Archives for the month of: June, 2019

Brahma image from Bangkok Thailand

 

On a visit to Bangkok there were many surprises.The city was spotless clean with no litter whatsoever, the traffic was orderly, if busy,no terrible honking of cars, no evidence of road rage as in India, quiet and peaceful with the swirling of tyres progress and modernization, stately high rise buildings, shopping malls and hotels. This city could compete with any western metropolis. And finally the people. Charming, polite, gentle and graceful from the greeting with folded hands and a bow by Air hostesses in the aircraft extending to further welcoming with folded hands at shops and commercial establishments and restaurants – the epitome of etiquette and courtesy. It spoke of an excellent administration, law and order with an innate natural calmness in demeanour arising doubtless from a unique and effective culture.

If you delved deeper you discovered the reason for this. Piety was the  hallmark of the Thai people. At street corners, apartment complexes, shopping centres, markets and commercial establishments, one was struck by the universal presence of altars and domed pavilions dedicated to Hindu gods and other spiritual presences called Spirit Houses.

These small temples standing on pedestals with no deities inside, fall into a category of their own, neither Buddhist nor Hindu. They have their origin in antiquity before the arrival of Hinduism and Buddhism and are essentially animist, relying on beliefs in spirits, ghostly beings and the like. They inhabit the physical world rather than that of the spirit. They enjoin people to respect nature and its mystical influences. The belief in spirits is strong and people leaving their homes for work go first to the Spirit House to worship and make offerings for good luck and to avoid misfortune. The offerings of garlands, fruit, sweets incense and candles, even Coke and Fanta and occasionally alcoholic drinks are meant to appease the spirits and obtain their blessings. People travelling around town also make it a point to pause at spirit houses to make offerings.

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Spirit house with offerings

The nature of the faith in them is different from worship at Hindu altars and Buddhist temples. Buddhism tolerates this worship and does not oppose it. This may be due to Buddhisms deep respect for nature.Many of the spirit Houses are consecrated by Brahmin  priests or Buddhist monks.

On the other hand the Hindu alters have exquisite sculptures particularly of Brahma the Hindu god of creation all over the city in stone bronze and clay and Lord Ganesha with daily offerings of marigolds garlands incense fruit and sweets.

roadside Ganesha

roadside Brahmas

roadside Brahma

I therefore went to visit the shrine dedicated to Brahma in the heart of the city, The shrine was actually created by the Thai government. When developers sought to build a hotel at the site there were so many mishaps that labourers refused to continue, believing the project to be cursed. The government shifted the hotel construction to a neighboring plot and instead dedicated the spot for a shrine to Brahma. It then became a place of pilgrimage for Thais. The beauty of the canopy inlaid with glass and stone and the golden image of Brahma took my breath away.

Brahma’s shrine in Bangkok

Thai worshipers had gathered in large numbers on a week day making offerings of elephants and horses made of clay. The profusion of marigold garlands and incense showed the deep faith and reverence in which he is held. The devotees included the young ,even teenagers in ardent prayer. If a wish is granted the devotee pays for a classical dance in Brahmas honour. Dancers wait ready in an enclosure.

devotees

Young worshipers

Crowds at Brahma shrine bowing and praying

Wish granted worshiper pays for a classical dance to honour Brahma

I then drove to other parts of town to explore further the extent of Hindu influences in Thai culture. I came across two more shrines dedicated to Ganesh the elephant headed god and a Thai invention , the amalgamation in one gold statue 10 feet high of the Hindu trinity Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, one head for each deity. The crowds here were no thinner, with worshipers at the Ganesh statue seeking wisdom and removal of obstacles ( students generally come here before exams) and those at the Trimurti for love wealth and a list of other benefits. A nearby stall provided garlands and other offerings while a board proclaimed the benefits of prayer in English and Thai. Grand canopied domes adorned the shrines which were in the commercial centre.

Ganesh shrine in Bangkok

Trimurti of Brahma Vishnu and Shiv

Lord Indra

Indra beauty of sculpture

I proceeded further and came across yet another shrine dedicated to lord Indra exquisitely carved from green stone in another quarter, with worshipers. What superb artistry and craftsmanship the Thais possess – I haven’t come across such mastery in sculpture  even in India except in ancient temples. Indra, the chief of all Vedic sub deities associated with the elements, is popular in Thailand for granting boons and has a large following. I was surprised to find that every bench in parks in Bangkok had a golden emblem fixed on the back seat showing Indra riding his mythical elephant.

