Chakri Dynasty and King Rama I

King Rama I
King Rama I
The Chakri dynasty was established on April 6, 1782, when Chao Phaya Chakri was crowned the king of Thailand (formerly Siam) as Rama I. The rulers belonging to the house of Chakri have been kings of Thailand ever since. The illustrious rulers of this dynasty took the country out of troubled times during the colonial period. Their vision and leadership also modernized Thailand.

Rama I was born on March 20, 1737, to a noble of the Ayudhya kingdom, Phra Aksorn Sundara Smiantra. After finishing his education in Buddhist temples, he served in the royal household of the Ayudya kings before joining the army. Phya Thaksin, Rama I’s predecessor, had liberated Thailand after the Burmese devastation of Ayudhya in 1767.

Rama I was in his service, participating in almost every battle fought by the king and was made governor of Ratchaburi Province. He was awarded the title Somdetch Chao Phraya Maha Kashatriya Suk (roughly equivalent to a duke) by Thaksin.

The Burmese attack had been repelled, and Cambodia and Luang Prabang were under Thai authority. The task of subjugating Vientiane was entrusted to Rama I, then an army general. He successfully completed his mission in 1778.

The famous Emerald Buddha, in Vientiane’s possession since 1564, was brought to the capital, Thonburi. The hostility of Buddhist monks against Thaksin’s demand of obeisance led to his downfall and imprisonment.

Once again, it seemed that the newly established peace and order of the kingdom would collapse in a civil war. Rama I rose to the occasion. He returned from Cambodia, where he was stationed for a military campaign, and assumed the royal title after restoring order.

Rama I shifted the capital from Thonburi to a site opposite on the bank of the river Chao Phraya. He planned the layout for a new city of Bangkok. It has remained the capital of Thailand ever since. On the eastern side of the river, he implemented a strong defense with double-lined fortification. Thonburi had been on both banks of the river to protect against Burmese attack.

The famous Emerald Buddha temple
The famous Emerald Buddha temple

Rama I did not have any plan to make an escape and concentrated on checking any future attack on the capital. A large Chinese community lived on the eastern side, so they were transferred a short distance downstream to Sampheng. It is now a famous Chinese shopping area. Within three years, the Grand Palace was constructed, and it still stands today.

In keeping with earlier Thai monarchs, Rama I retained connections with Indic-style Sanskritized epithets that resulted in descriptions of the new city such as Impregnable City of God Indra, Grand Capital of the World, and City given by Indra and Built by Vishnukarma. The Emerald Buddha was installed in Wat Phra Kaew.

The reign of Rama I witnessed consolidation and expansion of the kingdom by extensive warfare. The Burmese attacks of King Bodawpaya were successfully defeated in 1785 and 1787. The kingdom of Vientiane of Laos acknowledged the vassalage of Thailand.

Chieng Mai and Chieng Saen were once again under Thailand’s authority. Chao In of Luang Prabang remained as a vassal of Rama I. Thus Thai control extended into Laos.

In 1795 Rama I installed Anh Eng as ruler of Cambodia after annexing the provinces of Battambng, Siemreap, and portions of Korat. When the powerful Gia Long unified Vietnam, Cambodia had to acknowledge suzerainty of both Thailand and Vietnam. The sultans of Kedah, Kelantan, and Trenggannu acknowledged the suzerainty of the Thai monarch until the British took over the sultanates in 1909.

Rama I revamped administration in the provinces as well as the capital, making his rule very centralized. The incessant Burmese invasions of the 18th century had made both the Thai bureaucracy and monkhood corrupt and lax. Between 1784 and 1801 Rama I restored the moral standard of the Buddhist monks by a series of royal decrees.

The Buddhist scripture, the Tripitaka (three baskets), and Thai civil law had been destroyed at the time of the Burmese sack of the earlier capital Ayudhya.

Rama I called a Buddhist council in 1788, in which 250 monks and Buddhist scholars participated, to reconstruct the Tripitaka. The Thai king was the defender of Theravada Buddhism and the pillar of Thai governance and society, and Rama I performed his obligation to the fullest extent.

Rama I also appointed a supreme patriarch of Thai Buddhism. Further, he appointed a commission in 1795 consisting of 11 jurists and scholars to look into the laws promulgated by Rama Tibodi I (founder of Ayudhya dynasty), who reigned in the 14th century.

The code of laws comprising indigenous practices and Indian legal concepts was somewhat altered. The new code of 1804, known as Laws of the Three Seals, categorized the 48 provinces of the kingdom, each with a governor, most of whom were members of the royalty and served three year terms.

The code also enumerated provisions for civil and military administration. According to Thai sources, Rama I was a benevolent ruler who looked after the needs of his subjects, these codes being a primary example of his benevolence.

There was a flourishing of Thai literature and translations under Rama I. He had initiated the royal writings known as Phra Rajanibondh, and he wrote the Thai version of the Indian epic, the Ramayana, which depicted the feats of a hero named Rama.

Rama I died on September 7, 1809, in Bangkok and was succeeded by his son, Prince Isarasundorn, as King Rama II. He left a legacy in Thai history as a patron of literature, a lawmaker, and a builder of empire.