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The case for proto-Dvāravatī: A review of the art historical and archaeological evidence

  • Stephen A. Murphy


The mid-first millennium CE represents a crucial period in the emergence of early polities in Southeast Asia. However, disagreement remains between archaeologists and art historians as to the precise dating of this shift from prehistory to history. This article focuses on the Dvāravatī period and re-evaluates evidence in Thai and Western language publications. A growing number of sites excavated over the past two decades in particular show occupation from c. the fourth to fifth century onwards while others provide a continual sequence stretching back well into the Iron Age. I argue that evidence from these sites makes a strong case for postulating a proto-Dvāravatī period spanning c. the fourth to fifth centuries. In doing so this article proposes this period as the timeframe within which the nascent traits and characteristics of what becomes Dvāravatī in the seventh to ninth centuries are present and gradually developing.


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1 The varying and at times competing definitions are summed up by Skilling, Peter. ‘Dvāravatī: Recent revelations and research’, in Dedications to Her Royal Highness Princess Galyani Vadhana Krom Luang Naradhiwas Rajanagarindra on her 80th birthday, ed. Baker, Chris (Bangkok: Siam Society, 2003), pp. 87112 .

2 Woodward, Hiram, The sacred sculpture of Thailand: The Alexander B. Griswold collection, The Walters Art Gallery (Baltimore: Walters Art Gallery; Bangkok: River Books, 1997), pp. 4653 ; Fine Arts Department (FAD), Sinlapa Thawarawadi tonkamnoet phutthasin nai Prathet Thai / Dvaravati art: The early Buddhist art of Thailand (Bangkok: FAD, 2009), pp. 94101 .

3 Barram, Andrew and Glover, Ian, ‘Re-thinking Dvaravati’, in From Homo erectus to the living traditions: Choice of papers from the 11th International Conference of the European Association of Southeast Asian Archaeologists, ed. Pautreau, Jean-Pierre et al. (Chiang Mai: Silkworm, 2008), pp. 175–82; Quaritch Wales, H.G., Dvāravatī: The earliest kingdom of Siam (6th to 11th century A.D.) (London: B. Quaritch, 1969), p. 1 .

4 Barram and Glover, ‘Re-thinking Dvaravati’; Glover published a follow-up article two years later under the title, The Dvaravati gap: Linking prehistory and history in early Thailand’, Bulletin of the Indo-Pacific Prehistory Association (BIPPA) 30 (2010): 7986 . However, apart from some minor additional discussion on Southeast Asian prehistory, this piece adds little to the argument presented in the preceding paper.

5 Shawn Szejda Fehrenbach, ‘Traditions of ceramic technology: An analysis of the assemblages from Angkor Borei, Cambodia’ (M.A. thesis, University of Hawai'i, 2009); see also Stark, Miriam, ‘Pre-Angkorian and Angkorian Cambodia’, in Southeast Asia: From prehistory to history, ed. Glover, Ian C. and Bellwood, Peter (London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2004), p. 99 ; Bennet Bronson, ‘Excavations at Chansen and the cultural chronology of protohistoric Central Thailand’ (Ph.D. diss., University of Pennsylvania, 1976).

6 Coedès, George, The Indianized states of Southeast Asia, ed. Vella, Walter F., trans. Cowing, Sue B. (Honolulu: East-West Center Press, 1968), pp. 36–7; Quaritch Wales, Dvāravatī.

7 The use of this term as an alternative label was first suggested by Barram and Glover, ‘Re-thinking Dvāravatī’, p. 181.

8 Matthew D. Gallon, ‘Ideology, identity and the construction of urban communities: The archaeology of Kamphaeng Saen, Central Thailand (c. fifth to ninth century CE)’ (Ph.D. diss., University of Michigan, 2013), pp. 25–6, 187–91.

9 Brown, Robert L., The Dvāravatī wheels of the law and the Indianization of Southeast Asia (Leiden: Brill, 1996), p. xxii.

10 Phasook Indrawooth, ‘The archaeology of the early Buddhist kingdoms of Thailand’, in Glover and Bellwood, Southeast Asia, p. 120.

11 Brown, The Dvāravatī wheels, p. xxii; Wade, Geoff, ‘Beyond the southern borders: Southeast Asia in Chinese texts to the ninth century’, in Lost kingdoms: Hindu–Buddhist sculpture of early Southeast Asia, ed. Guy, John (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014), p. 27 .

