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The Thai peoples began to settle the wider region, gradually gaining control of the former Mon and Khmer kingdoms from the 11th to the 13th centuries,.
As political power shifted to the Tai mandalas, a new kind of polity emerged to replace the devaraja ideology of the Khmer god kings. Adapting Therevada Buddhist practices, but modifying them to accord with local animist beliefs, the Tai rulers based their power and legitimacy on their royal lineage as descendants of the legendary Khun Borom, which enabled them alone to officiate at ceremonies held to ensure the continued protection of their subjects. In Lane Xang, as in other Tai mandalas, accumulating merit (boun) became an integral part of the process by which Tai rulers sought to create a righteous world order, and one of the most effective ways of accumulating merit was the construction of Buddhist wats (temples). King Fa Ngum, founder of Lane Xang, is said to have constructed numerous wats; one of the earliest was the sanctuary hastily erected in Viengkham in 1359 to house the sacred pha bang after it was deemed inauspicious to carry the image north to Xiang Dong Xiang Thong (Luang Prabang).
Thereafter each successive reign was marked by a programme of pious temple-building. Little is known about temple architecture during the first century of Lane Xang, but surviving foundations from this period indicate that temples were still of very modest size in comparison with their later counterparts.
The 16th century witnessed an extraordinary flowering of Buddhist art and architecture in Lane Xang, presided over by three illustrious kings - Wisunarath (1501-1520), Photisarath (1520-1550) and Sai Setthathirat I (1550-1571). During this period wats were increasingly constructed in major centres of population, where they became a focal point for all aspects of daily life. At the same time their design and layout became progressively more elaborate, evolving into a series of buildings which would eventually include an ordination hall (sim), a manuscript library (ho tai), a bell tower (ho rakhang), a drum tower (ho kong), a stupa (that) and an area dedicated to the Buddhist sangha containing the monks’ living quarters (kuti). Though Lao wats evolved in the same basic way as those of their Siamese or Khmer neighbours, they were generally more modest in appearance and came to be characterised by the distinctive dok so fa (pointing to the sky) roof fixture and dok huang phueang (beehive pattern) front entrance panel of the sim.
While serving as governor of Vientiane, King Wisunarath had become an ardent devotee of the sacred pha bang, and it was he who in 1502 finally relocated the image from Viengkham to the royal capital of Xiang Dong Xiang Thong, constructing the magnificent Wat Wisun to house it.
Regrettably the original wooden structure was destroyed in 1887, but a drawing of Wat Wisun made by Delaporte in the 1860s illustrates the elegance of the traditional Lao temple design. No less than 4,000 trees are said to have been used for Wat Wisun's construction; 12 pillars - each 30 metres high and 1.3 metres in diameter - supported the roof, each pillar reputedly made from a tree felled in a different forest. The pha bang was enshrined here from 1513 to 1707 (when it was removed to Vientiane) and again from 1867 to 1887. Wat Wisun was reconstructed in 1896-1898 using brick and plaster, but still following the original design in which the foundations are smaller than the roof.
This style of architecture is commonly known today as Luang Prabang I style after Wat Wisun and other noteworthy surviving examples in that northern city (Wat May, Wat Pak Khan, Wat That Luang), but the design is by no means unique to Luang Prabang and may still be seen today in several other parts of the country. Classic examples include Wat Phonesay in Vientiane city and Wat Anonthalam Manotham and Wat Sayasathanh in Vientiane Province. The basic shape may also be seen, albeit somewhat modified, in Vientiane's Wat Simuang, Wat Mixay, Wat Ong Tu and Wat Inpeng.
Following the marriage of Wisunarath's son and successor Photisarath (1520-1550) to the daughter of King Muang Khao of Lanna (Chiang Mai), there ensued a period of close political and cultural ties between the two states, culminating in 1546 with the installation of Photisarath's son Sai Setthathirat as King of Lanna.
Lanna was subsequently lost to the Burmese, but during this period many Chiang Mai families fled to Xiang Dong Xiang Thong, where their cultural influence was felt in a number of artistic fields, notably the development of temple architecture. Characterised by a high-pointed tiled roof sweeping down in multiple tiers, the Lanna-inspired Luang Prabang II style sought to represent the cosmological levels in Buddhist doctrine. This style of temple architecture is found only in Luang Prabang and King Sai Setthathirat I's great masterpiece Wat Xieng Thong stands as its most elegant and best-preserved example. For strategic reasons King Photisarath had spent much of his reign in Vientiane, and in 1560 Sai Setthathirat I formally moved his capital there, partly to exploit the greater agricultural potential of the Vientiane region and partly in order to reduce the risk of attack by the Burmese. The decision to build Wat Xieng Thong and to change the name of Xiang Dong Xiang Thong to Luang Prabang (Royal City of the Pha Bang) may perhaps be seen as an attempt to compensate his northern subjects for the departure of the royal court.
