“There is fish in the water and rice in the fields.” (ในน้ำมีปลาในนามีข้าว)

Most Thais are familiar with this phrase. It is part of an inscription on a legendary stone that is dated to 1292 AD. The text on this historical stele depicts what is traditionally regarded as the first kingdom of Thailand, Sukhothai, under the reign of King Ram Khamhaeng the Great.

The stone inscription generally refers to Ram Khamhaeng himself as the speaker and describes the abundance and economic freedom in his realm: “The lord of the realm does not levy toll on his subjects for traveling the roads; they lead their cattle to trade or ride their horses to sell; whoever wants to trade in elephants, does so; whoever wants to trade in horses, does so; whoever wants to trade in silver or gold, does so.” Furthermore, it draws the picture of a virtuous king who rules with righteousness. If anyone required help in settling a dispute, it sufficed to ring a bell by the king’s palace. “[He] hears the call; he goes and questions the man, examines the case, and decides it justly for him.”

Too good to be true? Ram Khamhaeng’s inscription seems to portray an idealistic state, and the reader must tread carefully. The Sukhothai king did certainly not acquire his vast realm through military conquest alone as the inscription makes believe in the final passage (not quoted). Instead, he could rely on the allegiance of powerful ruling houses, thereby extending his hold well beyond the reach of his armed force. However, while one may question the truth behind the stone letters, others have raised doubt about the authenticity of the stele itself. Does it represent a work of 13th century Sukhothai or a forgery of recent times as claimed by some academics?

Discovery of the Ram Khamhaeng inscription

Inside the Sukhothai Historical Park where the Ram Khamhaeng inscription was found

Sukhothai Historical Park (site of the ancient capital)

According to an often cited account by Prince Patriarch Vajiranan, Prince Mongkut traveled to Sukhothai in 1833. Beside the ruins of the ancient palace, he discovered the stone pillar along with a carved stone bench believed to be the throne seat of King Ram Khamhaeng. At the time, Prince Mongkut, who later became King Rama IV, was in monkhood and the stele would follow him to Wat Samorai (now Wat Rachathiwat) and then to Wat Bowonniwet in Bangkok. After Mongkut ascended the throne, he had the stone move to the Emerald Buddha Temple (Wat Phra Kaeo) within the royal palace. Eventually, it was acquired by the Bangkok National Museum in 1968 and placed in the Siwamok Phiman Hall where it is currently on display.

Translation of the Sukhothai script

Close-up view of the Ram Khamhaeng inscription

The Ram Khamhaeng stele is a massive block of siltstone and has four sides on a square base and a quadrilateral dome on top. It is 114.50 cm or 45.08 in tall and each side is 35.50 cm (13.98 in) wide. The inscription is composed of 124 lines of text; 35 lines are engraved on the first and second sides and 27 lines on the third and fourth. Altogether, they make up what is considered the first evidence of writing in Thai.

It is widely believed that the current Thai alphabet descended from the characters in the inscription. However, to those who are only familiar with modern Thai the Sukhothai script looks strikingly different. For example, there are no letters that extend below or above the line and no super- or subscript vowels, which appear in today’s writing in the Siamese language. Indeed, all vowels in the text are on the same level as the consonants.

In 1857, the British envoy to Siam, Sir John Bowring, presented a specimen of the inscription in his book, The Kingdom and People of Siam, with partial translations by King Rama IV. However, it wasn’t until 1909 when Professor Cornelius Beach Bradley published a comprehensive translation in English. He was an expert on the Siamese language and worked directly from the stone. A.B. Griswold and Prasert na Nagara described his translation as the “first reasonably satisfactory translation of Rāma Gamhèn’s inscription into a western language”. Nonetheless, the two scholars also remarked that Bradley’s reading was “far from irreproachable” and offered a revised English translation in 1971. Their work builds on another previous and widely acclaimed translation, that of the French George Cœdès.

