Thailand is a country worth visiting for all those who wish to see how Hindu civilisational values and structures are conserved
Vivek Shukla in Thailand
When you reach the International airport of Bangkok, you could not believe that the name of this airport is Swarn Bhoomi airport. But this is the start of your surprises that you get during your stay in the Buddhist country. You keep on meeting the symbols of Hindu Dharma there. And during you journey from Bangkok’s Swarn Bhoomi airport to hotel, you see Ram Street and Ashok Street.
Hindu God as Emblem
Honestly, Thailand deeply respects Hindu Dharma despite the fact that it is a Buddhist country as mentioned earlier. Can you imagine that Thailand use a Hindu God as its national emblem? The Hindu God used by Thailand as a national emblem is Garuda, known as ‘Krut’ in Thailand. In Hindu scriptures Garuda (Krut) was the vehicle of Lord Vishnu, Garuda is half man, half bird, he has the body of a man but his head, his wings and talons are that of an eagle. Why did Thailand adopt Garuda, a Hindu God as a national emblem? There is a long history of Hindu Dharma in Thailand, and there are very close ties between Buddhism and Hindu Dharma. Thailand’s cultural roots are actually based on a religious and spiritual fusion of Buddhism, Hindu Dharma and Animism, that is why so many Hindu deities such as Brahma and Ganesh are very common.
King is Avatar of Vishnu
Hindu Dharma has played an influential role in the Thai Royal Household for centuries. According to legend the Kings of Thailand are avatars or reincarnations of Lord Vishnu. It is this historic role which led to the adoption of Garuda as the national emblem of Thailand’s royalty many centuries ago. Garuda was not officially accepted as the national emblem until Rama VI officiated it in 1911, since then it has been used to officiate both royal and governmental documents. All kings in the current Chakri dynasty of Thailand are often referred to as Rama followed by Roman ordinal in English translation. The name Rama was adopted from the name of the Hindu God Rama, an avatar of Vishnu.The use of the name “Rama” is in line with Thai practice of giving numbers to the king in the current dynasty. While “Rama” was used as a title for all the kings, it was not always taken on as the name.
Ayodhya of Thailand
Around 100 kilometres from Bangkok, there is a place known as Ayutthaya. The name was derived from the original Ayodhya. The dominant influence of the Ramayana is as evident here as it is in India, perhaps even more. The royal palace has scenes from the epic painted on its walls. Ayutthaya is today a major tourist attraction. Thousands of tourists from across the world visit here. Here in this Ayutthaya, you can find the idols of Hindu gods in Budhhists temples too. When you walk through the ruins of Ayutthaya, you think of our Ayodhya in India. It is being riddled by political and religious controversy since long. The dynasty bearing the name of Rama left the ruins of Ayutthaya alone even while rebuilding one major Buddhist temple there. Thailand today is 95 per cent Buddhist. Still, the Thais are imbued with the history of the Ramayana — perhaps even more so than we are. Thailand is a Buddhist state where the king can only be a Buddhist. Yet, he protects all religious faiths. Ayutthaya is today a UN heritage site. Tourists from all over the world visit it and learn about the Ramayana. Let’s hope one day devotees and tourists across the world would visit Ayutthaya freely. It is believed that in the recent decades Thai Buddhists increasingly have turned to Hindu deities as benevolent sources of devotional intimacy.
Curiosity for Hindu Deities
If you move around Bangkok, there are many public sites fuelling curiosity about Hindu deities and devotional practices. There are Hindu temples originally founded by Indian migrants to serve Diasporas communities, such as the Sri Mahamariamman temple, the Dev Mandir, the Durga Mandir, and the Vishnu temple. There are temples constructed by ethnic Thai Buddhists to pay devotion to Hindu deities, such as the Devasathan built for court Brahmins at the beginning of the Chakri dynasty or the large Shiva temple on Ramindra road built in the more recent past. There is also an expanding landscape of stand-alone public shrines cantered on statues of Hindu deities and built by various individuals, private institutions or governmental organisations. The Brahma statue at the Erawan shrine is perhaps the most famous example of this, even as other shrines of Indra, Narayana, Laksmi, Trimurti and Ganesh are also now located within close walking distance from the Ratchaprasong intersection. Finally, statues and shrines of various Hindu deities can easily be found in both Buddhist monasteries throughout the Bangkok metropolis.
As far as Ganesh temple in Bangkok is concerned, it is a huge one at Ratchaprasong area. Both Hindus and Buddhists visit here. Through these religious encounters, Buddhist and Hindu people fundamentally become mutually constitutive of each other, raising interesting questions about religious pluralism.
Sri Mahamariamman temple is the bastion for big ten-day Navaratri festival. It is indeed the biggest festive season for Hindus there. It clearly exemplifies the complicated religious entanglements that arise when Hindu ceremonial spectacle is planned, managed and staged on a grand scale. The public procession outside the temple on the final evening is the ritual and performative climax of the festival. The core of the procession consists of three Indian spirit mediums possessed by different goddesses and five chariots carrying statues of Ganaphathi, Subramanian and Krishna. Numerous troupes of musicians, dancers, Brahmins and devotees surround these mediums and chariots as the procession snakes out from the temple along a 3 kilometer circular route that can take more than seven hours to complete. It must be mentioned here that during the first nine days of the festival, most of the participating public are ethnic Thai and Sino-Thai Buddhists, while on the closing night as the number of participants from greater Bangkok and upcountry provinces swells astronomically, the percentage of ethnic Indian Hindus shrinks even further. Sri Mahamariamman’s Navaratri festival is presided over and managed by Brahmin ritual experts.
So, Thailand is a country worth visiting for all those who wish to see how Hindu civilisational values and structures are conserved.
(The writer is a senior journalist and former editor of Somaiya Publications, New Delhi)