Naresuan the Great, Thailand’s venerated warrior king

poster with battle scene in PhitsanulokJanuary 25th is the memorial day of King Naresuan the Great, Thailand’s national hero and warrior king. It is thought that the legendary elephant duel, during which he defeated the Burmese crown prince, took place on that day in 1592. It is thus memorialized as Royal Thai Army Day. People gather at the many shrines and statues in honour of Naresuan — every army base has at least one — making offerings and chanting prayers.

Here in the North, a shrine near the ruins of the Chan Royal Palace in Naresuan’s birth place, Phitsanulok, is widely known as a place of veneration of this historic monarch.
Don Chedi, though, in Suphanburi province, is Central-Thailand’s focus of devotion. During a festival in January, this site dominated by a one-and-a-half life-size statue of the king riding his battle elephant, is crowded with devotees. Behind the statue rises a chedi built over the ruins of a memorial, believed to have been erected by Naresuan himself to commemorate his victory.

Battle scene Ayutthaya

A mural of the famous royal duel of 1592 at Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon, Ayutthaya.

Over the course of a dozen consecutive evenings, the famous battle between Naresuan’s army and the Burmese invadors is re-enacted in Don Chedi’s sports stadium. Thousands of local students are clad in the tunics of sixteenth century Thai and Burmese soldiers. The sparks from their clashing swords fill the night, like a huge swarm of fireflies, while spectacular light and reverberating sound effects further evoke the atmosphere of a real battlefield. Numerous sumptuously caparisoned war elephants also take part in the show. The highlight is when King Naresuan, riding one of these, engages with and strikes down his counterpart, the Burmese crown prince — probably the most famous duel in Thai history.

Interestingly, the growing veneration of this heroic king over recent decades is not an isolated phenomenon, but coincides with the soaring devotion to a number of other great leaders of the past, in particular King Taksin (reigned: 1767-1782) and King Chulalongkorn (reigned: 1868-1910). As for Naresuan and the present King Bhumibol Adulyadej (reigns since 1946), the honorific title ‘the Great’ has been bestowed upon both.

Shrines and statues of these eminent monarchs of former days are scattered all over the country, while their statuettes are placed on the altars of thousands of temples and spirit shrines. Thus they have become part and parcel of Thailand’s religious syncretism, basically Theravada Buddhism mixed with the worship of tutelary and other spirits, including those of numerous famous Thai monks, as well as some foreign elements, such as the Hindu gods Brahma and Ganesha, and the Chinese Mahayana goddess Kuan Yin.

Statue of Naresuan in shrine in Pai

A King Naresuan statue in a shrine in Nam Hu, Pai.

The public glorification of King Naresuan started in the early twentieth century. In 1917, Prince Damrong’s Thai Rop Phama (‘Our wars with the Burmese’) was published, becoming Siam’s first popular history book commanding a wide readership. Many of the events highlighted in this work are related to King Naresuan, such as his ‘declaration of independence’ and the elephant duel in 1592, and have been reproduced in history text books studied since then by every school pupil. In 1929, a court artist was appointed to paint large murals of the life of King Naresuan at Wat Suwandararam in Ayutthaya. Naresuan’s status was elevated to that of a devinely inspired king whose achievements were held to be on par with those of Emperor Asoke of the Mauryan dynasty, the shining exemplar for all later Buddhist monarchs.
In the 1950s, then Prime Minister Phibun Songkhram bestowed official recognition upon King Naresuan. Yet it was Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat, Thailand’s Prime Minister and strongman from 1958-1963, who raised the veneration of the chivalrous hero to its apex. In 1958, Sarit unveiled the huge monument at Don Chedi, which was designed by Professor Bhirasri, Thailand’s most renowned artist. ‘The prevalent memory of the warrior hero was finally visualized and immortalized,’ writes Ka Wong in his study of public monuments in Thailand. By erecting King Naresuan’s pagoda, Sarit and the Army thus further associated their militaristic rule with the legacy of the esteemed king.

