Dialogue July-September, 2011, Volume 13 No.1
Brahman Cosmology in the Thai Monarchy of the 21st Century
The religion of Thailand is primarily Theraveda Buddhism, but for the monarchy the Hindu gods still hold sway over many important ceremonies which are looked over by the Brahman priests. The deities which comprise the Hindu pantheon are honored by having their own separate temples within the Devasthan temple complex located in the heart of Bangkok. The new capital was established after the burning of Ayutthaya in 1767. After nearly 250 years from the forming of the new capital, until today, the worship of the Hindu gods is still the most important aspect to the rites and rituals surrounding the Royal Palace. According to Marshall, (2011) the spiritual and cosmological foundations that underpin the monarchy are absolutely fundamental to an understanding of the role of the palace in modern Thailand. The royal ceremonies are conducted by Brahmin priests from the royal household and are a visible reminder of the influence Brahmanism has over the royal family. Yet few Thais take the time to understand their religious inheritance from India. Consequently, wanting to have a better understanding of the influence of the Hindu gods on the royal family, I was able to participate in one of the least understood royal ceremonies; The Swing Ceremony. With the assistance of Rajaguru Vamadevamuni, Royal Priest for the Office of the Royal Household, I was able to experience first hand how connected the Hindu deities are to the Thai court through the ritual of the royal swing ceremony.
It has been pointed out by Gray (2011) in her “Antimony theory” that the cosmology and symbolic systems of Western and Theravada Buddhist societies are so disharmonic as to be mutually negating. For Thailand, which began as a polity in the 13th century and heavily influenced by the then dominant Khmer culture based at Angkor Wat, the royal Devaraja belief system that was developed by King Jayavarman II in the early 9th century still exists today in the early 21st century within the Thai royal court. And even though over 700 years have passed since King Lithai ruled over Sukothaya the ceremonies and beliefs held in the early Khmer empire are still performed in the royal court of Thailand today. The definition and defining characteristic of this royal court can be experienced in the few remaining royal ceremonies which are still performed annually. However, to fully appreciate these royal ceremonies a brief overview of how the Thai cosmology was developed within the Thai royal court needs to be explained.
When King Rama I began to rebuild the Thai kingdom after Ayutthaya was destroyed there was a tendency to model the new capital after the design of Ayutthaya. However, this is an important time in Thai history because many of the Brahmin priests were killed and all most all the books were burnt. The task at the time was to rewrite the text that dealt with cosmography and this text was called the Traiphum Phra Ruang (the three worlds). Overall there are 31 levels which make up these three worlds. According to Winichakul (1994), space was a qualitative manifestation of imagined existence. This included the movement of the sun and the planets, the imagined space of Mt. Meru, the seven oceans and Indra’s heaven. All of these cosmologies have roots in pre-Indic times, and all of these areas of the early conceptions of space has been well researched. In his definitive work on Thai intellectual history, Reynolds (2006) states that from the Sukotaya period, the Siamese elite included spirit cults within religious practices which shows an affinity that the Southeast Asian culture had with Indian civilization. The amount of work to rewrite a new cosmography was no small task for the founders of the early Thai kingdom. The presence of Brahmins at the time of forming the religious rituals of the Royal court was essential in keeping a direct connection with the Hindu pantheon. Today there are only 13 Brahmins who assist in Thai royal ceremonies. These Brahmins must have a direct blood offspring; a tradition that goes far back into the history of the caste system of India. The influence of Brahmanism has to be understood as coming from Angkor Wat, the seat of the Khmer empire, which held that their kings were semi-divine. Our story for this paper begins with recognizing that there were Brahmin enclaves in southern Thailand in Nakhon Si Thammarat in which there presided a king.
This introduction is very brief and to describe every historical aspect as to how the cosmography was developed in Thailand would require looking very closely at the cosmology held in India. It is this osmosis and integration between Southeast Asia and India that the spiritual edifice of Thailand rests upon. And with King Rama IX nearing the end of his reign there is concern as to whether the conception of kingship will be maintained and a continuity of one monarch to the next will maintain the Brahmin tradition in Thailand. The relationship between the state and religious ideology is one of the most contentious issues facing the Thai kingdom today. The ancient traditions have been upheld ever since King Rama I began the new capital and are the same traditions which are upheld within the Thai royal court and looked over by the existing 13 Brahmin families.
