“Luk Kampat – the Beads” art of Dvaravati Period, the Pride of Uthong
When the ancient Kingdom of Funan disintegrated towards the end of the eleventh century, B.E. it was replaced by the state of Dvaravati, with Uthong as the capital and the center of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Dvaravati culture. The population mainly observed Theravada Buddhism, used Mon language, and adhered to religious beliefs in the form of Gupta art from India.
The Ancient City of Uthong is located on the west bank of Chorakhae Sam Phan River. The city is in an oval shape, 1,850 x 820 meters in size, surrounded on all sides by moats and earthen rams. Traces of human settlements since pre-historic era in late 2,000 – 2,500 years ago have been found in this ancient city, with the discovery of polished stone tools and pottery vessels, for instance. This settlement later developed itself into historic urban society from fifth to ninth centuries, B.E. Foreign trade was conducted with countries such as Vietnam, China, India, as well as in the Middle East and Europe. It took the role of a trade center and a port city contemporary of Oc-Eo (to the South of present day Vietnam) .Excavations at the ancient city of Uthong also reveal glass beads, circulation coins and Roman coins from the time of Emperor Victorinus, for example.
“Luk Kampat” or beads are the accessories or talisman used in ancient times, made of stone or earth, with holes drilled in the middle to be threaded through with wire. Besides the mentioned properties of beads, their patterns or forms are also valuable sources of history, representing the progress, trade, art and culture.
Local people in Uthong call beads “Luk Kampat”, the name known through times. When asked why they are so called, no senior citizen could give the answer. They only knew that Uthong people called them that way. Therefore, Luk Kampat is the local dialect of Uthong handed down to these days. The ancient Dvaravati beads of Uthong have become popular among the general public and collectors for more than 30 years now.
Around 1971, trading of beads started. Buyers were from other regions or collectors and antique dealers who came looking for beads, including foreigners who traveled all the way to Uthong as well. At that time, beads were not gold-plated and made into necklace or wrist chain, until about 1978, gold-plated beads gained diverse functions, even as the setting of a ring, or necklace pendant. Uthong residents embraced the practice as the beads could be worn beautifully. Thus, a new trend of having beads gold-plated began, and beads were exchanged actively. As the demand for beads became more widespread, excavation also increased. Proprietors of land where beads used to be discovered even divided their land into plots of 2X3 meters and collected fee from people who excavated the plot for beads, several hundreds of them applying to work on one plot each day. The craze went on until the Fine Arts Office Region 2 Suphan Buri had to send in officials to take care of the excavation. Every day, bead collectors and dealers were waiting at the excavation site. With the rise in demand, and the decline of the find, fake beads were brought in to be traded. Some cheaters hid fake beads underground and dug them up on buyers’ demands. And due to their burial for millennia, beads excavated are often damaged, with rough surfaces, goldsmiths thus polish them to be gold-plated and the new profession emerged, as hired bead polisher and cutter.
“Brother Fo” or Mr. Issara Bhandhabodikorn, one of the first dealers of Uthong beads, says that beads found in Uthong possess fine patterns similar to those found at Amphoe Tha Chana in Surat Thani Province. The special character of Uthong beads is the tiny hole drilled in the middle, compared with beads found elsewhere. Beads found in Surat Thani, meanwhile, are more colorful and feature more patterns.
There are several excavation sites in Amphoe Uthong and its neighborhood, such as the area behind Uthong National Museum, Noen Phlapphla-Ban Na Lao, Ban Khok Samrong, Saphan Dam, Ban Yang Yisae, behind Wat Chong Lom, in front of Suan Taen Witthaya School, and Amphoe Sam Chuk.
Lately, beads started to become rare, and expansion of excavation sites was not allowed by the Fine Arts Department. Some lucrative bead dealers bought the same kind of stone from Bangkok, or from foreign sources to be manufactured into gold-plated Uthong beads for sale. It is difficult to authenticate such beads, because dating depends on the appearance, color, shape and form. With the polishing and cutting, such characters are gone. Thus, when imitated products are gold-plated, they cannot be identified as original or manufactured ones. As a result, Uthong beads have waned in popularity and imitations have emerged from that period.
Bead dealers, meanwhile, all claim that their goods are Uthong beads. It has been assumed by academics and learned persons on the issue that Dvaravati beads were imported from foreign lands such as India and Persia, as historical evidence indicate that Uthong was once a seaside town and a port city thousands of years ago. Most beads were thus assumed to have been imported from abroad, as no clear evidence on bead production in Uthong have been found.
Excavated Dvaravati beads range in size from the tiny ones that the finest wire cannot be used to thread them, to the large ones with 9 sections of color-painted pattern. These have been assumed by academics to have been imported from India, likely the property of high-ranking important persons.
There have been a lot of stories of archeological finds in Amphoe Uthong which have not been reported, as residents were afraid they would be seized by authorities. Over a decade ago, for instance, they found silver ingots from Dvaravati Period, in the form of conch-shell, numbering several thousands.
Traditional beliefs and faith of the Thais in beads also exist, and when made into necklaces or wrist chains, bead dealers also created more aura to them concerning hidden power of the beads, such as the number of beads to be made into necklace must be 39, wrist chain 19, for instance. Uthong bead dealers finally produce written documents on them and used as the selling points of beads.
Dvaravati beads are antique items of Suphan Buri residents, used as accessories in the old days, to protect them from danger and to give them luck and prosperity. The excavated beads date back over 2,000 years, believed to possess power, black – warding off black magic, Dvaravati – the best, highest and rare, providing non vulnerability, green jade- preventing accidents, granting luck and wealth, blue – royal lineage, powerful, and with great fortune, for example.
Colonel Nalikatibhak Sangsanit Ph.D. Director-General of the Designated Areas for Sustainable Tourism Administration (Public Organization) or DASTA says that at present, Uthong bead is regarded as a souvenir that visiting tourists have on their shopping lists. These are manufactured beads in imitation of the authentic ones, costing only a few hundred baht per piece. However, as Uthong is the district within the designated area of DASTA, there have been ideas to help create added values to “the beads” product, such as advice on designing accessories made of beads to be modern, while brands are created as specific identity of the Ancient City of Uthong, increasing sale price per piece, and extending them to high-end customers. At the latest, the Designated Ancient City of Uthong Office ( DAD 7) has joined forces with a local writer, with the pen-name of Ploy Uthong in compiling a tour handbook entitled “Luk Kampat Dvaravati: Ancient City of Uthong” with the hope that this would create keen interest in Uthong beads, and bring about their popularity in a wider circle.