If you ever have the pleasure of visiting the National Museum Bangkok, you’ll find that it has a lot of stories to tell. Through its priceless artifacts, the Museum narrates the rise and fall of ancient civilizations, including one of Thailand’s oldest cities: Nakhon Pathom.
A major city of the Dvaravati kingdom (7th – 11th century), “Nakhon Pathom” is derived from the Pali, Nagara Pathama, or “the first city.” An assemblage of Mon kingdoms, the Dvaravati kingdom was one of the crown jewels of pre-Thai civilizations in Southeast Asia.
Much of what we know about Nakhon Pathom is due to the archeological campaigns of Prince Damrong Rajanubhab, which are in turn chronicled in the “San Somdet,” his royal correspondence with Prince Narisara Nuvadtivongs.
What follows is an exploration of Nakhon Pathom archeology through the words of the San Somdet and its eventual role in the birth of modern Thai museums.
The discovery of several ancient artifacts during the reconstruction of the ancient city had sparked Prince Damrong’s curiosity. He—along with George Cœdès, a French scholar of Southeast Asian history and archaeology from the 20th century—theorized that the capital and cultural center of the Dvaravati kingdom was situated in Nakhon Pathom.
“During the period of time I have facilitated the reconstruction of the Ancient City of Nakhon Pathom, I had come across various ancient artifacts that were unearthed in the area, and began taking interest in uncovering the legends of the Ancient City…”
– Prince Damrong Rajaubhab, October 23rd, 1942
The unearthing of ancient artifacts in Nakhon Pathom inspired the material culture and antiquarianism in Thailand, contributing to one of the very first collections on display at the National Museum Bangkok—one involving conch shell coins.
Conch shell coins
Dvaravati coins were decorated with auspicious symbols, such as Buddhist iconography, the sun, and conch shells. Some were inscribed with auspicious symbols meant to bring good fortune.
Two of the silver coins with seventh-century Pallava script read “Srī Dvāravatī Svara Punya” or “meritorious deeds of the king of Dvaravati,” according to Jan Jetso Boeles, former director of the Siam Society Research Center.
While Nakhon Pathom remains central to Dvaravati archaeology, Sri Dvaravati silver coins were subsequently unearthed at other Dvaravati-era dig sites, such as In Buri in Sing Buri, Ku Bua in Ratchaburi, and U-Thong in Suphan Buri.
“Once, [I had] requested photos of conch shell coins that were often discovered near the location of Phra Pathom Chedi (and the City of Uthong) to be sent to a museum of Great Britain called the British Museum in London, and inquired an expert on whether he knew of the coin’s country of origin. The reply I received was that such conch shell coins were discovered only at the Old Bagan and nowhere else.”
– Prince Damrong Rajaubhab, October 23rd, 1942
Such conch shell coins were later recorded by Ulrich Guehler, a prominent contributor to journals of the Siam Society on the topic of Siamese coins.
Thought to have served as a major seaport from the eighth to 11th centuries, ancient Nakhon Pathom was the metropolis of the Dvaravati kingdom, and the gateway in central Thailand for the spread of Buddhism throughout northern, northeastern, and eastern regions of the country.
Of course, the only problem with this description is that modern Nakhon Pathom lies over 40 kilometers inland. However, the discovery of boat engines and two ancient canals that ran along the city led to speculation that the geography was much different then.
“… I had attempted to seek out reasons why the Ancient City of Nakhon Pathom was built—what the rationale was behind the City’s establishment within the certain geographical area, for the past 30 years. I may perhaps begin with the speculation on how, in its early days of construction, the City was situated near the ocean due to the uncovering of marine boat engines in the subdistrict of Dhammasala. Another speculation was upon the observation of caricatures formed by a canal in the past that have now become shallow towards the northern direction…”
– Prince Damrong Rajanubhab, March 9th, 1932
Archeological findings appear to support this speculation. A terracotta seal unearthed in Nakhon Pathom depicts a sailing ship and Prakit words engraved in ancient Brahmi script that read “Varapata(na)” or “excellent seaport,” which would explain its importance to the Dvaravati kingdom.
Thai museums assert national identity
Through the archaeological efforts of 20th-century Thailand, the National Museum Bangkok was able to amass a diverse array of artifacts from periods throughout the pre-Thai kingdoms: from the Dvaravati kingdom to the Khmer/Angkorian Empire to the Lopburi Period. These artifacts tell us a lot about where we came from, but like most cultural institutions, they also serve a broader purpose.
Referred to as “the architect of the modern Thai state,” Prince Damrong was considered one of the most influential figures of his time, a time when the kingdom sought to reinforce its national borders. By highlighting archeological landmarks and important religious sites, museums and temples could serve to unite Thais of different regions and assert a national identity.
For this reason, the Prince created a new title for major Buddhist places of worship, the Chom Chedi of Siam (loosely, “Grand Pagoda of Siam”) and bestowed the title upon Nakhon Pathom’s Phra Pathom Chedi. The pagoda is one of only eight across the four regions of Thailand with the title.
In 1942, he states in conversation with Somdet Phra Wannarat, the former abbot of Wat Benchamabophit Dusitvanaram:
“…there are Buddhist religious sites scattered all over the country. They vary in age and in style of art because the styles are done according to beliefs that were in fashion at each given period. Among hundreds and thousands of places of worship, there are only eight that are worthy to be elevated to the status of Chom Chedi of Siam…”
– Prince Damrong Rajanubhab,
“The Four Chom Chedis of the Four Regions on the Provincial Medals”
The Prince then commissioned a mural of the Chom Chedis by the Department of Fine Arts to adorn the ubosot or ordination hall of Wat Benchamabophit Dusitvanaram temple.
This mural marks a shift in Thai religious art, which until then had depicted religious ideas and mythology, such as angels and demons with deliberately unrealistic proportions. However, this mural depicted real places with realistic colors and proportions. The mural also served a political agenda to assert sovereignty over these places, emphasizing the concept of permanent national borders.
The legacy of Nakhon Pathom
The Ancient City of Nakhon Pathom began as the cultural center of the Dvaravati kingdom. It stands today as the most historically significant site in Thailand.
The Ancient Nakhon Pathom was the origin of Thai history as we currently understand it, but it also kicked off a more recent chain of events. Its excavation and restoration was a watershed moment that led the country to establish museums, elevate major places of worship, unite regional communities, and strengthen national borders.
The Ancient Nakhon Pathom artifacts are on view now at the National Museum Bangkok, the virtual National Museum Bangkok, and the Phra Pathom Chedi Museum, which is reopening to visitors with a spectacular exhibition displaying the most recently discovered Dvaravati-era inscriptions.
This article is a retrospective exploration of Thai arts and heritage through the titular collection of royal letter correspondences based on the translations of the volume, “Reflection on the Thai Arts through ‘San Somdet’ the Correspondence between H.R.H. Prince Narisara Nuvadtivongs and H.R.H. Prince Damrong Rajanubhab,” and the original San Somdet chronicles.
This series is dedicated to my dearest great aunt, Dhira, whose personal collection of the San Somdet chronicles and other writings on Thai heritage, much like herself, never ceases to inspire.