Lan Xang

gigatos | March 28, 2022


The Kingdom of Lan Xang (in Pali language: शिसत्तनखनहुत्, transliterated: sri sattana khanahut; literally: one million elephants) was founded in 1354 by Fa Ngum, a prince of Mueang Sua, today”s Laotian city of Luang Prabang. The state, which for a long time would dominate the Mekong Valley in northern Indochina, unified for the first time the Lao people, until then divided into several municipalities called muang (in Lao: ເມືອງ), which gravitated in the orbit of the powerful neighboring states, first of all the Khmer Empire.

The Kingdom of Lan Xang came to an end in 1707 when, following bloody civil wars, it split into the Kingdoms of Vientiane and Luang Prabang. In 1713, the Kingdom of Vientiane would cede the southern territories to the new Kingdom of Champasak.

The sources from which historiographers have drawn information regarding the history of the kingdom come from the annals of the ancient states of the region, including those of Lan Xang himself, Lanna, Ayutthaya of Burma, and the Khmer Empire, which differ from each other. Lan Xang”s annals were translated into other languages and interpreted in different ways, resulting in disputes over the reliability of the historical references. The main criticism that led to the change of the original text, was dictated by the belief that many of the historical events had been omitted or distorted in the original edition for the greater glory of the kingdom. The events themselves and the dates relating to Lan Xang”s history are therefore not fully reliable.

Between the 1st and 5th centuries AD, the growing influence of the Kingdom of Funan spread Hindu civilization in southern Indochina, which was developed in the following centuries by the kingdoms of Chenla, located in present-day Cambodia, and Champa, located in present-day South Vietnam. The Khmer Empire, which arose at the end of the 8th century from the ashes of Chenla, extended over a large part of Indochina and took on the role of Hinduism”s leader in the region for 500 years. Starting from the sixth century, the Dvaravati culture spread, influenced by the emerging Mon people, who converted to Theravada Buddhism and favored the foundation of several principalities in today”s Burma, Thailand and Laos. The Khmer conquered most of the eastern Mon city-states and imposed Hinduism, while Buddhism continued to flourish in the west. From the union of the two cultures came the Mon Khmer language family.

It was in this context that, between the 4th and 8th centuries, the first municipalities were formed in the Mekong valley, city-states that grew under the influence of the Indochinese kingdoms and the Chinese Empire. In the following centuries, they were subjected and made vassal states by the Khmer and Champa, but maintained a good margin of autonomy by retaining their own rulers.

The migrations from southern China to northern Indochina by Tai peoples had begun in the second half of the first millennium AD and had increased after the fall in 1253 of the Kingdom of Dali, whose population was mainly of Tai ethnicity. Gradually the Tai settled in a wide range of territories between the north-east of India and the north of Vietnam and divided into several ethnic subgroups. Among the most important were the Siamese, who in 1238 formed the Kingdom of Sukhothai in today”s Central Thailand, the Tai Yuan, who in 638 formed the Kingdom of Hiran, and the Tai Yuan, who in 638 formed the Kingdom of Hiran.

The Lao group settled on the plains of the middle Mekong and surrounding areas, where they extended their influence and took control of the old existing municipalities, which were given the name mueang. At the beginning of the thirteenth century, the mueang of Sua (or Sawa), today”s Luang Prabang, managed to become independent from the powerful neighboring states and to establish itself as a kingdom. It will be the dynasty of this city that will unify the municipalities and the Lao people with the formation of the Kingdom of Lan Xang, and that will remain on the throne of the various kingdoms that will succeed Vientiane and Luang Prabang until 1975.

Prince Fa Ngum was born in 1316 in the Laotian kingdom of Mueang Sua, today”s Luang Prabang, a powerful city-state also called Xieng Dong Xieng Thong that had extended its influence over large territories in the Mekong Valley. Removed from the kingdom after his birth by the king”s advisors, Fa Ngum came to Angkor, the capital of the decadent Khmer Empire, where he was raised at court. He showed intelligence in his studies and Emperor Lampong Reachea granted him the hand of his daughter, Princess Keo Keng Kagna, and he converted to Theravada Buddhism.

