Ancient Laos Civilization History & Culture

Ancient Laos Civilization In The Middle Mekong Valley

Beginning in the first century A.D., the middle Mekong Valley became the site of the development of a number of royal fiefdoms that were primarily centred on the production of wet rice and were connected to the pottery and bronze culture of Ban Chiang. In spite of the relatively low population density, these fiefdoms were able to exert authority over their surrounding areas by extending and contracting their circles of influence in a pattern that is most accurately characterised by the word mandala. The expansion of a mandala was accomplished via several means, including commerce, marriage contracts, and battle.

Therefore, the middle Mekong Valley was formerly home to a number of different power centres at various points in history. The capital of the mandala known as Sikhôttabong was originally situated on the left bank of the Mekong at the mouth of the Xé Bangfai river. However, following the westward expansion of Champa, an Indianized state that was established on the coast of Vietnam in 192 A.D., the capital of Sikhôttabong was relocated to its current location. In the fifth century, Cham, who were ancestors of Champa, lived in the area now known as Champasak (Bassac). The Mon kingdom of Candapuri, also known as Viangchan, the oldest name for the city that is now known as Vientiane, was another mandala. It would seem that Sikhôttabong and Candapuri had a very hierarchical social structure, with an aristocracy, a commoner class, and a slave class. These three social strata were separated by a slave class. It would seem that the fact that some monarchs were descended from lower social classes is evidence of the existence of some kind of agreement in the process of determining royal succession. When it was at the height of its dominance, another significant regional force known as Funan had areas of central Laos included within its mandala. Beginning in the fifth century, the smaller but nevertheless significant Mon kingdom of Dvaravati was headquartered in the lower Menam Valley. It was via this kingdom that Theravada Buddhism (see Glossary) was introduced to Laos in the seventh and eighth centuries.

A successor state to the kingdom of Ai Lao was established in the Ta-li region of what is now Yunnan, China, in the seventh century as a result of a migration that took place in a northwesterly direction from the region of origin of the Thai people, which is located in the northwestern corner of Tonkin. This new kingdom, known as Nan-chao, was able to increase its strength by gaining control of important commerce routes, most notably the southern Silk Road. This multiethnic, hierarchical, and militarised state was to have a significant impact on the cultural development of later societies in Indochina. It was to be responsible for the transmission of the Tantric Buddhism of Bengal to Laos, Thailand, and the Shan state, and possibly Cambodia. Additionally, it was responsible for the dissemination of the political ideology of the maharaja (protector of Buddhism). Administratively, Nan-chao was divided up into ten different prefectures that were known as kien. It would seem that the place-names keng (for example, Kengtung), chiang (for example, Chiang Mai), and xiang derive from this phrase (for example, Xiangkhoang). In addition, the people and army of Nan-chao were organised into units of 100, 1,000, and 10,000, a form that was afterwards discovered in Indochina. In addition, it seems that the title of chao, which translates to prince, originated in Nan-chao. Another part of the same migration started near the source of the Nam Ou River, then followed the river down to Louangphrabang, then passed through Xaignabouri on its way to Chiang Mai.

Due to the growth and contraction of the mandala, certain locations came to be recognised by more than one name. In the years after its capture in 698 A.D., Louangphrabang was known by the name Muang Sua. by a Thai royal named Khun Lo, who made the most of the situation when he saw that Nan-chao was already committed to someone else. Khun Lo’s father, Khun Borom, is said to be involved in the Lao narrative of the creation of the universe. This is a legend that the Lao people share with the Shan and other peoples of the area. Khun Lo was given the town by his father. Khun Lo was the founder of a dynasty that ruled over an independent Muang Sua for the greater part of a century and was succeeded by fifteen other kings.

In the second part of the eighth century, Nan-chao became more involved in the political processes of the princes located in the middle Mekong Valley, which ultimately led to the takeover of Muang Sua in the year 709. The nobility of Thai overlords was eventually supplanted by princes or bureaucrats from the Nan-chao. The dates of the occupation are unknown; nevertheless, it most likely came to an end long before the northward expansion of the Khmer Empire during the reign of Indravarman I (r. 877-89), which reached as far as the kingdoms of Sipsong Panna on the upper Mekong.

During this period, the Khmers established a settlement at Xay Fong, which is located close to Vientiane. At the same time, Champa extended their territory in southern Laos and were present on the banks of the Mekong River until the year 1070. After the departure of the Nan-chao officials, the local king of Xay Fong, Canthaphanit, relocated to Muang Sua in the north and was thereafter recognised peacefully in that role. During the lengthy reigns of Canthaphanit and his son, Xieng Dong Xieng Thong became the name of the city in Thai. Canthaphanit’s son later took over the throne. After some time, the dynasty got embroiled in the power struggles of a number of other states. As a consequence of the conflict between these kingdoms, Khun Cuang, a tyrannical monarch who may have been a member of the Kammu (other spellings include Khamu and Khmu) people, expanded his domain and most likely reigned from 1128 to 1169. Throughout the reign of Khun Cuang, a single family reigned over a vast region and reestablished the Siamese governmental structure that had been in place during the seventh century. The region that is now known as Muang Sua was once known as the Kingdom of Sri Sattanak. This name is associated with the tale of the naga, a water dragon or legendary serpent, that is claimed to have excavated the Mekong riverbed. Theravada Buddhism was eventually absorbed by Mahayana Buddhism during this time period.

During the reign of Jayavarman VII, who ruled from 1185 to 1191, Muang Sua was subject to Khmer suzerainty for a short time. However, by the year 1180, the Sipsong Panna had successfully reclaimed their independence from the Khmers, and in the year 1238, an internal rebellion in the Khmer outpost of Sukhodaya drove the Khmer masters out of the area.

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