Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

The Holy Man in the History of Thailand and Laos

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

The Holy Man in the History of Thailand and Laos

Article excerpt

There have been many ways of approaching the study of the "holy men" rebellions that occurred in Thailand and Laos from the seventeenth through the early twentieth centuries. They have been examined as a study of millenarian or messianic movements,(1) as political or ethnic protest,(2) or as a stage in the history of production, from a Marxist point of view.(3) Still another approach, an historical one, can also contribute to an understanding of the protests that took place. The holy man, in this essay, is associated with the muang (township) and the early supernaturalism found in Thai and Lao society. As the muang lost autonomy and was incorporated into ever more centralized administrative arrangements, that status of the holy man changed from respected founder of settlements and community advisor to dissident and instigator of rebellions against the centre.

Most historians of Southeast Asia have been concerned with the development of states and their increasing power and authority. Given the importance of the state in the modern world, this is certainly legitimate. But our involvement with states has limited our awareness of the activities of holy men who appear at the beginning of history and then disappear from view. Is this disappearance of holy men real - did it actually occur? Or is it, in part, a construct of the historian revealing a bias towards those aspects of history that anticipate the development of the state and centralized administrative systems?

The role of holy men in the early history of the Tai peoples has been discussed by Donald K. Swearer, Sommai Premchit, and Dhida Saraya for Lanna Thai, Charnvit Kasetsiri for Ayutthaya, David K. Wyatt for Southern Thailand, Paul Le Boulanger for Luang Prabang, Georges Condominas for Central Laos, and Charles Archaimbault and James Pruess for Southern Laos. The work of Donald K. Swearer and Sommai Premchit is an outstanding example of the standard Western approach to the early history of the area. This approach underlies three articles that appeared in the 1970s: Swearer, "Myth, Legend and History in the Northern Thai Chronicles",(4) and Swearer and Sommai Premchit, "The Relation Between the Religious and Political Orders in Northern Thailand (14th-16th Centuries)",(5) and Sommai Premchit and Swearer, "A Translation of Tamnan Mulasasana Wat Pa Daeng: The Chronicle of the Founding of Buddhism of the Wat Pa Daeng Tradition".(6)

In "Myth, Legend and History", Swearer distinguishes three traditions in the Northern Thai chronicles: the Buddhist, the rishi, and that of Queen Camadevi. He feels that the rishi tradition, the settlement of Haripunjaya and other Mon-Lava towns under the leadership of the hermit Vasudeva was the earliest. Then the Camadevi was appended, and later both were overlaid by the Buddhist, all three traditions being eventually incorporated into a single history.(7)

From the standpoint of the narrative's structure as outlined in our description, Lamphun [Haripunjaya] has two foundings, one associated with the Rishi/Camadevi continuum and the other with the Buddha/Adittaraja continuum. The creation of a Muang culture involves the federalization of tribal or communal loyalties by subjugating them to a higher political authority. Camadevi primarily fulfills this function. She symbolizes a new political authority associated with a powerful ruling family of a Muang with a high culture (i.e. Lopburi). Yet, while Camadevi brings with her political power invested with the authority of both Buddhism and Brahmanism, the religious identity of tribal affiliation is not yet decisively transformed. Buddhism as the religion of the Muang is not established until the time of Adittaraja.(8)

In "The Relation Between the Religious and Political Orders in Northern Thailand (14th-16th Centuries)", Swearer and Sommai place the history of Buddhism in Lanna Thai within three traditions: (1) the Mon-Lava tradition discussed above; (2) the Udumbaragiri, transmitted from Sri Lanka through Burma; and, (3) the Mahavihara transmitted directly from Sri Lanka to Ayutthaya and Lanna Thai. …

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