Thai Brahmins - Royal Priests of Thailand

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    The new king of Thailand took charge of the country as King Rama X, after an elaborate coronation ceremony in Bangkok on 13th May 2019. King Vajiralongkorn is considered to be the upholder of Buddhism in Thailand, but is designated as Rama, a Hindu god. What is even more intriguing is that his coronation ceremony was carried out by a group of Royal Thai Brahmins who trace their origins to Hindu Brahmins of India.

    Hinduism like Buddhism had spread to Southeast Asia from India and was the state religion of some of the kingdoms in the region. Main reason for this was maritime trade between India and Southeast Asia, and later immigration of Brahmins to the region.

    Brahmins have always been an important part of Southeast Asian civilisations. In fact, the founding king of Funan according to Khmer mythology, was an Indian Brahmin named Kaundinya. Historically, Khmer royals intermarried with Brahmins of their courts or from India. For instance, Princess Rajalakshmi, daughter of King Rajendravarman of Khmer Empire, and the sister of King Jayavarman was married to an Indian Brahmin named Divakara Bhatta. Kingdoms of mainland Southeast Asia were either Hindu or Buddhist. Irrespective of their state religion, kings required Brahmins to officiate the coronation ceremony to claim legitimacy.

    Importance of Brahmins in the Royal Thai court is mostly due to the concept of ‘Devaraja’ or God-king. Role of Brahmins was important for institutionalising it. The idea of Devaraja travelled from Tamil Chola rulers to Hindu Javanese kingdoms of Indonesia, and was borrowed by Jayavarman II of Khmer Empire of modern Cambodia. In time Khmer monarchs converted from Hinduism to Buddhism, but continued the practice. This practice was then borrowed by Buddhist Thai kingdoms as they were once tributaries of the Khmers.

    Thai kings were dependent on Brahmins who acted as their priests, ministers, doctors, astrologers and court poets. The first king of Ayutthaya, Ramathibodi I, got his coronation consecrated by a Brahmin who was brought to Thailand from the Indian holy city of Banaras.

    There are three types of Brahmins in Thailand. First are the Brahm Luang or Royal Brahmins who hold a monopoly on coronation ceremonies and other important rituals. They claim descent from the Hindu Brahmins that migrated to Thailand from India. Second are the Brahm Chao Baan or folk Brahmins. These do not belong to a lineage of Brahmins but are inducted as Brahmins and have small knowledge of rituals and ceremonies. The third kind are those who migrated from India in modern times.

    The Brahm Luang are ethnic Thai Brahmins but claim descent from Brahmins who had migrated from India during the Ayutthaya period. According to the Chronicle of the Brahmans of Nakhòn Sī Thammarāt, their ancestors had migrated to Ayutthaya from a place called Ramarat, which is believed to be Rameshwaram in Tamil Nadu due to its cultural similarities.

    In the 19th century, king Mongkut or Rama IV diminished the role of Brahmins in government in a process to modernise the country. The status of Brahmins saw a further downfall during the reign of King Prajadhipok or Rama VII due to the Revolution of 1932. The revolution ended absolute monarchy in Thailand and removed Brahmins from the status of nobility. The number of court Brahmins was reduced to five and many of the ceremonies were discontinued. But King Bhumibol Adulyadej or Rama IX restored some of these ceremonies and increased the number of court Brahmins to nine.

    The coronation ceremony is referred to as ‘Rachaphisek’ in Thailand, which is derived from Sanskrit ‘Rajyabhisheka’ and is a practice of purification bath. Similar to Thailand, coronation ceremonies of Cambodian monarchs are also carried out by local Khmer Brahmins, and historically has been the case with Burmese monarchs, before Burma was annexed into the British colonial empire and the Konbaung monarchy was abolished. Thailand, Cambodia and Burma being Buddhist nations require Brahmins to officiate the coronation ceremony.

    When the founding king of the current dynasty, Rama I built Bangkok, he constructed a Hindu temple complex for Royal Brahmins called Devasathan just close to Buddhist temple Wat Suthat. Today it is the office and residence of Royal Thai Brahmins. There are shrines of Vishnu, Shiva, Brahma and Ganesha inside the complex.

    One of the important ceremonies conducted by the Thai Brahmins is the Trīyampawāi-Trīppawāi ceremony. It is a combination of two ceremonies, Trīyampawāi and Trīppawāi. The former is derived from Tiruvempāvai, a Shaivite text by Tamil poet Māṇikkavācakar, and the latter is derived from Tiruppāvai, a Vaishnavite text by another Tamil poet Āṇḍāḷ. These two ceremonies were merged into one at the beginning of the Bangkok period, for simplifying the Brahmanical ritual calendar, suggests Nathan McGovern in ‘The Trīyampawāi-Trīppawāi of Thailand and the Tamil Traditions of Mārkaḻi’.

    The Trīyampawāi-Trīppawāi ceremony is best known for the Swing Festival. Once it was a spectacular festival that was held at The Giant Swing outside Devasathan. During this festival, Vishnu, Shiva and Brahma were sent back to heaven on a haṃsa, i.e. swan, while chanting Tamil hymns. After the Revolution of 1932, this elaborate festival was discontinued in 1934. Two main reasons for this were safety issues and unnecessary extravagance.

    Another important ceremony officiated by the Royal Brahmins is the ‘First Ploughing Ceremony’ or as it is locally called ‘Raek Na Khwan’. This ceremony takes place during the sixth lunar month, which coincides around March to April. In this ceremony, the king or his representative performs the ritual of ploughing of fields to ensure good harvest for the year. This practice is also common in Cambodia, and was formerly also practiced in Burma. This tradition of royal ploughing ceremony finds its mention in the Ramayana, as well as in Buddhist sources.

    Not just the royal family but even the commoners of Thailand invite Brahmins to perform ceremonies. Priyawat Kuanpoonpol says in ‘Court Brahmans of Thailand And the Celebration of the Brahmanic New Year’ that most of the common people’s ceremonies are conducted primarily by Buddhist monks, while the Brahmins are called in case of serious matters, when Buddhist remedies have failed. This includes driving away repetitive bad luck, or consecrating a spirit house.

    While the modern Thai Brahmins consider themselves as Buddhist and worship the Buddha, it is quite evident from their rituals, beliefs and traditions that they are followers of Hinduism. Worshipping Hindu deities is not considered contradictory to Buddhist faith. The major philosophical difference between Hinduism and Buddhism is in the concept of atman and anatman. But even that is reconciled by the Buddhist idea of impermanent existence (anicca). In Thai society, there is no strict division between Hinduism and Buddhism. As long as the institution of Buddhist monarchy exists in Thailand, Brahmins and their rituals will stay relevant.

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