There can be no question that layer upon layer of ritual alterations have been ushered in by succeeding monarchs which have changed many aspects of the rituals. Today the Giant Swing Ceremony no longer has the ceremony of the Naliwans swinging on the planks suspended between the towering teak pillars but instead only Hamsa is swung from two small pillars inside the temple dedicated to Shiva within the Devasthan temple complex. And when I asked the RajaGuru whether this reduction in the ceremony caused any significant change in the spirituality of the ceremony his answer was, “that was then and what is important is to focus on what is now”. The cosmology which came from early Sukotaya is still embedded in the rituals of modern Thailand but few of the citizens of Thailand are aware of this aspect to the significance the Brahmin families play in keeping an ancient tradition alive by involving the king directly in these sacred Brahmanic rituals. How ancient are these rituals? Very. What are they comprised of? They are comprised of forms and symbols mixed with sounds that ultimately aim to maintain a communication with those loftier aspects of man’s mind in the universe. The Brahmin is that person who maintains a direct connection with the imagined space of the gods within the universe. In this respect all the old Vedic gods are revered and worshiped by name including Shiva, Uma, Vishnu, and Ganesha. Inside the temple complex sits Brahma that supreme soul which accounts for the known universe.
Brahma at Devasthan temple Bangkok
The Giant Swing ceremony began when King Rama I erected one in his new capital in 1787. But long before it was used in Ayutthaya in 1625, it was used in the ancient kingdom of Sukotaya where SriLankan Brahmins and Buddhists came to Thailand and visited Sukothaya bringing with them ceremonial artifacts. There is mention that the swing may have come from Benares. There has, however, been no record of a swing being used at Angkor Wat in Cambodia even though the royal court at Angkor heavily influenced how the Thai court would conduct itself. It is conclusive that the swing was being used in ceremony in Nakhon Si Thammarat before 1625 because it was recorded that two Brahmins from southern Thailand had gifted King Ramathaibodi, 11th king of Ayutthaya, a swing to be used in ceremony (Van Fliet, 1640). The origins of the swing most certainly came from India and most likely from Tamil Nadu because the chants which are used in the swing ceremony are Tamil chants. The origins of this ceremonial swing have become the most important spiritual icon in all of Thailand with the exception of the Emerald Buddha which is in the Grand Palace. But the small Hindu gods Shiva, Uma and Ganesha used in the swing ceremony are also kept in the Grand Palace and are retrieved once a year and brought to the Brahmin temple for the annual swing festival but not before they are personally blessed and touched by King Rama IX. So the status of the King is maintained through the rituals which are overseen by the head priest and his other Brahmin priests. The only complete description of the royal swing ceremony was written by Wales (1931).
The cosmology which is incorporated into the rituals for the royal court emphasizes Mt. Meru and Mt Kailash. Mt Kailash is the home of Shiva and Mt Meru is the mythical cosmic pole, home of Indra and center of the universe. Each of the Brahmins wears a ring which is symbolic of the solar system or the universe.
Ring representing the solar system Ring representing the cosmic egg
When demonstrating the cosmology of the existing ritual which surrounds the giant swing we come very close to understanding a very ancient conception of the universe and one which connects the king to the center of the universe. The one other icon which plays an important part in the cosmology of the Thai religious culture is the city pillar. The original pillar no longer exists but was placed in the city of Bangkok the same time as the giant swing.
City Pillar in Bangkok
Both the city pillar and the giant swing have a counter part in India at Chitradurga. Chitradurga is a 9th century temple in India which also has the cosmic pillar next to a swing installation. So even though the swing, which was presented to King Ramathaibodi in Ayutthaya in 1625 was not made of stone, it represented the ceremony which came
Pillar and swing at Chitradurga
from India in antiquity. The question arises as to how the swing became as prominent as it did in India? There is very little historical record of the swing in India and any interpretation of its use has to be inferred. The ceremony which has built up around the swing in Thailand is more or less a way to honor the gods, and it is a late interpretation on how to use the swing as no mention has been made of how to use the swing from any records which survived the destruction of Ayutthaya. In many respects the swing is an enigma and even when Wales (1931) tried to describe its use and function he readily admitted it was one of the most difficult ceremonies for him to describe. Its not that there are not any reasons a swing is used in a ceremony for it is widely known that swings are very much a part of ceremonies the world over. Yet the scope and scale to which the swing was constructed and used in the temples of India indicates a much more serious intention for its construction was in place. So if we swing back in time from the 9th century to look for some other source of information regarding the swing we would have something to work with. If we swing forward in time from the 9th century the meaning seems to be lost and other interpretations for its use are extant both in India as well as the one remaining swing in Thailand. Fortunately we have clues if we swing back to the Vedic scriptures, specifically the Sankhayana Aranyaka (Keith, 1908). It is within this Vedic text that a complete description of the construction and use of the swing exists. Quoting from chapter 5 it states,
“Then the hotar gathering himself to the plank of the swing, draws in his breath thrice. Then after touching it with his breast and putting his right side over it he mutters thou art the sun. After them I mount for self rule, indeed, is, as it were, something more than royal sway. Then putting his right side over, he mutters, let the Adityas mount thee with the Jagati metre. They are the mounters. After them I mount for universal sway. Universal sway, indeed, is, as it were, something more than self rule.”
