by Karen Loh
The old city of Sukhothai is situated along the Yom River, one of the main tributaries of the Chao Phraya River, in the northeastern part of modern day Thailand. The city started out as a small settlement outpost under the Khmer Empire (802-1431 CE), with the design of its temples, building structures and canals very much influenced by Angkor, the capital city of the Khmer empire. The Empire began to weaken in the early 13th century, following the death of their ruler, Jayavarman VII (1181-1218 CE). Seeing a weakened regime, the people of Sukhothai soon started challenging their overlords. Under the leadership of Si Inthrahit (also known as Pho Khun Bang Klang Hao), and together with his friend and ally, Pho Khun Pha Meung, the people of Sukhotai started to gather their forces, rose up and revolted against Khmer rule. They finally succeeded in driving the Khmers out in 1250 CE, thereafter establishing the Kingdom of Sukhothai. The capital city was also called Sukhothai, meaning Dawn of Happiness, and Si Inthrahit was crowned their first king. In Thai historiography, Sukhothai is considered the first kingdom in Thailand.
Sisatchanalai or Si Satchanalai was another Khmer outpost located 55 kilometres north of Sukhothai city, along Yom River. This city was formerly called Chalieng, meaning “city of good people”. Si Satchanalai rose to importance as an associated city to Sukhothai after the people’s independence from the Khmers. However, it was not until the reign of the kingdom’s third king, Pho Khun Ram Kham Haeng (1279-1299 CE) that the society, administration, religion and arts in the kingdom of Sukhothai flourished. In addition, the invention of the Thai alphabet in 1283 marked this period as Sukhothai’s Golden Era. Si Satchanalai reached her peak prosperity during the reign of Phra Maha Dhamaraja I (1347-1374 CE).
Sukhotai & Si Satchanalai: export-oriented pottery centres
Left and centre: Si Satchanalai Celadon dish, and jarlet recovered from the Royal Nanhai shipwreck c1460 CE. Right: Si Satchanalai bowl recovered from the Nanyang shipwreck c1380 CE.
Note: Please refer to L is for Longquan to look at more Si Satchanalai ceramics
The 14th and 15th centuries saw many large potting centres producing Thai ceramics, mainly stoneware, scattered across the northern part of Thailand. During this time, the Thai kilns around the city of Sukhothai and Si Satchanalai (also known as Sawankhalok) flourished, exporting ceramics in large quantities as evidence of Thai ceramics can be found across South East Asia and from shipwrecks salvaged around the region. Sukhothai kilns produced mostly underglaze black ware, which were very similar in design and decoration to the pots made in the Cizhou kilns in northern China centuries earlier. Popular designs from the Sukhothai kilns were underglaze black plates decorated with lively fish with an arched back and tail thrown upwards, flower or cakra or starburst motifs, and various upright shapes like vases, bottles, jars with underglaze black fish or flower motifs.
The Si Satchanalai kilns on the other hand produced mostly celadon ware: dishes, bowls, and ring-handled jars in various sizes. At the height of its celadon production, the Si Satchanalai potters were producing high quality celadon ware, decorated with incised lotus petals, lotus blossoms, and chrysanthemum flowers on dishes with foliated mouth rims and similar incised lotus and chrysanthemum flowers on the bigger ring-handled jars. Many of these jars were completed with beautifully carved vertical striations on the lower body.
Other famous kiln sites producing Thai ceramics, mainly storage jars, were situated at Singburi (also known as Maenam Noi) and Suphanburi.
The Ming Gap
Questions have been raised on why Thai ceramics only began to be exported towards the end of the 14th century. One of the reasons might be due to the first Haijìn (Ming ban or Sea ban;1371-1509 CE), a policy ordered by Ming Dynasty’s first Emperor, Hongwu in 1371 CE where all exports and private overseas trading were prohibited. The Emperor proclaimed that all merchant ships were to be destroyed and anyone caught smuggling goods out of China would be executed. It is believed that these isolationist policies caused many of the Chinese potters and Chinese shipbuilders to migrate to various cities or towns in Southeast Asia to continue their trade. In her book, The Ceramics of South-East Asia, Their Dating and Identification, Roxanna Brown wrote that the migration of the potters may have actually started earlier, i.e. during the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368 CE) under Mongol rule, where many Song Chinese sought refuge in the Sukhothai kingdom. Evidence of this could be found through the trade route. She wrote in her book, “It is about this time, the end of the thirteenth or by the middle of the fourteenth century, at any rate, that Sukhothai’s ceramics industry moves from being purely domestic to testing itself on international South-East Asian market. The local potters could not have done this on their own. Somehow they were linked to the Chinese Trade network; and this must have been done by the Chinese. For Thai ceramics appear at the same South-East Asian sites as Chinese wares; the Thai did not forge new trading routes”.
There is an ongoing study on whether the trading of Thai ceramics began before or after the founding the new Thai kingdom of Ayutthaya(1351-1767 CE). It is also interesting to note that there was an absence of blue and white ware from the Thai kilns. A valid explanation may be that cobalt, the blue pigment used by Chinese kilns at Jingdezhen from around the 1320s to produce blue and white porcelain, is a relatively rare mineral. Cobalt may have been difficult to acquire and was expensive, while iron, the black oxide used in underglaze black ware was common and plentiful in Sukhothai. The last of the kilns in the old kingdom of Sukhothai finally closed down after the Burmese invasion in the 1580s. It is reported in the Glass Palace Chronicle of Burma that their ruler, King Bayinnaung (1516-1581 CE) ordered all the artists, artisans, and craftsmen of Sukhothai kingdom to be relocated and settled in Pegu (today Bago).
Brown, Roxanna M. (2000). The Ceramics of South-East Asia: Their Dating and Identification. Art Media Resources.
Brown, Roxanna & Sjostrand, Sten. (2004). Maritime Archaeology and Shipwreck Ceramics in Malaysia. RECCEX Sdn Bhd.
Miksic, John (Ed.). Southeast Asian Ceramics, New Light on Old Pottery (pp. 27-33). Editions Didier Millet, 2009.
Siripon, Nanta (ed), Thai Heritage – World Heritage. Thailand, Graphic Format Ltd, 2000.
Tan, Heidi (Ed.). (2012). Marine Archaeology in Southeast Asia, Innovation and Adaptation (pp. 23-29). Asian Civilisations Museum.
Vecchia, Stefano. (2007). The Khmers, History and Treasures of an Ancient Civilization. WS White Star Publishers.
In this Series
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