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Lan Xang, “The Kingdom of the Million Elephants”

17/03/2020 112 Views

The story of the “Kingdom of the Million Elephants”, the first kingdom in Laos which power radiated for about 350 years, is intrinsically linked to the development of today’s Laos.

Fa Gnum, first king of Lan Xang

Born in Xieng Tong, now known as Luang Prabang, Prince Fa Gnum is the grandson of the governor of Luang Prabang, Souvanna Khamphong.

According to the legend, Fa Gnum’s grandfather banished his grandson and his son, because Fa Gnum’s father tried to seduce one of his concubines. An exiled prince, Fa Gnum took refuge in the Khmer Kingdom, the cultural, religious and military power of the time. 

He grew up there as the adoptive son of King Khmer Jayavarman Parameshvara (Jayavarman IX) and even married the Khmer Princess Keo Kang Ya.

Statue of King Fa Gnum in Vientiane

In 1350, however, Fa Gnum and his father raised, with the help of the Khmer Kingdom, “the army of the 10 000” to conquer back their kingdom.

In 1353, after many battles and conquests during which Fa Gnum’s father died, the army arrived in Luang Prabang. Fa Gnum, then seized his grandfather’s throne and became king of the kingdom of Lan Xang.

In 1356, Fa Gnum seized the Kingdom of Vientiane, then threatened by the Kingdom of Ayutthaya, to unify the power of his kingdom and impose himself against the Ayutthaya. 

As a token of recognition of the Lan Xang king’s power, Ayutthaya offered Princess Nang Keo Lot Fa as Fa Gnum’s second wife.

King Fa Gnum reigned for about 20 years, then was deposed by his own son, Samsentha, who reigned for more than 40 years.

The fall of Lan Xang

Under the reign of Fa Gnum, Lan Xang was already the largest kingdom in Southeast Asia (larger than today’s Laos), but continually faced internal conflicts and threats from neighbouring kingdoms.

200 years after the creation of the kingdom, the capital was moved to Vientiane, in order to better deal with the Burmese invaders. However, this did not prevent the Burmese from briefly conquering Lan Xang during 20 years, before finally being repelled in 1591.

Finally, Lan Xang had its Golden Age during the reign of King Sourigna Vongsa between 1637 and 1694. Unfortunately, when the king died, conflicts and political troubles resumed, gradually leading to the division of Lan Xang into three kingdoms in 1707, starting the entrance of Laos into its modern history.

Divided and weakened, the kingdoms of Vientiane, Luang Prabang and Champassak, fell one after the other under the influence of their powerful neighbours. The Lao kingdoms then disappeared little by little, then totally with the sharing of the Eastern world by the European powers and the arrival of the French protectorate 200 years after the end of Lan Xang.

Introduction of Theravada Buddhism in Laos

Proclaimed from the beginning of the history of Lan Xang as the official religion, Theravada Buddhism still is one of the main religions in today’s Laos with 67% of the population practicing this religion.

It is hard to determine exactly how long Theravada Buddhism has been practiced in Laos, since Lan Xang is the first Lao kingdom historically recognized, but the introduction of Theravada Buddhism was definitely a mean of unifying the country.

Still closely linked with Angkor and his in-laws, Fa Gnum received from King Jayavarman IX the Phra Bang, a statue of Buddha 83 cm high in gold. Offered in 1959, the statue gave the current name of Luang Prabang, which was then known as Xieng Tong.

The Wat Mai in Luang Prabang, central temple and religious symbol

The statue became the symbol of pure royalty and religion in Laos.

The Phra Bang experienced a story as tumultuous as its country, since it was stolen twice by the kingdom of Siam, and finally returned to Luang Prabang in 1867. Today, the statue is brought each year to the Wat Mai during the Pimay, Lao New Year, to be exhibited there for 3 days. 

Today, Theravada Buddhism is still a way of uniting the people and increasing their education and wisdom. As during its golden age, Luang Prabang, capital of Lan Xang, remains a high place of worship and learning for Buddhist monks with about thirty pagodas in its compound.

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