In 1349, the emperor provided Fa Ngum with an army of 10,000 men, at the head of which he marched north to seize the throne of Mueang Sua, passed into the hands of his uncle. The intentions of Lampong Reachea were to make Fa Ngum a powerful ruler and an ally to counter the expansionist aims of the Siamese of the Kingdom of Sukhothai, who had conquered several Mueang previously subjected to Khmer. A series of victories secured Fa Ngum control of important principalities in present-day Laos, northwestern Vietnam, and northeastern Thailand, and allowed him to significantly swell the ranks of his army. In 1353 he conquered Mueang Sua and became its ruler with the title of Phragna Fa La Tholany Sri Sattana Khanahut, with which he proclaimed himself a descendant of King Khun Borom, the legendary ancestor of the Tai lineage. According to some of these sources, in the same year the armies of Ramathibodi I, Siamese sovereign of the new Kingdom of Ayutthaya, conquered Angkor. Following the victory, Siam had made Khmer vassals and had annexed territories in the western part of the Korat plateau.

The following year, at the command of 50,000 men, Fa Ngum conquered Vientiane, one of the last Laotian municipalities in the Mekong valley of which he had no control, where in June 1354 he had himself crowned monarch of the new Kingdom of Lan Xang, literally the “kingdom of a million elephants”, the prodigious ”war machines” of those times.

In addition to the unification of the Laotian principalities and the power vacuum left by the Khmer decline, Fa Ngum also took advantage of the turbulent situation in the neighboring Chinese Empire, whose Yuan dynasty had been showing signs of decline for several years. In the same period in which Fa Ngum established himself, China had to loosen its control over the periphery of the empire to face several natural disasters and harsh internal revolts. The most serious was the Red Turban Revolt, which began around 1352 and would end in 1368 with the collapse of the Yuan and the seizure of power by the Ming Dynasty.

The capital of Lan Xang was established in Mueang Sua and Theravada Buddhism was declared the state religion. Fa Ngum appointed as spiritual advisor his religious teacher from Angkor, the monk Phra Maha Pasman, who arrived in Muang Sua in 1359 with a copy of the sacred Tripitaka texts. The reverend was forced to leave in Vieng Kham, in the Vientiane area, the revered Buddha statue called Phra Bang. The statue became the palladium of the monarchy and in the 16th century would be brought to Muang Sua, which would be renamed Luang Prabang in his honor.

Fa Ngum organized the conquered municipalities into fiefdoms, at the head of which he placed princes called chao. The borders of the kingdom, which had become one of the largest in Indochina, extended from the southern borders of the Chinese Empire to the present border between Cambodia and Laos, from the crests of the Annamite chain to most of the Korat plateau.

In 1354, a campaign was undertaken that lasted until 1357 and completed the conquest of the Korat Plateau, with the subjugation of the Principality of today”s Loei, and the southern ones of Korat and Roi Et. The heir to the Khmer throne Prince Surya Daya had taken refuge in Lan Xang after the Siamese sack of the capital. With the help of Fa Ngum, to whom he was related, he regained control of the Khmer Empire in 1359, ousting the viceroy that the Siamese had installed in Angkor and proclaiming himself emperor with the title of Phra Suryavang. After the settlement, Suryavang sent to Mueang His technicians and skilled labor to build palaces and temples worthy of the greatness of the kingdom.

The historic alliance with the Khmer led Fa Ngum to threaten the Kingdom of Ayutthaya, whose King Ramathibodi offered him as a sign of peace some territories and his own daughter Nang Keo Lot Fa in marriage. The death of his Khmer wife and the intrigues of his Siamese wife led Fa Ngum to a state of prostration that resulted in his dismissal in 1372. He was exiled to Nan, the capital of the small northern kingdom of the same name that had managed to maintain its independence, where he died sometime between 1373 and 1393.

The isolation of the kingdom, surrounded to the east, north and west by mountainous areas of difficult access, and the alliance with the Khmer to the south ensured a period of stability. Fa Ngum”s son, Samsenthai, succeeded his father in 1372 and remained on the throne until his death in 1417. His reign was characterized by the absence of major conflicts, the first Laotian census was carried out, the army was reorganized and important infrastructures were built. The subsequent reign of his son Lan Kham Deng (1417-1428) was also marked by peace and prosperity.

