|Kingdom of Lan Xang
|Historical era||Middle Ages and Renaissance|
|-||Founded by Fa Ngum||1354|
|Today part of|| Laos
|Part of a series on the|
|History of Laos|
|Dark ages of Laos|
|History of Isan|
|Peopling of Laos|
The Lao kingdom of Lan Xang Hom Khao[n 1] (Lao: ລ້ານຊ້າງ lâansâang - ລ້ານ "million" + ຊ້າງ "elephant"+ "Under the White Parasol"; Pali: शिसत्तनखनहुत्, Sisattanakhanahut; Thai: ล้านช้าง, RTGS: Lan Chang; Vietnamese: Vạn Tượng) existed as a unified kingdom from 1354-1707. For three and a half centuries Lan Xang was one of the largest kingdoms in Southeast Asia. The "million elephants under the white parasol," of the kingdom's name alludes to the power of the kingship and formidable war machine of the early kingdom. The kingdom is the precursor for the country of Laos, and the basis for the national historic and cultural identity.
- 1 Historical Overview
- 1.1 Origins
- 1.2 The Legends of Khun Borom
- 1.3 The Conquests of King Fa Ngum
- 1.4 King Samsenthai and Queen Maha Devi
- 1.5 The White Elephant War with Vietnam
- 1.6 King Visoun and a Flowering of Culture
- 1.7 The Kingdom of Lanna and War with Ayutthaya
- 1.8 King Setthathirath and the Burmese Invasions
- 1.9 Lan Xang Restored
- 1.10 The Golden Age of Lan Xang
- 1.11 Succession Disputes
- 2 Political Organization
- 3 Society
- 4 Religion
- 5 Economy
- 6 Decline
- 7 See also
- 8 References
- 9 Notes
- 10 External links
The Tai migrations began following the Mongol Invasions of Yunnan China (1253-1256) in the northern reaches of what would become the kingdom of Lan Xang. The region had long been under the influence of the Mon Dvaravati culture, and subsequently the Khmer, where the principal city-state in the north was known then as Muang Sua and alternately as Xieng Dong Xieng Thong “The City of Flame Trees beside the River Dong,” (modern city of Luang Prabang). With the rise of the Kingdom of Sukhothai the principal city-states of Muang Sua (Luang Prabang) and south to the twin cities of Vieng Chan Vieng Kham (Vientiane), came increasingly under Tai influence. Following the death of the Sukhothai King Ramkhamhaeng, and internal disputes within the Kingdom of Lanna, both Vieng Chan Vieng Kham (Vientiane) and Muang Sua (Luang Prabang) were independent city-states until the founding of Lan Xang in 1354.
The Legends of Khun Borom
The cultural memory of the early migrations and the mixing of Tai influence with the indigenous, Mon, and Khmer peoples were preserved in the origin myths and traditions of Lan Xang. The cultural, linguistic, and political roots which highlight the commonality of these early legends can help to understand Lan Xang and its relations with neighboring kingdoms. The Nithan Khun Borum, or Story of Khun Borom, was central to these origin stories and formed the introduction to the Phongsavadan or court chronicles which were read aloud during auspicious occasions and festivals. Throughout the history of Lan Xang the legitimacy of the monarchy was tied to the single dynasty of Khun Lo, the legendary King of Muang Sua and son of Khun Borom.
The Conquests of King Fa Ngum
The traditional court histories of Lan Xang begin in the Year of the Naga 1319 (Nāga being a mythical serpent of the Mekong and a protector spirit of the kingdom) with the birth of Fa Ngum. Fa Ngum’s Grandfather Souvanna Khampong was king of Muang Sua and his father Chao Fa Ngiao was the crown prince. As a youth Fa Ngum was sent to the Khmer Empire to live as a son of King Jayavarman IX, where he was given princess Keo Kang Ya. In 1343 King Souvanna Khampong died, and a succession dispute for Muang Sua took place. In 1349 Fa Ngum was granted an army known as the Ten Thousand to take the crown. At the time the Khmer Empire was in decline (possibly from an outbreak of the plague and the combined influx of Tai migration), both the Kingdom of Lanna and Kingdom of Sukhothai had been established in what had been Khmer territory, and the Siamese were growing in the area of the Chao Phraya River which would become the Kingdom of Ayutthaya. The opportunity for the Khmer was to create a friendly buffer state in an area they could no longer effectively control with only a moderately sized military force.
