Historical & Cultural Ties between India & Thailand

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Historical & Cultural Ties between India & Thailand

By Mrs Wanna Sudhit September 2003
Summary of speech by Mrs Wanna Sudjit, Cultural Attache to the Thai Consulate Mumbai. Talk was made to the members of ‘Somwar Mandla’ on 18/11/02.
Friends I would like to thank Mrs Sudjit for this piece, is a good starting point. For your convenience have divided her talk into three chapters –

  1. Historical Links.

  2. Dance, language.

  3. Ceremonies.

Historical Links Chapter 1
‘India and Thailand have enjoyed a close and mutually enriching relationship for over a millenium and the friendship seems to be growing by leaps and bounds even to this present day. I stand before you today to celebrate and pay tribute to this close friendship. With sincere gratitude I thank Mr. S.D. Supanekar and the Somwar Mandal for me giving me this opportunity to present a brief overview of the historical roots and growth of our friendly relationship.
This close and cordial relationship between India and Thailand is rooted in centuries of continuous interaction. The importance of the influence of Indian culture on the development of Thai culture cannot be over emphasized. Thailand’s relationship with India spans over a thousand years and understandably this resulted in an adaptation of Indian culture to suit the Thai environment. Evidence of strong religious, cultural and linguistic links abound.
The single most significant cultural contribution of India, for which Thailand is greatly indebted to India, is 'Buddhism’. Propagated in Thailand in the 3rd Century B.C. by Buddhist monks sent by King Asoka, it was adopted as the state religion of Thailand and has ruled the hearts and minds of Thais ever since. Presently 58,000,000 Thais, an overwhelming 94% of the total Thai populace adheres to Buddhism. Due to King Asoka’s missionary zeal Buddhism quickly spread out through the length and breadth of Asia particularly to China, Japan, Myanmar, Laos, Kampuchea, Vietnam and Thailand. Tradition credits the Indian Bhikkus Sona and Uttara sent by King Asoka with introducing Buddhism into Thailand.
Historically, the cultural and economic interaction between the two countries can be traced to roughly around the 6th Century B.C. However, direct contact can be said to have begun only in the 3rd Century B.C. when King Asoka sent Buddhist monks to propagate Buddhism in the Indo-Chinese peninsula. Besides Buddhism, Thailand has also adopted other typically Indian religious and cultural traditions. The ceremonies and rites especially as regards the ‘Monarchy’ evidence a strong Hindu, more of which I will deal with a little later.
Buddhism as a religion promotes liberty and freedom. It respects the rights of a person to his/her beliefs and practices. I believe India and Thailand are basically tolerant counties, partly because of the influence of Buddhism. Though Buddhism all but vanished from India, its best precepts have been adopted by and incorporated into Hinduism. Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy of Ahimsa or Non-violence echoes the teachings of the Lord Buddha. It is interesting to note that though both countries have one religion, which is adhered to by an overwhelming majority of the total population, both permit and promote all religious communities and beliefs.
At such times we need to direct our attention once again to the teachings of the Lord Buddha. Hence, I present a brief overview of Buddhist doctrine.
Firstly-The 3 common characteristics:

  • Do good

  • Avoid evil

  • Purify the heart and mind to enable enlightenment.

Secondly – The Four Noble Truths, namely

  • There is suffering in the world.

  • Suffering is the result of craving or Desire.

  • This suffering can be ended or destroyed.

  • The Noble 8-fold path or Middle path can end this suffering.

Thirdly – “Nibbane” or “Nirvana”, which is the ultimate purpose that is beyond the control or power of anyone or anything. It is the breaking away from the endless cycle of rebirth, which binds human existence to its baser instincts. It must be sought with purity of mind and heart. Buddhism exhorts humans to pursue a mortal and ethical life, a life that resonates and reflects peace and compassion, contentment and harmony.

Nirvana can be achieved if one follows the Noble Eight-fold path or Middle Path, which comprises of:

  • Right View

  • Right Thought

  • Right Speech

  • Right Behavior

  • Right Livelihood

  • Right Effort

  • Right Mindfulness

  • Right Concentration

Buddhism thus proclaims that selfishness and desire bring only suffering and one must work to eliminate them. Love and compassion towards one’s fellow men bring happiness and peace of mind. Through the centuries, Buddhism has been the mainstay of Thai cultural development and has inspired every sphere of Thai life particularly architecture, sculpture, painting and early literature. In fact it is a customary practice for young men above 20 years of age to be ordained into the Buddhist order for a period of approximately three to five months atleast.

