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.

IMG_0761

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.

 

imagesharadha-sharada-navratri-hindu-festival-sathorn-road-bangkok-thailand-D15TKBimage (1)

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

full size

profile

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.

Advertisements