Fa Ngum's campaign started in southern Laos, taking the towns and cities in the region around Champassak and moving northward through Thakek and Kham Muang along the middle Mekong. From the middle Mekong Fa Ngum sought assistance and supply from Vientiane in attacking Muang Sua which was refused. However, Prince Nho of Xieng Khouang (Muang Phoueune) offered assistance and vassalage to Fa Ngum for assistance in a succession dispute of his own and help in securing Xieng Khouang from the Dai Viet. Fa Ngum agreed and quickly moved his army to take Xieng Khouang and then on to take Sam Neua and several smaller cities of the Dai Viet. The Dai Viet, concerned with their rival Kingdom of Champa to the south sought a clearly defined border with the growing power of Fa Ngum. The result was to use the Annamite Mountain Range as both a cultural and territorial barrier between the two kingdoms. Continuing his conquests Fa Ngum turned toward the Sipsong Chau Tai along the Red and Black River valleys, which were heavily populated with Lao. Having secured a sizable force of Lao from each territory under his domain Fa Ngum moved down the Ou River to take Muang Sua. Despite three attacks the King of Muang Sua, who was Fa Ngum’s uncle, was unable to deter the size of Fa Ngum’s army and committed suicide rather than be taken alive. In 1353-4 Fa Ngum was crowned, and named his Kingdom Lan Xang Hom Khao “The Land of a Million Elephants and the White Parasol”, Fa Ngum continued his conquests to secure the areas around the Mekong by moving to take the Sipsong Panna and began moving south to the borders of the Kingdom of Lanna along the Mekong. King Phayu of Lanna raised an army which Fa Ngum overwhelmed at Chiang Saen, forcing Lanna to cede some its territory and provide valuable gifts in exchange for mutual recognition. Having secured his immediate borders Fa Ngum returned to Muang Sua.
In 1351 King Rama Tibodi, who was married to a daughter of the Khmer King Suphanburi, founded the city of Ayutthaya. However, the remains of the Khmer Empire were in direct conflict with the growing power of Ayutthaya and the two became rivals rather than allies. Throughout the 1350s Ayutthaya expanded over western Khmer territories and the Khorat Plateau. In 1352 Angkor was attacked by Ayutthaya in a failed attempt to take the capital. Vientiane remained independent and powerful, and the growing power of Ayutthaya threatened regional stability. In 1356 Fa Ngum marched south to take Vientiane for failing to support his earlier advance on Muang Sua. In 1357 he took Vientiane and the surrounding plains, and marched south to assert Lao control over the areas seized by Ayutthaya. Fa Ngum moved across the Khorat Plateau taking the major cities along the Mun and Chi Rivers and moving as far south as Roi Et. In Roi Et Fa Ngum directly challenged Ayutthaya, which acknowledged Lan Xang’s control over the Khorat Plateau. King Rama Tibodi sent 100 elephants, gold, silver, over 1,000 pieces of ivory and betrothed his daughter Nang Keo Lot Fa to be a second wife to Fa Ngum. By 1357 Fa Ngum had established the mandala for the Kingdom of Lan Xang which extended from the borders of the Sipsong Panna with China south to Sambor below the Mekong rapids at Khong Island, and from the Dai Vietnamese border along the Annamite Range to the western escarpment of the Khorat Plateau. It was thus one of the largest kingdoms in Southeast Asia.
King Samsenthai and Queen Maha Devi
Fa Ngum again led Lan Xang to war in the 1360s against the Kingdom of Sukhothai, in which Lan Xang was victorious in defense of their territory but gave the competing court factions and the war weary population a justification to depose Fa Ngum in favor of his son Oun Huean. Fa Ngum became an exile in Muang Nan, where he died between1373-90. In 1371, Oun Huean was crowned as King Samsenthai (King of 300,000 Tai) a carefully chosen name for the Lao-Khmer prince, which showed preference for the Lao-tai population he governed over the Khmer factions at court. Samenthai consolidated the gains of his father, and fought back the Kingdom of Lanna in Chiang Saen during the 1390s. In 1402 he received formal recognition for Lan Xang from the Ming Empire in China. In 1416, at the age of sixty, Samsenthai died and was suceded by his song Lan Kham Daeng. The Viet Chronicles record that during the reign of Lan Kham Daeng in 1421 the Lam Sơn Uprising took place under Lê Lợi against the Ming, and sought Lan Xang’s assistance. An army of 30,000 with 100 elephant cavalry was dispatched, but instead sided with the Chinese. The death of Lan Kham Daeng ushered in a period of uncertainty and regicide. From 1428-1440 seven kings ruled Lan Xang, all were killed by assassination or intrigue guided by a Queen known only by her title as Maha Devi. It is possible that from 1440-1442 she ruled Lan Xang as the first and only female leader, before being drowned in the Mekong in 1442 as an offering to the naga. In 1440 Vientiane revolted, but despite the years of instability the capital at Muang Sua was able to suppress the rebellion. An interregnum began in 1453 and ended in 1456 with the crowning of King Chakkaphat (1456-1479).