Near a 5 star hotel i was amazed to see a pavilion with a deity in it half Shiva as a male and Vishnu the other half as a female a unique conjoining of two deities which only the Thais could conceive of. In India the cosmic hermaphrodite is depicted as Shiva and his consort in one body.

Shiva as male Vishnu as female in one body

As if this were not enough I found a shrine for the goddess of wealth and prosperity, Laxmi in the heart of the popular Gaysome Mall in Bangkok. The story went that when a number of bankruptcies occurred in the neighborhood , Thai merchants decided to seek her protection and blessings and installed the shrine.

Laxmi at the roof of a mall

Outside the Intercontinental hotel another shrine was dedicated to Narayan, showing a bronze statue of Vishnu astride the Garuda.

Narayan, Vishnu astride a Garuda

 

However apart from the shrines and altars at public places there are only a few Hindu temples in Thailand, one in particular is dedicated to the goddess, in Bangkok which has become a centre of pilgrimage for Thais. Hardly any Hindus or Indians are seen there compared to the numerous Thais who seek blessings from the priests, bow and pray intently and make offerings. On Navratra the great Hindu festival celebrated throughout India ushering in the new Hindu year,and invoking the presence of the goddess during the nine nights, the Hindu temple in Bangkok becomes a centre of activity. Thais devoutly carry images of the goddess through the streets in palanquins and road side vendors assist the procession for several kilometers. There is no conflict with other faiths and the Thai authorities enable the procession providing police protection and arrangements to keep the crowds orderly. It is amazing that worship of the goddess has taken root in Buddhist Thailand.

 

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Many  Thais believe that it is easier to win favour of and access a Hindu god for mundane purposes of daily life, than the Buddha who is more concerned with teaching right behaviour and helping with attainment of Nirvana or enlightenment.

While Brahma is universally revered in Thailand, in India there is only one temple dedicated to him. His role in helping the Buddha gain enlightenment is the reason for Thai devotion. He is also believed to grant all wishes.

I didn’t see many Buddhas at road side shrines though 98 % of Thais are Theravada Buddhists. The grand golden Buddha, 50 tons of solid gold and other gold plated Buddhas found in numerous ornate temples where worshipers flock in large numbers from the youth to older generations indicates a strong and universal faith and spirituality. Youth are enjoined to assume monkhood for a couple of months before seeking employment to discipline them and familiarize them with Buddhist teachings. The benign presence of the Buddhas is aesthetically pleasing and the ultimate in art and sculpture.

The Golden Buddha

 

Rclining Buddha, Parinirvana

Buddha at the Royal Temple, a Vihara for monks

Mahathat temple Bangkok for training and housing monks

Hindu God’s again make an appearance outside Buddhist temples called Wats, such as a bronze Vishnu pulling a bow outside a Buddhist chapel at the national museum, a real work of art at which I kept gazing for long.

Vishnu with bow

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Again at the royal Vihara where relics of the Buddha are enshrined, outside stand guard two giant statues of Shiva and Vishnu.

Vishnu outside the shrine of Buddha relics

Shiva at the shrine of relics

The corridors at the royal palace complex are replete with murals depicting scenes from the Hindu epic the Ramayana with good reason. The national dance the Ramakein is derived from the Ramayana.

The Hindu influence is strong at the royal palace where the chief priest called Rajguru is a Thai Brahmin assisted by a group of Brahmins from India for performing rituals associated with the monarchs coronation, birth and funeral. By tradition this takes precedence over Buddhist prayers and rituals, inherited from royal practices in ancient India like bathing the monarch with holy waters from the rivers and chanting prayers in Sanskrit. Then follow the Buddhist monks with their chants and prayers in keeping with the Buddhist Theravada rites. There is total tolerance for the Hindu customs and gods and it is difficult to separate Buddhism and Hinduism. Thais feel that Hinduism is not a separate religion  but an offshoot of Buddhism. Here there is amalgamation of the two creating an ambrosial mix of two great traditions both having their origins in India. The Buddha was after all an Indian prince several hundred years before Christ, whose teachings spread far and wide  to South East Asia, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan,Mongolia, China and Japan. In India the Brahmin priesthood sought to divorce Buddhism from India. In Thailand there is no such divorce. The two coexist in total harmony as one.

