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Introduction

King Brahm, the first of Thailand's Nine Great Kings.

    The Thai people have their roots in Southern China where they originated some 4,500 years ago. Refusing to be absorbed by the Chinese, the Thais gradually moved southward, out of Yunnan region until, in the 13th century, they reached Burma. Extending down into the Indo-Chinese peninsula, the "Thai Noi" established their capital in Sukhothai, the northern capital of the declining Khmer Empire.
    The Sukhothai era marks the Thai's origin as a distinct people. It also marks a period of great cultural development. Under King Ramkamhaeng who ruled from 1275 to 1315, the Thais settled the states of Northern Thailand and maintained excellent relations with the surrounding countries, especially China. King Ramkamhaeng, reknowned for his bravery, wisdom, scholarship and foresight became known as Rama -- The Great.
    In 1350 a new dynasty led by Ramathibodi, established a new capital at Ayutthaya. This new era survived repeated wars with Burma and Cambodia before falling to the invading Burmese in 1767. However, during its heyday, Ayutthaya was reputed to have a population larger than London or Paris, as well as 33 Kings ruling throughout the period.
    Following their defeat in 1767, the Thais retreated south and established yet another capital at Thonburi, this time under the leadership of King Taksin. On his death in 1782, the King was succeeded by King Praputhayodfachulaloke, also known as Rama I who decided that Thonburi was too small and difficult to defend so he moved the capital across the river to a small fishing village Bangkok.
    King Rama I restored Thailand to her ancient frontiers and was responsible for a new legal system and a renaissance of literature, art and religion. He also built the Royal Palace and Wat Phra Keo before his death in 1909 at the age of 72. His successors were Rama II, during whose reign relations with the West were re-established, Rama III and Rama IV (better known as King Mongkut) and Rama V who reigned for 42 years, until 1910.
    King Mongkut, a wise energetic ruler, developed lasting relationships with the British and French, and in so doing, avoided the colonial fate of the surrounding countries. King Chulalongkorn, (Rama V), was greatly revered by the Thai people. He abolished slavery, reorganised the Government and modernised the State in many ways. He was succeeded by his son, King Vajiravudh, who had been educated abroad. He was a poet, dramatist and statesman who instituted compulsory education and such organizations as the Boy Scouts and the Red Cross. King Vajiravudh died in 1925, and his brother, Rama VII, took over.
    In 1932, a group of army officers and civil servants staged a coup d'etat and were granted a constitution by Rama VII providing, for the first time, a parliament. Rama VII abdicated in 1935 in favor of ten-year old Ananda Mahidol and a Council of Regents. This reign was not to last as the young King died in 1946. This made way for the present King, Bhumibol Adulyedej (Rama IX) who came to the throne in 1946 with his lovely Queen Sirikit. Today, the Royal Family enjoys the enormous respect of the people and, in these changing times, the symbol of virtue and stability means such a lot of to the people of Thailand.

Thai Dress Through The Ages
The true origin and probable migration of the Thai people has been a mystery for anthropologists and historians for a very long time; and while some are quite positive of their conclusions, others still disagree. The several Thai tribes originated in the Ukthai Mountains of northern China more than 4,500 years ago. They migrated to southern China between the 3rd century B.C. and 5th century A.D. The Thai Ailao were horsemen who, whenriding through jungles and rough terrain, needed protective clothing such as high-necked, long-sleeved jackets and long trousers which fitted tightly at the ankles. They also wore plain, simple metal jewellery -- but this may well have been the family bank-roll rather than ornamentation.
Chinese Annals from about the 6th to 13th centuries say that the Thais dyed their cloth and "used geometric patterns." The women discarded their trousers and adopted a long skirt of pasin which was worn with a short overskirt resembling a peplum. They also began decorating their jeckets.
Men's fashions also changed. The horsemen wore sleeveless, embossed leather shirts, leather belts and trousers with the seat covered with tapir skin. Officials, according to rank, wore tiger skin capes and cummerbunds of many colors which were often embroidered, and edged with gold. From the 9th to 13th centuries there was peace, and dress became very ornate.
In the middle of the 13th century the hordes of Kublai Khan brought the destruction and devastation of burning and pillaging to the settlements. Those who were not killed or taken captive, migrated again -- this time farther south.
The tracing of the evolution of Thai costumes has often been made possible by archeological discoveries of sculptures, chiselled terra-cotta stabs and temple decorations. Many bas-reliefs demonstrate dances and entertainments of the period of constrution, as well as the costumes worn at the time. Clothing of the Dvaravati Period reflects the Indian influence. Women wore the sabai as the upper garment; the pa-nug, the lower garment, was a one piece cloth wrapped around the body from hips to mid-calf, with pleats at the front. Both men and women wore their hair long, in a variety of arrangements.


