Competing Identities: the gods must be crazy!
You’d be surprised, given the fact that Thailand is predominantly a Buddhist country, how many of its religious relics and popular traditional beliefs can be traced back to Hindu origins.
There are images of the Buddha and Hindu deities found on the same temple walls, Hindu-style statues in Thai temples, and ancient Sanskrit inscriptions written on urns buried under Thailand’s capital city. It seems that these two religions coexisted peacefully for centuries before one eventually became dominant over the other.
All in all, the Hindu influence has given Buddhism so much more flavor and color in the ‘Land of Smiles!’ The intertwining stories of Hindu and Buddhist mythology have endowed Thailand with many beautiful expressions of artwork, architecture and religious practice. It’s no wonder the world over has fallen in love with this countries mystery, magic and madness!
Exploring the Hindu Origins of Temples in Thailand
Bangkok’s Most Popular Hindu Temple
Sri Maha Mariamman Temple is one of Bangkok’s most-famous Hindu temples. It’s other names are ‘Wat Khaek,’ or the ‘Uma Devi’ temple. Based on South Indian architecture, this temple dates back to 1879. After the colonization of India by the British Raj, many people from Tamil Nadu flocked to Thailand. Many of them became gemstone traders and a particular man from this group, Vaithi, built this temple.
It rests alongside Silom road(maps) and consists of three shrines, each of which are dedicated to the Lords Ganesh and Karthik. The Maha Mariamman shrine (The South Indian Hindu Goddess of Rain) takes centre stage and is an elaborate display of colors, intricate patterns and Hindu symbolism . Built conforming to the gopuram style, it is reminiscent of those prominent in South India.
The Devasathan Temple
The Devasathan is a Hindu temple established in 1784 by King Rama I. This temple is a key center for Brahminism in Thailand. The Brahmins in the royal court operate the temple, and perform several royal ceremonies per year.
Ayutthaya was Named After a Hindu God
Ayutthaya (near Bangkok and previously the capital of Thailand) is named after Ayodhya, the birthplace of Rama. Many rituals from Brahmanism are still practiced within its temples today, for example the use of holy strings and pouring of water from conch shells.
Which Hindu Gods are Worshipped in thailand?
Various Hindu-Buddhist deities are still commonly worshipped by Thais, such as Brahma at the famous Erawan Shrine. There are also statues of Ganesh, Indra (Vishnu), and Shiva, as well as numerous symbols relating to these and other Hindu deities scattered throughout the land.
Ganesha or the Elephant god is considered to be one of the most respected and worshiped Hindu gods in Thailand. In many places in Thailand, both temples and schools, they like to invite a statue of Lord Ganesha into the compound.
Ganesha is a God of success and highly respected by artists and within the Fine Arts department in Thai Universities. The structures truly hark back to the temples of India, hinting at cultural influences that can be traced to the past millennium.
Ganesh or Phra Phikanet in Thai is the god who can remove obstacles. He is also the supreme God of beginnings. Thai Buddhists often pray to Lord Ganesha before they start any important chapter related to their work/study/business — similar to the way Hindus in India and Nepal do at Ganesh temples.
It is common to see offerings (prasad,) being placed before the ‘tirtha’ of Lord Ganesha , in the form of small statues of elephants, varieties of fresh flowers, bananas, or other seasonal fruits.
Lord Brahma / Lord Mahabrahma (The Erawan Shrine)
The Erawan Shrine was built in 1956 by the Grand Hyatt Erawan Hotel in the Pathum Wan district. Here the main deity of worship is Mahabrahma (the ruler of the Brahma realm). There are other shrines here for worship such as Phra Trimurti, and Phra Khanate.
This shrine was constructed when an astrologer suggested the Erawan Hotel people build a small shrine to ward off all the negative energies. And the owner did just that. It is one of the most visited temples in Thailand and a real treat for sightseers.
The Goddess of rivers and water, the goddess Ganges, is also a key figure in Thai Mythology. Every year Thailand will have the Loy Krathong festival to thank the Goddess Ganges. People will make Krathong, a floating vessel made from any materials that can float on water with beautiful decorations with flowers and candles and the scent sticks, and then float in rivers, ponds, or reservoirs. It’s a site not to be missed!
The Goddess of the Earth, Phra Mae Thorani
The Thais adopted the idea from the Hindu belief that there is a holy spirit of the Earth. When farmers will start a new season of farming, they will pray to this goddess. There is no giant statue or shrine of this goddess, but she is very well-known and can be seen everywhere in symbols and artefacts.
