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Phuket History: In the 15th Century Buddhism became the island’s dominant religion

The Thai dominance over the local population of Phuket from the 15th Century onwards meant Theravada Buddhism was imposed over, or at times merged with, the islanders’ previously more animistic beliefs which held in veneration spirits of the forest, trees, sea and sky and so on.


Colin Mackay

Sunday 24 December 2017, 02:00PM


Phuket’s Big Buddha was built at the start of the 21st century, but Buddhism has been practiced on the island for more than 500 years. Photo: Roma Nues
Phuket’s Big Buddha was built at the start of the 21st century, but Buddhism has been practiced on the island for more than 500 years. Photo: Roma Nues

The pluralistic and tolerant nature of Buddhism, however, meant the Malays and Muslims on the island were free to continue to embrace Islam.

Almost every village had a small Buddhist monastery (wat), often just a rude bamboo building with a dormitory for the monks, with teaching going on under some large tree (preferably a Banyan, being the same kind the Buddha sat under when he achieved enlightenment). The wat and the monks were usually sponsored by the rajah or the local elite who donated land, slaves and money, and the common people gave them food.

In return, the wats were repositories of learning, providing education to many of the males in the area and giving them moral instruction along with rudimentary reading, writing and numeracy.

This education system in monasteries was often co-opted by the elite that supported them. Monks usually taught the people not to come up with original ideas and to acquiesce to their rapacious lords.

The more radical Thai historian, Somsamai Srisudravarna, states that the Buddhist monasteries tended “to delude the peasants into believing that human beings could not thwart destiny… [their] decreed life was subject to merit, karma and fate”.

But monks also tried at times to hold the moral high ground and occasionally played the part of ombudsman for the serfs (phrai) and slaves. Monks could deliver petitions to the island’s overlord in Ligor and they were also avenues for inter-community and village discussion and arbitrated in disputes.

By emphasizing the principle of a Dhamma-raja (a leader who is acclaimed the peoples’ choice through his knowledge and “virtues”), they were able to provide some moral opposition to the excesses of the despotic local lords in that they could mobilise public opinion.

Pierre Poivre, the rather cynical Frenchman who visited the area in the 18th Century, noted that, “Buddhist monks are held in extraordinary veneration in this country. They are zealous, at least in appearance, for the purity of principles and panegyrists of virtues… if such persons are really what they seem to be, one cannot deny them the greatest praise for maintaining such virtue in the midst of the greatest corruption.”

There were draconian moral and particularly earthly punishments for anyone stealing from a wat, such as amputations, or being slowly roasted to death over a small fire – lit intermittently to delay death.

A wat also served as the repository for wealth in a society without banks. People often hid their gold in Buddha statues they donated to the monastery for safekeeping, or they buried their wealth in monastery lands.

The local Malay Muslim communities, usually based nearer the coast, also built mosques (often wooden and rudimentary), which served much the same spiritual and social purposes as the wats did for Buddhists. The Chinese temples now on Phuket did not appear in any numbers until the mass influx of Chinese workers in the latter 19th century.

 

Adapted from ‘A History of Phuket and the Surrounding Region’ by Colin
Mackay. Available on Amazon or order it directly at: historyofphuket.com

 

 

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