The White Elephant War with Vietnam
In 1448 during the disorder of the Maha Devi, Xieng Khouang and some area along the Black River became annexed by the Dai Viet and several skirmishes took place against the Kingdom of Lanna along the Nan River. In 1471 King Lê Thánh Tông of the Dai Viet destroyed the rival the Kingdom of Champa. Also in 1471 Xieng Khouang revolted and killed several Vietnamese. By 1478 preparations were being made for a full scale invasion of Lan Xang, in retribution for the rebellion in Xieng Khouang and more importantly for supporting the Ming Empire in 1421. Around the same time a white elephant had been captured and brought to King Chakkaphat. The elephant being a potent symbol of kingship was common throughout Southeast Asia, and Lê Thánh Tông requested the animal to be brought as a gift to the Dai Viet court. The request was seen as an affront, and according to legend a box filled with dung was sent instead. The pretext having been set, a massive Viet force marched in five columns to subdue Xieng Khouang, and was met with a Lan Xang force of 200,000 infantry and 2,000 elephant cavalry in support which was led by the crown prince and three supporting generals. The Dai Viet won a hard fought victory and continued north to threaten Muang Sua. King Chakkaphat and the court fled south toward Vientiane along the Mekong. The Dai Viet took the capital of Luang Prabang, and then divided their forces to create a pincer attack. One branch continued west taking the Sipsong Panna and threatening the Kingdom of Lanna and another force headed south along the Mekong toward Vientiane. King Tilok and the Kingdom of Lanna preemptively destroyed the northern army, and the forces around Vientiane rallied under King Chakkaphat’s younger son Prince Thaen Kham. The combined forces destroyed the Dai Viet army, which fled in the direction of Xieng Khouang. Although numbering only about 4,000 the Dai Viet took one last attempt at revenge and leveled the Xieng Khouang capital before retreating. Prince Thaen Kham, then offered to restore his father Chakkphat to the throne, but he refused and abdicated in favor of his son who was crowned as Suvanna Balang (The Golden Chair) in 1479. The Dai Viet would never invade the unified Lan Xang for the next 200 years, and the Kingdom of Lanna became a close ally to Lan Xang.
King Visoun and a Flowering of Culture
Through subsequent kings Lan Xang would repair the damage of the war with the Dai Viet, which led to a blossoming of culture and trade. King Visoun (1500-1520) was a major patron of the arts and during his reign the classical literature of Lan Xang was first written. The Theraveda Buddhist monks and monasteries became centers of learning and the sangha grew in both cultural and political power. The Nithan Khun Bolum (Story of Khun Borom) first appeared in written form, along with several transcriptions of the Jataka Tales which recall previous lives of the Buddha. The Tripitaka was transcribed from Pali to Lao, and the Lao version of the Ramayana or Pra Lak Pra Lam was also written. Epic poems were written along with treatises on medicine, astrology and law. Lao court music was also systematized and the classical court orchestra took shape. King Visoun also sponsored several major temples or wats throughout the country. He chose the Phra Bang a standing image of the Buddha in the mudra or position of “dispelling fear” to be the palladium of Lan Xang. The Phra Bang had been brought by Fa Ngum’s Khmer wife Keo Kang Ya from Angkor as a gift from her father. The image is traditionally believed to have been forged in Ceylon, which was the center of the Therevada Buddhist tradition and was made of thong an alloy of gold and silver. The Phra Bang had been kept in Vientiane until that time, in part because of the strength of the traditional animist beliefs in Muang Sua. The Phra Bang image was so revered that the capital city was renamed in its honor from Muang Sua to Luang Prabang.[n 2] King Visoun, his son Photisarath, his grandson Setthathirath, and his great grandson Nokeo Koumane would provide Lan Xang with a succession of strong leaders who were able to preserve and restore the kingdom despite tremendous international challenges in the years ahead.
The Kingdom of Lanna and War with Ayutthaya
King Photisarath (1520-1550) was one of the great kings of Lan Xang, he took Nang Yot Kham Tip from the Kingdom of Lanna as his queen as well as lesser queens from Ayutthaya, and Longvek. Photisarath was a devout Buddhist, and declared it as the state religion Lan Xang. In 1523 he requested a copy of the Tripitaka from King Kaeo in Lanna, and in 1527 he abolished spirit worship throughout the kingdom. In 1532 the period of peace ended for Lan Xang when Xieng Khouang rebelled and took Photisarath two years to fully suppress. In 1533 he moved his court to Vientiane, the commercial capital of Lan Xang which was located on the floodplains of the Mekong below the capital at Luang Prabang. Vientiane was the principal city of Lan Xang, and lay at the confluence of trade routes, but that access also made it the focal point for invasion from which it was difficult to defend. The move allowed Photisarath to better administer the kingdom and to respond to the outlying provinces which bordered the Dai Viet, Ayutthaya and the growing power of Burma. In 1539 he made a pilgrimage to Sikhottabong and he also made improvements to That Phanom to reinforce Lan Xang’s southern regional power. Also in 1539 Photisarath accepted a Thai noble who was seeking asylum from King Chairacha of Ayutthaya for a failed rebellion. The incident resulted in a series of full scale invasion of Lan Xang which was soundly defeated at Sala Kham in 1540.