Considering that the Vedic scriptures are much older then the 9th century AD we have to realize the swing has been an integral part of ritual for thousands of years. But how do we interpret these lines in the Sankhayana Aranyaka and what is their meaning? It was after months of research I came across the research of Ravrindra Godbole and his life long friend Subhash Shivram Phadke who translated his book, “The Meaning of Vedas”, into English (Godbole, 2010). Both are from Pune, India and his book is about deciphering these passages from the Vedic scriptures which mention the swing. It is in this research we discover the secret rituals used in the Mahavrata. We find these passages mentioning a swing in the Aitereya Aranyaka (1.2.3) Quoting,
“They ask, “why is swing a swing?” He who blows is the swing.
“He swings forward in these worlds and then a swing is a swing.”
In the RgVeda (7.87.5) Quoting,
“On him three heavens rest and are supported, and the three earths are there in six fold order. The wise king Varuna hath made in heaven that Golden Swing to cover it with glory.”
Godbole has made a discovery, but it was not in relation to a swing. Godbole’s work was in relation to celestial bodies falling to the earth in the year 3100BCE. As a chemist, Godbole was analyzing soil sample in Harappa and discovered a vitreous paste substance which can only come from a meteor impacting on the earth’s surface. Godbole saw the Adityas as the shining ones coming to earth and saw the swing as a unique way to describe celestial phenomenon as described in the Taitiriya Aranyaka (1.7) Quoting,
“The swing is made from the wood of an Umbar tree. It is supported by erecting two poles in the ground. It is tied using a rope made from “darbha” grass, so that the seat of the swing is hardly 6-7 inches above the ground. The right to occupy the seat is only that of the Hotar. He approaches the swing, sliding like a serpent and puts his chin on the seat of the swing. Then he uses his hands to grip the ropes of “darbha” and assumes a sitting posture. While taking swings he is supposed to keep one foot hanging down so as to brush the ground as the swing descends, however, he is not allowed to touch the ground with both the feet simultaneously.”
What Godbole discovered was that ten mantras known as the Mahanamni Stotra from the fourth chapter of Aitereya Aranyaka emphasized the ancient origin of Mahavrata. Godbole also shows similarities with current traditions in India specifically the “Holi” festival both in south and northern India. The swing was a way to depict a celestial phenomenon of bodies falling to earth and the respect and rituals surrounding the swing as described in these verses were a way to honor these celestial deities. Comparing the time the Vedic scriptures were written with celestial phenomenon has been an on going study to interpret the poetic use of words used in ancient Sanskrit to describe the world the ancients were living in.
These references to the swing are the oldest references in any written document which indicate that the edifice of gods constructed through out the millennia have come from the original behavior of the heavenly bodies which were in turn characterized as a swing and the rituals associated with it. The swing is then a mnemonic device that rekindles the most ancient memories of our place on the earth and a way to unify us with the cosmos. It was not Godbole’s intention to find the meaning of a swing, but to associate the wording used in describing the swing with bodies falling to earth. When I saw how Godbole was citing Vedic scriptures to explain falling meteors I connected the dots and realized this was the source for the actual construction of the swing, even though its original meaning was a poetic expression for observing phenomenon in the heavens. It was ironic that in researching the swing I discovered another researcher who found out about the history of the swing from a totally different perspective. Once contact was made with Godbole it was then possible to fully understand his curiosity in interpreting the Vedic scriptures in a new cosmological light. But the discovery of the integration of ancient cosmological considerations for the use of the swing in the Vedic scriptures did not end with Godbole.
