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 Home > About Thailand > Thai Brahmans

THAI BRAHMANS

Written By John Hoskin
Photographed By Manit Sriwanichpoom


Scarcely anywhere else pays more genuine respect to tradition than Thailand. Magnificent temples and palaces, ancient cities, breathtaking scenery, idyllic beaches and islands may be the stuff of tourism promotion, but the underlying source of the fascination is more subtle. That certain something which makes all the obvious and plentiful attractions unique is the quality of 'Thai-nees' which stems in large part from the enchanting way in which traditional beliefs and prac tices have been preserved. And they are not artificially maintained to give the tourist some spurious sense of the ethnic; they are real, the very cornerstones of the society.

This may seem at odds with the modern facade of Bangkok -- highrise blocks, McDonalds and discos. But all that is superficial, it can be taken advantage of and enjoyed, yet it does not alter in any essential way the indelible 'Thai-ness' of the societ y. Running through the cultural fabric of the country are threads weaving consistent and distinctive patterns that have been constant since the founding of the first Thai kingdom in the 13th century. Among these, one of the most intriguing and influenti al is that of Brahmanism and the official standing of its followers.

With long hair tied up in a chignon and an all-while dress, they stand in marked contrast to shaved and saffron-robed Buddhist monks. There are only 10 of them and yet they are to be seen at every major royal ceremony and numerous everyday private rit es and rituals.

They are Brahman priests who, though small in number, play an integral role in the religious and ceremonial life of the nation, officiating in complementary and parallel fashion with Buddhist monks. Their place at the spiritual heart of Thailand dates back to the very beginnings of statehood, and their influence is inextricably bound up with that of the national faith, Buddhism.

More than 95 per cent of the Thai population is Buddhist, in practice as well as name, and the religion is one of the society's most cohesive and stabilizing forces. Yet Buddhism has historically been a tolerant creed and other doctrines have always b een allowed freedom of expression in Thailand where today numerous minority religions are practised -- Islam, Hinduism, Taoism, various Christian denominations and others.

Among these is Brahmanism, the ancient religion of India and the forerunner of both Hinduism and Buddhism. Numerically it is the smallest of the minority faiths in Thailand; in influence and meaning it is of the highest importance. Because of this, B rahmanism can scarcely be compared with other faiths. In its strict form it may be professed and practised by a few -- lay and ordained alike -- yet its function underpins all important royal ceremonies, as well as many of the beliefs that direct the dai ly lives of ordinary folk.

Today there are just 10 Brahman priests in Bangkok who are attached to the Royal Household and whose spiritual home -- and physical abode in some cases -- is the capital's one Brahman temple, the Deva Sathan, situated opposite the Giant Swing and adjac ent to Wat Suthat. Upcountry there are no more than another three or four.

The entire Brahman community in Bangkok comprise six families, or rather, as Brahman priest Shawin Ransibrahmanakul pointed out, six surnames, and thus the numerical gauge is the extended rather than nuclear family. Even so their numbers are now a mer e fraction of the countless Brahman priests who would have been found in Ayutthaya (Brahmanism's golden age in Thailand), and of the hundreds scattered around the country in the era prior to the introduction of a cons titutional monarchy in 1932.

A shrinking community, however, has not meant any lessening of the role of Brahmanism. Its function and practice remains as strong as ever.

Basically Brahmanism pays observance to a triumvirate of gods. Siva, Vishnu and Brahma, and a whole pantheon of lesser deities. It originated in India and out of it grew, quite recoganizably, Hinduism and, less obviously Buddhism.

In general, the term 'brahman' refers to the descendants of Indian migrants who came to Southeast Asia more than 1,000 years ago. Effectively nowadays Brahmans in Thailand are originally and natively Thai, although the genealogical link is with India. Certain characteristic physicial features may be discerned, but traces are now slight since no female Brahmans accompanied the earliest migrants and intermarriage came of necessity.

Those who still practise their religion are known as Thai Brahmans and they have a duty, like Buddhist monks, to preserve the traditions of their faith.

Exactly when Brahmanism first came to Thailand and Southeast Asia is uncertain because of the lack of any documentary evidence. However, explained Shawin, it is believed contact was made possibly as early as the second century BC, long before the Thai s became dominant in the region. There were most likely two migratory routes; one overland via Burma and the other by ship across the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea.

The influence of Brahmanism spread swiftly throughout Southeast Asia, taking strongest hold in Cambodia where the Khmer of Angkor embraced it ad it lent substance and support to their belief in the semi-divinity of their kings. Prior to this it had ea rlier found royal favour in the kingdom of Srivijaya which held sway in what is now southern Thailand between the 7th and 13th centuries.

When the Thais rose to power in the early 13th century and founded their first kingdom at Sukhothai, Brahmanism would have been well established. It would have been an influence in the southern Thai town of Nakhon Si Thammarat, although its direct ent ry into mainstream Thai society world have been more emphatic via the Khmer whose empire once included parts of Thailand and whose cultural legacy the Thais inherited.

Sukhothai was, of course, where the Thai also embraced the Theravada Buddhism that became the national religion. Yet from the vary first there was no conflict and Buddhism and Brahmanism have gone hand -in-hand as the Thais shaped their spiritual live s.

The kings of Sukhothai most probably inherited the presence of Brahmans at court from the Khmer. This world have been retained initially partly to provide continuity in the beliefs of the population over which the new rulers extended their sovereignty . A further reason for the retention of Brahmanism was its role as a source of learning. Brahman priests had long been respected for their scholarship. They had come not only to spread their belief, but also to give instruction in the Phra Vedas which cover all branches of knowledge -- for instance, Ayuraveda, the science of medicine and pharmacy and Nitiveda, the science of the laws and regulations of a nation.

