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Phuket History: Hinduism arrives from the Bay of Bengal

PHUKET: Even when the centuries were still in single digits, the Andaman Coast was an economically active area. Along estuarine communities down the coast, Indian, Arab and Persian traders made connections with local rulers and merchants, and would often return to the same communities year after year, often waiting several months for the monsoon winds to turn.


By Nicholas Walker

Sunday 24 August 2014, 01:00PM


They would be allocated a home and a wife for their stay and duly begat mixed-race children. As with today’s overseas visitors, some decided to stay permanently.

And with them came their holy men, who spread Brahmin, Hindu and Buddhist beliefs, which included the Brahmin concept of “Deva-raja”, or god-king.

This, like the European concept of Divine Right, promoted the idea that kings owed their power not only to strength of arms or being born to the right father, but to divine providence. Local Malay leaders gained both economically and in power and prestige from associating with these foreign traders and their holy men.

In this way, the Hindu religion, or a modified version, mixed with local animist beliefs, seems to have been adopted in much of what is present-day southern Thailand from around 500 BC.

In the foyer of the Phuket History Museum in Thalang stands a large stone statue of the Hindu god Vishnu, found on the coast of Phang Nga in the 20th Century, confirming the early presence of Hinduism in the Phang Nga Bay area.

Also, several ancient Hindu stone carvings have been recovered from Ko Pra Narai mountain, located on the old river trade route inland from Takuapa. Analysis of the stone has shown that these were made in India. Little else remains; few, if any, stone buildings were built in Phuket before the 19th Century, and buildings were made of wood disintegrated long ago.

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Hinduism seems to have been dominant in and around Phuket for around a thousand years, from 500 BC to 500 AD. This ancient Hindu heritage can still be seen today when Thais greet each other with the word “Sawasdee” which derives from the Sanskrit word “Swastika”, meaning “well-being”.

The swastika is an ancient symbol thought to have arrived in India from ancient Persia, and only got its bad press more recently, historically speaking, when Hitler chose it as a logo for his Nazi party and its vile ideology.

Additionally, the traditional bowed head and wai greeting of Thais is said to have originally been a greeting between Hindu warrior lords, to show respect, and to demonstrate that one had no weapons in one’s hands. Many Thai names today also have Indian origins.

Today the most conspicuous Indian presence on the island is the large number of mostly rather good tailor shops dotted around the West Coast. But the subcontinent’s influence on the Andaman Coast has far deeper roots than most visitors and residents – Thai and foreign – realize.

This "It Happened Here" column was published in The Phuket News on August 22, 2014 (Volume IV, issue 34). The text was adapted from “A History of Phuket and the Surrounding Region” by Colin Mackay.

 

 

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