I also discovered that Dr. Deepak Bhattacharya, a researcher in Orissa, India, was the first person in India to make a direct connection with temple construction and a specific constellation. The constellation was Orion and the temple complex was located at Bhubaneswar, India. A flourish of correspondence and collaboration ensued and slowly more pieces of the puzzle on the origins of the swing were further uncovered. If we look at the time in which the RgVeda was written and when the temple complex at Bhubaneswar was constructed we have to conclude that those mentioning of a swing in the Vedic scriptures to describe celestial phenomenon, as pointed out by Godbole, had been known for over 3000 years and well into the 7th and 8th centuries when we see temple construction taking place in Orissa as well as many other places in India. There is not sufficient space in this paper to elaborate on the many other temple complexes which also incorporated the swing into their rituals so I will confine my comments to Bhubaneswar.
What we are seeing at Bhubaneswar is a complete integration of the heavens with the ritual in and around the temple complex at Bhubaneswar. Not only was Bhattacharya the first Indian scholar able to accurately demonstrate the influence of the constellation of Orion on the construction of the temple complex he also uncovered one of the most ancient indications of the swing being used within the temple complex. Bhattacharya uncovered the history of the “Rajo doli” or the swing festival in old Kalinga, India. He was able to show that the Gemini asterism and the sun get co-incident annually when the sun makes contact with the ecliptic and Gemini in the night sky. The name for full contact is “Sankranti” and is the main day of the swing festival. The term”Sankranti” literally and technically means being collinear with the ecliptic. All throughout India there are swing ceremonies and in the Ganga-Jumana river valley-plains, almost in all cases, the swing is associated with Lord Sri Krishna and Sri Radha. Bhattachaya has spent considerable time researching the etymology of many of the words used in the swing ceremony; the word “Doli” means (palanquin or swing). A swing inducer is referred to as a “Dulha” associated with the groom and the bride is referred to as the “Dulhan” or the swinger. What I am trying to indicate here with these findings is that there is still a usage and ceremony associated with the wording used in the RgVeda which in turn is connected to an event in the heavens.
In as much as cosmology is a way to define the natural order of the universe and seeing that reference is made to this order within the Vedic scriptures that cosmology even though it has undergone modification over the millennia, the connection to the gods within rituals and with temple construction was a way to create a link between the microcosm and the macrocosm. That much is well understood and has been written about extensively but the swing as an integral part of temple construction has gone unnoticed as a way to connect to the larger cosmological order. Bhattacharya has shown this, not only with the stars constituting the Orion constellation and their direct connection to the placement of temples on the ground, but also showing how the swing was used as a measuring device to watch the passage of stars across the heavens. From the 7th century to the 14th century what ever was the intended use of the swing its meaning has fallen into oblivion today. Yet it was still in use by the Brahmins of southern Thailand in the early 14th century because we know that a swing was gifted to a king in Ayutthaya in 1625. We do not know how big this gifted swing was but we can assume it was made of wood and most likely was erected and demonstrated for King Ramathabodi.
So rather than describing the Giant Swing, its history or its recent use in the early 20th century in Thailand I will concentrate on the existing swing ceremony that takes place in the Devasthan temple in the beginning of the 21st century. From the poetic mentioning of the swing in the RgVeda over 5000 years ago, and its known use in temples in the 9th century in India, the swing is still used in the sacred royal ceremony within the Thai monarchy. And even though the Giant Swing is known by all Thais as a major cultural artifact, only a handful of people know about the ceremony which takes place inside the temple. Below is a photograph of the Giant Swing which is in front of Wat Suthat at the end of Dinso Road, and the other is Hamsa, Brahma’s mount, suspended on a cross beam inside the Devasthan temple located on the other side of the giant swing which now stands outside in a traffic circle.
Giant Swing outside Hamsa on swing inside temple
The ceremony which took place with the Giant Swing outside has been suspended due to accidents with the “Naliwans” falling off the planks when trying to swing and reach for gold coins. After the giant swing ceremony was suspended the ceremony was confined to the Devasthan temple dedicated to Shiva whereupon once a year the gates of Kailash are opened and Shiva is invited to visit the earth for 10 days, after which he then returns to Mt. Kailash.
