumed that they were the Northern Thai of Chiang-mai with the Laos or the Thai of Mekhong basin partly mixed; but to me the so-called Thai Noi or Lesser Thai had in their melting pot in no less degree the Thai Yai or Major Thai i.e. the Shan too.

By this time, in about 1257 A.D., one of the Thai princes within the Khmer-Empire Khan Sri Indradit, a name of Sunskrit origin bestowed by the Khmer King, with the help of his able son named Khun Ram Kamhang, or popularly known in legends as Ph ra Ruang, succeeded in making himself independent of the Khmer and establishing Sukhothai as his capital. Khun Ram Kamhang succeeded him as King of Sukhothai and enlarged his territory further south into the Malay Peninsula and further west to Mataban, t he Mon country, in present Lower Burma. This Sukhothai Kingdom lasted nearly two centuries (1257-1438 A.D.) when it became a vassal state to King U-thong the founder of the City of Ayuthia in the lower part of the Menam Valley, which was subsequently mer ged into the Kingdom of Ayuthia (1438 A.D.). During this Ayuthia period Cambodia, the remnant of the Khmer Empire, became in turn a vassal state to Ayuthia. Ayuthia herself as the capital of Thailand in the course of history, gave place to Bangkok or Kr ung Thep as called by the Thai which was founded in 1782 A.D. and has since remained the capital of Siam or Thailand in its modern name of today.

In former days there were constant raids and wars of conquest among the neighbours. The conquered people were removed wholesale from their old homes as prisoners of war and domiciled in various localities within the victorious lands. Every now and then emigrants from neighbouring countries due to accidents of history. These intermixed with the natives of their adopted land, became assimilated after a few generations into one whole. Such was the case with Thailand and the neighbouring countries as well. The ethnic elements of the race in Thailand are more mixed especially in the central and southern areas, while in others they are purer in mixture. The cultures of Thailand are therefore, due to the above facts, formed into o ne unity, but with their regional diversities in differrent proportions where alien elements are predominant or otherwise. Of the four areas aforementioned the central areas the most progressive and this influences other areas or retarded cultural development rapidly through convenience of communications.

The cultures of Thailand as expressed in her religion, arts and literature, social system habits and customs reveal a unity in a general sense with her. neighbours, the Cambodians, th e Mons, the Burmese and partly the Malays, but with varied characteristics. It can be said that the cultures of the above races ar a homogeneous whole with local diversities and details thrown in. To study one nation's cultures, is to study them as a wh ole. Fundamentally, the culture of Thailand may be summed up in one word, religion. For everything, arts and literature, social system, habits and customs is developed and clustered around her religion. It is in quite recent times only that there have been some changes in the culture due to western influence. Thai culture tends to become secular in the progressive parts of the country; but to the people as a whole. religous culture is still a living force.

To conclude, the culture of Thailand is midway between the two great cultural systems of Asia, China on the one side and India on the other. Chinese culture did not penetrate further west beyond Annam; nor did Indian culture go further north th an the Indo-Chinese Peninsula. They came to a halt at one another's bulwarks and did not penetrate further. The Annamites, though ethnologically Indonesians, were domiciled in China far back in historical times as one tribe of the Yueh or Viet, and abso rbed much of Chinese culture. When they came down to the Indo-Chinese Peninsula, the met the Chams who were highly hinduized people, the Khmers or the Cambodians. Naturally Chinese culture could not penetrate further for it met an opponent of equal forc e. Due to the nature of the country and to other facts peculiar to the north of the Peninsula, Chinese culture did not penetrate far for lack of easy communications. Whatever Chinese cultures the Thai brought from Southern China, they adapted to their needs suitable to their tropical surroundings, developing them independently by using the old materials. In their way of life the Thai and the Chinese can mix very well but not with the Indians, even thouyh they have imbibed Indian culture appreciably. The one drawback of the Thai is the climatic conditions of the country. Living in the tropics where food is in abundance and the weather fair, they have become lethargic. But a taste for the arts has been developed by the leisured and elite classes, hence the arts as developed by the Thai though mostly inspired directly or indirectly by India, are uniquely their own.

Buddhism suited their tastes and temperaments very well, so they readily a dopted it. Accustomed to living in isolated groups in their mountainous districts of the North their political conception and consciousness were confined to their village and city only. But when they became masters of Central Thailand where there was on e vast plain, they adapted Indian culture. Being still virile race and with genius they evolved these cultures again as peculiar of their own. Different from Thailand is Burma. Though Burma is a neighbour of India, she did not take much of India culture, especially Hinduism. They adopted only Buddhism tinged weakly with Hinduism. Judging by the physical features of the Thai or Siamese in Central Thailand they differ in stature and colour from their brothers in the north. They become shorter and darker gradually south ward and there is no doubt that they mixed immensely with the Mon-Khmer and Austronesian families. They lost physically but gained intellectually through fusion of new blood. Thailand therefore formed the meeting place of the two great cultural systems which came to a halt and fused into a new one with double layers of culture.


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