The Kingdom of Lanna had a series of internal succession disputes throughout the 1540s. The weakened kingdom was invaded first by the Burmese and then in 1545 by Ayutthaya. Both attempted invasions were repulsed although significant damage had been done in the surrounding countryside. Lan Xang dispatched reinforcements to support their allies in the Kingdom of Lanna. In response, King Chairacha set out at the head of a second army in 1547 to take Chiang Mai where he was again defeated and forced into full retreat to Ayutthaya, where he died almost immediately upon his return.
The succession disputes in the Kingdom of Lanna continued, but the position of Lanna between the aggressive states of Burma and Ayutthaya necessitated that the kingdom be brought back to order. In recognition for his assistance against Ayutthaya, and his strong familial ties to Lanna, King Photisarath was offered the throne of Lanna for his son Prince Setthathirath, and in 1547 King Setthathirath was crowned in Chiang Mai. Lan Xang was at the height of their political power, with King Photisarath as King of Lan Xang and Setthathirath his son as King of Lanna. In the elaborate court ceremony recorded in the Chiang Mai Chronicles, Setthathirath took possession of the Emerald Buddha as his personal palladium (which would later become the palladium of Vientiane) and was given the princesses Nang Thip and Nang Tonkham as queens. The peace would not last long. In 1548, the Burmese invaded Ayutthaya but failed to take the capital; that same year King Photisarath was approached by Burma with offers of an alliance. King Photisarath neither accepted the alliance, nor did he support Ayutthaya which had unsuccessfully tried to invade Lan Xang only eight years earlier. In 1550 Photisarath returned to Luang Prabang, but was killed in an accident while riding an elephant in front of the fifteen international delegations which were seeking an audience.
King Setthathirath and the Burmese Invasions
In 1548 King Setthathirath, as King of Lanna, had taken Chiang Saen as his capital. Chiang Mai still had powerful factions at court, and the threats from Burma and Ayutthaya were growing. Following the untimely death of his father, King Setthathirath left the Kingdom of Lanna leaving his wife as regent. Arriving in Lan Xang, Setthathirath was crowned as King of Lan Xang. The departure emboldened the rival factions at court, who in 1551 crowned Chao Mekuti as king of Lanna. In 1553 King Setthathirath sent an army to retake the Kingdom of Lanna but was defeated. Again in 1555 King Setthathirath sent an army to retake the Kingdom of Lanna at the command of Sen Soulintha, and managed to take Chiang Saen. For his success, Sen Soulintha was given the title Luxai (Victorious) and offered one of his daughters to King Setthathirath. In 1556 Burma, under King Bayinnaung invaded the Kingdom of Lanna. King Mekuti of Lanna surrendered Chiang Mai without a fight, but was reinstated as a Burmese vassal under military occupation.
In 1560, King Setthathirath formally moved the capital of Lan Xang from Luang Prabang to Vientiane, which would remain the capital over the next two hundred and fifty years. The formal movement of the capital followed an expansive building program which included strengthening city defenses, the construction of a massive formal palace and the Haw Phra Kaew to house the Emerald Buddha, and major renovations to That Luang in Vientiane. In Luang Prabang, Wat Xieng Thong was constructed perhaps in compensation for the loss of status as the former capital of Lan Xang, and in Nakhon Phanom major renovations were made to That Phanom. In 1563, a treaty was signed between Lan Xang and Ayutthaya, which was sealed by the betrothal of Princess Thepkasattri (whose mother was Queen Suriyothai of Ayutthaya). However, King Chakkraphat instead tried to exchange Princess Kaeo Fa, which was immediately rejected. In the midst of the disagreement, the Burmese invaded northern Ayutthaya with the assistance of Maha Thammaracha the royal viceroy and governor of Phitsanulok. It was only then in 1564 that King Chakkraphat sent Princess Thepkasattri to Lan Xang along with a massive dowry in an attempt to buy back the broken alliance. While the procession was in route, Maha Thammaracha ambushed the princess and sent her to his overlords in Burma; she committed suicide shortly thereafter or en route. Facing the threat of a superior Burmese force, King Chakkraphat had lost a potential alliance with Lan Xang, the northern territories of Ayutthaya and his daughter. To prevent further incursions King Chakkraphat became a vassal of Burma and had to deliver both himself and his son Prince Ramesuan as hostages to King Bayinnaung leaving another son Prince Mahin as a vassal in Ayutthaya.