The unification of the kingdom had led to a split in two factions of the court aristocracy. One faction was sided with the sovereign and linked to the Khmer Empire, which had provided Fa Ngum with the army with which he unified the Laotian principalities. The new Khmer aristocracy created at court put in the background the old nobility of the kingdom of Mueang Sua, which reacted by linking up with the emerging Kingdom of Ayutthaya, the Siamese state that disputed with the Khmer Empire for supremacy in Southeast Asia. Siamese interests were represented at court by Keo Lot Fa, whom his father Ramathibodi I, king of Ayutthaya, had given in wife to Fa Ngum. The conflict between the two fractions would drag on for several decades and contributed to the Lan Xang crisis after the reign of Lan Kham Deng.

During this period of serious instability, the intrigues of the courtesan Maha Devi became part of the struggles between the factions of the aristocracy and led to the assassination of at least six rulers within 12 years. Discontent began to surface even far from Mueang Sua, and in Vientiane there was a rebellion that was crushed. After an interregnum of three years in which the government was entrusted to a State Council presided over by two high prelates, the first Lan Xang invasions took place. The kingdom was also weakened by the new decline of the Khmer allies who, subjected to the growing pressure of Ayutthaya, abandoned Angkor after the new Siamese sacking of 1431 and moved the capital to Lovek, located more to the southwest.

The Laotians suffered their first heavy defeat in 1455, when the Lanna armies penetrated the country and almost reached the capital. They were repulsed at great cost by the Laotians, but managed to secure several border principalities between the two kingdoms. A new defeat took place in 1478 by the Vietnamese invaders. The Dai Viet had been galvanized after the alliance with the Chinese emperor of the Ming dynasty and the conquest of the Champa Kingdom, penetrated deeply into the kingdom of Lan Xang coming to occupy the capital and were driven out after inflicting heavy losses to the troops of Mueang Sua.

The crisis of the kingdom led to the relative detachment of the municipalities farthest from the capital, which, while remaining confederated to Lan Xang, gradually acquired a good degree of autonomy. This was one of the reasons why the capital would later be moved to the more central Vientiane.

After the Vietnamese invasion of 1478, the process of reconstruction began. In 1480 the destroyed capital was rebuilt, peace was established with neighboring kingdoms and slowly the prestige lost in recent decades was recovered. In 1500, with the rise to the throne of Visunarat, Lan Xang returned to prosperity. The king was a fervent religious man, he built beautiful temples and translated the sacred scriptures from Pali to Lao. During his reign, the arts were revived. Visunarat moved in the last years of his reign to rule in Vientiane, from where it was easier to control the turbulent southern provinces. Mueang Sua remained the official capital. Lan Xang was further consolidated during the reign of his successor Phothisarat I (1520-1550), who in 1533 moved the court to Vientiane, but Mueang Sua still remained the official capital. Like his father, he was a fervent Buddhist and declared illegal the Animism, until then an integral part of society, attracting the hostility of the practitioners of this faith, which was the basis of the original Lao culture.

Photisarat was very active in foreign policy, at first he formed an alliance with the Lanna Kingdom, marrying a daughter of the sovereign, but later broke the ties of peace that had long bound the kingdoms of Lang Xang and Ayutthaya. This led to an invasion of the country by the Siamese, which was repelled. The ruler responded by allying himself with the Burmese and sacking several cities in Siam.

Setthathirat, son of Photisarat and Princess Lanna, became ruler of Lanna in 1546, after his maternal grandfather Mueang Keo had been succeeded by rulers who died without leaving heirs. In 1550 he left the capital Chiang Mai for good to attend the funeral of his father, taking with him the venerated statue of the Emerald Buddha. He became king of Lan Xang but was unable to maintain the Lanna throne, opposed by the local aristocracy. The alarming Burmese expansion led him to officially move the capital of Lan Xang to Vientiane in 1560, where he brought the Emerald Buddha and built the magnificent Pha That Luang stupa. He had the name of Mueang Sua changed to Luang Prabang, in honor of the statue of Phra Bang, the palladium of the monarchy that he left in the old capital. He became a national hero for repelling three Burmese invasions and for the achievements he made in both domestic and foreign policy. He was also a fervent religious man and built important temples in Laotian cities.