Throughout this period the hereditary rulers of the tributary Muang Phuan (Xieng Khouang) also sponsored the construction of temples, giving rise to the so-called Xieng Khouang style. The former capital of Muang Khun was once dotted with these graceful sanctuaries with their simple low roofs, but almost all were totally obliterated in the US saturation bombing of the 1960s and 1970s.
Luckily the Xieng Khouang style also became popular in Xiang Dong Xiang Thong, where it is known today as the Luang Prabang III style. An excellent example is Wat Aham, the original of which was constructed by King Photisarath on the site of the shrine to phou nheu and nya nheu (guardian spirits of ancient Muang Sua) as part of his campaign to ban animist worship.
King Photisarath is also credited with the construction of several of Vientiane’s major wats, including the afore-mentioned Wat Simuang, Wat Ong Tu and Wat Inpeng. His work there was consolidated by his son and successor King Sai Setthathirat I, who embarked on an ambitious construction programme in Vientiane following the relocation of the capital from Luang Prabang in 1560.
Sai Setthathirat I constructed the original Ho Phra Keo in Vientiane to house the Phra Keo or Emerald Buddha which he had removed from Chiang Mai during the early 1550s. He also commissioned the creation of the Ong Tu Buddha image, and after its installation Wat Ong Tu in Vientiane became the royal temple where subjects took their oath of allegiance to the king. The king subsequently sponsored the construction of six more Ong Tu temples around the country – in Vientiane (Wat Phonesay and Wat Xieng Mai Nabong), in Viengkham (Wat Ong Tu), in Muang Sopbao, modern Houaphanh Province (Wat Phoxay Sanalam), in Muang Khun, modern Xieng Khouang Province (Wat Siphom) and in Ban Nammone in present-day Nong Khai, Thailand (Wat Nammone). Other important Vientiane wats originally constructed during Sai Setthathirat I's reign include Wat Mixay, Wat Tay Noi and Wat Tay Yai.
However, the crowning achievement of Sai Setthathirat I’s reign was the Phra That Luang, built on the site of an earlier, possibly Khmer temple.
The construction of Phra That Luang in 1565 was clearly a major event in the history of the nation and there are many stories of groups of faithful travelling from outlying muang to Vientiane to deposit valuables in the foundations of the new stupa. Comprising three levels, each representing a different stage along the path to Buddhist enlightenment, Phra That Luang was later restored by the French and is nowadays regarded as the symbol of the Lao nation.
Outside Vientiane, the king constructed Wat Phia Wat in Muang Phuan (modern Xieng Khouang Province), rebuilt the ancient city of Souvannakhomkham (modern Sayaburi Province) and That Sikhottabong in Muang Sikhottabong (modern Khammouane Province) and erected royal stupas in numerous other outlying muang.
Following the mysterious death of Sai Setthathirat I in 1571 while campaigning in the south, Lane Xang was plunged into a bloody 70-year war of succession, during which time it was relegated to the status of a Burmese vassal kingdom. Order was eventually restored by King Suriyavongsa (1638-1690), whose long and peaceful rule was marked by the emergence of Vientiane as an important regional centre for Buddhist learning.
A resident of Vientiane for five years during the 1640s, Italian Jesuit missionary Giovanni-Maria Leria described during this period the splendour of the capital, with its moated walls, palaces and temples. Encircled by a surrounding wall with a magnificent gateway, the royal palace was 'of prodigious extent', large that one would take it for a town'. At its centre was the throne hall and royal living quarters, a large timber building richly decorated with coloured tiles, painted stucco and gilded wooden bas-reliefs. Surrounding and connected to it by a series of courtyards were smaller buildings which accommodated second wives and courtiers.
Outside the palace compound the aristocratic classes lived in large, finely-carved wooden houses, the design of which contrasted strongly with the houses of the 'very poorly lodged' common folk, who lived in stilted wooden houses with thatched roofs and woven walls of palm leaves or grass similar to those still seen today all over rural Laos.
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