The Burmese then turned north to depose King Mae Ku of Lanna, who had failed to support the Burmese invasion of Ayutthaya. When Chiang Mai fell to the Burmese, a number of refugees fled to Vientiane and Lan Xang. King Setthathirath, realizing that Vientiane could not be held against a prolonged siege, ordered the city to be evacuated and stripped of supplies. When the Burmese took Vientiane they were forced into the countryside for supplies, where King Setthathirath had organized guerrilla attacks and small raids to harass the Burmese troops. Facing disease, malnutrition and demoralizing guerilla warfare, King Bayinnaung was forced to retreat in 1565 leaving Lan Xang the only remaining independent Tai kingdom.
In 1567, King Mahin approached King Setthathirath with covert plans for Ayutthaya to rebel against Burma by launching a counterattack against Maha Thammaracha in Phitsanulok. The plan would involve an overland invasion from Lan Xang with assistance from the royal navy in Ayutthaya passing up the Nan River. Maha Thammaracha was in Burma at the time, and King Chakkraphat had been allowed to return to Ayutthaya as Burma was facing small rebellions in the Shan areas. The plan was discovered and reinforcements were sent to Phitsanulok. Realizing Phitsanulok was too fortified, King Setthathirath withdrew his attack, but set up a devastating counter ambush on his retreat to Vientiane in which five pursuing Burmese generals were killed. Seizing on the weakness, King Chakkraphat ordered a second attack on Phitsanulok in which he successfully took the city, but could only briefly hold it having suffered repeated heavy losses.
King Bayinnaung sent a massive invasion in 1568 in response to the uprising. In early 1569, the city of Ayutthaya was directly under threat and Vientiane sent reinforcements. The Burmese had planned on the reinforcements however and King Setthathirath fell into a trap. After a two day struggle the Lan Xang forces prevailed at the Pa Sak Valley near Phetchabun, at which point one of the commanding generals from Nakhon Phanom broke south toward Ayutthaya. The Burmese rallied and were able to destroy the divided forces, and King Setthathirath had to retreat toward Vientiane. The Burmese then focused their attack on Ayutthaya and took the city. King Setthathirath upon reaching Vientiane ordered an immediate evacuation. The Burmese took several weeks to regroup and rest having taken Ayutthaya, which allowed King Setthathirath to rally his forces and plan for a prolonged guerilla campaign. The Burmese arrived in Vientiane and were able to take the lightly defended city. Just as in 1565, King Setthathirath began a guerilla campaign from his base near the Nam Ngum, northeast of Vientiane. In 1570 King Bayinnaung retreated, King Setthathirath counterattacked and more than 30,000 were taken prisoner, along with 100 elephants, and 2,300 pieces of ivory from the retreating Burmese.
In 1571, the kingdoms of Ayutthaya and Lanna were Burmese vassals. Having twice defended Lan Xang from Burmese invasions, King Setthathirath moved south to conduct a campaign against the Khmer. Capturing the Khmer would have greatly strengthened Lan Xang, giving it vital sea access, trade opportunities, and most importantly, European firearms which had been growing use since the early 1500s. The Khmer Chronicles record that armies from Lan Xang invaded in 1571 and 1572, during the second invasion King Barom Reacha I was slain in an elephant duel. The Khmer must have rallied and Lan Xang retreated, King Setthathirath went missing near Attopeu. The Burmese and Lao Chronicles record only the presumption that he died in battle.
King Setthathirath’s general Sen Soulintha returned to Vientiane with the remnants of the Lan Xang expedition. He fell under immediate suspicion, and a civil war raged in Vientiane as a succession dispute took place. In 1573, he emerged as king regent but lacked support. Upon hearing reports of the unrest, King Bayinnaung dispatched emissaries demanding the immediate surrender of Lan Xang. Sen Soulintha had the emissaries killed. King Bayinnaung invaded in 1574, Sen Soulintha ordered the city to be evacuated but he lacked the support of the people and the army. Vientiane fell to the Burmese. Sen Soulintha was sent as a captive to Burma along with Setthathirath’s heir Prince Nokeo Koumane. A Burmese vassal Chao Tha Heua was left to administer Vientiane, but he would rule only four years. The Burmese Toungoo Empire was established, but faced internal rebellions. In 1580 Sen Soulintha returned as a Burmese vassal, and in 1581 King Bayinnaung died with his son King Nandabayin in control of the Toungoo Empire. From 1583-1591 a civil war took place in Lan Xang.