12 Si-yu-ki: Buddhist records of the Western world, trans. Beal, Samuel (New York: Paragon, 1968); Mémoire composé a l’Époque de la Grande Dynastie T'ang sur les religieux éminents qui allèrent chercher la loi dans les Pays d'Occident par l'Tsing, trans. Chavannes, Édouard (Paris: E. Leroux, 1894).

13 Brown, The Dvāravatī wheels, p. xxiii.

14 Boeles, Jan J., ‘The king of Sri Dvāravatī and his regalia’, Journal of the Siam Society 52, 1 (1964): 101–3.

15 Ibid.: 102.

16 Brown, The Dvāravatī wheels, p. xxii.

17 Bronson, ‘Excavations at Chansen’; Indrawooth, Phasook, Dachani Phachanadinpao Samai Thawarawadi [Index pottery of the Dvaravati period] (Bangkok: Siam Press, 1985), in Thai, with English summary; Indrawooth, ‘The archaeology’, p. 135.

18 Indrawooth, ‘The archaeology’, p. 134.

19 Quaritch Wales, Dvāravatī, pp. 116–17.

20 Gallon, Ideology, identity, p. 160.

21 Ibid., p. 163.

22 For northeast Thailand see, Murphy, Stephen A., ‘Buddhism and its relationship to Dvāravatī period settlement patterns and material culture in northeast Thailand and central Laos ca. sixth–eleventh centuries A.D: A historical ecology approach to the landscape of the Khorat Plateau’, Asian Perspectives 52, 2 (2014): 300326 .

23 For northeast Thailand and Laos, see ibid.

24 Diffloth, Gérard, The Dvāravatī Old–Mon language and Nyah Kur (Bangkok: Chulalongkorn University Print House, 1984). For a recent challenge to this interpretation see Guillon, Emmanuel, ‘Mōns anciens–Mōns actuels’, in Dvāravatī: aux sources du bouddhisme en Thaïlande, ed. Baptiste, Pierre and Zéphir, Thierry (Paris: Musée Guimet, 2009), pp. 4751 .

25 See Revire, Nicolas, ‘Glimpses of Buddhist practices and rituals in Dvāravatī and neighbouring cultures’, in Before Siam: Essays in art and archaeology, ed. Revire, Nicolas and Murphy, Stephen A. (Bangkok: River Books; Siam Society, 2014), pp. 249–52.

26 Rajanubhab, Prince Damrong, Tamnan phraphuttha chedi [The chronicles concerning Buddhist pagodas] (Bangkok: Sophon Phiphattanakon, BE 2469 [1926]). This was originally printed for free distribution at his mother's funeral as part of the cremation memorial. See Peleggi, Maurizio, ‘From Buddhist icons to national antiquities: Cultural nationalism and colonial knowledge in the making of Thailand's history of art’, Modern Asian Studies 47, 5 (2013): 1520 .

27 The translation consists of chapters 8 and 9 of the original work and was published under the title, A history of Buddhist monuments in Siam, trans. Sivaraksa, Sulak (Bangkok: Siam Society, 1962); it was republished in a revised translation as Monuments of the Buddha in Siam, trans. Sivaraksa, Sulak and Griswold, A.B. (Bangkok: Siam Society, 1973; repr. Bangkok: Diskul Foundation, 1982).

28 Coedès, George, Les Collections archéologiques du Musée National de Bangkok, Ars Asiatica Series, vol. 12 (Paris and Brussels: Van Oest, 1928).

29 Peleggi argues that this classification system was in fact the result of about ten years of close collaboration between Coedès and Prince Damrong. Peleggi, ‘From Buddhist icons to antiquities’: 1540.

30 The youngest son of Prince Damrong Rajanubhab.

31 Dupont, Pierre, L'archéologie Mône de Dvāravatī, 2 vols. (Paris: EFEO, 1959); Diskul, Subhadradis, ‘The development of Dvāravatī sculpture and a recent find from North-east Thailand’, in Early South East Asia: Essays in archaeology, history and historical geography, ed. Smith, Ralph B. and Watson, William (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), pp. 360–70; Boisselier, Jean, The heritage of Thai sculpture (New York: Weatherhill, 1975); Woodward, Sacred sculpture, pp. 43–74.

32 See Krairiksh, Piriya, Art styles in Thailand: A selection from national provincial museums and an essay in conceptualization (Bangkok: Fine Arts Department, 1977); Krairiksh, Piriya, The roots of Thai art (Bangkok: River Books, 2012).