It is at this point that the Hindu cosmology of Brahmanism in the Thai state becomes a most fascinating juxtaposition of ancient sacred ways mixed with the secular world of materialism. The monarchy of Thailand rests upon these beliefs of a central pillar and its iconic swing. But whereas tourists and Thais alike can pay their respects to the City Pillar Shrine across from the grand palace, the giant swing stands in the middle of a traffic circle inaccessible and without any ceremony. Its only deep within the temple of Shiva will any indication of a swing ceremony take place, and when it does less than 100 people will attend. But for all its anonymity and exclusion from the eyes of onlookers the swing is the most significant connection to the Hindu gods and forms a link with Indra’s heaven. Perhaps the ancient beginnings of the swing will never be known, but the cosmological symbols used by the Brahmans consisting of chants, jewelry, gods, seasons of the year, and phases of the moon all keep alive a vestigial connection to the larger cosmological order. The Brahmins, within the royal household, are the only ones who can maintain this cosmogonic connection for the King. The King of Thailand is a modern day Cakravartin and his God/King status places him in the Devaraja belief system as a way to give Thailand its spiritiual signature as was originally incorporated into the kingdom of Sukotaya in the 13th century, and which stemmed directly from the court of the Khmer empire at Angkor. Thailand is the only country where this God/King relationship can still be seen today, and even though the country is a constitutional monarchy, the ceremonies surrounding the Royal household hark back to a long gone era when the King was thought of as a God. I would like to end this short outline of the Brahman cosmology in the Thai court by sharing an eye witness account of the closing ceremony when Shiva, Uma and Ganesha were returned to their home on Mt. Kailash. It’s a ceremony performed every year, yet few see it or know of it and it lasts for over 6 hours.
Sitting at the Bhadrapika the Rajaguru brings about access to other worldly realms by slowly and very deliberately conducting a ritual that has been going on for over two hundred years in the new capital of Bangkok. Most, if not all those in attendance are unaware of how the ancient ritual has been dynamically and magically orchestrated with a combination of sacred mantras, magical yantras and a ritual obeisance that is more than a sacerdotal exercise but a definite attempt to provide a passage for the mythical mount of Brahma to fly to the heavenly kingdom of the gods.
When the Rajaguru finally arises from his ceremonial center where all the magic has been orchestrated for the swing ceremony he carries with him in his left hand a small golden bowl with Siva, Uma and Ganesha comfortably resting on a bed of red roses. In his right hand he carries the large ceremonial candle which will be set on the cradle along with Hamsa and approaches the gilded swan awaiting its passengers. The hour has finally arrived and the continual blowing of the conch shells announces an event that demands ones focus on the suspended swan. The Rajaguru’s right foot touches the mortar and the magic yantra has been activated as he does his Pradaksina, three times in a clockwise direction, each time stepping on the mortar. The gods are removed from the golden bowl and placed in the mandapa on Hamsa’s back cushioned by the red roses for their ride to heaven.
Placing of the gods Shiva, Uma and Ganesha in the mandapa on Hamsa
If one thought that the crescendo of this ceremony was over it was not because it was then that two Brahmans, dressed in ceremonial white gowns accented with wide golden sashes, sat in front of Hamsa while another Brahmin took a seat on the temple floor directly next to Hamsa and the “Gumpa” (sacred water urn) and began to pull the sacred cord to swing Brahma’s vehicle. It was at this instance that a pure magical sound ensued. For if one thought a mantra were merely made up of incomprehensible sounds, formed by centuries of interpretations of Sanskrit, Hindi and Thai, which may be true, it was the combination of reciting two mantras, chanted together simultaneously, which created an aural space much like the space when Shiva visited earth ten days earlier. All those hours of procedures, placing of candles, washing of gods and sounding of conches fused into one grand ceremonial finale as Hamsa was slowly pulled back and forth as he took flight to Mt. Kailash with his godly passengers safe within a rose petal filled space and quietly, as if by some magical carpet, left this world and the lightness of being slowly faded away and the white marble floor of the temple once again became the solid reminder that one was back on earth.
For all the secular activities that were going on in the city of Bangkok during the early morning hours of the full moon on January 20th 2011, another event as ancient as one could imagine was again enacted providing Thailand with a regal connection to the Hindu gods so the Thai people could sleep in peace while unbeknownst to them their King was once again asking for protection for Thailand and its people from these celestial deities.
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