Lan Xang Restored
Prince Nokeo Koumane had been held in the Burmese court for sixteen years, and by 1591 was about twenty years old. The sangha in Lan Xang sent a mission to King Nandabayin asking for Nokeo Koumane to be returned to Lan Xang as a vassal king. In 1591 he was crowned in Vientiane, gathered an army and marched to Luang Prabang where he reunited the cities, declared Lan Xang independence and cast off any allegiance to the Toungoo Empire. King Nokeo Koumane then marched toward Xieng Khouang and then to the central provinces reuniting all the former territories of Lan Xang. In 1593 King Nokeo Koumane launched an attack against the Kingdom of Lanna and the Toungoo Prince Tharrawaddy Min. Tharrawaddy Min sought assistance from Burma, but rebellions throughout the empire prevented any support. In desperation a request was sent to the Burmese vassal in Ayutthaya King Naresuan. King Naresuan dispatched a large army and turned on Tharrawaddy Min, forcing the Burmese to accept Ayutthaya as independent and Lanna as a vassal kingdom. King Nokeo Koumane realized he was outnumbered by the combined strength of Ayutthaya and Lanna and called off the attack. In 1596, King Nokeo Koumane died suddenly and without an heir. Although he had united Lan Xang, and restored the kingdom to a point that it could repel an outside invasion, a succession dispute took place and a series of weak kings followed until 1637.
The Golden Age of Lan Xang
Under the reign of King Sourigna Vongsa (1637-1694) Lan Xang experienced a fifty seven year period of peace and restoration. During the period the Lan Xang sangha was at the apex of power, drawing monks and nuns for religious study from throughout Southeast Asia. Literature, art, music, court dance experienced a revival. King Sourigna Vongsa revised many of the laws of Lan Xang and established judicial courts. He also concluded a series of treaties which established both trade agreements and boundaries between the surrounding kingdoms. In 1641, Gerritt van Wuysthoff with the Dutch East India Company made formal trade contacts with Lan Xang. Van Wuysthoff left detailed European accounts of trade goods, and established Company relations with Lan Xang via Longvek and the Mekong. In 1642, Father Givovanni Maria Leria, a Jesuit, was the first Catholic missionary to arrive in Lan Xang. After five years, he had very little success with conversions in the heavily Buddhist country and returned to Macao, via Vietnam in 1647. He left an eye witness description of the royal palace in Vientiane during the height of power in Lan Xang.
“The royal palace, of which the structure and symmetry are admirable, can be seen from afar. Truly it is of prodigious size, so large one would take it for a city, both with respect to its situation and the infinite number of people who live there. The apartments of the king are adorned with a magnificent portal and include a number of beautiful rooms along with a great salon, all made from incorruptible timber (teak) and adorned outside and inside with excellent bas-reliefs, so delicately gilded that they seem to be plated with gold rather than covered with gold leaf. From the king’s apartments, on entering the very spacious courtyards, one sees first a great series of houses, all of brick and covered with tiles, where usually live the secondary wives of the king; and beyond them a line of more houses, built in the same symmetrical form for the officials of the court. I could write a whole volume if I tried to describe exactly all the other parts of the palace, its riches, apartments, gardens, and all the other similar things.”
The legal reforms which King Sourigna Vongsa put in place applied to the nobility and peasantry equally, and when the crown prince committed adultery with a palace attendant the king ordered his death. When King Sourigna Vongsa died in 1694, he left two young grandsons (Prince Kingkitsarat and Prince Inthasom) and two daughters (Princess Kumar and Princess Sumangala) with claims to the throne. A succession dispute took place where the king’s nephew Prince Sai Ong Hue emerged; King Sourigna Vongsa’s grandsons fled into exile in the Sipsong Panna and Princess Sumangala to Champassak. In 1705, Prince Kingkitsarat took a small force from his uncle in Sipsong Panna and marched toward Luang Prabang. King Sai Ong Hue’s brother, the governor of Luang Prabang, fled and Kingkitsarat was made crowned as a rival king in Luang Prabang. In 1707 Lan Xang was divided and the kingdoms of Luang Prabang and Vientiane emerged. In 1713 the Kingdom of Champassak emerged after a rebellion against Vientiane. The Lao kingdoms remained independent until 1779 when they then would become vassals to Siam. However, the kingdoms maintained their monarchical roots and a degree of autonomy. For instance, Vientiane also had a tributary relationship with the Vietnamese court at Hué, a relationship that, in the wake of the failed Laotian Rebellion for independence (1826–1829) of Anouvong, the last king of Vientiane, became a casus belli for the Siamese–Vietnamese War (1831–1834).
The Mekong River formed the political and economic arteries for the Kingdom of Lan Xang, so much so that the Chinese name for the river Lán Cāng 瀾滄 is synonymous with the Lao kingdom. The river provided the means for the people, commerce and armies of Lan Xang to move between regional power centers, but also formed important geographic and defensive barriers. Major rapids formed the boundaries between the areas (and subsequent kingdoms) of Luang Prabang, Vientiane and Champassak. The Khone Falls and Si Phan Don region were not navigable and provided a natural defense for Lan Xang from invasion coming upriver.
