Ayuthaya (or Ayutthaya) is a city in Thailand which was the capital of an important kingdom in Siam from the early fifteenth until the late eighteenth century. It is located on an island a few days journey up the Chao Phraya river from its mouth in the gulf of Siam, and is the site of peaceful and beautiful red brick ruins. I often escaped the pollution and traffic jams of Bangkok by taking a 90 minute train ride to the quiet little city of Ayuthaya, and I would recommend this side-trip to anyone who is visiting Thailand.
Although conventional nationalist Thai historiography describes a narrative which progresses from a polity centred on Sukhothai to one centred on Ayuthaya, in fact the two kingdoms co-existed for some time, Ayuthaya finally gaining ascendancy in the late fifteenth century. In standard Thai historiography, the style of leadership in Sukhothai was benevolent paternalism, while that of Ayuthaya was Khmer-influenced, élitist, and aristocratic. The contrast is generally overstated as the two styles, both still important in contemporary Thai politics, are invoked by powers wanting to champion their right to lead the modern nation.
In its heyday, Ayuthaya was a major power in Southeast Asian politics, but it was definitively sacked by its traditional rivals the Burmese in 1767. The kingdom then regrouped under the leadership of Taksin, a former provincial governor, at the city of Thonburi. Taksin was executed in 1782, apparently insane, and one of his generals was crowned, to found his own capital across the river at Bangkok. This dynasty, the Chakri, now in its ninth generation, still reigns, though a revolution in 1932 saw the king demoted from absolute to constitutional monarch.
In the seventeenth century Ayuthaya was by all accounts a large, bustling, and cosmopolitan city, home to Asians of diverse heritage. European travelers from the early seventeenth century onward noted the presence of natives of many polities such as Persia, China, Cochin-China (present-day Vietnam), Pegu (Burma or Myanmar), and Japan, as well as ethnic Malays, and ethnic Mons and Chams (neither of which have survived as nations into the twentieth century). Members of some of these groups obtained very high positions in the Ayuthayan court. Professing himself struck by this ethnic diversity in the upper echelons, historian David Wyatt noted that a Persian, a Brahmin, a Mon, and a Chinese family established veritable dynasties of nobles, some of which reach from these early beginnings down to the currently ruling Chakri family.
The political structure of the kingdom was characterized by Stanley Tambiah in a germinal article as galactic: power emanated from a ruler in a capital, whose legitimacy in Buddhist terms stemmed from merit accumulated in past lives and whose role was to preserve the dhamma, divine law, by ruling justly. Radiating out from this centre in a series of concentric circles were tributary principalities ruled by lesser lords, often relatives of the central king; around them were ranged a series of vassal lords in their turn, the whole reaching down to commoners who owed corvée to a lord or the king. Nearby areas supplied Ayuthaya with labour power, produce, and metals, while remote regions may only have been required to send gold and silver-leafed trees once every few years. Lacking the means to ensure suzerainty over farflung subsidiaries, the Siamese empire often lost outlying provinces to neighbouring powers or simply to rebellion. A strong leader could greatly expand his domain, but fierce competition for succession among sons procreated in profusion in the harems saw energy and power spent in bloody intrigues rather than maintenance of territory. Laws forbade high-ranking officials from having private contact with one another in an attempt to forestall them from joining together to overthrow the king. Though a major power in Southeast Asia, Siam itself was a tributary of China, and sent a periodic payment of gold trees to the emperor in Beijing.
In the early sixteenth century the first Europeans - Portuguese - visited Siam, and they were soon well-established in the area; the Dutch and English followed not long after. The Siamese were cognizant of the European world and actively sought connections with it: the first Siamese diplomatic mission to Europe was sent to the Netherlands in 1608 by Ekathotsarot (reigned 1605-1610). By the seventeenth century Ayuthaya was a thriving commercial centre visited by European, Asian, and Arab traders, and the walled central city was ringed by diverse foreign settlements. Europeans were a common sight there and at some of Siam's nebulously defined tributary neighbours such as Ligor (present-day Nakhon Sri Thammarat) and Patania or Patana (Pattani), ports on the Malay peninsula which are today Thai cities.
By the late seventeenth century, during the reign of Narai, the European presence in Siam reached a zenith in response to both foreign and domestic pressures. European powers, as well as Persian, were concerned both to foster trade and to achieve the religious conversion of the king. The Siamese likewise had pecuniary interests, but seem also to have been guided by their monarch, who was known for his interest in things foreign and his desire to accord and be accorded reciprocal diplomatic honours by his peers, other sovereigns. Thus during this period numerous embassies and missions passed between Siam, Europe, and Persia, and many written accounts remain, for "The ambassadors, Jesuits, missionaries, and even the officers were nothing if not literate; they knew they had exotic material in their hands, and the reading public was avid for information about distant places".
The information about ethnic diversity in Ayuthaya can be found in David Wyatt's Studies in Thai History: Collected Articles. Tambiah's article on Southeast Asian statecraft is called "The Galactic Polity in Southeast Asia" and can be found in his Culture, Thought, and Social Action.
Thai historian Akin Rabibhadana has much of interest to say about Ayuthaya in his The Organization of Thai Society in the Early Bangkok Period, 1782-1873. Also useful is Michael Smithies' introduction to his translation of Journal of a Voyage to Siam 1685-1686 by Abbé de Choisy, which is the source for the final quote. See also my nodes on Narai, Constantine Phaulkon, and Abbé de Choisy.