As I mentioned before, Thailand has also been influenced by other typically Indian religious traditions, besides Buddhism. These are Hinduism, Islam and Sikkhism.
The Indians who moved into Thailand in the Sukhothai period (1275-1350) were either merchants who came to Siam or Thailand, for the purpose of trading or Brahmans who played an important role in the Siamese court as experts in astrology and in conducting ceremonies. The first group of Indian Brahmans who entered Siam before the founding of Sukhothai as the first capital of Siam (1275 – 1350) popularized Indian beliefs and traditions. During the Sukhothai period Brahman temples already existed. Brahmans conducted ceremonies in the court. The concepts of divine kingship and royal ceremonies are clear examples of the influence of Brahmanism.
The ceremonies of Coronation of Thai kings are practiced more or less in its original form even up to the present reign. The Thai idea that the king is a reincarnation of the Hindu deity Vishnu was adopted from Indian tradition. Though this belief no longer exists today, the tradition to call each Thai king of the present Chakri dynasty Rama (Rama is a reincarnation of Vishnu) with an ordinal number, such as Rama I, Rama II etc. is still in practice.
In the Ayutthaya period (1350-1767), more Indian merchants entered the South of the country by boat as evidenced by the statues of Hindu gods excavated in the South.
After the year 1855, the Indians who migrated to Thailand can be classified into three groups according to the religion they believed in, namely, Hinduism, Islam and Sikhism.
Those who practiced Hinduism came from the North and South of India and the Punjab. Few northern Hindus engaged in trade in Thailand. Some who were well educated worked in Indian or British companies while others worked as middlemen between Indian merchants and government agencies or as exporters and importers. The poorer and uneducated ones made a living by selling cow milk or newspapers or by working as servants and watchmen.
The Hindus from the South of India were mostly Tamilians. They became teachers and company officers in Thailand. Those with a good financial status did Jewelry and export business. The temple, which is the center of faith of Thai Hindus, is Maha Uma Devi Temple or Wat Khaek in Silom District in Bangkok.
Those from Punjab traded in textiles in Phahurat and Sampheng Districts. Their religious center is Devasathan or temple in the Giant Swing District, Bangkok. There are many sects in Brahmanism-Hinduism, each having a different supreme god but with the same highest goal to attain salvation. The religion teaches that ‘karma’, i.e. the totality of a person’s actions in his or her former and present life, plays a significant role in the humans’ fate, a belief very similar in content to Buddhism. According to this philosophy, both happiness and sorrow in the present life are a consequence of actions in one’s past life.
Muslims from India are mixed with those from Persia, the Malay Peninsula and Khmer in Thailand. It is hard to distinguish them from one another. Muslims live mostly in the Southern province bordering Malaysia. Indian Muslims were engaged in trading and agriculture in Thailand. In Bangkok, they mostly inhabited Si Phraya District. Some merchants settled on the west Bank of the Chao Phraya River. Affluent Muslims owned jewelry, stationery and import & export business.
The Indian Sikhs migrated from Northwest India, Rajasthan, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh and Pakistan-occupied-Punjab. They went to Thailand with the hope of a commercially prosperous life. Today, many of them do textile business in Sampheng and Phahurat Disricts. Their religious center is Guru Singh Sabha located in Phahurat. The Sikhs believe in one supreme God. According to Sikh tradition God’s purpose in allowing us to be born into a human form is for the human being to return and become one with God.
Many Indian descendants still zealously retain their customs and traditions, adhering strictly to the religious tenets of their faith. According to the latest statistics of the department of Religious Affairs, there are 21, 125 Sikhs, Brahmans and Hindu is Thailand. Muslims are around 2,977,434 in number. It is unknown though, how many Thai Muslims are of Indian origin.
Dance, language Chapter 2
Thai literature and drama draws great inspiration from Indian arts and legend. The Hindu epic of Ramayana is as popular in Thailand as it is in India. Thailand has adapted the Ramayana to suit the Thai lifestyle in the past and has come up with its own version of the Ramayana, namely, the ‘Ramakien’. The greater part of this epic as you well know is concerned with the war between Rama the righteous king and Ravana or Thotsakan the king of Thotsakan the king of demons. The great battle was sparked off by Ravana’s abduction of Rama’s beloved consort Sita.
Two of the most popular classical dances the ‘Khon’, performed by men warning ferocious masks, and the ‘Lakhon’, performed by women who play both male and female roles draws inspiration primarily from the Ramakien. Percussion instruments and Pi Phat, a type of woodwind accompany the dance.