33 In this regard, see Revire, Nicolas, ‘Book review of The roots of Thai art, by Piriya Krairiksh (English trans. by Narisa Chakrabongse), Bangkok, River Books, 2012’, Journal of the Siam Society 101 (2013): 233–42.

34 Dvāravatī has long been and continues to be almost exclusively associated with Buddhist art. For a critique of this position see Revire, this vol.

35 See Revire, Nicolas, ‘New perspectives on the origin and spread of Bhadrasana Buddhas throughout Southeast Asia (7th–8th centuries CE)’, in Connecting empires and states: Selected papers from the 13th International Conference of the European Association of Southeast Asian Archaeologists, ed. Tjoa-Bonatz, Mai Lin, Reinecke, Andreas and Bonatz, Dominik, vol. 2 (Singapore: NUS Press, 2012), pp. 127–43.

36 Brown, The Dvāravatī wheels.

37 Jacq-Hergoualc'h, Michel, The Malay Peninsula: Crossroads of the Maritime Silk Road (100 BC–1300 AD) (Leiden: Brill, 2002); Brown, The Dvāravatī wheels, p. 11; Indrawooth, ‘The archaeology’, p. 141.

38 Michel Lorrillard, ‘Pre-Angkorian communities in the Middle Mekong Valley (Laos and adjacent areas)’, in Revire and Murphy, Before Siam, pp. 186–214.

39 Murphy, ‘Buddhism and its relationship to Dvāravatī’.

40 See for example, Prince Damrong Rajanubhab, Tamnan phraphuttha chedi; Quaritch Wales, Dvāravatī.

41 Guy, Lost kingdoms, cat. nos. 9 and 10.

42 See for example, Woodward, Sacred sculpture, figs. 38 and 39; Guy, Lost Kingdoms, cat. no. 9.

43 Woodward, Sacred sculpture, p. 46; Guy Lost kingdoms, cat. no. 9.

44 Woodward, Sacred sculpture, pp. 50–52.

45 See Skilling, Peter, ‘Traces of the Dharma: Preliminary reports on some Ye Dhammā and Ye Dharmā inscriptions from mainland Southeast Asia’, BEFEO 90–91 (2003–04): 273–87; Revire, ‘Glimpses of Buddhist practices’, pp. 249–52.

46 Ibid.

47 Paul Lavy, ‘Conch-on-hip images in peninsular Thailand and early Vaisnava sculpture in Southeast Asia’, in Revire and Murphy, Before Siam, pp. 152–73.

48 Ibid.

49 Indrawooth, ‘The archaeology’, p. 127, fig. 6.7; Gallon, Ideology, identity, p. 80, fig. 3.1.

50 Mudar, Karen, ‘How many Dvaravati kingdoms? Locational analysis of first millennium A.D. moated settlements in central Thailand’, Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 18, 1 (1999): 128 ; Supajanya, T. and Vanasin, P., The inventory of ancient settlements in Thailand (Bangkok: Toyota Foundation, 1983).

51 Feinman, Gary M. and Marcus, Joyce, Archaic states (Santa Fe: School of American Research Press, 1998); Wright, Henry, ‘Recent research on the origin of the state’, Annual Review of Anthropology 6 (1977): 379–97.

52 For a fuller discussion of Dvāravatī state formation and a review of the available evidence see Gallon, Ideology, identity, in particular, chap. 4, pp. 118–92.

53 Rispoli, Fiorella, Ciarla, Roberto and Pigott, Vincent C., ‘Establishing the prehistoric cultural sequence for the Lopburi region, central Thailand’, Journal of World Prehistory 26 (2013): 101–71.

54 Ibid.: 149–55.

55 Supajanya and Vanasin, The inventory of ancient settlements.

56 Trongjai Hutangkura, ‘Reconsidering the palaeo-shoreline in the lower central plain of Thailand’, in Revire and Murphy, Before Siam, pp. 32–67.

57 Ibid., p. 63, fig. 17.

58 For a similar study of moated sites in northeast Thailand, see Murphy, Stephen A., ‘How many monks? Quantitative and demographic archaeological approaches to Buddhism in northeast Thailand and central Laos, 6th–11th centuries CE’, in Buddhist dynamics in premodern Southeast Asia, ed. Lammerts, D. Christian (Singapore: ISEAS, 2015), pp. 80119 .

