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Thailand Celebrates Margazhi Festivals ; Prof. V. Suryanarayan

Article No. 005/2022

Margazhi is the month (December 16-January 14) of devotion and music for Tamil speaking Hindus across the world. In front of every house are drawn eye catching beautiful kolams. In Besant Nagar, where I live, young boys and girls, after early morning bath, wear clean clothes, assemble in the temples before sun rise and recite Thiruppavai and Thiruvampavai. The month is celebrated by all the three sects – Saivites, Vaishnavites and the Smarthas. The significance of the Margazhi can be understood from the fact that in Bhagawat Gita, God Krishna says that among the months he is Mrigasheersham. Since the month is kept aside for religious activities no marriages are held. The most important festivals are Vaikunta Ekadasi, Hanuman Jayanthi and Ardra Darshan. The month is also famous because it is the music season in Chennai and music lovers from all parts of the world throng to various Sabhas to listen to classical and devotional music.

What is not so well known is that Margazhi festivals are also celebrated in Thailand. Our sea-blind north Indian friends are not even aware of the fact that Thailand is our close maritime neighbor and the distance between Indira Point and Phuket is less than the distance between Chennai and Madurai. The Indian influences spread to Thailand from different directions – from Indianised states of Southeast Asia like Sri Vijaya, Sailenndra, Funan and Khemer kingdoms, from Buddhist countries of Sri Lanka and Burma and also directly from India. The Thais were one of the last to arrive in Southeast Asia from what is Southern China before it was Sinicised.

The earlier name of Thailand was Siam and it is derived from Shyam. When I went to Thailand in 1978 I was pleasantly surprised that the country retained and takes pride in its cultural indebtedness to India. The Bangkok international airport is known as Suvarnabhumi and there is beautiful depiction of Samudra Manthan adorning the walls of the airport. The Thai language is full of Sanskrit words, though it is pronounced differently. Ramayana and Mahabharata have formed the basis of great literary works. The knowledge of Ramkhein (Thai version of Ramayana) is essential for a cultured Thai. The Rajaguru of Thailand has frequently mentioned that in addition to Lord Buddha the Thais also worship Siva, Vishnu, Ganesa and other Hindu Gods. Their legal system is based on Manusmrithi. The Government of Thailand has named some of the Government Departments after Hindu Gods. The Meteorological Department is named after Varuna. The Department of Fine Arts is named after Ganesa. Ganesa is also the emblem of Silpakorn University and also the National Theatre. Outside the main building of Chulalongkorn University is the statue of Saraswathi, all in white, mounted on a swan.

No essay on India-Thailand cultural relations would be complete without referring to Prof. Satya Vrat Shastri, former Professor of Sanskrit Department in Delhi University. Prof. Shastri spent the major part of his life in studying Ramkhein and has transliterated it into Sanskrit, English and Thai languages. Though Ramkhein is based on Valmiki Ramayana, there are also important variations. The greatness and popularity of Ramayana in Southeast Asia is due to its adaptability which enabled the poets to interpret it in their own ways. As Her Royal Highness Mahachakri Sirindhorn, Princess of Thailand, has written the Ramayana has not only moulded present day Thailand it has also influenced all aspects of Thai Life. The popularity of Ramayana reminds me of Brahma’s assurance to Valmiki: “So long as the mountains stand and the rivers flow, so long will the story of Rama’s heroic deeds be told and cherished on earth”.

The Chakri dynasty was founded in 1782 by King Ramadhibodhi. The coronation of the Buddhist kings is done by Brahmins who hailed from a village near Kancheepuram. After the coronation, they get the title, Rama. A few years ago, I had the good fortune to meet and converse with these priests. They do not speak Tamil; they speak in the Thai language and sport a tuft (Kudumi). There are 11 Brahmins in Thailand today and they act as India’s unofficial ambassadors.

From a Tamil Nadu perspective, what endears Thailand is the immense popularity of Thiruppavai and Thiruvampavai. It was brought to light by His Holiness Chandrasekhara Saraswathi, the Paramacharya of Kanchi Kamakoti Peetam. Many considered him to be the living God on earth. He never went abroad but was familiar with the religious practices of Southeast Asian countries. This month Oonjal (swing) festival is celebrated with great gusto. The girls are Buddhists. Early in the morning they take bath before sunrise, place the image of Dakshinamurthy (Siva) in the swing, and recite verses from Thiruppavai and Thiruvampavai (they do not understand the meaning) so that they would be blessed with loving and caring husbands.

Conscious of the spread of Indian cultural influences across the world, especially in Southeast Asia, the Paramacharya, on the eve of independence, said in a speech in Chennai that India should appoint cultural ambassadors to these countries to foster better contacts among people of various countries.

(Prof. V. Suryanarayan is the Founding Director of the Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies, at the University of Madras, and a Distinguished Fellow at the Center for Asia Studies (CAS).

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