The ‘Khon’ is a masked dance drama, which mainly features stories from the epics especially the Ramakien – which is about the war between Rama and Ravana, who each mobilized a great number of troops and combatants, from the monkeys and demons respectively. The story is adapted to the Thai environment. Its performers must conform their steps and poses to the recitations and songs of the chorus and the music of the small orchestra.
In addition, there are shadow plays called nang-talung in Thai. This is a show in which shadows of pieces of cow or water buffalo hide cut to represent human figures with movable arms and legs are thrown on a screen for the entertainment of spectators. In India, this kind of show is called Chhaya nataka.
Thai language too bears close affinity with Indian An indication of the close linguistic affiliation between India and Thailand can be found in common Thai words like Ratha Mantri, Vidhya, Samuthra, Karuna, Prannee etc. which are almost identical to their Indian counterparts. Thai language basically consists of monosyllabic words that are individually complete in meaning. His Majesty King Ramkhamhaeng the Great created the Thai alphabet in 1283. He modeled it on the ancient Indian alphabets of Sanskrit and Pai through the medium it on the ancient Indian alphabets of Sanskrit and Pali through the medium of the old Khmer characters. Through a history of over 700 years, the Thai alphabet today comprises 44 letters (including 2 obsolete ones) representing 20 consonant phonemes, and 15 vowel signs, denoting 22 vowels, diphthongs and triphthongs. Like most world languages, the Thai language is a complicated mixture derived from several sources. Many Thai words used today were derived from Pali, Sanskrit, Khmer, Malay, English and Chinese.
Ceremonies Chapter 3
Several Thai ceremonies have been adopted from Indian tradition. These include ceremonies related to ordination, marriage, merit making and cremation. Though the Lord Buddha is the prime inspiration of Thailand, Brahma and other Hindu deities are widely worshipped among the Thais, due in part to the popularity of the Hindu ceremonial rites, which are used especially for royal ceremonies.
The Royal ceremonies traditionally performed in the Ayutthaya period were spread over 12 months. Some obsolete ceremonies have been abolished though others are still maintained with vigor. Some of the major royal ceremonies are:
(1) The Triyampawai Ceremony or the Giant Swing Ceremony. Originally a Brahmin ceremony performed to pay homage to the God Shiva, it was traditionally held front of War Suthat, while the King and Queen watched the ceremony from a gold silk pavilion. Though the ceremony was abolished during the reign of King Rama VII due to a severe economic fall, Brahman priests are still allocated money to make offerings to God Shiva.
(2) The Royal Ploughing Ceremony, which is officiated by H.M. the king at Sanam Luang in May every year with pomp. Originally a Brahmanic rite, it was adopted to mark the beginning of the farming season as also to bless all farmers with fertility for the year.
(3) The Royal Ceremony for preparing Celestial Rice or Khao thip which was said to be originally prepared by celestial beings in honor of God Indra. A portion of the celestial rice is offered to monks while the remainder was divided in varying quantities among the royal family, courtiers and household members. The making of the ambrosial dish has come to a natural end since custom demanded that virgins alone should perform the preparation and stirring of celestial rice.
(4) The Kathin Ceremony or the period during which Buddhist monks receive new robes, which generally falls in the months of October- November.
(5) Loy Krathong – the Festival of Lights which is celebrated on the full moon night of the twelfth lunar month, when the rainy season has ended and the rivers and streams are filled with water. The floating of lanterns, which began in the Sukhothai period, continued throughout the different stages of Thai history. Prior to setting their krathong afloat, people place in it a lighted candle, incense sticks, flowers, a coin and some food offerings. They make a silent prayer of thanks for the water received, a request for forgiveness for wrongs done, and a wish for the fulfillment of a secret dream. The present day understanding is that the festival is celebrated as an act of worship to Chao Mae Kangka-the Goddess of the Waters for providing the water much needed throughout the year, and as a way of asking forgiveness if they have polluted it or used it carelessly.
(6) Songkran Festival: Songkran day marks Thai New Year day. “Songkran” signifies the sun’s move into the first house of the zodiac. On the eve of Songkran Day, important Buddha images are assembled in the Dusidabhirom pavilion where a chapter of monks chant special passages to bestow blessings upon the palace and its dwellers. The festival is normally attended by H.M the King, who graciously present food and other offerings to monks and sprinkles fragrant water on the Buddha images.
