The founder of the Lan Na Kingdom of Chiang Mai, Phya Mangrai, was born on October 23, 1239, by the banks of the Mekong River at Chiang Saen. Mangrai was of noble blood. His father was the ruler of the principality, and his mother was the daughter of the ruler of the neighbouring principality of Chiang Hung in Sipsongpanna – today known as Jing Hong, capital of the Tai autonomous region of Xishuangbanna in China’s Yunnan province.
In 1259, when he was 20 years old, Mangrai succeeded to his father’s throne at Chiang Saen. According to legend, Mangrai is said to have observed that all the Thai principalities of the region were disunited and fighting among themselves. He noted that the people were suffering, and that he alone of all the local rulers was the scion of a legitimate royal house, graced with the full Indic rites of coronation and in possession of royal regalia. Accordingly, he determined to establish his authority over the region and in quick succession conquered his immediate neighbours at Muang Lai, Chiang Kham and Chiang Khong.
After three years Mangrai began to extend his power to the south and west, first by founding a new city at Chiang Rai in 1262, and then by taking control of the region around Fang. By 1274 he was firmly established as the lord of all the territory covered by modern Chiang Rai province, and was casting his eyes further afield, at the neighbouring kingdom of Phayao and, still further, at the venerable Mon kingdom of Haripunchai, the modern Lamphun.
Mangrai decided to move first against Phayao, where a contemporary of his, Phya Ngam Muang, was king. According to the traditions, Ngam Muang was an educated and personable young nobleman who had studied at the court of Lopburi. During this period he had made the acquaintance of another north-central Thai prince, who was later to become King Ramkhamhaeng of Sukhothai – and herein lies the origin of the happy triple alliance on which the future prosperity of Lan Na would depend.
Ngam Muang had succeeded his father as ruler of Phayao in 1258, and was on the throne when Mangrai brought up an army to invest the city in 1276. In the usual fashion, Ngam Muang came out to meet Mangrai, but instead of fighting the two rulers concluded a treaty of friendship by which Chiang Rai and Phayao became allies – though in fact the more forceful Mangrai was really the senior partner.
The next chapter in the unfolding drama of Mangrai’s rise to supreme power in the north was of a rather more personal nature. A serious conflict arose between Ngam Muang of Phayao and Ramkhamhaeng of Sukhothai when the latter seduced the former’s wife. Strictly speaking, Ngam Muang would have been within his rights had he ordered the execution of Ramkhamhaeng, but the astute Mangrai saw other opportunities. He interceded to prevent bloodshed and the possible alienation of Ramkhamhaeng’s royal relatives ruling at Ayutthaya and Nakhon Sri Thammarat. As a result of his intercession, Ramkhamhaeng agreed to pay Ngam Muang an indemnity of 990,000 cowry shells by way of reparation.
The three rulers met to seal this agreement and at the meeting – thought to have taken place in 1287 – swore a pact of eternal friendship. Modern scholarship interprets this triple alliance as a logical development founded on common descent and common Tai identity in an uncertain world. More specifically, it may be seen as an alliance against the burgeoning power of the Mongols to the north, who had already made forays into nearby Burma and Vietnam.
Meanwhile, relying on intrigue as much as on military power, Mangrai successfully conquered the Mon Kingdom of Haripunchai in 1281, thereby making himself undisputed master of all north Thailand. He spent many of the following years travelling in the north, establishing new cities, raising fortifications and endowing monasteries. Mangrai was conciliatory as a victor, being particularly respectful of Mon cultural and religious traditions. He was a major patron of Buddhism, and encouraged the introduction of a new, scholarly and more austere Sinhalese variant of the faith. In pursuing these far-sighted policies Mangrai was laying the ground for the development of a new social, religious and political identity in the north which became known as the Lan Na Kingdom.
After the conquest of Haripunchai, Mangrai decided to establish a new capital city from which to administer his realm, a vast area stretching from the Shan States to Laos, and from the fringes of Sipsongpanna to the northern frontiers of his friend and ally, Ramkhamhaeng of Sukhothai. Initially Mangrai’s choice fell on the east bank of the Ping River, a few kilometres north of Lamphun, where he established a new fortified capital at Wiang Kum Kam. Here he dwelt for a few years, embellishing the city with Buddhist temples.
Unfortunately, however, Wiang Kum Kam proved to be unsuitable. The new city suffered from flooding, and the king determined to move once again. Finally, on March 27, 1292, after careful consultation with religious functionaries and consideration of defensive capabilities, Mangrai selected the site for his new capital, to be known as Chiang Mai or ‘New City’. According to tradition, the actual site chosen lay close to Sri Phum corner, at the northeast bastion of the city’s present fortifications.
Before construction of the new city commenced – on April 18, 1296 – Mangrai consulted at length with his fellow rulers, Ngam Muang and Ramkhamhaeng, concerning the structure of the city, its defences and design. Mangrai’s grandly conceived new city, built on epic lines, was to prove a success. Within a few years it had emerged as the main cultural and religious centre of the Khon Muang*, as well as the economic focal point of the north.
Phya Mangrai settled down to spend the remainder of his days at his palace within the walls of Chiang Mai. The buildings are, unfortunately, long since gone, but they are said to have been located on a site now occupied by the Yupparat School. As befits a ruler who had unified the warring principalities of the north, promoted friendship and understanding between the various peoples and cultures of his extensive realm, dignified the Buddhist religion, and entered into a close alliance with the neighbouring Tai rulers of Phayao and Sukhothai, Mangrai met no ordinary end. According to the Thai chronicles, a bolt of lightning reportedly struck him in the year 1317. By this time, he had founded not just a kingdom, but a dynasty which would rule northern Thailand for the next two centuries.
What traces remain of Mangrai today, beyond the reverence and respect of the people of the North? In fact, there are quite a few. In Chiang Rai, the first new city founded by Mangrai, a statue of the venerated monarch stands close by a reconstructed section of the city walls. Similarly, in the centre of old Chiang Mai stands the Three Kings Statue, representing Phya Mangrai in consultation with his royal allies, Phra Ramkhamhaeng and Phya Ngam Muang. Both monuments are festooned with bouquets of flowers, wooden elephants, burning candles and smoking incense, for Mangrai remains very much alive in the hearts of the Khon Muang*.
The place where Mangrai is said to have been struck by lightning is also marked. Today it is the site of the Lak Muang, or city pillar of Chiang Mai, located within the precincts of Wat Chedi Luang. Because the Lak Muang is often closed up, and therefore difficult to honour, in 1975 a special pillar was erected to the memory of this unique king on Ratchadamnoen Avenue – again, it is always covered in flowers and offerings, no matter what time of year.
Beyond these memorials, other more spiritual manifestations of Mangrai are said to exist. At Wat Mangrai, not far from Chiang Mai Gate, the main Buddha image is said to have the visage of Mangrai himself. Still more intriguingly, at Wiang Kum Kam, in the grounds of Wat Chang Kham, there is a beautifully maintained and deeply venerated spirit house that is said to contain the spirit of this great king.
*(Ezistock note) Khon Muang, or ‘People of the Principalities’, is the name most commonly applied by the people of northern Thailand to themselves.
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Text by Andrew Forbes, images by David Henley, Part of ‘Ancient Chiang Mai’. © CPA Media, 2005
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