Thailand is a multicultural country with unique practices and, as in India, temples dot the land. But, it isn’t widely known that there is a huge South-Indian Tamil influence and presence too in Thailand's cultural renditions, festivities and rituals. Come along as we unravel them.
Glittering temples, vibrant and serene Buddhas, monk chants, reverence to the monarchs, flamboyant festivities steeped in traditions, eye-catching spirit houses and colourful idols of Ganesha and various celestial beings at every nook and corner explain the firm faith and belief of the Thai people in customs and traditions. These beliefs and religious festivities may come across as off-beat to a Western tourist or traveller experiencing these cultural aspects for the first time. However, for an Indian, especially a South Indian, this is just an extension of their everyday life!
The unmissable shades of Sangam Tamizh
As a culture and architecture enthusiast, I stumbled upon the many similarities between India and Thailand owing to the 2000 years of history these two countries share between them. It would not be wrong to say that Thailand is a microcosm of India's diversity.
Sangam, which translates to ‘confluence’ in the Tamil language, brought together poets and scholars of ancient southern India known as Tamilakkam. This heralded prosperous times for Tamil literature and arts, that spanned at least a millennium from 300 BC to 300 CE.
The poems belonging to this period were composed by Tamil men and women from various strata of society and is collectively called Sangam Literature. During this period, 2381 poems were composed by 473 poets, many of whom remained anonymous. From the Pandyas to the Cholas, each of the warrior dynasties nurtured and nourished art and literature across Tamilakkam.
That the Chola dynasty of Tamil Nadu ruled almost the whole of South-East Asia is a widely known yet often ignored historical fact. But, the influence of the Sangam land and the poetry and literary works of the Sangam Age is unmissable when in Thailand.
The Island of Phuket has a long recorded history. A chronicle dating back to 1025 CE indicates that the island's present-day name derives its meaning from the Tamil 'manikram' (crystal mountain) which is equivalent to the Thai words 'phu', meaning 'mountain', and 'ket', meaning 'jewel'.
Coincidentally, many travel brochures refer to Phuket as the Pearl of the South. And, the year chronicled coincides with the Chola conquest of South-East Asia.
From celebrations of Navaratri at the Sri Mahamariamman Temple on Silom Road in Bangkok to celebrating the Thai Pongal (Tamil harvest festival), the Indian diaspora in Thailand has been flaunting and celebrating their Tamil roots with devotion and reverence. Also, heartwarming is the fact that the Thai people in spite of being followers of Buddhism, widely participate in these festivities as they see an overlap of Hinduism and Buddhism in religious principles and teachings.
Many Hindu rituals that ought to be performed at the Ganges are conducted on the banks of the Chao Phraya River that is the lifeline of Thailand and is considered sacred by Thai people.
The month of festive fervour
The Tamil month of ‘Maargazhi’ starts around the 15th or 16th of December and ends on 15th or 16th of January. It is a period of heightened spiritual and cultural pursuits across the present-day Indian state of Tamil Nadu. A spiritual fervour virtually grips the people of this state, complemented by perfect weather that has a soothing nip in the air.
It is believed that Lord Vishnu in Krishna’s avatar (Hinduism) and in his rendition of the 'Bhagavad Gita' (Celestial Song) has proclaimed that the month of Maargazhi or Maargashira is nothing but his incarnation! Co-incidentally, it is an auspicious month for the worshippers of Shiva, too. And, it is heartwarming to know that Maargazhi is also celebrated in many parts of the world.
Vaishnavaites and Shaivaites are people of two different religious sects and are devotees of Vishnu and Shiva, respectively. Maargazhi being an important month for both - Shaivaites and Vaishnavaites - there are important festivals that fall during this spiritual month.
According to legend, Srivilliputhur Andal is the one who started Tiruppavai - the early morning spiritual singing during Maargazhi. Originally called Kothai Nachaiyar, Andal composed 30 songs known as the Thiruppavai, praising the god (Krishna/Vishnu) and the hymns consist of eight lines each. The first day of these mini-musical concerts commences with the ‘Maargazhi Thingal’ song and the month ends with ‘Vangakakadal Kadainda’ that is sung on Bhogi festival (Lohri) just before Thai Pongal.
Tiruvembvai is the equivalent of Tiruppavai but chanted by the devotees of Shiva (Shaivaites) and is part of Maanika Vaasagar’s 'Tiruvasagam' which translates to ‘holy script’. Interestingly, these holy verses from the Thiruvembavai are recited during the coronation ceremony of the Thai King, since the days of King Rama I of the Siam kingdom.
Celebrating Maargazhi the Thai way!
Yes, it is not just parts of South India that brighten up during the Maargazhi but also Bangkok, the Thailand capital. During a casual conversation with Tamilians settled in Bangkok, I got to know that a temple, known as the 'Devasthan', has been built for the priests and Brahmins who had migrated to Thailand many centuries before from as far as Rameswaram in Tamil Nadu.
The priests had impressed the then kings with their Vedic knowledge and enjoyed their patronage.
Also, the Indian influence is marked in religious practices and the presence of various Hindu gods and goddesses in the form of idols at various places, too. Ganesha and Shiva are particularly famous and the Shivalingam finds a prominent place in Thai temples. In Thai culture, it is believed that praying before the 'lingam' shall bring success, a bounty crop and happiness.
The 'Devasthan Bosth Brahmana' or 'Devasthan' temple has three 'lingams' and their origin is traced back to Rameswaram, the birthplace of Brahmin priests here who had migrated to the then Siam. It also houses the Trinity!
This is the place where the Thiruppavai-Thiruvembavai festival takes place for 15 days during Maargazhi in December and all the Brahmins in Thailand come and stay in the temple, reciting the verses, dishing out the prasadam (offering to gods) in complete reverence. In Thailand, the festival seems like a combined mix of Shaivism and Vaishnavism. They conduct a 'Dolotsavam', in which the gods are depicted to swing in an 'oonjal' (swing), which is a Vaishnavite tradition. Interestingly, the god depicted is Siva and not Vishnu on the ‘oonjal’.
In conclusion, let me just say that - there is more to the bond that India and Thailand shares, that is exciting and waiting to be unravelled!