History, The Lao Kingdom of Lan Xang
rightful heritage, Lan Xang, Theravada Buddhism, suzerainty, Emerald Buddha
A Lao prince named Fa Ngum founded the kingdom of Lan Xang in the mid-14th century. The name Lan Xang, which means “a million elephants,” was chosen to inspire fear among lesser rulers at a time when elephants were the principal engines of war. Fa Ngum had been exiled by his grandfather, the ruler of the principality of Louangphrabang under the Mongols, and raised in the Cambodian capital of Angkor. In 1351 he was given a Khmer princess in marriage and a Khmer army with which to reconquer his rightful heritage. On his line of march, Fa Ngum drew together all the small Lao principalities (meuang) to form a powerful kingdom that could hold its own against the surrounding powers of Burma (now Myanmar), Vietnam, the Thai kingdom of Ayutthaya, and Cambodia.
Fa Ngum set about organizing and strengthening his kingdom. Theravada Buddhism, which was already known to the Lao, gained royal support from Fa Ngum’s Khmer queen, though animist cults worshiping local spirits (phi) were still strong. Buddhism legitimized kingship by characterizing the monarch as one having great merit, while kings reciprocated by endowing Buddhist monasteries. But Fa Ngum became too autocratic and demanding, and was deposed in favor of his son.
In the 15th century Lan Xang suffered from internal weakness, and in 1478 a Vietnamese army invaded Lan Xang, seizing and sacking the capital before being driven out. The kingdom was restored by King Vixun, a powerful and capable ruler. Vixun brought a golden Buddha image known as the Phra Bang to his capital city. The king’s Buddha became a symbol of the Lao state, and his capital came to be called Louangphrabang, or Great Phra Bang, in honor of the Buddha. Vixun was a great patron of the arts and of Buddhism. Poetry, literature, music, and dance flourished during his reign.
Briefly in the mid-16th century, the kingdom of Lan Na, centered on Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, was absorbed into Lan Xang. But the Lan Xang king at the time, Xetthathirat, was renowned more for his valiant defiance of the Burmese than for ruling Lan Na. Twice during Xetthathirat’s reign, Burmese armies ravaged Lan Xang, and twice they were driven from Lao soil. Xetthathirat moved the Lao capital south to Vientiane, a site more defensible than Louangphrabang and more central, for by this time Lao settlers had migrated into southern Laos (Champasak) and across the Khorat Plateau into what is now northeastern Thailand. Xetthathirat beautified his capital by building the great That Luang stupa and a temple to house his own favorite Buddha image, the Emerald Buddha. At the height of his power, however, Xetthathirat went too far in his military ambitions. He invaded Cambodia and disappeared when his army was routed. In the ensuing anarchy, Laos fell to the Burmese.
The Lao kingdom recovered in the 17th century under the great king Surinyavongsa. Early in his long reign, Europeans first visited Laos. A Dutch merchant and a Jesuit missionary both reached Vientiane and left admiring descriptions of the kingdom. Both Europeans were amazed at the wealth of the capital and the number of its monks, for Vientiane was a center of Buddhist studies. When Surinyavongsa died in 1695 without an heir, Lan Xang split into three separate kingdoms: Louangphrabang, Vientiane, and Champasak, all of which fell under the suzerainty of the kingdom of Ayutthaya (also known as Siam, later Thailand) during the next century.
In 1767 Burmese armies invaded Ayutthaya and seized and sacked the capital. The Siamese people rallied under King Phraya Taksin, who drove out the Burmese. Taksin was determined to increase the wealth and power of Siam, and to enforce his will over the Lao kingdoms. In 1778 he seized Vientiane and carried off the Emerald Buddha. Both Louangphrabang and Champasak agreed to pay Taksin tribute. When the last king of Vientiane, Chau Anu, tried to reassert his independence in 1827, Thai armies destroyed Vientiane.
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