Not therefore surprising that the monarch is considered  as an incarnation of Vishnu and assumes the title of Rama his avatar. Thus we have monarchs for generations styling themselves as Rama I to Rama XI. Thus numerous streets are named Rama I to XI. The Thai national emblem is the Garuda, Vishnu’s steed, half man and half eagle. On the walls of Buddhist temples the Garuda is shown as holding up the sky. Banks have the Garuda as their logo as too the official stationary of the Thai government. Alters dedicated to the king have a Garuda at his feet.

Altar to the king at a shopping mall

Shops are full of Buddhas and Hindu gods. One popular theme is Lord Rama in Thai royal attire pulling his bow.

Ayothia the ancient capital of Thailand is a tourist’s delight. Here there is a reclining Buddha of stone some 200 feet long in an open field. A giant Buddha statue adorns one of the ancient temples.

Buddha at Ayothia

The very name Ayothia is derived from the Indian town Ayodhia considered the birthplace of lord Rama in mythology.

Finally I visited the magnificent museum near the Royal Palace complex in the old city. Apart from numerous Buddhas in various Mudras there were the Hindu gods from antiquity.

Shiva at the museum

Vishnu at the museum

One final surprise awaited us as we departed. The Thai airport is named Swarnbhumi, which in Sanskrit means land of gold, indeed so appropriate. As we entered the lobby we witnessed a grand tableau depicting the Hindu myth of the churning of the cosmic seas by gods and demons holding a serpent with Vishnu astride a tortoise round which the churning was taking place. This produced the nectar of immortality, a vicious poison and the goddess of wealth. Here too the Thais had embraced a Hindu myth for all visitors to see on arrival and departure. As we departed, these memories of Thailand’s Hindu connections and the extraordinary piety and spirituality of the Thai people left us overwhelmed. We fell in love with Thailand and its gracious people.

The holy churning of the cosmic ocean

Vishnu on a turtle at the churning

 

There is total tolerance for the Hindu customs and gods and it is difficult to separate and Hinduism. Thais feel that Hinduism is not a separate religion but an offshoot of Buddhism and there is amalgamation of the two creating an ambrosial mix of two great traditions both having their origins in India.

Kesri Singh Mandawa

Suddenly someone who you loved and knew intimately all your life leaves your radar screen and disappears like a fallen aircraft does from the screen of Air Traffic Controllers.  My dear cousin Kesri is one such, who after a month in the ICU at hospital had a heart seizure.  He had stopped smoking for the past twenty years and took care of his kidneys which a month ago were no worse than mine. But after his youngest brother passed away, ten years younger, he was quite inconsolable, though he didn’t show it. He arranged a grand funeral for him at his village fortress, but after the cremation, for the first time, he began neglecting himself and went out canvassing for the General Elections in India in the open 48 degree midday sun, and suffered a heat stroke and kidney failure. He was rushed to Jaipur three hours away and admitted to hospital where they placed him in an ICU. There when I visited him, he joyously greeted me, waving both arms and was also chatty with the nurses. But he did not survive beyond a month.

Kesri’s Funeral at Mandawa

 

Sure, he must then have joined his parents’ souls waiting for him. So dear Kesri then left this world and joined the spirit world meeting his mother, father and 95 year old grandfather. 

Dear Kesri is therefore, alas, no more. What a maverick personality he was and an achiever. He had a finger in every pie and a concern and compassion for his family, extended family and people at large. He was always there for anyone who approached him with a kind word, providing help they needed. He looked after his brothers, their families, his own family, wife, daughters and a son, and even the grandchildren. He was always on the lookout to meet his uncles and their kids, arranging parties and get-togethers so that no connection was ever lost, like a grandsire.