What the inscription says

The stone inscription provides a rare account of King Ram Khamhaeng’s life and various aspects of Sukhothai during his reign (1279-98). Although the text is written in a single block on all four sides, we may distinguish three parts:

In the first section from line 1 to 18, Ram Khamhaeng gives a brief account of his personal background from his origin to his succession. He speaks in the first person.

Throne seat of King Ram Khamhaeng

The throne seat of King Ram Khamhaeng (photograph by Griswold and Prasert)

The second part (line 18 to 108) was executed by the same engraver, but refers to Ram Khamhaeng by name. It describes the prosperity and freedoms in Sukhothai, as cited earlier, as well as religious practices and physical characteristics in the capital. Moreover, Ram Khamhaeng mentions the throne seat which Prince Mongkut reputably discovered on his pilgrimage to the north of Siam: “This slab of stone is named Manannsīlāpātra. It is installed here for everyone to see.” According to the inscription, the stone bench was set up in the year 1214 of the Saka era, which corresponds to 1292 of the Common Era. For reasons that will become obvious in a minute, the stele itself is dated to this year. The second part then sums up the installation of sacred relics at Si Satchanalai in M.S. 1207 (1285 A.D.) and the invention of the Thai script in M.S. 1205 (1283 A.D.).

“King Rāma Gamhèn was sovereign over all the Dai [Tai]. He was the teacher who taught all the Dai to understand merit and the Dharma rightly. Among men who live in the lands of the Dai, there is no one to equal him in knowledge and wisdom, in bravery and courage, in strength and energy.”

The third section (line 108 to 124) gives praise to King Ram Khamhaeng and describes the boundaries of his realm. The perspective seems to be the same as the body part; however, a comparison between the stroke style and the spelling of certain words points to a different speaker. Bradley writes that the epilogue “evidently was inscribed by a different hand, and was cut by a different engraver”. It was perhaps inserted after the king’s death as a eulogy. If so, it is likely that he anticipated this later addition. In order to keep the same number of lines on face 3 and 4 of the block, which seems more than pure coincidence, he must have deliberately left space for this final epilogue.

Significance

“Formerly these Dai letters did not exist. In 1205 saka [1283 A.D.], a year of the goat, King Rāma Gamhèn set his mind and his heart on devising these Dai letters. So these Dai letters exist because that lord devised them.”

According to Griswold and Prasert, “it can hardly be doubted that the author of the inscription, that is the person at whose command it was composed and engraved, is Rāma Gamhèn himself, and that its object is to commemorate the installation of the stone throne “.

The formal purpose of the stone pillar has been widely discussed in the academic circle. However, the possibility that it represents the earliest writing in Thai is of greater importance here. In fact, there seems to be no other known document (in Thailand and globally) in which the author acknowledges the accomplishment of writing while at the same time producing the first writing in his native language. This makes the present inscription unique unless, of course, we find evidence of earlier Siamese writing. In the meantime, the stele is not only witness to a royal inauguration, but also testifies to the considerable accomplishment of human writing.

Moreover, the stone inscription has significantly shaped the mainstream view of Sukhothai as the cradle of the Thai state. In schools throughout the country, the national history begins with Sukhothai, “the dawn of happiness”. The idea that Thailand rose from a plentiful kingdom ruled paternally by a benevolent sovereign is deeply anchored in the historical perception of the Thai people.

Controversy

However, since the late 1980s, a number of scholars, both Thai and Western, have challenged the stone inscription as a work of 13th century Sukhothai. In his paper titled “The Ram Khamhaeng Inscription: A Piltdown Skull of Southeast Asian History?“, the historian Michael Vickery argues that the stele is a historical fake. By examining the script and content of the inscription, he identifies several anomalies in respect to other works of the Sukhothai period, which indicate a much more recent creation. For instance, Vickery notes that the Ram Khamhaeng script has “a complete modern tone-marking system, not found again until the 17th or 18th century after very gradual and tentative developments, and certain vowel signs common to modern standard Thai, but not used in the 14th century Sukhothai corpus”.

