The golden land that lit the path to ancient empires

The golden land that lit the path to ancient empires

The remains of a monastery in U Thong reveal local links to global empires

brought to light: A bird perches on a bridge leading to Suphan Buri's U Thong district, where archaeologists uncovered the remains of an ancient Buddhist monastery from the Dvaravati period. PHOTO: Thiti Wannamontha
brought to light: A bird perches on a bridge leading to Suphan Buri's U Thong district, where archaeologists uncovered the remains of an ancient Buddhist monastery from the Dvaravati period. PHOTO: Thiti Wannamontha

A first look around reveals a landscape that is dry and sparsely vegetated, with few houses around. There is little evidence that visibly betrays the fact that where we're standing is on the remains of an ancient trade and culture centre in the upper Gulf of Thailand.

We travel along a dusty path to Ban Sri Sanphet 3, an archaeological site in Suphan Buri's U Thong district where a mysterious vihara -- a Buddhist monastery -- has been the site of an excavation project since 2015.

In the late 1950s, the Ministry of Culture's Fine Arts Department (FAD) placed the site under its archaeological survey plans based on a small sample of findings.

The vihara remained hidden underground until 2008 when construction work arrived to build an irrigation canal nearby the site. When workers uncovered a pile of old bricks, FAD archaeologists were alerted. They began to plot an excavation plan that would start seven years later after experts were consulted and a budget was granted.

That was when construction site operators discovered three still-standing walls of ancient bricks dated back to somewhere between the ninth and 10th centuries. The aligned, rectangle shape of the formation indicated they were a part of a building structure.

The whole length of the wall has yet to be excavated, but one side has been determined to be 12.4 metres in width. It's estimated that the walls run 29 metres in length. Its floor is 2.7 to 3 metres lower than the current ground level. Some structures have yet to be excavated since they are buried under residents' houses.

Other artefacts dug up from the monastery site included a collection of terracotta Buddha figurines as well as several lamps and pots that hint that the monastery could have been built in the Dvaravati period between the sixth to 13th centuries.

Dvaravati culture was heavily influenced by India, which played a large role in introducing Buddhism to Thailand in the late prehistoric to early historic era.

The excavation of the vihara is still under way today. Archaeologists hope to uncover more findings that add up to a larger portrait of the ancient city of U Thong, meaning "golden land". U Thong is believed to be the former capital city of the Dvaravati empire. The city is also suspected to have been a trade hub with links to other ancient trade capitals around the world.

"The city was likely governed by an ancient king, with its own language and community," said Supamas Duangsakul, a FAD archaeologist who has conducted excavation projects at Ban Sri Sanphet 3. "But a lot more studies are required to understand U Thong."

The vihara could be the only Dvaravati-style building of U Thong to survive. That's what makes it such a valuable site to explore -- a place to trace back Thailand's historical links that lead to the rest of the world.

RISE AND FALL

U Thong was a settlement originating somewhere between the prehistoric era, 3,000 years ago, to the late Iron Age, 2,500 years ago. It fell in the early historic era.

Archaeological evidence suggests that U Thong's trade networks stretched well beyond Thailand in addition to several neighbouring communities. Some archaeologists believe that during the first to fourth centuries, the city may have served as a trade hub connecting eastern and western trade routes, from the Mediterranean to India and China.

At the time, the shoreline of the Gulf of Thailand was much higher than it is today. Back then, the water would have covered the current territory of Bangkok.

The Dvaravati empire's influence in U Thong is visible in several ways -- for instance, there is the oval-shaped city planning, and surrounding moats and earth walls. The walls are one by two kilometres in length and width. Fortresses were stationed along the periphery of the city.

The city's moats served as reservoirs for stream water accessible to all residents.

When the water reached high levels, it was diverted into the Charakhe Sam Phan River nearby the city using ancient water management techniques.

The Dvaravati period pioneered a style of urban planning that wasn't bound by geometric forms, but instead relied on geographical features, such as the path of waterways, to shape a city's layout.

Several coins found in U Thong reading "Sri Dvaravati Savarapunya", referring to the merit of King Sri Dvaravati, date back to between the seventh and eighth centuries.

Some scholars believe Nakhon Pathom might have been home to a Dvaravati capital city at a later period as many ancient Buddhist sites and objects with the Dvaravati style were found there. Some also suspect Lop Buri was an important ancient city.

The reason behind the fall of U Thong has yet to be determined. Some theories state that residents migrated to new settlements around the 12th century due to plagues, wars or changes in the environment -- flooding unleashed by broken reservoirs, or shifts in the shoreline that impeded on people's ability to conduct maritime trade.

After the city was abandoned, it's possible that the present settlement was formed in U Thong in the late Ayutthaya period.

"It's common for an ancient city to rise and fall," said Supamas. "During the period of >> >> decline, a new hub might be born that attracts people to move there instead.

"In an ancient city like U Thong, it's possible to find lots of historical evidence of old kingdoms. The most important thing is that we maintain this evidence to keep studying it."

ROMAN TRACES

A book called Traces of the Roman World in U Thong and Southern Thailand, published last month, reveals further evidence of U Thong's connection to global empires.

