By John Hoskin
Photographed By Manit Sriwanichpoom
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
(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
shrinking community, however, has not meant any lessening of the
role of Brahmanism. Its function and practice remains as strong
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.)
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.