The Longest constitutional monarchy
Thailand is now a constitutional monarchy though its particular form is unique and defies comparison with, for example, the United Kingdom. Although absolute powers were dissolved in 1932, the role of the King has not been reduced to a figurehead. For som understanding of this rare state of affairs, of the nature of the Thai monarchy with its blend of semi divine status and strong paternalism -- dual elements that trigger enormous devotion and deep respect among the common people -- it is necssary to take a glance at the country's historical development.
Thailand, like its immediate neighbours, achieved nationhood through the authority of Kingship and the symbol of power emanating from the royal palace. The regal idea was inherited from the ancient Indian concept of the god-king which infiltrated peninsula Southeast Asia during the first centuries of the Christian era.
Such a form of kingship reached its highest expression among the Khmer of Angkor who held sway over the region in the centuries immediatly prior to the ascendancy of the Thai. It was partially inherited by the Thai when they established their first capital at Sukhothai where Brahman priests were maintained at court to minister to the pattern of semidevine kingship. (Even today Brahmans continue to conduct the major royal ceremonies.) Yet, largely through the influence of Theravada Buddhism, there were significant modifications in terms of the accessibility of the monarch and his paternalistic stance.
This was first made clearly manifest during the reign of King Ramkamhaeng (c 1279-1298), the first of a handful of Thai monarchs, including the present King, to be accorded the title 'The Great'. A stone inscription made by him in 1292 tells how the differences and disputes of commoners as well as princes and nobles were settled at the Sukhothai court. "At the gateway there is a bell hung up. If anyone of the public has a complaint or grievance of body or mind to place before the King, it is not difficult. He goes to sound the bell that is hung up. King Ramkamhaeng hears him call and, on questioning him, makes and upright investigation for him."
When Ayutthaya, the second Thai capitol, eclipsed Sukhothai the monarchy became more remote, surrounded as it was by a complex system of court ritual and ceremony. Nevertheless, the essential idea of a benign power radiating from the royal palace persisted. There were periods when the character of the monarchy changed to meet the needs and pressures of the historical moment, but its role as a cohesive force binding the nation together has remained a constant through seven centuries and 55 reigns.
Indeed the strength of the monarchy has benn the strength of the nation. In the political realm this is amply illustrated by such notable kings as King Naresuan (1590-1605> and his heroic struggle against the Burmese; King Narai (1656-1688) under whose rule the power of Ayutthaya reached its glorious zenith, and King Taksin (1767-1782) who rallied a shattered nation after the Burmese destruction of Ayutthaya in 1767.
In the modern era, beginning with King Rama I and the founding of the present Crakri dynasty in 1782, the Thai monachy has successfully steered the nation through periods of unprecedented change and, at times, strong external threat. It was, for example, largely due to the wisdom and astuteness of King Mongkut, King IV (1851-1868) that Thailand managed to avoid the colonial fate that befell its neighbours without exception in the 19 th and early 20th centuries.


Art and Culture Monarchy
As an influence on art and culture the Thai monarchy has had an equal impact. Kings have traditionally been the greatest patrons of the arts and, as the upholders of the Buddhist faith, provided a stimulus to achievements in architecture, sculpture and painting. In the cultural sphere royal ceremonial serves to provide a link with the past, ensuring continuity and preserving ancient traditions to a marked degree.
When, in 1932, the system of an absolute monarchy was changed to a constitutional monarchy the political powers of kings were curtailed, but this in no way altered the respect felt for them, nor reduced their role as the single most important unifying force in the state. The concept of nationhood continues to revolve, as in the past, around the three key elements of country, king and religion.
In a comparison between Thailand and its immediate neighbours of Burma, Loas and Kampuchea it is not coincidental to note the former, in faring better, has retained the tradition of regal authority. The latter countries, historically similarly established with the concept of kingship, responded less well to change and external pressure once their regal authority was undermined. Thailand, largely thanks to its unique concept of monarchy in which continuity is blended with amazing powers of adaptability, emerges today not only as a historically independent nation, but also as one of Southeast Asia's most recent economic success stories.
The key to that success has been stability which the monarchy has helped to provide during decades of accelerated politicall and socio-economic change. During this period of rapid avancement King Bhumibol has reigned. Remarkably he was not trained for the role from birth as were most of his illustrious predecessors, and the way in which he rapidly adapted to, and more significantly, interpreted his unexpected succession to the throne is a measure of his great achievement
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  • A brief history of Thailand, Holiday Time in Thailand, sep. - oct. 1986, P. 38.
  • Thai Dress Through The Ages, by Bonnie Davis, Living in Thailand, sep. 1991, P. 14-15.
  • The Longest Reign, by John Hoskin, King Bhumibol the Great - See the Highlights of the Royal obligation, Thailand, P. 43-46.
  • Photograph from Thai National Memorial Home Page
  • THE TAI RACE RESEARCH, by Luang Vichitvatrakran, Colonel, Bangkok, Thailand, 1969