The major cities of Lan Xang were located in Luang Prabang, Vientiane, Xieng Khouang, Champassack, Nong Khai, Sikhottabong, Thakhek, Nakhon Phanom, Khon Kaen and Roi Et. The cities or muang formed independent city states which were bound to the regional power of the king in a system known as a Mandala. Each city was headed by a city lord or chao muang. The mandala formed an important interdependent system of trade and tribute, which was based more on controlling resources and local populations than it was regional territories. Both wars and the production of rice required large scale labor forces. In Southeast Asia it was common practice for an invading army to forcibly move a population to where they may be more accessible for taxation, conscription or corvee labor. War was also an important means of generating wealth via tribute, and it was not uncommon in the mandala system to pay tribute to more than one regional power at a time.
Lan Xang had ethnic diversity from trade and overland ethnic migrations. The multiple hill tribe peoples were grouped into the broad cultural categories of Lao Theung (which included most indigenous groups and the Mon-Khmer) and Lao Sung. The Lao Loum were ethnically dominant and there were several closely related Tai groups which included the Tai Dam, Tai Daeng, Tai Lu, Tai Yuan, and Tai Phuan. Perhaps because of the complicated ethnic diversity of Lan Xang the structure of society was fairly straightforward, especially in comparison to the neighboring Siamese with the sakdi na system or the Khmer with their complex caste system and concepts of a divine kingship or devaraja. Lao society was divided with the religious and secular authority of the royal family at the top, followed by nobles, and then the peasantry which included merchants, artisans, farmers, and general laborers. Outside the system but above all were the sangha or clergy, which provided not only social mobility but also a means for education. The hill peoples or Lao Theung were outside the social system, along with the kha or “prisoners” which were either taken in war or were working for criminal offences or debts. Siamese, Khmer and Shan formed the majority of the itinerant merchants, but there were small populations of Chinese and Vietnamese around major trading cities and in Xieng Khouang.
Theraveda Buddhism was the state religion of Lan Xang beginning with King Photisarath in 1527, but had been a growing part of cultural legacy since Fa Ngum. Within the villages, monasteries and towns of Lan Xang much of daily life revolved around the local temple or wat. The temples were centers of learning, and all males were expected to spend at least some part of their life in religious contemplation as a monk or novice. Kings could establish their legitimacy through supporting the sangha and caring for or constructing new temples. Lan Xang had several powerful Buddha images which served as palladiums and spiritual symbols of the kingdom which included the Phra Bang, Phra Keo (the “Emerald” Buddha), Phra Saekham, and Phra Luk (the crystal Buddha of Champassak).
Animism was also one of the earliest, enduring and most important belief systems to the Lao-Tai groups, and the traditions and practices which began in Lan Xang have remained a vital part of Lao spirituality. Among the ethnic hill tribes of the Lao Sung and Lao Theung animism was the dominant religion. The Lao Loum believed that ancient mythical serpents known as ngueak inhabited major waterways, carving out the surrounding countryside and protecting key points along rivers or other bodies of water. The earliest name for the Mekong River was Nam Nyai Ngu Luang or "Great River of the Giant Serpent." Ngueak, and the nāga which have been “tamed” by Buddhism, were believed to bring rains, or change shape, and nāga in particular were believed to be protection spirits which inhabited the cities of Vientiane and Luang Prabang in Lan Xang. Nāga have endured as common motifs not only in myth and legend, but also on Lao temples, and silk weavings. Nāga became a potent symbol of the kingdom of Lan Xang, so much so that when Siam was forced to cede the territories which would become Laos in 1894, the kings of Siam ordered new state seals which showed the garuda symbol of Thailand feeding on the nāga of Lan Xang as a thinly veiled threat that the territorial loss had not been forgotten.
The natural world was also home to a number of spirits which are part of the Satsana Phi. Phi are spirits of buildings or territories, natural places, or phenomena; they are also ancestral spirits that protect people, or can also include malevolent spirits. The phi which are guardian deities of places, or towns are celebrated at festivals with communal gatherings and offerings of food. The spirits run throughout Lao folk literature. Phi were believed to influence natural phenomena including human illness and thus the baci became an important part of Lao identity and religious health over the millennia. Spirit houses were an important folk custom which were used to ensure balance with the natural and supernatural world. Astrology was also a vital part to understanding the natural and spiritual worlds and became an important cultural means to enforce social taboos and customs.