59 Mudar, ‘How many Dvaravati kingdoms?’: 3–9, fig. 2.

60 Ibid.: 8.

61 Quaritch Wales, Dvāravatī, pp. 20–21.

62 Mudar, ‘How many Dvaravati kingdoms?’: 23.

63 Quaritch Wales, Dvāravatī, pp. 32–3.

64 Barram and Glover, ‘Re-thinking Dvaravati’.

65 Bronson, ‘Excavations at Chansen’: 317.

66 Ibid.

67 Eyre, Chureekamol Onsuwan, ‘Social variation and dynamics in Metal Age and protohistoric central Thailand: A regional perspective’, Asian Perspectives 49, 1 (2011): 47, 56.

68 Ibid.: 54.

69 Ibid.: 63–4.

70 Phasook Indrawooth, ‘Un antique royaume urbanisé de Thaïlande’, in Baptiste and Zéphir, Dvāravatī, pp. 35–6.

71 For Chula Pathon Chedi see, Dupont, L'Archéologie; For Phra Pathon Chedi see, Usa Nguanphienphak, ‘Fouilles récentes au Phra Pathon Chedi’, in Baptiste and Zéphir, Dvāravatī, pp. 145–9.

72 Indrawooth, ‘The archaeology’, p. 135.

73 Indrawooth, Phasook, Raingan kankutkon ti tambon Phra Pathon, Amphoe Mueang, Changwat Nakhon Pathom [Report of the excavation at Tambon Phra Prathon, Amphoe Mueang, Changwat Nakhon Pathom] (Bangkok: Silpakorn University, 1983).

74 Khunsong, Saritpong, Indrawooth, Phasook and Natapintu, Surapol, ‘Excavation of a pre-Dvāravatī site at Hor-Ek in ancient Nakhon Pathom’, Journal of the Siam Society 99 (2011): 154 .

75 Khunsong et al., ‘Excavation of a pre-Dvāravatī Site’; Khunsong, Saritpong, Borannakadi Muang Nakhon Pathom: Kansueksa adit kong son klang laeng thawarawadi [The archaeology of Nakhon Pathom town: A study of the past from the centre of Dvāravatī] (Bangkok: Papermate Thailand, 2014).

76 Khunsong et al., ‘Excavation of a pre-Dvāravatī site’, p. 163.

77 Ibid., p. 168.

78 Coedès, The Indianized states, pp. 36–7.

79 Barram and Glover, ‘Re-thinking Dvaravati’, p. 180.

80 See Revire, this vol.

81 Coedès, George, ‘Nouvelles données épigraphiques sur l'histoire de l'Indochine centrale’, Journal Asiatique 249 (1958): 123–42; Indrawooth, ‘The archaeology’, pp. 127–8; For an overview of Dvāravatī centres in general see Mudar, ‘How many Dvaravati kingdoms?’: 1–28.

82 Boisselier, Jean, ‘U-T'ong et son importance pour l'histoire de la Thaïlande’, Silpakorn Journal 9, 1 (1965): 2730 ; Boisselier, Jean, Nouvelles connaissances archéologiques de la ville d'U-T'ong (Bangkok: n.p., 1968).

83 H.E. Loofs, ‘Problems of continuity between the pre-Buddhist and Buddhist periods in central Thailand, with special reference to U-Thong’, in Smith and Watson, Early South East Asia, pp. 342–51.

84 San Thaiyanonda, ‘Kansueksalamdap patthana kan watthanatham thang borannakadi mueang U Thong’ [Cultural development of ancient communities at Mueang U-Thong], (M.A. thesis, Silpakorn University, 2011).

85 Barram and Glover, ‘Re-thinking Dvaravati’, p. 180 and table 1.

86 Thaiyanonda, ‘Cultural development’, p. 102, fig. 43.

87 Gallon, Ideology, identity, p. 18.

88 Some scholars, however, argue for a 7th–8th century CE date; for example, Revire, ‘Glimpses of Buddhist practices’, fig. 1.

89 Boisselier, ‘U-T'ong et son Importance’, pp. 27–30; Indrawooth, ‘The archaeology’, p. 138.

90 Ibid.

91 Gallon, ‘Ideology, identity’, p. 75.

92 Ibid.

93 The socle is the part that connects the pillar (stambha) and wheel (cakra) securely in place.

94 Gallon, ‘Ideology, identity’, pp. 332–5.

95 Ibid., p. 275, table 5.5.

96 Ibid., p. 283.

97 Ibid., p. 284.

98 Ibid., pp. 285–6. Gallon's dissertation also contains two useful tables (A.1 and A.2) summarising all known radiocarbon and thermoluminescence dates from Dvāravatī sites as of 2013.

