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Notes on the Origins of Muay Thai and the Story of Capital Kingdoms vs Provincial, Rural Martial Knowledge

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One of the more interesting struggles in any attempt to describe the origins of Thailand's Muay Thai as an essentially Thai fighting art falls along ideological lines between an urban, cosmopolitan elite (Bangkok and before that Ayutthaya) with its very important royal patronage, high-culture shaping and international influence, and provincial Muay Thai, organized around networks of villages, provinces and various local centers of knowledge. Is Muay Thai of Bangkok? Or is it of "the people" (ie, of provincial development)? While Muay Thai's very thin pre-1900 history is coded in royal record, and the stories of capitals, it is perhaps likely that there was something of a loose dialectic, tides of development of martial prowess & necessity, between the centers of warfare's, occasional, great military sieges of Capitals of Kingdoms, and what may have been a continuous local agonism between shifting centers of local power, in regions that now are Thailand's provinces. It is this unrecorded life of shifting agonism, focused slave-raiding skirmishes (not the seizing of territory as in Europe), the need to know how to defend, capture & escape that would be woven into the fabric of the land, complimenting the warfare centers of Siamese culture, in an ebb-flow sort of way.


In thinking about and researching this there were two texts that I found really interesting. There is the essay "Southeast Asian Slavery and Slave - Gathering Warfare as a Vector for Cultural Transmission: The Case of Burma and Thailand" which describes the way that large scale slave capture between SEA capitals became avenues of cultural transition, and James Scott's account of SEA hill people in The Art of Not Being Governed. Both works brought out the idea that it may not have been the actual bloodiness of large battles that was the dominant reality of martial awareness, so much as the slave-capturing (and other manpower) dynamics of political power itself, especially as it resided in cultural capitals like Chiang Mai or Ayutthaya, or eventually Bangkok. What Scott argues - apart from his much larger claims to a kind of hidden country of highland peoples which he calls Zomia - is that there was an ebb and flow of populations which variously were captured by mandala powers (city centers of Statelike authority) and which also fled from them, often away from valley centers, and sometimes up into hills or forests. Hills and forests became associated with the uncivilized and barbaric within the dominant Siamese culture, and those value judgements came to be spread across the land in a spectrum, centered in the Capital of Kingdoms.


For the purposes of thinking about the origins of Muay Thai these tidal dynamics really flesh out the possible details of what combat consisted of, year upon year, and are suggestive of its possible influences through need. Rich city Kingdom centers like that of Ayutthaya not only engaged in occasional long-distance warfare marches, capturing slave manpower, they likely also exercised annual warfare capture of much lessor scale, replenishing the manpower drain that Scott suggests was continuous (one would imagine). And, provincial, village life, across sparsely populated valleys and plains, may also have faced continual more localized security issues, in the Dry Season, when slave capture warfare began, even annually. In otherwords, perhaps like in the American West (creating a very loose analogy) where there were large scale armed expeditions and wars, there were also sparsely populated demands for family and clan security as well, village & wat centers of security and identity, a fabric of local martial competence and its regular development. Mandala power (centers of influence and patronage) did not likely exhibit itself only in the great cultural orbs of civilization which have made up our historical record, but likely also were found on a much smaller, imitative scale, overlapping spheres of influence of rural elite, or village autonomy, all within the shadow of the manpower economic demand that anthropologists argue comes with plentiful, fertile land and a scarcity of labor. The capture of others was the regular means of developing wealth, afixing identity, and protecting one's own, and there is evidence that this process of wealth concentration, as culture, was practiced and imitated down to the small scale, even quite far from kingdom centers. In short, the sparsely populated villages of the land had martial need to know how to defend themselves, escape & likely also capture.


Scott likes to set up a basic dichotomy between large States (anchored by Capital centers) and the hill/forest people that evade them, but the fabric of incorporation and localized, shifting liberty likely was far more nuanced, geographied, even fractal (in terms of smaller and smaller mandalas). For me the main contribution of his approach is the idea that in the story of Muay Thai development there was a kind of ebbing & flowing dialectic of people, culture and skill that came from both city centers and rural identity, and that back and forth this wove together the fabric of what would become Siamese Muay Thai (1300-1900). A warp and weft of Capital vs village which still expresses itself in today's Muay Thai in Thailand, according the ideological sway. As I've suggested in the past, even Muay Femeu vs Muay Khao classic Golden Age dichotomies can express this fundamental divide, city vs rural. And in thinking about how concepts of retreat from the Capital still play out, even our recent documentation of Samingnoom's return to the simple life of Buriram, away from Bangkok Muay Thai, to a hand-built house and a small neighborhood ring, embodies something of this ethic of liberty vs civilization, land vs city, each of which can be idealized.


