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Palm-leaf manuscripts throw new light on ancient kingdom Mon

by Subhatra Bhumiprabhas, The Nation, Sept 24, 2007

Bangkok, Thailand -- Mon has become the forgotten kingdom and the Mon have for centuries had no place to call home. The history of the Mon, however, as one of the most powerful nations of Southeast Asia has been told through the generations.

Many fascinating stories in the Mon's history and legends have been translated and retold in lots of papers - most have appeared in Burmese and Thai royal chronicles and many works on Mon studies in various languages were based on them.

Interestingly, the old Mon inscriptions on palm leaves found and read by today's Mon scholars tell many other stories.

The scholars and their foreign counterparts on Mon studies around the world will meet in Bangkok next month to share new knowledge and discoveries on Mon history, identity, culture, language and performing arts at the international conference on "The Discovery of Ramanaya Desa" - or as it is known in Thai, "Krob-krueng rueng Raman".

The conference is being organised by the Mekong Research Unit at the Institute of Asian Studies, Southeast Asian Studies Centre's Graduate School at Chulalongkorn University.

"Ramanaya Desa", as Mon scholar Nai Sunthorn Sripanngern found from reading and interpreting inscriptions on the old Mon palm leaf manuscripts, was a country or kingdom inhabited by people of different ethnicities.

Nai Sunthorn spent several years studying Mon palm leaf manuscripts in monasteries in Central Thailand. Among the various manuscripts, he found a bundle of 72 pages entitled "Raja-thabuut".

The ending note of the manuscripts stated that Raja-thabuut was first inscribed during the reign of King Siha Raja of Sudhammavati (Sadhun); the second time was during the reign of King Anawratha of Pagan; and the third time was during the reign of King Bayin-nuang of Hangthawaddy, said Nai Sunthorn in his paper "Comparison of Mon chronicles: Raja-thabuut and succeeding chronicles", which is to be discussed at the conference.

As the legends hold, the old city of Hanthawaddy was founded by Mon monarchs in 592 with 17 successive Mon kings before the Mon royal city fell to Burmese kings of Pagan in 800. It was also a Mon monarch who built the world-renowned Shwedagon Pagoda, which has become a symbol of Burma today.

On three major occasions, the Mon lost their kingdom to wars with the Burmese, most devastatingly in 1757 when Burmese King Alongphaya attacked Hanthawaddy. Ten years later, the Thai kingdom of Ayutthaya was also destroyed by the Burmese.

"In the past, most foreign scholars learnt about Mon from Burmese chronicles. But the Burmese chronicle on Mon was translated from Mon language and in which we found several inaccuracies," the Mon scholar said.

Studying the history of the Mon by reading Burmese or English publications may lead to confusion and inaccuracy because they are usually translated from Burmese, Nai Sunthorn said.

For example, Mon people called both Thai and Tai ethnic people "Siam Kui", but the Burmese called Thais "Yodia". Many other inaccuracies were found in names and eras of kings and towns, said Nai Sunthorn, who was born in Mudon town, which is about 10 kilometres south of Moulemein.

Sunthorn will share new discoveries from the old Mon manuscripts with foreign scholars such as Patrick McCormick who studies "The Paak Laat Chronicles and the creation of Mon historical narratives".

"This is the first time that scholars from East and West have come together to review Mon history and culture in various perspectives," said Dr Sunait Chutintaranond, director of the Mekong Research Unit.

Southeast Asia is a diverse society but history, identity and culture of the stateless people are often overlooked, Sunait said.

"Mon is in many things we see as Thai-ness and Burmese today. Both Thailand and Burma integrated cultural diversities into what they call Thai and Burmese culture," he said.

Sunait is among the few Thai historians who are experts on Burmese history.

In the royal court of Siam during the early Rattanakosin Era, many Mon ladies became mothers of princes and royal descendants of the Chakri Dynasty. Many Thai chronicles saw these Mon court ladies playing politics in order to support their male relatives in the Siamese court.

One such example was found in a foreign account written by Anna Leonowens, who served in the Siamese Court during the reign of King Mongkut (Rama IV).

In her famous and controversial book "The English Governess and the Siamese Court", Leonowens tells the story of one of King Mongkut's consorts who was put in jail because she had tried to suggest the King appoint her elder brother to a noble post.

"She had been led to petition, through her son, that an appointment held by her late uncle, Phya Khien, might be bestowed on her elder brother, not knowing that another noble had already been preferred to the post by his Majesty," wrote Leonowens, who called the lady "Hidden-Perfume".

A Thai-born Mon scholar, Ong Bunjoon, said the lady was Chao Chom Marnda Sonklin, who was from a Mon family. She wanted her brother to be appointed governor of Phra-pradaeng.

Ong, however, found in his work for his master's thesis on "Mon Women in the Royal Court of Siam during the Ratanakosin Period 1782-1932" that the Mon ladies made great contributions in the royal court, especially in arts and cultural aspects, which have become cultural components in Thai society.

"It can be said that the religion, arts and culture of the Mon have stretched from the court to the commoners because of the fact that many members of the governing class from past to present are Mon descendants," said Ong, who has been working through Mon and Thai chronicles as well as foreign accounts on Mon studies for his research.

Ong will share his knowledge with about 50 scholars from Thailand, Burma and the West at the conference from October 11 to 13.

About 50 academic papers on Mon studies will be discussed, including "History of Mon culture and language assimilation and variation" by Nai Maung Toe, "A short history of Mon - migration, Indian civilisation and Kingdoms in Dvaravati and Ramanyadesa" by Nai Pan Hla.

The Mon way of life in ancient times will be featured in exhibitions and Mon performing arts including "Pee-Paat Mon" (Mon musical ensemble) from Hanthawaddy are scheduled for October 12-13 at Chulalongkorn University's main auditorium. Thailand's Department of Fine Arts will recall Mon history by performing the classical epic "Rajadhiraj" which features the stories of Mon, Burmese and Siamese monarchs of old.

Further information about the conference and the cultural events can be obtained from the Institute of Asian Studies on 02 2187468 and CU Books Centre on 02 2187021, 02 2554441.


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