Written By John Hoskin
Photographed By Manit Sriwanichpoom
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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.