The ancient Kingdom of Lanna had several woman who were crucial to its civilization’s development. Haripunjai (Lamphun) was said founded by holy men who asked the king of Lopburi to send them a ruler; his daughter JamaTewi went. Legend tells of her overcoming a great Lawa chieftain with female magic… and of twin sons, one which succeeded her, the other of which founded Lampang. Mon, Buddhist Haripunjai thrived independently for over four centuries after her (her dynasty lasted at least 2 – at the end of it, Haripunjai was attacking Lopburi!), then was taken into Mengrai’s new Lanna Empire.
The first MahaTewi I know of was MahaTewi Kaeo Phimpha of LanChang, LanSang or Lane Xang - Laos. Her title derives from Sanskrit mahadevi… This MahaTewi wielded much power from 1428 to 1438, just before Lanna’s “Golden Age”, but surely then, as now, Laos was no great power center. Laos was, though, an important part of a culture which extended through Lanna and the Shan States into Yunnan. This “Culture of the Dhamma Letters” was Buddhist, T’ai and in many ways the basis of present traditions in Laos, Thailand and the Shan States.
When Mengrai Dynasty Lanna began to crumble, with no reign ending peaceably for a quarter century, a LanSang ruler, King Potisarat, began to fantasize of becoming the ‘wheel-turning universal monarch whose righteousness and might make all the world turn around him.’ Unfortunately, at the same time, so did a King Burengnong from Toungoo (due west from ChiangRai, separated by Karen people and the mighty Salween River). After Mengrai’s direct line ended, half of the last independent rulers were women. One, MahaTevi Jiraprapa (sometimes said named PhraNang Yout KhamThip), was a full, absolute ruler from 1545- 46. Then Potisarat’s son ruled briefly until duty pulled him away and for 4 years, no central ruler commanded at all. Jiraprapa may have been returned to power by Burmese King Burengnong, or perhaps he put her sister, whom we have little reliable data about, on the Lanna throne. There’s a problem with the few records which remain, in that a person or place is known here as this, there as that, and in another place and time gets referred to in another way entirely! But, to understand, we must endure.
In July, 1545, Shan King FaYongHui of Mong Nai (Muang Nai, on the Salween, were Lanna’s last king was from) attacked ChiangMai. As he did, an earthquake destroyed nine revered reliquaries there, including a couple of the most important (finials at Wat Jedi Luang and Wat PraSing). For a month attackers poured dirt into the city moat and tried to cross it with bamboo bridges; but defenders burnt the attackers’ encampment, and the Shans withdrew. Then Jiraprapa, daughter of King Ket Jettarat (deposed, then brought back by ministers who soon assassinated him), was given rule. Perhaps envoys from Ayudhaya had rushed message of Ket’s murder home; anyway, it’s thought they supported the rise of Queen Maha Jiraprapa (a.k.a. MahaTewi), and likely also they who not only requested military assistance from Ayudhaya, but had Ket’s killers killed. Regardless, an army from Ayudhaya under King Chairaja (or Borommatraijak) came near; either Jiraprapa persuaded (bribed?) him to hold off, or, as the ChiangMai Chronicle says, “He was defeated and fled.” Anyway, armies and devotions were displayed, and the Ayudhayan army “proceeded back to Yotthiya”.
Her cousin, Phaya Ket’s 12-year-old nephew (some say he was 19) from LuangPrabang, Setthatirat (a.k.a. Uppayo), was invited to rule under Jiraprapha’s regency. The Laotian government holds that King Potisan (Phohthisat, married to Ket’s daughter, who’s also said to have had the same name, Yotkamtip), conquered Lanna; if he did, he certainly didn’t rule it (unless through his wife, which is not claimed). 100 years before, LanSang attacked Nan; 50 years later it briefly took much of Lanna, but the tattered bits of Lao history which remain seem to miss these events… Regardless, according to local chronicles, in May, 1546, Setthatirat came to ChiangSaen and ChiangRai, appointed local rulers and went to rule in ChiangMai. He stayed until August 1547 (well, for 2 years, say the Chronicles, and ‘til 1550, they say in Laos). According to the ChiangMai Chronicles, in June of 1546, Setthatirat, accepted as king, “went to reverence the Emerald Buddha at its pavilion” in Wat Jedi Luang, then on 17 July was coronated as Phra Ratcha-uppayo. Pra TonThip is named as his first royal queen (and there are 2 daughters mentioned, casting doubt on his being aged 12). Pra TonKham is named as the Queen’s younger sister.
Word came that Potisan was killed by accident during a wild elephant round-up, and that younger brothers (if he was 12, well, supporters of younger brothers) were fighting for power. This threatened to divide the country, so Setthatirat returned to LuangPrabang. In April 1551, he handed ChiangMai over to “the queen”, Phra Ton Thip. Not KhamThip (though her sister was Pra TonKham… ‘Tip’ – a popular nickname, meaning to kick or rise as a kite?). David Wyatt’s 1984 “Thailand, A Short History” (published over a decade before his Chronicles translation) refers to Thao MaeKu, who was deposed after less than a year. The similarity of that name to the name of the next and last King is confusing but interesting. Mae Ku – mother of a pair? Popular Thai historian Manich Jumsai says this was Princess Chiraprabha, “(sometimes known as Maha Devi)” who resisted, perhaps foisted off, ‘King Prajairaja’ of Ayudhaya – King P’rajai or Chairacha, who died almost soon after return to Ayudhaya.
