Newspaper stands were everywhere back then. When unexpected disasters happened, it was quite common for the local papers to send youthful employees straight out into traffic and sell you the breaking news while you waited at a red light.
Alas, those days are largely gone now. Many newspapers have succumbed to social media and changing tastes. Successful papers like The Phuket News are an exception and no longer the rule. However, I still read at least one newspaper every day and I recently read a local Thai-Buddhist reference which confused many Western readers.
The Bangkok Post recently published an interview with a well-known celebrity, Mr Surachate Hakparn, about an injustice he suffered when his automobile was riddled with bullets. When asked about his situation, he said he was confident that the facts of his case would come out, stating, “Thailand is protected by the guardian deity Phra Siam Devadhiraj. Corrupt people will eventually bear the results of what they did.”
The story did not go on to explain who this deity is, so many Western readers were left befuddled by the reference. It does not help that an internet search yields only the most Spartan information on this deity. So, for this issue of All About Buddhism, I thought it might be helpful if we were to explore this deva’s past.
Phra Siam Devadhiraj is also known in Thai as Phra Sayam Thewathirat, but we will use the English name for the sake of simplicity. This deity is what might be called a ‘tutelary deity’ or, in other words, a spirit who defends a particular place. Many ancient Western cultures, like Greece and Rome, also had their own spiritual guardians.
Technically speaking, English-language texts often label Phra Siam Devadhiraj as a Hindu-Buddhist deity. Yet, this deity did not rise to official prominence until after the 1855 Bowring Treaty was signed in Siam. This was a time when much of South East Asia was at risk of being colonized.
Burma and the Malay States became British colonies in 1886 and 1786, respectively. Cambodia became part of a French protectorate in 1887 and Siam traded Laos to the French after losing an engagement with French gunboats in 1893.
Thai history is unique because it not only repeatedly recovered from a number of previous invasions, but Thailand would be the only South-East Asian country to avoid sustained colonization by Western powers. Thus, the prospect of a guardian angel is certainly easy to envision.
A golden statue of Phra Siam Devadhiraj was cast during the reign of King Mongkut (1851-1868). This beautiful icon was originally located inside the Grand Palace’s Royal Chapel but later was moved to the Phaisarn Thaksin Throne Hall.
The statue itself is quite beautiful. Cast of pure gold, it was originally fixed upon a sandalwood base which had been carved using traditional Thai artisan skills. The base proudly bears an image of a great Naga (celestial dragon), as well as a Thai phoenix.
The statue also bears the images of four utterly supreme deities known as Vishnu, Uma, Narayana and Srasvati, all hailing from the Hindu traditions.
Having said that, I can only imagine that some readers would very understandably wonder if this is actually a Hindu shrine.
My answer, however, would be that it truly is uniquely a Thai Buddhist shrine- not only because Phra Siam Devadhiraj has risen to become the guardian angel of Thailand, but also because some concepts in Buddhism actually first arose in Hinduism such as karma and the water rituals of Songrkran.
Moreover, Siamese culture believed in a supreme guardian angel for countless centuries. King Mongkut, however, composed a Pali chant and provided a renewed vigour and angelic name for an old tradition which hailed from antiquity. A gala is still held at the statue of Phra Siam Devadhiraj during the traditional Thai New Year in April.
Regardless of the etymology, Phra Siam Devadhiraj’s role as a great protective spirit continues to endure. References to Phra Siam Devadhiraj still appear in the modern Thai news from time to time, and it is not unusual for Thais to call upon this deva in times of vast despair.
Thailand is indeed a mysterious land, but the unusual ways in which Thai people approach modernity really do start to make perfect sense when we curious Westerners are successful at unravelling Siam’s transcendental past. It’s a difficult challenge, but one with great rewards.
All About Buddhism is a monthly column in The Phuket News where I take readers on my exotic journey into Thai Buddhism and debunk a number of myths about Buddhism. If you have any specific queries, or ideas for articles, please let us know. Email firstname.lastname@example.org, and we will do our best to accommodate your interests.