Lan Xang was at the center of the overland trade routes in Southeast Asia. In the north and northwest the overland trade routes from Burma and Lanna passed through Lan Xang and Sipsong Panna toward Yunnan, where they would join with the Chinese Tea-Horse Road. Trade in Luang Prabang would flow down the Mekong to Vientiane where it could then be transported overland to the headwaters of the Nan and Chao Praya rivers, or overland by ox cart or elephant over the Khorat Plateau to Roi Et. In the east the Annamite Range formed a barrier, but the areas of Xieng Khouang and Sam Neua were regular points of commerce with Vietnam. Trade from Thakhek and Champassak flowed down the Mekong to the Island of Khong, where the goods would then be portaged past Si Phan Don and the Khone Falls to join with the Mekong again and on to the Khmer in the south. Lao merchants (lam) would travel to Lao Theung and Lao Sung areas to exchange cloth, iron and silver for forest products, which would be floated via streams on bamboo rafts until they met with larger rivers.
The principle Lao agricultural crops were glutinous rice and forest timber. Both were labor intensive and were difficult to transport using the overland routes. Subsistence farming of root crops, bananas, gourds, cucumbers, yams, water buffalo, chickens, pigs and other domesticated animals was indigenous within Lan Xang. Forest products were generally easier to transport and traded at a higher value. Elephants, ivory, benzoin resin (similar to Frankincense), lac (used in lacquer production), cardamom, beeswax, rhinoceros horn, along with porcupine quills and a variety of skins were commonly traded. Of particular importance was the deer skin trade, which was in high demand in China and Japan and would reach its way to market having gone through Ayutthayan tradeposts.
Lao craftsmanship in silk production, weaving, gold, and especially silver was in high demand. Villages would specialize in a particular craft or skill where they would manufacture tools, weapons, pottery, paper, jewelry, alcohol (lao-lao), elephant training or other unique trades. Iron ore was mined in Xieng Khouang, tin and gems would also be mined in the north of Luang Prabang or east along the Annamite Range.
Luang Prabang was important as the religious and royal capital of Lan Xang, but Vientiane was the largest most populous city (as well as the political capital beginning in 1560) and thus was of crucial commercial importance. Vientiane was originally a Mon city named Chandapuri or “City of the Moon.” The Lao would change the name to Vieng Chanthaburi Sisattanak which means “Walled City of Sandalwood and a Million Nagas,” later shortening it further to simply Vieng Chan (Vientiane). Sikhottabong in Khammouan and Nakon Phanom were also regional trading powers for central Lan Xang, just as Roi Et was crucial for overland trade on the Khorat Plateau.
The Lao developed a distinct cultural, linguistic, religious, and political history during the four hundred year period of Lan Xang. The monarchy in Laos, which was a direct continuation from the traditions of Lan Xang would continue for seven hundred and fifty years through the Khun Lo Dynasty until 1975. The decline of Lan Xang vis-à-vis their neighboring kingdoms was primarily due to geography, weak internal political structures, limited agricultural production, and the international arms trade.
Despite its relative size, Lan Xang was landlocked throughout its history. The Mekong River, formed the major means of transportation in the kingdom, is navigable only along certain stretches. Surrounding Lan Xang were populous and powerful neighboring states in the Ming Empire Chinese, Burmese, Ayutthaya/Siamese, Sukhothai, Lanna, Dai Viet and Khmer regions. Politically, a feudal system of relatively independent muang and nobles held regional autonomy. The succession of the monarchs was never based solely on primogeniture, as both the Sena (a council which could include senior royal family members, ministers, and generals) and Sangha (senior members of the clergy) would choose a suitable successor based on both legitimacy and individual merit. The state bureaucracy as originally designed by Fa Ngum and Samsenthai was along a military structure which included some social mobility through meritocracy. Over time however social distinctions became more entrenched and the bureaucracy became based on hereditary title. The political institutions in Lan Xang created disputes and instability especially during royal successions.
Trade and the economy of Lan Xang were based on high value commodities which could be easily transported using overland trade routes. Agricultural products like rice were too heavy for transport, and were both taxed and consumed by the regional muang. The narrow valleys and climate along the Mekong was suitable for only certain varieties of glutinous rice. The rice varieties were both low yield, and labor intensive in comparison to the floating rice grown in Siam. Both Ayutthaya and Siam profited immensely from the international rice trade with the Chinese, Muslim and European traders. The demand for Lan Xang’s high value trade commodities had to pass through intermediary kingdoms to reach world markets, thus for example when Japanese demand for forest products increased it was the Siamese which benefited from the trade. Maritime trade routes became more important than the Tea Routes in northern Lan Xang, the river trade along the Mekong and Chao Praya, or the overland trade with Vietnam. Trade with Europeans for weapons began as early as 1511 in Ayutthaya, and by contrast the first European trade mission to Lan Xang was not until the 1640s. Access to advanced European weapons proved decisive during the Burmese invasions of Lan Xang and would become more important in subsequent wars with Vietnam and Siam during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
- Emerald Buddha
- Fa Ngum
- Muang Sua
- Luang Prabang
- Monarchs of Laos
- Pra Lak Pra Lam
- Phaya Naga
- Wat Xieng Thong
- That Luang
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