Quite telling in this attempt to piece together elements of Siamese history which have not made it into the dominant written record of Kingdoms, or the lasting architectural remainder, are stories of how armies would devastate and capture, not in their battles, but simply in the marches, consuming an estimated 26,000 square kilometers in even a 10 day march.


These thoughts develop from this point in this thread:


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Let me bend back to this notion of mandala, which historians use to describe how political power was conceived of in Southeast Asian, pre-colonial states. There was no notion of a Nation, or even a country. There was no ideological boundary which defined one's powers or rights. Rather, a Kingdom was defined (and experienced) as a sphere of influence. It's authority went as far as it could extend, not unlike candlelight only goes as far as candlelight goes, in the darkness. And, because ancient Kingdoms considered themselves centers of elevated civilized authority, founded on an Indic concept of royalty wherein the King expressed divinity, the darkness at the edge of that candlelight was seen as primitive, animalistic, savage. Where land was plentiful, and population sparse such concept of madala candlelight was variously easy to establish. Art centers, ritualistic royalty, confluences of international trade became the heartbeats of regions, and because these mandala's of power were fed by surrounding wet-rice field padi agriculture, the more manpower (often slaves) one drew into one's realm, the wealthier and more stable a Kingdom would become. But...mainland SEA had many mandalas over the centuries, and these mandalas competed, often for that manpower which made the candlelight shine bright. There spheres of influence overlapped, not only geographically, but also in terms of time. This graphic from The Art of Not Being Governed shows the idea:



But, for our purposes, these mandala of power, these orbs of candlelight, probably did not just exist at the level of Empires and Kingdoms. The modes of symbolic power, on the Indric model, likely extended itself in imitation, across much smaller regions, even village to village. These are all nested, competing spheres of power, all overlapping.


If you've spent a great deal of time you likely have run into this, not at the level of Kingdoms, but within Muay Thai itself. Individual gyms have spheres of power (candlelight), individual promotions, (the much bemoaned power gamblers), city officials. Regional Muay Thai - just to use an industry and art example - is often defined by competing and overlapping mandalas of local power. (The above graphic is meant to describe Kingship & nobility mandalas of power in 17th century Siam, but one imagines could just was well ethnographically describe dynamics of power in Muay Thai, in a contemporary city.). Westerners are starting to discover that even moving between gyms in a local scene can produce significant problems, because everything is held in a network of hierarchies and spheres of reach. Even if modern Thailand, far removed from the 17th century, these spheres of reach and power define the way that power, legitimacy and authority exercises itself, symbolically and in realpolitik terms. It is not too far a reach to suggest that even though these micro-mandalas of overlapping spheres of power have not been recorded by written history, they made up the fabric of the lived, political landscape of Siam. And, because - as anthropologists rather widely argue - wealth was made of manpower, and manpower was largely composed of slave capture, the economics of even small spheres of candlight made for a constant agonism of capture. The great wars and captures of history - the worst from the Thai perspective being the fall of Ayutthaya in the 18th century when Burma took an estimated 30,000 slaves back, repatriating many of them within a hierarchy of labor - are what has been written, but countless and likely endless skirmishes & perhaps annual battles made up the living calendar, year to year. The Dry Season, which today is the festival season in the provinces, was also the War Season, and the season for Elephant capture. Following the rains of monsoon, upon harvest of rice, any locality faced the prospects of contest and capture, a real of martial tension.


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Here is a proposed set of dichotomies of values involving mandala power. Near the core, and extending out toward the ebb. These values are sometimes from the perspective of the inside, sometimes of the edge, and can express themselves conflictedly within relations, within mandalas, given their shifting sphere.


Important in thinking about this is that there is no pure "outside" of mandala power. Mandala powers are nested and overlapping, so these values become relative to specific centers and their sphere of influence.

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