99 Thanik Lertcharnrit, ‘Phromthin Tai: An archaeological perspective on its societal transitions’, in Revire and Murphy, Before Siam, pp. 120–21.

100 Ibid., table 1.

101 Ibid., p. 123.

102 Khunsong, Saritpong, ‘Archaeological excavation at Kishkindha, a Dvaravati city in central Thailand’, in Unearthing Southeast Asia's past: Selected papers from the 12th International Conference of the European Association of Southeast Asian Archaeologists, vol. 1, ed. Klokke, Marijke J. and Degroot, Véronique (Singapore: NUS Press, 2013), pp. 234–40.

103 Ibid., tables 1 and 2.

104 Ibid.; see also Fine Arts Department of Thailand, Raignanchapapsombon khrong kansueksa wichai lae patthana mueang Kheedkhin tambon Ban Ho amphoe Ban Ho changwat Saraburi [Final report of the study and development of Kheed Khin, tambon Ban Ho amphoe Ban Ho changwat Saraburi] (Ayutthaya: FAD Regional Office no. 3, 2007), p. 203 .

105 Khunsong states that 1400–1200 BP equates to the seventh to ninth centuries, but it appears he has miscalculated the conversion of BP to CE. BP dates are calculated from 1 Jan. 1950 as opposed to the current Gregorian calendar year, as Khunsong has appeared to have done.

106 See, FAD, Raignanchapapsombon, figs. 3.10, p. 40, and 3.23, p. 62.

107 Ibid., pp. 59–61, 204–7.

108 See also Higham and Evans et al., this vol. Both articles discuss the Mun Valley region in northeast Thailand and also argue for transitions taking place in the fourth to sixth centuries.

109 Moore, Elizabeth, Moated sites in early north east Thailand, British Archaeological Reports (BAR) International Series 400 (Oxford: British Archaeological Reports, 1988), p. 9 .

110 Khemica Wangsuk, Patthanakan thang watthanatham nai lom mae nam mun: Koranisueksa laeng borannakadi Mueang Sema amphoe Sung Noen changwat Nakhon Ratchasima [The cultural development in the Mun River Basin: A case study of the archaeological site at Muang Sema Sung Noen district, Nakhon Ratchasima province] (M.A. thesis, Silpakorn University, 2000), p. iv.

111 Ibid., p. iv.

112 Ibid., p. 118.

113 Ibid.; Bronson, ‘Excavations at Chansen’, pp. 359–63.

114 Murphy, ‘The distribution of sema stones’, p. 223.

115 Indrawooth, Phasook, Raingan kankutkon Mueang Fa Daed Song Yang Ampoe Kamalasai Changwat Kalasin [Report on the excavation at Muang Fa Daed Song Yang, Kamalasai district, Kalasin province] (Bangkok: Silpakorn University, 2001), p. 74 .

116 Depictions of wooden structures are present on a number of 7th–9th century CE sema stones from northeast Thailand and give some indication of what this architectural form may have looked like. See Stephen A. Murphy, ‘Sema stones in Lower Myanmar and northeast Thailand: A comparison’, in Revire and Murphy, Before Siam, pp. 352–71.

117 See Miksic, John N., ‘Introduction. The beginning of trade in ancient Southeast Asia: The role of Oc Eo and the Lower Mekong River’, in Art and archaeology of Funan: Pre–Khmer kingdom of the Lower Mekong Valley, ed. Khoo, James C.M. (Bangkok: Orchid, 2003), fig. 1–11; Vo Si Khai, ‘The kingdom of Fu Nan and the culture of Oc Eo’, in Khoo, ibid., fig. II-8; Tingley, Nancy and Reinecke, Andreas, eds. Arts of ancient Viet Nam: From river plain to open sea (Houston: Museum of Fine Arts, 2009), cat. no. 27.

118 Stark, ‘Pre-Angkorian and Angkorian Cambodia’, pp. 96–100; see also, Heng, this vol.

119 Shimoda, Ichita and Shimamoto, Sae, ‘Spatial and chronological sketch of the ancient city of Sambor Prei Kuk’, Aséanie 30 (2012): 1274 .

The author would like to thank Matthew D. Gallon for his critical feedback on the article and assistance in providing illustrations of Dvāravatī pottery types. I would also like to thank Miriam T. Stark and Nicolas Revire for their feedback and comments on earlier drafts of this article. Research and the writing of this article were undertaken while a Research Fellow at the Asian Civilisations Museum, Singapore and I would like to register my appreciation for their support in this endeavour.


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