In that respect, he was much like his parents whose home was always open to relatives and all and sundry with the warmest hospitality and affection you can imagine. From childhood my siblings and I were always there. He inherited those qualities.

He was also a great entrepreneur, full of initiative, and built his fortress in the village into a grand four-star hotel where tourists from overseas and home visited, feasted and were provided every conceivable comfort. It is today on the map of the world, “ Mandawa Castle”, and in Jaipur he turned their villa into another hotel called Mandawa Haveli. Places to be a must-visit for foreigners. He also set up a Desert Camp with 50 rooms and tents, replete with the latest luxuries for tourists in the village. Indians and foreigners came in flocks to this renowned but remote tourist site promoted meticulously in foreign capitals and on the website.

He discharged all his responsibilities with equal vigour and concern, marrying his daughters and son with great fanfare at the fortress in Mandawa where governors, maharajas, ministers, relatives and the social elite all congregated to enjoy the festivities. These events were spectacular and full of traditional hospitality which few can equal. Dance, folk music, torch bearers, puppet shows, and the finest cuisine and drinks to fulfil all expectations were all there. What fun we had at these events with Kesri the magnificent host.

He cared for the aged older generation with the same fervour ensuring their presence at all these events like his 90 year old mother’s sister, who circumambulating his coffin, said, “I have lived too long. Now it’s my time to go.”

I knew him first as a kid of 7 joining the ETON of India, Mayo College. We remained in touch over decades a close and warm relationship, as he grew from being an energetic kid into a great entrepreneur, full of compassion for family concerns and the desire to develop his fortress.

He also joined as governing member of Mayo College at Ajmer, Rajasthan, and developed it with fervour, always present at its events. He then spawned an extension of the college for resident girl students and a Mayo Girls came up where people from faraway places like Nepal sent their daughters to receive boarding education which was hardly available elsewhere.  At Mayo College he developed sports like polo and golf which facilities didn’t exist in other public schools.

Kesri was always a dynamic personality, full of energy and spirit, despite his health, and managed to survive to the age of 73. I called on him a year ago and requested a peculiar favour. I said, “When I die, I would like you to take care of my funeral.” He smiled and said, as was his wont, “Sure, I will, but who knows who will go first“- Prophetic words for he has preceded me.

I miss him terribly and I am sorry being overseas could not be there for his funeral.

He came thrice to see me when I fell and broke my hip and had surgery. Each time, he was so full of love and concern. May his great soul rest in eternal peace with his dear parents.

I remember, vividly, just two months ago at the funeral at the fortress he sat beside me as the cremation proceeded and chatted for half an hour as if he had a premonition that this would be our last meeting. He was always full of humour and in parting said that I should spend another night there considering that when his mother had wed the Mandawa barat had spent three nights at our village.

It is going to be a challenge for his only surviving brother, Randhir, some seven years younger, to bear the loss, guide the family affairs, and carry the Mandawa flag, having lost three brothers in as many years. Our sympathies go out to him. May God give him the courage, strength and discretion to carry on.

Randhir Mandawa

And Kesri’s dear wife, Bindu, who cared for him all his life, as a doctor would have, must be quite inconsolable. Whenever I asked him about his health, he would say, “I don’t have a clue. Ask Bindu, she knows it all.” May God give her the strength to bear this irreparable loss to be able to guide her children and grandchildren in the times ahead. May his spirit be constantly with her at her elbow to provide the same strength love and compassion as he did when he was alive.

Kesri and Bindu with their children: Geetanjali, Priyanjali and Shivarjun.

His two daughters Gitanjali and Priyanjali are now mature, with children almost out of their teens. He had the pleasure of being a grandfather many times over. They and his son, Shivarjun, are sure to miss his guiding hand, but he taught them about life and they should fare well.

Never failing to discharge his duties to the very end, he went campaigning for the General Elections in the midday sun which proved fatal. As they say the brave conscientious warrior was brought home dead to find eternal peace and rest.

Here, I am in conclusion, reminded of Rajput warriors who became the legendary “ Jhunjhars” who kept on fighting and remained in the saddle even when their heads were severed, like dear Kesri at the Election Campaign and later battling life in the ICU. This was a true Jhunjhar if ever there was one. 

Kesri: The Jhunjhar

 

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