It seems generally agreed MahaTewi Jiraprapa first convinced the king from Ayudhaya nothing was to be gained by violence, and, doubtless with tribute, persuaded him to return home. When Setthatirat abandoned Lanna, or in January, 1546, Chairacha or Borommatraijak (“King of the South”) came back, and Jiraprapa then led successful resistance. The leader of this resistance is not said to be Setthatirat’s wife. At any rate, “Many Southerners died, and they dispersed” – according to the ChiangMai Chronicles – “30,000 Southerners went away by water”, “10,000 infantry and 3000 war boats were taken”, and 4 elephants!
The Portuguese had captured Islamic Malacca in 1511, and sent gunnery instructors to assist in wars to the north, supplying arms and soldiers to both mighty King Burengnong (Bayinnaung, or Jao PoengPawa MinTaya of Pegu, an important city south form Toungoo - on the Sittaung River - between its mouth and Yangoon) and King Maha Chakrapat of Ayudhaya. King Chairacha (Phrajai) may also have had some of these instructors, when on expeditions against ChiangMai, but despite Portuguese mercenary help and the violent power-jockeying which had been dominating things within Lanna, he was completely routed by MahaTewi Jiraprapa.
Setthatirat took away the Phra Kaeo Morakot (Emerald Buddha), other important Buddha images, religious texts and treatises, and many monks and scholars, when he effectively abandoned Lanna. He attempted to consolidate Lanna and LanSang in 1558-9, then before heading off to secure things in the south, established a new capital at WiangChan (Vientiane), much farther from Burmese-held territory than LuangPrabang (with more of difficult, unpopulated Saiaburi (Sayabuli or Xaignabouri) to cross. Or, as others hold, Potisarat chose WiangChan as a better capital “within the expanding Lao world” and for better communication with Vietnam, Champa, Cambodia and Ayudhaya.
Lanna endured anarchy and civil war, with nobles fighting on elephants in the middle of ChiangMai City. Petty officials and rulers of principalities proved more interested in their changing relative power than in the threat from Burma (as seems the case today), until Mekut of MongNai (a Shan State where rebellious descendants of Mengrai were sometimes sent to rule) was made king in 1552. In 1555, Mekut’s brothers attempted to seize Lanna’s Mekong region, and gained ChiangRai and ChiangSaen… so Mekhut “was not at first inclined to listen to his brothers’ cry for help” when Burengnong, who’d become king in 1551, took Ava in 1555, then Hsenwi, then KengTung… Mekhut surrendered to Burengnong, who accepted him as a vassal, but soon revolted against his new obligations. Setthatirat, returning with help from the governors of Lampang, Prae and Nan, took ChiangMai and begged pardon before the Sangha (Buddhist clergy), handing “all the country of ChiangMai over to the Queen” (according to the Chronicles). He almost took ChiangSaen, but Burengnong forced him back to LuangPrabang, where Mekut had taken refuge (leaving Lady Wisutthathewi – his consort, says history professor at ChiangMai University Sarassawadee Ongsakul, to rule in his place). Burengnong seized Mekut (the Chronicles say this was in ChiangMai) but Setthatirat escaped to pursue guerrilla warfare until Burengnong ran out of provisions. For a year Setthatirat launched harrying sallies against Burmese patrols and supply lines, until they withdrew in mid-1565. Perhaps before going back to Burma Burengnong married Princess Jiraprapa, now in her 40s (at least). The woman who ruled Lanna from 1564 until her death in 1578 is called Wisutthitewi (again there is name confusion: Mekut’s full name was Mekutawisutthiwong). This PhraNang Visuti (Wisutatewi, a.k.a. MahaTewi) whom Burengnong replaced Phra Mekut with, may have been a different, younger daughter of Phaya Ket; and maybe Potisan’s wife was Ket’s sister…
Anyway, Mekut died in exile at Pegu or Ava, and became known as one of Burma’s famous “37 Nat” spirits, YunBayin. The Mengrai line is said to end there, but the last person descended from Mengrai to rule might have been Thado Gyaw, 4th Lanna ruler (descended from Burengnong/MinTaya) through MahaTwei Jiraprapa). Mon rebels, aided by Shan and Siamese prisoners resettled to the area, burned Pegu after Burengnong hurried off to deal with an Arakanese invasion; he sacked Ayudhaya in 1569, but didn’t absorb it into empire, and died (1581) without subduing LanSang. He sent another expedition, which again briefly occupied Vienchan, but Setthirat directed more guerrilla warfare against them and has remained a national hero since, despite dying (well, disappearing) a year later.
In 1595 the kings of LanSang and Nan took ChiangSaen; amazingly, Burengnong’s son on the Lanna throne asked King Naresuan of Ayudhaya for help; this resulted in a Lao noble acting as Siamese commissioner there. Then, for about the length of time they’d been an independent power, ChiangMai and ChiangRai were vassal states required to pay annual tribute of gold and silver trees, and manpower as necessary in times of war – usually to Burma, occasionally to Siam. MahaTewi’s descendants may have continued in local rule. After Setthatirat disappeared mysteriously while campaigning in the south, LanSang suffered a 70 years of wars of succession and reduction to a Burmese vassal state, until King Suriyavongsa (Suriwong?) restored independence.
It all goes to demonstrate – national borders, royal lines, culture and economics are hardly hard and fast realities; national historians often portray things differently from their neighbors, and any set of important records needs corroboration, even if from a very different way of looking at things! Many records were destroyed, but Thailand’s MahaTewi remains respected; really though, who was she? Is she little more than an amalgamation?