Another renowned scholar, Piriya Krairiksh, has further argued that the stele was manifactured by no other than King Mongkut himself. In his paper, “An Epilogue to the Ram Khamhaeng Inscription“, the art historian explains the forger’s possible motives: Rama IV seemed to have a personal liking for inscriptions and may have devised the Ram Khamhaeng inscription as an offering to the gods. He may have wanted to build the illusion of old traditions in order to legitimize his reforms and to construct an identity for his subjects in a time when European powers looked down upon the Siamese people. Moreover, Piriya draws up astonishing similiarities between Mongkut and the Sukhothai leader, leading him to conclude that “King Ram Khamhaeng became King Mongkut’s alter ego, whose early life is a veiled autobiography of his own”.

Lithographic copy of the Ram Khamhaeng inscription with partial translations by King Rama IV

Inscription text with partial translations by King Rama IV – published by John Bowring

But one problem persists (among many others). If Rama IV was the author behind the inscription, why was he incapable to provide a full translation to Bowring? Piriya cites many of Mongkut’s writings, but seems to overlook his letter to the British envoy in which he informs him about the inscription writings. Here Mongkut says: “I have commenced their translation in English for your Excellency, but I cannot fulfill it or do it complete on this occasion. I will send it to your Excellency on another occasion, when it is completely done”. His problem was obviously not a lack of proficiency in English. Instead, Mongkut’s letter reveals that he did not possess a full understanding of the inscription text. If the king wanted to fabricate “an inscription so convincingly realistic that it could be mistaken for genuine”, why conceal the content of his masterpiece?

Reaction

What followed was a heated scholarly debate with claims to new evidence, rebuttals and disagreements. Obviously, the assertion that the stele was a later composition was a shock to many who followed the discussion. If true, the implication for some long established views on Thai history and the foundation of the national writing system would be tremendous. It would be an unbelievable major hoax.

The reason and problem lie in the fact that we know very little about the period of Ram Khamhaeng, except for what is communicated in the inscription itself. Although Sukhothai is considered a golden age in the evolution of Thai arts, it was a short-lived kingdom and at times forgotten. Even Vickery admits that “Sukhothai is now a dead language, preserved only in writing”. As a result, it is difficult to identify its position from a historical or linguistic point of view, that is to prove whether or not it is original to the Sukhothai era.

Scientific analysis

In 1990, the national museum compared the Ram Khamhaeng inscription with four other (largely uncontested) inscriptions of the Sukhothai period using a scanning microscope and an energy dispersive X-ray spectrometer. It reported that all five were crafted in about the same period, between 700 and 500 years ago.

Although some scholars remain convinced of the late forgery theory, the stone inscription was successfully inscribed on the register of UNESCO’s Memory of the World Programme in 2003.

Conclusion

The Ramkhamhaeng inscription at the Bangkok National Museum

The Ram Khamhaeng inscription in the Bangkok National Museum

The Ram Khamhaeng inscription, if genuine, gives valuable insight into 13th century Sukhothai and presents an early piece of Siamese writing. To those who wish to learn more about the stone inscription, I highly recommend the studies listed below. The in-depth analysis provided by these publications goes well beyond the scope of this article. However, they demonstrate the challenge of translating the Ram Khamhaeng script, which reflects quite a bit of the mastery behind its conception. Whoever created the stele had knowledge of archaic spellings and long forgotten words. For all the practical difficulties involved, it is probably safer to regard the stone inscription as authentic.

Sources

The Oldest Known Writing in Siamese: The Inscription of Phra Ram Khamhaeng of Sukhothai, 1293 A.D.” (1909) by Cornelius Beach Bradley.

Epigraphic and Historical Studies No. 9, The Inscription of Rāma Gamhèn of Sukhodaya (1292 A.D.)” (1971) by A.B. Griswold and Prasert na Nagara.

The Ram Khamhaeng Inscription: A Piltdown Skull of Southeast Asian History?” (1987) by Michael Vickery.

An Epilogue to the Ram Khamhaeng Inscription” (1991) by Piriya Krairiksh.

All citations from the inscription are based on the translation by Griswold and Prasert.