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Si Thep And Why It Deserves UNESCO World Heritage List Inscription

  • Si Thep And Why It Deserves UNESCO World Heritage List Inscription
  • Si Thep And Why It Deserves UNESCO World Heritage List Inscription
  • Si Thep And Why It Deserves UNESCO World Heritage List Inscription
  • Si Thep And Why It Deserves UNESCO World Heritage List Inscription
  • Si Thep And Why It Deserves UNESCO World Heritage List Inscription

Pack your bags and join me on an exhilarating journey to Petchabun province in central Thailand. Now, picture this: twin towns, a well-groomed emerald park encircled by inner and outer walls and mystical moats caressed by a gentle breeze descending from the north while we ride an open tram with a guide recounting the story of this ancient kingdom. Time will then begin to slow down as we gaze upon the stone ruins that transport us back to this kingdom’s glorious reign. It seems akin to orchestrating a photoshoot with a natural filter, one where the sun paints everything with a sepia hue.

Towering above, the colossal Khao Klang Nok and the enigmatic Khao Thamorrat ancient monuments stand as silent sentinels of a bygone era. These are not just stones remnants, but act as storytellers of the Dvaravati Empire that flourished in central Thailand from the 6th to the 10th centuries. These architectural marvels reflect the profound influences from India, its artistic traditions and Hindu beliefs.

Si Thep Historical Park spans 1.87 square kilometres, with its circular city plan set against the backdrop of a soft, undulating landscape. Within its confines, 48 historical sites weave a narrative that stretches from late pre-history to the ancient Khmer culture of the 8th to 18th Buddhist century. The town’s core reveals architectural marvels like Khao Klang Nai, Prang Si Thep and Prang Song Phi Nong.

Si Thep is adorned with over 70 ancient ponds, each a silent witness to the town’s ebb and flow through the ages. These bodies of waters, both big and small, stand as reflections of life, commerce and spiritual practices that once thrived within the town’s boundaries.

In 1984, Si Thep received the distinguished status of a historical park, underscoring its cultural and historical significance. The culmination of these efforts came to fruition in 2019 when Thailand proposed Si Thep as a tentative UNESCO World Heritage Site. This recognition was realized on 19 September 2023, as Si Thep was inscribed on the prestigious UNESCO World Heritage List as “The Ancient Town of Si Thep and Its Associated Dvaravati Monuments”. Notably, this achievement marks Thailand’s fourth UNESCO World Heritage Site after the Historic City of Ayutthaya, Historic Town of Sukhothai and Associated Historic Towns, and Thungyai–Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuaries.

Venturing beyond the city’s inner sacred sites, an expansive outer zone sprawls over 2.83 square kilometres. With a more rectangular and rounded city plan, this area comprises 64 historical sites, including a plethora of ancient pools and ponds. Noteworthy landmarks to the north such as Khao Klang Nok, Prang Ruesi and Khao Klang Sa Kaew, bear witness to the town’s historical richness.

Debate continues as to whether Si Thep deserves to be selected as a World Heritage Site because of its smaller size and unstructured design. Some scholars argue in favour of other larger and better preserved sites compared to Si Thep. However, UNESCO’s decision to grant World Heritage status to Si Thep is rooted in specific reasons. According to UNESCO, The Ancient Town of Si Thep demonstrates important interchanges of cultural and religious traditions that originated in India and were adapted by the Dvaravati Empire between the 6th and 10th centuries. Through these interactions, the town developed a distinctive identity expressed in its artistic and architectural traditions. The Si Thep School of Art subsequently influenced the art and architecture of other areas in Thailand.

The cohabitation of Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism and Hinduism is a distinctive characteristic of Dvaravati architecture, town planning and art, and these are demonstrated by the three component parts. Another reason is that The Ancient Town of Si Thep, the Khao Klang Nok ancient monument and the Khao Thamorrat Cave ancient monument serve as an exceptional testimony to the Dvaravati culture and civilisation.

Together, these sites demonstrate the complexity and specific artistic and cultural characteristics of the Dvaravati period in terms of urban planning, religious architecture and monasticism. The architectural and artistic forms of Si Thep are not found elsewhere, particularly the unique twin-town lay-out and distinctive Dvaravati forms of sculpture such as the standing Tribhanga posture depicting body movement. The Khao Klang Nok ancient monument is the largest monument of Dvaravati art, influenced by South Indian and Indonesian artistic traditions; and the Khao Thamorrat Cave ancient monument is located in a sacred mountain and the only known cave monastery of Mahayana Buddhism in Southeast Asia.

The rationale behind UNESCO’s recognition of the Ancient City of Si Thep lies in the fact that all three constituent parts possess the essential characteristics needed to convey the property’s Outstanding Universal Value. The decision to approach it as a serial property is deemed appropriate, offering a comprehensive insight into the layout, planning, water infrastructure, diverse layers of inhabitation and evidence of the Dvaravati city and its associated monuments. The components of the serial property are well-conserved, with minimal pressures affecting the sites and their broader context.

Regarding authenticity, the richness of the archaeological structures and materials, including distinctive Dvaravati artistic elements, serves as a demonstration of The Ancient Town of Si Thep’s genuine historical character. The Khao Klang Nok ancient monument serves as a vessel for conveying Dvaravati cosmological beliefs, featuring unique architectural forms such as the indented corners system, the Bua Valai base and replica Prasats for building base decoration. The property’s authenticity is further bolstered by meticulous archaeological recording and ongoing research efforts. Conservation interventions, including repairs, have been executed with sensitivity, and any new materials are clearly indicated. Additionally, the sites remain relatively unaffected by development pressures.

In conclusion, the recognition of Si Thep as a UNESCO World Heritage Site carries profound impact on the construction of Thai history. Despite debates comparing it to larger and seemingly more preserved sites, Si Thep’s significance lies in the transformative findings that have reshaped the narrative of Thailand’s past. This recognition acknowledges that beyond the visible damage to its structures, the site has unveiled compelling proof and new historical insight, making it a cornerstone in the mosaic of human history. Si Thep’s designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site isn’t solely based on its architectural preservation but, more importantly, on its role as a catalyst for rewriting the historical narrative of the region.



Photo Courtesy of Werapan Chaikere

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