These beings are said to reside in the Himaphan Forest on the slopes of the mythical Mount Meru, which is considered to be the centre of the Buddhist and Hindu cosmos.
The forest, and the creatures that dwell there, are described in the sacred Thai Buddhist text the Ramakien, which itself is derived from the ancient Hindu text the Ramayana. There are dozens of these mythical creatures that reside in the forest and some of the most commonly depicted in Thai art and architecture include the mythical snake, the mythical lion, crocodiles and swans.
Many of these creatures share features from several different real animals and sometimes have human features as well. There are far too many to list here, but let’s take a look at some of the more common ones.
Naga is a semi-divine serpent who is associated with water and is often enlisted as a guardian for temples. As a being of the water and the underworld, Naga is often used as a decoration on barge boards, eave brackets, windows, doors, gates and arches. Legend says that Naga can also transform into a human being. In addition to this, Naga can control the rain and thus affect the prosperity of a region’s crops and livelihood. It also guards the hidden wealth of the earth and is a protector of Buddhism.
On balustrades, Naga is often combined with the Makara, which is a crocodile-like being. It is interesting to note that the open mouth of the Makara often disgorges an angry Naga. The head of the Makara frequently resembles an elephant trunk, while the neck is encircled by three ruffs.
In addition to Naga and Makara, there is another similar creature called Mom which is a mighty aquatic creature with scales and four legs, whose representations can be occasionally spotted at the entrance of temples in Northern Thailand.
Another common guardian is the mythical lion, referred to as Singh or Singha. These lion figures usually comes in pairs and are place at the entrance to a temples, large buildings, or even houses. Representation of Singha owe a lot to its Chinese cousin, in the popular Chinese style, two lions are placed in front of a building to guard its entry – the female on the left side with her cub and the male lion on the right with a ball under his paw.
The Khochasi is a composite of a lion with an elephant’s trunk, ears and tusks. It guards sacred places, and in particular, portals in the North of Thailand. Another elephant being is Erawan, known as the ‘elephant of the clouds’ the three headed elephant Erawan is also the mount of the Hindu God Indra.
Hong (or Hamsa) is a celestial swan with a long and graceful neck, an extended beak, wings, and a gorgeous flowing tail. Many Thais believe that when the lotus-leaf clapper of the bell (which is often held on a long string from its beak) is moved by the breeze, prayers are lifted to heaven. The celestial swan often occurs on the roof ridges of temples but can also be seen adorning more mundane things like street lamps.
The mythical hybrid creature the Kinnari (female) or Kinnara (male), whose top half is a celestial human-like dancer and bottom half a celestial swan (Hong) is also quite common to see in temples. They occur widely in architectural decoration and mural paintings. The female Kinnari symbolises feminine beauty, grace and cultural accomplishment in singing and dancing. The Thai Yai bird-dance between the Kinnari and Kinnara is also often depicted.
Finally, the Garuda – a mythical bird-man hybrid who serves as a national symbol of Thailand and is often depicted on government buildings and logos. Garuda is the fearsome king of the birds and the natural enemy of Naga. It has a human body, but the wings, legs and beak of a bird. It is also the vehicle of the Hindu God Vishnu.
So to sum up, we can say that Thai mythical creatures show how intricately the strands of Buddhism, Hinduism and animism are intertwined within Thai culture and tradition. There are many more which we have not discussed here, so I suggest you do some research online to discover more and learn about their symbolic meanings.
What is more, mythical beings are also a popular subject in classical Thai art and painting. A popularity that continues to the present day. For instance, well-know Thai Artist Chakrabhand Posayakrit has created amazing pictures of the Kinnari and other artists are still regularly inventing more of these hybrid creature to depict in their art.
Sirinya Pakditawan is a ‘luk kreung’, or half-Thai, born and raised in Hamburg, Germany. She enjoys writing about Thailand, with a focus on culture, art, history, tradition and on the people, as well as a mix of topics concerning Thai popular culture, travelogues and articles about Thai food.
Sirinya’s aim is not only to entertain you but to provide you with information and facts about Thailand, its culture and history that may not be generally known, in particular to the Western world. She has a PhD in American Studies from the University of Hamburg.
To read the original story, and many more, be sure to check out Sirinya’s blog: www.sirinyas thailand.de