There are two large relief panels on both sides of the huge pediment on which the statue is placed. One presents Naresuan declaring independence of Ayutthaya in 1584, since before then it had been a vassal of Burma. In front of his army commanders, he pours lustral water to the ground from a goblet (a form of oath-taking). The other depicts the king thrusting his spear towards the Burmese crown prince during the legendary 1592 clash of arms. Both scenes have been reproduced innumerable times. ‘Pioneered by Phibun, the Sarit-Thanom regime successfully nurtured the militaristic national culture that outshone its creator,’ Wong remarks. ‘The notions of warrior bravery and self-sacrifice for national interest were then firmly imbued in the Thai identity.’

statue rooster in front of Naresuan shrine in Mae Suai

A large statue of a rooster in front of the King Naresuan’s shrine in Mae Suai, Chiang Rai province.

Monumental images of Naresuan are virtually everywhere in the king’s birthplace, Phitsanulok, in the Lower North. Most impressive of all is a twice life-size statue at the city’s King Naresuan University, depicting the king seated with a sword across his lap, while declaring Ayutthaya’s independence. Interestingly, large statues of the king are even enshrined in the city’s Wat Phra Si Rattana Mahathat, just beside the Phra Phuttha Chinnarat, one of the country’s most revered Buddha images. The World Renouncer and symbol of non-violence, and the World Conquerer, the Thai king renowned for its bravery (not only defensive, as Naresuan led a number of Thai armies into Burmese territory) are paid reverence side by side. Such apparent contradictions are reconciled, as, for example, is evident in the final line of one biographical sketch of the warrior king: ‘Such was the life of King Naresuan, who had the Victorious Buddha Phra Chinnarat … in mind as he waged war in the spirit of the Buddha subduing the Mara.’

Probably the best-known Naresuan Monument in the Upper North stands in Muang Ngai, a small town some ten kilometres northwest of Chiang Dao. At this site, Royal Thai Army Day is annually celebrated in style. It is believed that, during an offensive against Burma, King Naresuan rested his army and prepared for battle at this scenic site located in the shadow of Mount Chiang Dao. At the base of the Memorial Stupa, terra cotta panels depict important high lights from Naresuan’s life, while a replica of a wooden stockade, comprising a thirty metre square fence, has been reconstructed behind it.

Statue Naresuan at Muang Ngai

The main statue of King Naresuan at the Memorial Stupa in Muang Ngai, Chiang Dao district, Chiang mai province. The king is pouring water to the ground from a goblet while he proclaims Ayutthaya’s independence.

Most conspicuous at this stupa (and at most other Naresuan shrines and memorials) are the many statuettes of roosters offered by the devotees. On 25th January, people from as far afield as Chiang Mai town even bring their beloved cockerels to the memorial to take part in the cock fighting contests. This takes place not merely because of the fighting cocks symbolic association with the battle and warrior kings, but especially since a legendary cock fight was a crucial event in Naresuan’s early life.

A sketch of the king’s life will make this clear. It should be noted, though, that many of these details are absent in the relevant chronicle from the Ayutthaya period, and in fact are only known from much later nineteenth century histories composed under the patronage of the Chakri rulers. They are supposedly based upon local folklore and oral traditions, though some may be the story-tellers’ own embellishments. Other details even appear for the first time in Prince Damrong’s Our wars with the Burmese, or other historical literary works from the twentieth century.

Whatever the historical truth, the popular story goes like this. After Siam’s capital Ayutthaya fell to a Burmese army in 1568-69, prince Naresuan and his younger brother, then still children, were taken as hostage to the Burmese capital Hongsawadi (Pegu), while their father was appointed to rule Ayutthaya as a Burmese vassal. In the Burmese court, Naresuan grew up with the Burmese Crown Prince. The boys’ original close friendship faded away when the Thai prince, again and again, proved to be a more able warrior, beating the Burmese prince in every martial contest. The breaking point between the two came when Naresuan’s cockerel won in a royal cockfight, and the frustrated Burmese prince called the Thai rooster a ‘war slave animal.’ This humilation made the Siamese prince realize more deeply than ever before that he himself and the Siamese people were subordinate to the Burmese. Consequently, he became determined to escape this fate.

