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When gods travel...

Although the temples in Thailand are exclusively Buddhist, the author was surprised to see that they also house Hindu deities that are popular in India. And the devotees follow many of our traditional forms of worship and rituals. It's fascinating how gods travel...

thailand temple

As I was watched my father offer his morning prayers to the small group of deities in our little ‘temple’ inside the kitchen, I recalled the many temples I had visited in Thailand during my summer holidays.

Besides the exotic natural beauty of ‘Amazing Thailand’, the country has many historical sites that are a common feature all across the land. Prominent among them are the temples, or wats as they are known in Thai.

Although wats are exclusively Buddhist, I was surprised to see that they also house Hindu deities that are popular in India. And the devotees follow many of our traditional forms of worship and rituals. This is, in fact, the case with most countries in Southeast Asia. It’s fascinating how gods travel…

For instance, the Giant Swing, or Sao Ching Cha, in front of Wat Suthat in Bangkok is dedicated to Lord Shiva. Built in 1784, this tall red swing was used in a traditional ceremony wherein brave men would swing up to great heights to catch a bag of gold coins with their teeth. The practice was banned many years ago because it was simply too dangerous! I was also amazed to see the large numbers of devotees that throng the small corner temple at Erawan, dedicated to Lord Brahma. Located on the main street in Bangkok called Sukhumvit, this recent temple, built at the site of an older temple, is considered very holy.

Then there are small roadside temples dedicated to Shiva and Ganesh. Most residential and commercial buildings have one or two small temples built from wood or cement at the main entrance or in the garden, dedicated to Hindu gods.

In Cambodia too there are temples dedicated to Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva -- the Hindu trinity. The world heritage site of Angkor Wat, in the province of Siam Reap, is an excellent example. In Cambodia, Hinduism flourished along with Buddhism during the 6th century Khmer civilisation. There are literary references to traders and royal entourages from south and southeast India travelling to “far away” lands and the islands of Southeast Asia. And when Indian rulers colonised and established their supremacy, from the 9th century onwards, architectural activity flourished, culminating in the magnificent Angkor Wat complex.

Angkor Wat is a fine example of trans-national Dravidian-style temple architecture built by local artisans using locally available material. During this period, many Indian scholars, religious teachers, performing artistes, artisans and traders are said to have travelled to these regions. The Sanskrit language and literature also flowered under royal patronage. And along with it came our myths, legends and epics that are elaborately depicted on the temple walls and sculptures at Angkor Wat. In fact, the entire province of Siam Reap is strewn with hundreds of religious monuments that depict this unique blend of traditions, both in architectural and artistic style.

The islands of Indonesia are another abode for the Hindu gods. The Ramadan temple in Java, built during the 10th century, has three main temples in the front yard, dedicated to Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. There are also accompanying smaller temples dedicated to the vahanas, or vehicles, of the chief deities. These include a temple for Angsa, Garuda and Nandi -- the celestial vahanas of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva respectively.

Besides the main deities, the depiction of nagas,or serpents, as motifs and icons on doorways, railings surrounding temples, etc, is common. Candle-holders near the alter within wats are normally sculpted in the form of a naga. Figures of dwarapalas, or doorway guardians, are popular in temples of these regions; the only difference is they are dressed in the traditional costume of the particular country.

This is as far as the architectural style is concerned. Even more far-reaching is the influence that Indian gods, and related myths and epics, have on the culture of Southeast Asia. The Ramayana, for instance, is ingrained in most forms of the performing arts, be it dance-drama or puppetry. While the main story remains identical to Valmiki’s Ramayana, the attire, including ornamental decoration, masks and weapons are particular to the region. There are interesting variations of the Indian Ramleela performance in Indonesia, Malaysia, Lao, Cambodia, Thailand and Sri Lanka. Take, for example, the version in Sri Lanka where Ravana, the Asura king of Lanka, is depicted as a noble and just ruler, and Rama of Ayodhya is the villain!

One could do extensive research on the diversity of narrative traditions of the Ramayana epic across Southeast Asia. What’s more, most of the Ramayana performers in Indonesia and Malaysia are Muslims! When gods travel across borders I think they also become more tolerant and accommodating…

-- Bina Thomas
(Bina Thomas is a writer and researcher based in Bangkok)

InfoChange News & Features, June 2008



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