Hindu and Buddhist influence arrived in Thailand from 250 BCE. Between the 9th and13th centuries, Mahayana Buddhism flourished in Thailand.  During the same time the powerful Hindu Khmer empire in Cambodia also had influence on Thailand.  The old capital of Thailand was known as Ayutthaya after Ayodhya, the capital city of Lord Rama’s empire. 

According to an article written by the Royal Thai embassy in India: ‘Thai kings between 1351 and 1767 were called Ramesuan or Ramathibodi (Rama the ruler). The kings were considered incarnations of Lord Vishnu or Lord Buddha.  All kings in the current Chakkri dynasty of Thailand are referred to as Rama. This tradition started from 1782.  The emblem of the Chakkri dynasty is Lord Vishnu’s disc intersecting with Lord Shiva’s ‘trishul’ or trident’.  

King Rama I (1782-1809) with the help of Brahmins, scholars and poets composed the Thai version of the Ramayan.  It is called Ramakian – the honour of Rama. He also built the temple of Emerald Buddha in his grand palace. The walls of the temple compound are decorated in murals telling the story of Ramakian in its entirety.  

King Vajiravudh, Rama VI (1910-1925), was a scholar well versed in Sanskrit and Hindu literature, including Ramayan and Mahabharat.  He wrote plays on Kalidasa’s Sakuntala and King Harsha’s Priyadarshika, the tales of King Nala and Princess Damyanti.  King Bhumibol Adulyadet, Rama IX (1946-2016) was the patron of the first Thai Buddhist temple built in India at Bodh Gaya. This was as part of the celebrations in 1956 marking 2500 years of Buddhism.  He also wrote a book called, The Story of Mahajanaka, Father Of Lord Rama.

The current king, Maha Vajiralongkorn Rama X was crowned in 2019.  His coronation was conducted by Brahmin priests who are well versed in Sanskrit and Tamil language. This link of the Buddhist kings of Thailand to South India’s Chola dynasty goes back to the 11th Century. 

Modern Hindu Icons in Thailand. 

Thailand’s international airport in Bangkok is called Suvarnabhumi – a Sanskrit origin word meaning ‘the golden land’ – has a huge mural showing the churning of the ocean, which is a famous Hindu legend. This legend is very famous with the people of Thailand.  The airport also has a huge golden statue of Ravana.

Images of Lord Ganesh, known in Thailand as Phra Pikanet, can also be seen all over Thailand.  Lord Ganesh is worshipped before any venture just as in India. Three giant statues of Lord Ganesh can be found in Thailand’s Chachoengsao province. The first seated Ganesh is at Wat Phrong Akat, the second standing statue is at Khlong Kuean Ganesh international park and the third reclining one is at Wat Saman Rattanaram. This area could be visited on a day trip from Bangkok. Lords Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva are also revered in Thailand.  Lord Hanuman is considered a patron of martial arts as an example of courage, fortitude and excellence.  Muay Thai, a 4000 year old martial arts discipline, is also known as Hanuman Thai Boxing.

There is a Hindu temple established in 1784 by King Rama I. It is called Devasthan and is in Phra Nakhon district of Bangkok. It is also home to the descendants of priests who came around 1000 years ago.  Phimai historical park near Phimai Nakhon Ratchasima province of Thailand is a massive Buddhist temple built by the Hindu Khmer rulers in nearby Cambodia.  In size it is as big as the Angkor Wat Hindu temple of Cambodia.  The temple depicts many Hindu deities.  It signifies the acceptance and tolerance of the two major religions with roots in India.  

The Myanmar (Burma) Connection.

Burma was known as Brahma Desa.  Myanmar is the regional language transliteration of Brahma.  Under British rule Myanmar was part of India until 1937.  According to the Royal Chronicle Rajavamsha, King Abhi Raja from India established a kingdom in 850BC.  His son also established a kingdom in the Arakan region of Burma, which is the lower Myanmar coastal area.  31 kings of this dynasty continued their rule of this region.   

It was the Mon people from China who first brought Buddhism to Myanmar.  The Mon people were heavily influenced by Hindu culture and Emperor Ashoka’s Buddhist kingdom of India.  The Mon kingdom was originally known as Ramandesa but later known as Dvaravati, meaning a city of gates.  They ruled between the 6th to 11th centuries.   

Dhammasattha is Buddhist law written in the Pali and Sanskrit languages and formed the legal structure of Burma from 1250 to 1850.  It is still used in the courts today on family and inheritance matters.  Both Pali and Sanskrit were court languages during this time.      

Yamanyana, the Buddhist version of the Ramayan, is hugely popular in Myanmar.  Yama Zat Pwe (dramatic performance of the Rama story) stage shows are still held regularly.  From the reign of king Anawrahta (1044-77) of the Pagan region, now known as Bagan which is located on the eastern bank of Irrawaddy river, the Ramayan epic was passed on from generation to generation orally.  In 1775 U Aung Phyo wrote down the Myanmar version of the Ramayan.  It is called Rama Thagyin, Song from Ramayan.  According to the Asian and African Studies blog (15 May 2014), in the 18th Century Ramayan had come to be regarded as a noble saga even by Buddhist monks.  In the 19th Century, at the height of its popularity, Ramayan was performed in the Royal palace by royal troupes and professional artists. 

According to the Journal of Burma Studies (Volume 10 2005/6) Brahmins, known as Punna, played an important role in Burma.  In the royal court they performed the ceremony of installing a new king.  One core element of the ritual was to pour water from a conch on the head of the king-to-be.  The Brahmins also presided over weddings, ear piercing, first feeding of rice to a baby and other ceremonies.  Lord Ganesh (known as Maha Peinnay), Lord Shiva (known as Parmeshwar), his wife (known as Chandi), Kali, Parvati and Uma were also worshipped.

Thingyan, the annual Myanmar festival, stems from a Buddhist version of a Hindu legend of Lord Brahma.  It mostly takes place between13 and 16 April every year.  It is a festival of great merriment.  People splash water over each other, just like the Hindu festival of Holi.  Fish from dry rivers or lakes are collected and released in bigger lakes as an act of good Karma. 

Buddhism In Present Day Myanmar.

The Buddhist practice of merit is about abstaining from killing, stealing, lying, adultery and alcohol.  Many prominent Buddhists monks have promoted vegetarianism.  Thamanya Sayadaw (1910-2003) and Mahasi Sayadaw (1904-1982), who introduced Vipassana meditation to the West, promoted vegetarianism. 

Indian Presence in Myanmar Today. 

Under the British Raj, by 1931 there were almost one million Indians in the country, mostly from Tamil Nadu and Bengal.  By 1942 almost half the population of Rangoon (Yangon) was Indian.  500,000 left after the Japanese invasion of 1942.  In 1964 300,000 were expelled by General Ne Win.  However, the Indian community continues to wield considerable influence and control over Myanmar economy.  Satya Narayan Goenka (1924-2013) was born in Burma and became a prominent teacher of Vipassana meditation.

Nitin Mehta

6th Feb 2021  

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