The book contains a collection of studies from German scholar Brigitte Borell who has analysed Roman artefacts found in Thailand.

A bronze lamp from the early Byzantine era, dated to around the fifth or sixth century AD, was found in Kanchanaburi's historical Pong Tuk site in 1927.

The lamp, around 30cm in height and width, could have been offered as a gift from maritime trade transactions before ending up in the Dvaravati Buddhism complex in Pong Tuk, which is located nearby U Thong, writes Borell.

Another artefact found in U Thong was a coin of Marcus Piavonius Victorinus, a Roman emperor who ruled the Gallic Empire from 260 to 274 AD. The coin was minted during a period modern historians call the "Crisis of the Third Century" in which Romans faced border unrest, plague and economic depression.

Victorinus, a member of an aristocratic family, was proclaimed an emperor by the army but later murdered by one of his officers.

The coin was bought into the collection of Gen Montri Hanwichai before he donated it to the U Thong National Museum in 1966.

The coin, made of silver and alloy, features Victorinus wearing a crown and cuirass. The reverse side shows Salus, the Roman goddess of health and well-being.

Bowell's study states that large volumes of this coin were minted during Victorinus's short reign. Coins from other Roman emperors' reigns were found in Cambodia and Vietnam.

"However, the questions of how and when these coins arrived in Southeast Asia are still difficult to answer," said Bowell.

"The discovery of a coin of Victorinus at U Thong should not necessarily be seen as evidence for direct or indirect contact with the Mediterranean world in the third century AD. The coins might have been taken to the east only after the currency reforms of Aurelian in AD 274 when new coin types were introduced and debased silver coinage was unsuccessfully demonetised."

The coin might have arrived as late as the fourth and fifth century, much later than the date when it was minted.

Still, the discovery of the coin indicated that Thailand could have been engaged in powerful, international trade exchanges back in the day.

OPEN LAND

The piercing sound of a Lao reed mouth-organ greets visitors arriving at U Thong's Dongyen community. Children emerge, dressed up in colourful costumes, and start dancing and swaying their arms to the rhythm of traditional Lao music being played.

The children are descendants of Lao people resettled in central and northeast Thailand during King Rama III's reign after Siam suppressed a Lao rebellion.

Tourism is driving the development push in U Thong. In 2012, the government wrote a resolution to make a 38 square kilometre special zone for sustainable tourism development.

The resolution, led by the government-run Designated Areas for Sustainable Tourism Administration (Dasta), aims to inform tourists about the historical and cultural influence of the Dvaravati empire. For example, annual light and sound shows are now put on to provide a narrative of the city's history as a hub of ancient civilisation.

Since 2011, a project to set up giant Buddha statues on a mountainous rock in western U Tong has been under way.

The effort was initiated by local monks, who raised funds via Wat Pa Lelai Worawihan temple in Suphan Buri.

The most innovative work is a sitting Buddha statue that is said to measure as high as 108 metres, featuring the slogan "World's biggest Buddha, heritage of the earth".

The carving site features a series of tents with mini Buddha statue models in various postures ranging from meditation to reclining poses. Signs accompany such statues explaining various supernatural events that have occurred during the project.

For example, people have attested to seeing halo-like sun formations behind the mountain, rain falling right after ritual ceremonies and having their wishes granted after they prayed to the Buddha.

The Dongyen community is also striving to broaden their tourism market by promoting their home as a spot for clean food, organic farms and Lao culture.

"Today, we are a united U Thong," said Vaew Sawangchaeng, 56, a member of Dongyen community.

"We are a mixed culture. U Thong has always been an open land where diverse people come and go."

without a trace: The land where an ancient monastery once was is now parched and sparse. PHOTO: Patipat Janthong

prayer position: Tourists pay respect to a reclining Buddha statue at the ancient Wat Khao Phra Si Sanphet, where Dvaravati artefacts were found. Paritta Wangkiat

lay of the land: A model demonstrating the oval-shaped city planning of U Thong, surrounded by moats and earth walls, at U Thong National Museum. PHOTOS: Paritta Wangkiat

new statue: A giant Buddha statue being carved into a mountainous rock in an area west of U Thong. Since 2011, efforts to build a series of new Buddha statues have been spearheaded by monks. PHOTO: Thanarak Khunton

digging deep: The walls of a Buddhist monastery are excavated, alongside a collection of other historical artefacts, at the Ban Sri Sanphet 3 archaeological site in U Thong district. PHOTOS: Paritta Wangkiat

familiar faces: Terracotta Buddha figurines from the Dvaravati period, which thrived from the sixth to 13th centuries, were discovered at Ban Sri Sanphet 3, where an ancient monastery once stood. Paritta Wangkiat

more than change: A coin of Marcus Piavonius Victorinus, a Roman emperor in the Gallic Empire (260 to 274 AD), was found in U Thong. PHOTO: SUPPLIED

dressing the part: Children from the Dongyen community in Suphan Buri perform to traditional Lao music. The community is fashioning a tourist brand to reflect its ancient history and culture. PHOTOS: Paritta Wangkiat

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