In 1571, Setthatirat was succeeded by his son No Keo Kuman who was only one year old. He was flanked by a regent who in 1572 dethroned him. In 1575 occurred the most serious invasion ever recorded until then, the Burmese of King Bayinnaung of the Taungu dynasty conquered Vientiane and deported in the capital Pegu most of the population, including the usurper king and the little No Keo Kuman. Bayinnaung thus completed the conquests of all those territories that made Burma the largest empire that ever existed in Southeast Asia.

In 1581 Bayinnaung died, an event that in the following years would lead to the disintegration of the vast empire he had created. He was succeeded by his son Nanda Bayin, who lacked the charisma and skills of his father. Lan Xang was succeeded by vassal kings of Burma, but in 1582 the court had no one to whom to entrust the throne and began a period of confusion. The power vacuum was accentuated by the weakness of the court of Pegu, which struggling with internal rebellions and those of the Tai kingdoms was no longer able to exert its influence on Vientiane.

The various factions of the aristocracy and the governors of the provinces had full autonomy but did not rebel against the Burmese power, failing to agree on the choice of a ruler for about 8 years. Lan Xang would remain vassal of the Burmese until 1603, when Voravongse II was crowned king and on that occasion proclaimed the independence of the kingdom from Burma after 28 years of submission. In the following years there were no international conflicts or invasions, but internal struggles between the various noble factions of the kingdom continued to develop. The governors of the southern provinces also continued their independence plots. These struggles would continue for much of the seventeenth century and would lead to the breakup of Lan Xang in 1707.

The internal struggles had a period of respite in 1638 with the ascension to the throne of Surigna Vongsa, who was preferred to his cousins and older brothers by the most influential faction of the aristocracy of the time. He was an enlightened and magnanimous king, promoted the arts and was a fervent religious man. He made contacts of peace and friendship with King Narai the Great of Ayutthaya, together with whom he fixed the borders between the two states. Along the new frontier, to commemorate the event the two sovereigns built in the province of Loei the Phra That Si Song Rak, literally the “stupa of love between the two nations”.

This was the period of maximum splendor for the kingdom, during which the first European envoys arrived at the court of Lang Xang, who called Vientiane the most magnificent city in Southeast Asia. Surigna Vongsa was one of the longest reigning monarchs in the world, having reigned from 1638 to 1690. He was able to maintain order and peace, but upon his death the ancient conflicts of the country”s restless aristocracy dramatically resurfaced.

Subsequent kings were unable to reconcile the various noble factions. The last king of Lan Xang was Setthathirat II, who after a long period of exile in Vietnam, arrived in Vientiane at the head of a Vietnamese army in 1698. He resumed the throne as a vassal of Vietnam, but his authority was challenged by his cousin Kitsarat, who deposed the viceroy of Luang Prabang and established an autonomous kingdom in the northern provinces. The king of Ayutthaya, concerned about Vietnamese influence in Vientiane, mediated reconciliation between the two cousins, who agreed to partition into the two new kingdoms of Lan Xang Luang Prabang and Lan Xang Vientiane in 1707.

The aristocracy of the southern principalities took advantage of the instability created and established the Kingdom of Champasak, which broke away from that of Vientiane in 1713. The throne was entrusted to the young half-brother of Setthathirat II, who became king with the royal name Soi Sisamut The Kingdom of Luang Prabang became in 1771 a vassal of Burma until 1779, when it was forced to become a Siamese vassal.

Siamese Colonization

The three kingdoms, often in conflict with each other and weakened, were subjected between 1777 and 1779 by Siam, rebuilt by King Taksin in the Kingdom of Thonburi after the destruction of that of Ayutthaya at the hands of the Burmese of the Konbaung Dynasty.

The first to fall was that of Champasak in 1777, which supported the anti-Siamese rebellion of the governor of a border province. Two Siamese armies converged on the capital, which surrendered without a fight, and King Saya Kuman was deported to Siam. It was then the turn of Vientiane, whose king Bunsan had a rebel killed who had fled the country and settled in today”s Isan under Siamese protection. The reaction of Thonburi was immediate, a large army under the command of General Phraya Chakri laid siege to Vientiane with the help of troops from Luang Prabang. King Bunsan fled and the capital fell in 1779, were deported in Siam part of the royal family and high-ranking officers of the army. Among the many goods stolen and brought to Thonburi were the sacred statues of Phra Bang and the Emerald Buddha. The territory west of the Mekong, today”s Isan, was annexed to Siam.