For the public, Songkran is a time for rejoicing and merit making. The day begins with the early morning food-offerings to monks. People may go to the temple to make merit, sprinkle fragrant water over Buddha images and ask for blessings from the monks. Some also build sand pagodas or sand mounds in the grounds of the temple as a form of traditional merit making so that the temple authority may make use of the offered sand in maintenance work. Songkran is also a time for people to pay respect to elderly members of their family and those of superior rank by pouring fragrant water into their hands. In return they receive their blessings.
(7) Visakha Puja Day which is considered as the greatest Buddhist holy day as it commemorates the birth, enlightenment and death of the Lord Buddha. On the eve of Visakha Puja Day, food is offered to monks who chant their blessings in the Grand Palace and temples throughout the country. Royal urns containing the relics of past kings and queens are blessed by monks of the same number as the urns. Four lanterns and a flag are given as royal offering to each royal temple, and twenty royally sponsored sermons are given during the three-day observation. Nowadays, Buddhists all over the country participate in ceremonies marking Visakha Puja Day in order to renew their faith and devotion to Buddhist principles.
Other famous ceremonial holy days include Magha Puja day, in February and Asalha Puja day in July which commemorates the day on which Lord Buddha delivered the First Sermon to his five disciples, namely, Konthanya, Vassapa, Bhattiya, Mahanama and Assashi at Esipatanamaruekathayawan forest and there explained his theory of the Four Noble Truths (Ariyasai).
Besides ceremonial expertise, Indians were also famous for their expertise in the field of astrology. Astrology still has a great impact on several important stages of Thai life. Thai people still seek advice from knowledgeable Buddhist monks or Brahman astrologers about the auspicious or inauspicious days for conducting or abstaining from ceremonies for moving house or getting married.
According to the Thai monk Venerable Buddhadsa Bhikku’s writing, ‘India’s Benevolence to Thailand’, the Thais also obtained the methods of making herbal medicines from the Indians. Some plants like Sarabhi of Guttiferae family, Kanika or hursinghar, phikun or mimusops and bunnak or the rose chestnut etc. were brought from India. He pointed out that Thai food too was influenced by India. He claimed that Thai people learned how to use spices in their food in various ways from Indians.
In short, Thailand has drawn great inspiration from India. theatre and arts, language and ceremonies or even food habits. This has bonded the two countries in a unique and intimate manner. Way back in 1871 H.M. King Chulalongkorn visited India. Then again during the reign of H.M. King Vajiravudh (Rama VI) a senior court official visited India to collect relics of the Lord Buddha that had been enshrined in the Wat Sa-ket Pagoda.
This friendship received a strong boost when India and Thailand established diplomatic relations on 30th July 1947. After the Cold war, favorable circumstances led to a significant improvement in the atmosphere of bilateral relations. This was reinforced by increasing economic and commercial links, exchange of high-level visits from both sides, beginning with the visit by India’s Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi in 1986 and the Thai Prime Minister Gen. Chatichai Choonbavan in 1989. H.R.H. Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn visited India in April 1992 for 15 days. Former Prime Minister Mr. P.V. Narasimha Rao’s visit to Thailand in April 1993 set the stage for a substantive consolidation of bilateral relations.
Bilateral cooperation grew as such high level visits continued. H.R.H. Princess Chulabhorn, the youngest daughter of H.M. the King of Thailand, visited India from 19th November to 1st December 1996 in connection with the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) Award Ceremony. H.R.H. Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, second daughter of H.M. the King of Thailand, visited Andaman and Nicobar Island from 21st 26th December 1996. The present Thai Prime Minister Dr. Thaksin Shinawatra had visited India in November 2001 and in the beginning of this year.
Currently too, India and Thailand share an excellent rapport and I hope this friendship steadily grows thicker in the future. Here we are today, helping to make this bond stronger by sharing the riches of knowledge regarding each other’s customs and traditions. Participating in the festivities of Diwali reminds me so much of our own Thai festival – Loy Krathong. The lights of Diwali and Loy Krathong signify for me the promise of a new India and Thailand in a new world scenario. If one lighted candle can dispel the darkness, then two candles together can shed enough light to lead the way to prosperity. It is my fervent hope that through concerted efforts and mutual help and cooperation, India and Thailand will be able to surmount all obstacles and scale great heights in the future.
Thank you.

Email feedback to esamskriti@suryaconsulting.net

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