Picture of Princess Suphankanlaya

A small shrine in honour of Princess Suphankanlaya at the Naresuan Monument in the compound of Wat Nam Ru, Pai.

The crucial event was selected to advertise Prince Chatrichalerm Yukol’s successful film King Naresuan, which was released only a few years ago. The film poster shows the young prince, his hair tied in a topknot with his winning ‘slave’ booster held in the crook of his right arm, and a determined glint in his eyes, as if foreseeing the events to come, as summarized in the  subtitle: ‘The king who dared to change the destiny of a nation.’

The opportunity for this change, soon arrived, when he was allowed return to Ayutthaya, as his father sent his elder sister, Princess Suphankanlaya, in an exchange of hostages and to become a royal consort of Bayin Naung, the Burmese king. Some years after ascending the Ayutthayan throne, Naresuan declared his country’s independence. The Burmese army sent to Ayutthaya in 1592 to bring the vazal under its control again, was under the command of Naresuan’s former friend, the Burmese Crown Prince. Naresuan sent his army to the west to meet the invaders at Nong Sarai presentday Don Chedi. During the following battle, Naresuan and the Crown Prince duel fought each other on the back of a war elephant, and the latter was cut in half from the shoulder to the waist in one blow.

The young prince Naresuan with rooster

A newspaper advertisement of Prince Chatrichalerm Yukol’s film King Naresuan.

When King Nanda Bayin, the successor of Bayin Naung, heard of the fate of the Crown Prince, he grief-strickenly and in revenge killed Princess Suphankanlaya with his sword. After the victory at Nong Sarai Naresuan expanded Siam’s territory greatly. More than once he led his troops into the heartland of Burma. Ayutthaya flourished and stayed independent for over 150 years.

According to a recent version of this narrative, princess Suphankanlaya and the two young princes were taken as hostages to the Burmese capital simultaneously. After becoming the consort of King Bayin Naung, the princess persuaded him to let her brothers return to Ayutthaya, while she would remain as a hostage in Burma. In the light of the future events, this was regarded as an act of great sacrifice. Ayutthaya was redeemed thanks to the sacrifice of the princess — without her Ayutthaya would not have been liberated, and there would not have been a glorification of Naresuan.

Interestingly, this version of the story, which catapulted the princess from historical obscurity into a real-life heroine, was based upon the visions of a respected Thai monk who claimed that the princess’s spirit visited him while meditating. The popularity of the new heroine came into an ardent explosion during the economic crisis of 1997, largely to the mentioned monk and the promotional work of a business woman. Ever since, Suphankanlaya’s popularity continued to rise. In 1998, a gilded statue of the princess was erected at the Army Base in Phitsanulok, and at present pictures and statues of  the princess are found on the altars of virtually all Naresuan shrines.

Devotion for Naresuan at Phitsanulok

• Left: The Naresuan Shrine near the ruins of the former Chan Palace, Phitsanulok. • Centre: A vendor selling parafernalia and offerings at Phitsanulok’s Naresuan Shrine. • Right: Statues of King Naresuan beside the Phra Phuttha Chinnarat, one of the country’s most revered Buddha images at Wat Phra Si Rattana Mahathat, Phitsanulok.

A good example is the rather new Naresuan Shrine at Wat Nam Hu, just outside the town of Pai — the place of one of the largest Army Bases of the Upper North.  In the main shrine, an image of the princess stands beside that of King Naresuan ‘declaring independence’, while a smaller sala in the temple compound is completely dedicated to the princess. At least a dozen large pictures of her are standing there amidst a large collection of offerings and parafernalia. Interestingly, the sacred Buddha statue in the wihan of the temple, is believed to have been cast by Naresuan ‘for the purpose of royal benevolence for his elder sister.’

Whatever the historical truth, King Naresuan, now in the company of his sister Princess Suphankanlaya, is omnipresent in Thailand’s fascinating religious world.

Sjon Hauser©text and images