The Secrets of Si Thep

Visiting the ancient town of Si Thep is now at the top of many travellers’ wish lists, thanks to UNESCO’s recent recognition of it as a World Cultural Heritage site. Located in Phetchabun Province, 450 kilometres north of Bangkok, the ancient town of Si Thep has likely sat quietly along the Lop Buri-Pasak River Basin since prehistoric times.

Known as the “Lost Hindu Town” in the archives of the Siamese Royal Court, Prince Damrong Rajanubhab, a visionary historian, rediscovered the ancient town of Si Thep in 1904. He was led to the town by locals in Phetchabun province and found the legendary city abandoned in the forested land.

Unlike Sukhothai and Ayutthaya, Si Thep has remained relatively obscure, attracting little attention from both Thai and foreign visitors. Apart from archaeology students on field trips, it seems only art dealers and plunderers venture to the ancient town of Si Thep. Some people attribute this phenomenon to cultural politics. Si Thep is a Mon-Khmer ancient town where Dvaravati art blends with pre-Angkor Wat influences. Consequently, it does not enjoy the same recognition as Sukhothai and Ayutthaya, which have strong connections to Thai cultural identity.

But that’s about to change.

Following UNESCO’s recognition, the spectacular archaeological site will attract Indiana Jones-type visitors and researchers determined to unravel the mystery of Si Thep — or simply to bask in its ancient splendour.

Before you embark on your own Si Thep adventure, here are a few secrets of this sacred site.

Salt and Iron

Now encompassed within Si Thep Historical Park, Si Thep emerged as an urban centre from a prehistoric farming village in the Lopburi-Pa Sak River Valley some 1,500-2,500 years ago. With intensive salt and iron production and its strategic location between the Chao Phraya lowland and the Korat Plateau (between the Mon and the Khmer), small communities flourished and became a vibrant town, a pivotal hub for trade and cultural exchange.

During its zenith, spanning from the sixth to the eleventh century, Si Thep played a crucial role in the Dvaravati culture, leading many academics to speculate that Si Thep might have served as the seat of Dvaravati, rather than Uthong or Nakhon Pathom. For 800 years, Si Thep thrived with a blend of Dvaravati, Hindu, and ancient Khmer arts before the city was eventually abandoned about 200 years before the emergence of Sukhothai and Ayutthaya.

Si Thep is not Si Thep

The ancient town of Si Thep was rediscovered by Prince Damrong Rajanubhab, a visionary historian, during his 1904 expedition to Phetchabun Province. With profound historical knowledge, Prince Damrong asked a former governor about the potential hidden location of a mystical Hindu town, possibly abandoned and concealed within Phetchabun’s woodlands.

Embarking on boats along the Pasak River, locals led the historian prince to Si Thep Village, a local community situated 4 kilometres east of the river. There, the expedition teams were stunned by stupas and sculptures scattered throughout a vast, forest-shrouded ancient town. In accordance with the local legend, Prince Damrong called the site “Si Thep”. In 1935, Si Thep was officially registered as an archaeological site. The excavations by Thai archaeologists revealed stone inscriptions, religious artwork, and sculptures, yet to this day, no evidence of the town’s original name has been uncovered.

The Twin Cities

If you fly your drone above Si Thep, you’ll discover that the historical site consists of two adjoining ancient towns: The Inner Town and the Outer Town.

Circular in shape, the Inner Town encompasses a series of rolling plains, hosting 48 Buddhist and Hindu ancient monuments. The Buddhist monuments are associated with the Dvaravati culture (7th-11th centuries), while the Hindu monuments exhibit a strong influence of ancient Khmer art style (11th-13th centuries). The prominent and significant structures include Khao Khlang Nai, Prang Si Thep, and Prang Song Phi Nong. Additionally, this area boasts more than 70 ancient reservoirs of varying sizes.

The Outer Town lies to the east of the inner city, covering an area of 2.83 square kilometres. It has a rectangular shape with rounded corners and houses, 64 ancient monuments and structures, along with numerous reservoirs. Here, a gigantic stone monument stands as a spectacular landmark of the ancient town of Si Thep. Featuring a large rectangular base and staircases on all four sides, the monument might remind you of a Maya pyramid at first glance, but archaeologists will tell you that it is a grand stupa missing the dome and spire.

Those Hips Don’t Lie

Many have encountered the artistic wonders of Si Thep, yet few fully grasp its distinction as Southeast Asia’s premier sculpture haven. Professor Jean Boisselier, a revered French archaeologist who collaborated with Thai archaeologists during the Si Thep excavation, coined it the “Si Thep School of Art”, celebrating its exceptional and one-of-a-kind artistic essence.

Among the treasures unearthed are statues of Vishnu, a testament to meticulous craftsmanship and lifelike realism. These upright sculptures exude elegance, boasting slender physiques adorned with conical headgear, and graceful, slightly bent posture at the waist and hips.

Boisselier, renowned for his restoration work at Angkor Wat, emphasized that the Si Thep School of Art diverges dramatically from conventional ancient Khmer sculptural traditions. It harmoniously melds influences from Dvaravati, Srivijaya, and pre-Khmer arts. While Vishnu’s visage may evoke hints of pre-Angkor sculptures, a closer examination reveals facial intricacies, notably the eyes, bearing a striking resemblance to the distinctive aesthetics of Dvaravati art.

Si Thep Scandal

Located 20 kilometres west of Si Thep, Khao Thamorat stands as an enduring landmark for travellers across the ages heading to Si Thep. Its slopes house caves transformed into sacred Mahayana Buddhist sites, showcasing 11 sculptures and carvings that depict Buddha images, sacred animals, deities, and moral teachings. These extraordinary artworks, dating back to the 8th century, exhibit diverse artistic styles from the pre-Angkor period, the Dvaravati era, and Srivijaya arts.

In 1960, a band of plunderers, acting on the orders of art dealers, forcibly removed the Buddha heads and other invaluable artefacts from the Khao Thamorat caves. Subsequently, Si Thep’s Buddha sculptures found their way into the hands of art collectors in Bangkok. In an unexpected twist of events, Thai authorities discovered a concealed collection of Si Thep artefacts on silk king Jim Thompson’s property, which is now, quite ironically, the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre.

Recently, UNESCO officially recognised the historical significance of Khao Thamorat as an integral part of the Si Thep World Heritage site. To fully immerse in the ancient splendour of Khao Thamorat Buddhist sanctuary, you need to make two trips: one to the Bangkok National Museum to view the preserved heads and the other to Khao Thamorat mountain itself to explore the remaining parts.

By Thai PBS World Feature Desk


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