When Thais go to make merit at temples, they will pass the merit to their dead loved ones. There is usually a ceremony where monks will chant a mantra to pass on merit to the spirits of those who have died.
During the chanting, people will pour water from a jar into a container. This is a symbolic ritual to pass the merit to the water. Then the water will be poured under trees or any ground in the temple. People will ask Phra Mae Thorani to pass the merit to the spirits.
The Narayana Shrine
There are a total of 5 various Hindu shrines dedicated to each god near the Narayana shrine. This is located in the Intercontinental hotel. A lot of locals believe that Lord Narayana is the protector of the locals and their livelihood. The Lord also protects them from any illness. Thus, they worship this Lord regularly. You can easily see the Narayana Statue under the Ratchaprasong Sky Bridge. A lot of people believe that this Lord brings peace and spirituality.
This shrine is located in front of Central World Bangkok near the Ganesh Temple. Here you must observe a certain way of offering your obeisances to God. As many locals do, you need to offer exactly nine red incense sticks, red candles, red roses, and fruits. The best time to visit this shrine is in the evening. This God is known for granting all the wishes of love and prosperity which explains the need for red roses and fruits.
The Legacy of Hindu Influence in Thailand (the history)
It has been noted by archaeologists that there was no clear migration of Hindus to Thailand, rather it was their culture which blended with Thai culture over time. The Hindu influence on Thailand’s religious traditions began with trade between India and Southeast Asia.
Archaeologists have uncovered an ancient statue of Shiva dating back to around 700 CE proving that Buddhism and Hinduism have coexisted in Thailand since at least this time period.
Hinduism arrived in Thailand partly along the land route from India via Burma, but also traversed the Bay of Bengal to Indonesia and was instrumental in the establishment of the maritime Sri Vijaya Empire. It is from Java that Hinduism also spread to Cambodia, and what is now Vietnam, and northwards to Thailand – absorbing local cultural elements along the way.
Years of invasions and especially the Khmer rule (9th to 13th century), left remnants of Hinduism in Thai culture. Many Hindu elements have continued until this day and are accepted as part of common Buddhist/temple rituals.
During the Sukhothai and Ayutthaya periods (1238 – 1767), the sizable presence of a number of Indians in the Thai court is also described by several western travelers of that time.
As far as modern Hindus go, they are just a small minority. The Thai Census of 2005 reports there were 52,631 Hindus living in Thailand, making up just 0.09% of the total population, some of which can be attributed to the influx of Indian migrants from the 1920’s.
Go See the Festival of Lord Ganesha (Ganesh Chaturthi)
The festival of Lord Ganesha is the most awaited spiritual festival among Hindus, and has remained a popular celebration throughout Thailand. Artisans spend months making statues and idols of lord Genesha right before the festival starts and the festival is quite a colorful spectacle for those looking in.
When is the Ganesh Chaturthi festival in Thailand?
Ganesh Chaturthi is celebrated on 10th September. It ends after 11 days from the starting date.
During those 10 days the streets are filled with people who are happy, excited, and positive about the future. Neighbors come together to take part in the Puja (worship of Hindu deity including rituals and offerings). During the Puja, each and everyone asks Lord Ganesha to help them give them the power to deal with any misfortune.
After the Puja ends, people eagerly wait for the spiritual and delicious prasad (fruits, etc which are used in chanting), and it is said the essence and flavors of the fruits come out to be more delicious because of the positive environment!
All this positive energy seems to have an impact on the community as many are able to leave their darkest hours behind and enjoy moments of peace, tranquility and spirituality.
As one local puts it, “Trust me those 10 days are the happiest times of all the people in our community cause during this time no one is sad and no one is complaining about their misfortune”
From the abundance of hindu symbolism plastered over Thailand’s many temples to the elaborate worship rituals practiced by the monks of today, the influence of Hinduism in Thailand has prevailed. In the temples, homes, shops, or schools there are statues of Ganesha everywhere you go!
This ancient religion has left a major impact on Thailand’s art , architecture and culture. So, if you are looking for a spiritual journey or just want to learn more about the Thai religions and cultural practices, make sure to come and visit the ancient ruins, historical sites or even a local Thai market. You’ll be amazed at just how Hindu things really are in Thailand!