The support given to Siam by Luang Prabang in the conquest of Vientiane was not rewarded by King Taksin, who in that same year made the northern Laotian kingdom a vassal state. In 1782, an internal rebellion put an end to the Kingdom of Thonburi and the power was taken by the general Phraya Chakri, who became king with the name Rama I and founded the modern Bangkok, capital of the new Kingdom of Rattanakosin. These events did not change the relationship between Siam and the Lao vassal states.

In 1813 the Kingdom of Champasak became a principality. The rebellion of the Vientiane king Anuvong, which began in 1826, ended in December 1828 with the destruction of the capital, the deportation of several hundred thousand Laotians to the uninhabited areas of Isan and the annexation of the Vientiane Kingdom to Siam. Anuvong was taken in chains to Bangkok, where he was publicly tortured and killed in January 1829. After the annexation of the Vientiane territories to Bangkok, Luang Prabang reverted to being the sole Kingdom of Lan Xang, but continued to be a Siamese vassal.

French Colonization and the End of the Kingdom of Lan Xang

In the nineteenth century exploded in Southeast Asia the phenomenon of colonization by the French and British powers, which subjugated all countries in the area except Siam. The French first conquered Vietnam and Cambodia, then in 1893 forced Siam to cede the territories east of the Mekong to the newly formed French protectorate of Laos, with its capital in Vientiane. The country was officially called Laos, transliteration in French language of the word Lao (the one of Luang Prabang was entrusted to the local king Sisavang Vong, who was granted the legislative power but not the control of the army. In 1904 was also annexed the western part of the Principality of Champasak, which being on the right bank of the Mekong had remained in the hands of the Siamese. The reunified principality was transformed into a province of which the prince himself was appointed governor.

In the colonial period, the French did not occupy extensively the country, which had no exploitable economic resources. It was pacified and used primarily as a buffer state to protect their territories from those of the British colonies. Towards the end of World War II, during the brief Japanese occupation that expelled the French, Sisavang Vong was forced on April 8, 1945 by the new occupants to declare independence of the new Kingdom of Laos.

At the end of the conflict the king was deposed by the Lao Issara movement, which established the first Laotian republic. The state was short-lived and after a few months the French returned to take control of the country. In 1946, the king was put back in charge of the reconstituted Kingdom of Laos, which in 1947 became a constitutional monarchy within the French Union. In 1953, the French were soundly defeated in the Indochina War and forced to grant independence to both Laos and Vietnam. South Vietnam was handed over to a dictatorship of pro-Western Christians, and conflict arose with communist North Vietnam, which had triumphed in the war against the colonialists.

Beginning in 1953, the country”s history was dominated by a civil war that in the 1960s would become the Laotian front for the neighboring Vietnamese conflict. The independence of the kingdom was only fictitious, the place of the French was taken by the United States, concerned about communist expansion in the region, which by virtue of the alleged Laotian neutrality in the Vietnamese war did not officially colonize Laos. The Americans financed the kingdom and organized its armed forces, while the rebels of the movement called Pathet Lao allied themselves with Ho Chi Minh”s Viet Minh communists, the architects of the French defeat.

The devastation that followed ended in 1975 with the victory of the Pathet Lao communists, the deposition of the country”s last ruler and the founding, on December 2, of the Lao People”s Democratic Republic. Thus ended, after more than 600 years, the monarchy founded by Fa Ngum. King Savang Vatthana was deported together with his entire family to a re-education camp where he died, probably in 1978. Currently the heir to the throne is Soulivong Savang, in exile in Paris since 1981.

All the sovereigns of the Kingdoms of Lan Xang, Luang Prabang and Vientiane until the last king of Laos, belonged to the dynasty of Lan Xang, also known as the dynasty of Khun Lo, and in their official titles when they were crowned was always recalled the Kingdom of the Million Elephants.


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