While Brahmanism strengthened the concept of kingship and was a valuable source of knowledge, it also presented no clash with Buddhism with which the Thais had first come into contact from the Mon of the Dvaravati kingdom, and which was later reinforce d in the late 13th century when Sukhothai welcomed monks of the Sri Lankan school. In fact, explained Shawin, it is virtually impossible to separate the major tenets of Buddhism and Brahmanism.

The five precepts of Buddhism and its four Divine States of Mind (Phromvihara Si -- loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity) are concepts held equally by Brahmans and in part originated from that earlier religion. Indeed Buddhism h as adopted much from Brahman practice. Most obviously, the custom of holding candlelit processions around temples on major Buddhist festivals (prataksin) is a Brahman practice, the belief being that anything within the circle of candlelight anything with in the circle of candlelight will be blessed. The Brahman usage of this is commonly seen at the pre-ordination ceremony of Buddhist monks when, in the home of the novice, a Brahman priest will carry a lighted ceremonial candle around the celebrant and hi s family.

Moreover, Buddhism with its emphasis on the transcendence of earthly cares leaves scope for popular beliefs and rituals that address problems of daily life. Hence the enormous popularity of, for example, the Erawan Shrine in Bangkok where the status o f Brahma is widely regarded as a potent source of good fortune, benevolently granting all nature of wishes. There is nothing in Buddhism to contradict such practices.

For their part, Brahmans hold that Lord Buddha was the ninth of 10 manifestations of the god Vishnu on earth. The Buddha is further respected for his attainment of Enlightenment.

Although there is a strong Brahman lineage in Thailand, it nevertheless exists in a Buddhist society and thus the caste system is only a traditional one and is no longer strictly regarded in the same light as the Indian caste divisions (Brahman, warrio r, merchant and labourer). However, the system whereby only a blood offspring may succeed as a Brahman priest still exists.

Following the tradition, a Brahman ascetic as known as a Dhavichat, meaning twice born. The first birth is the natural one, the second is the one that comes with ordination, a ceremony that can only take place once a year at Triyam Pavai, also the Bra hman New Year, which, depending on the astrological charts, falls in either December of January.

Talking about the Brahman way of life, 32-year-old priest Shawin said he entered the priesthood at the age of 25 after the death of his father, the former Chief Brahman, thus maintaining the tradition whereby at least one son in each family inherits su ch a duty. His daily life, he explained, is similar to that of ordinary Thais except for the recitation from the vedas, a form of worship and prayer that should be performed at least three or four times a day.

Compared to Buddhist monks, his life as a Brahman ascetic is subject to less restrictions. He must not cut his hair as it is a mark of his acceptance of the ascetic life, otherwise he is free to follow a normal life -- marry, have children and so on. While white is the official dress of Brahman priests, other colours may be worn at ordinary times.

Daily routine is much the same as for the layman. A Brahman priest will usually awaken at 6 a.m. to pray. The daily recital of prayers is at the discretion of the individual, but the amount of merit earned is proportional to the amount of prayer. If no special rites are to be performed that day, the Brahman is free to follow his own pursuits; those belonging to the Royal Household have full-time employment as such, others pursue ordinary occupations as their means of livelihood.

Traditionally the most important rites conducted by Brahmans relate to the monarchy and include coronation, royal weddings, oaths of allegiance and the first ploughing ceremony. They also make astrological calculations for auspicious times for various ceremonies and undertakings. In former times they world also have interpreted a king's dreams and predicted fortunes in battle.

Today, said Shawin, there are seven major annual Royal ceremonies at which Brahmans officiate; the Ploughing Ceremony (held in May and the best opportunity for visitors to see Brahmans in their official capacity), the anniversaries of His Majesty the King's birthday and coronation, the three ritual occasions on which the monarch changes the seasonal attire of the Emerald Buddha at Wat Phra Keo, and the celebration of the god Siva's annual visitation to earth (a festival that was once celebrated by performances on the Giant Swing.)

Additional occasional Royal ceremonies in which Brahmans are involved include the King's acceptance of a new white elephant, the birth of a royal child, a royal cremation (when the Brahman's hair is left to hang down as a sign of mourning) and so on.

Among ordinary people, the Brahmans are called upon to perform a variety of rites, such as the setting of a spirit house, the laying of a building's foundation stone, weddings, pre-ordination ceremonies and various other occasions at homes, offices, sc hools and shops where blessing is given through worship and propitiatory duties.

At these times the priests will recite incantations of invitation to the dhevas (gods) and make offerings of candles, incense and flowers. Spirits will also be appeased by lavish food offerings of, most traditionally, a pig's head, fish, chicken and o ther delicacies.

Many of the rites are performed in conjunction with Buddhist monks, each performing their respective duties. Such dual ritual is seen in the Buddhapisek ceremony whereby the spirit is invited to enter an image of the Buddha.

An especially distinctive symbol of Brahmans seen at all ceremonies is the conch shell, an object that figures large in legends about Brahma and which is considered a source of triple good. It is used both as a container of lustral water (as poured in the wedding ceremony) and as a kind of musical horn.

As to the future of Brahmanism in Thailand, Shawin said that, despite declining numbers, it is hoped that the current level of 10 Brahman priests attached to the Royal Household will be maintained. He added that prayers for a son to follow the traditi on are a common feature of a Brahman's devotions. A changing society might make the priesthood seem less attractive for a youngster, but the functions which a Brahman priest fulfills remains as much in demand as ever, and the Brahman community, while sma ll, shows every sign of preserving that vital continuity with the past.

 


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