Mythical Creatures in Thai Culture

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If you’ve been to Thailand, you’ve probably come across some representations of mythical creatures in Thai temples. These beings are said to be living in the Himaphan Forest on the mythical Mount Meru which is considered the centre of the Buddhist and Hindu cosmos. For instance, there is the mythical snake, the lion, crocodile and swan.

Thai Mythical Creatues

Naga, the Mythical Snake

Naga the semi-divine snake (photo: Siwaphong Pakdeetawan)

Naga the semi-divine snake (photo: Siwaphong Pakdeetawan)

The Naga is a semi-divine serpent who is a Wat guardian. As a being of the waters and the underworld, the snake is used as a decoration on barge boards, eave brackets, windows, doors, gates and arches. The legends say that Naga can also transform into a human being. In addition, the Naga can control the rain and thus affects the prosperity of a region. Therefore, it also guards the hidden wealth of the earth and protects Buddhism.

Naga-Makara, the Mythical Snake & Crocodile Composite

Naga emerging from mouth of Makara (photo: Siwaphong Pakdeetawan)

Naga emerging from mouth of Makara (photo: Siwaphong Pakdeetawan)

On balustrades, the 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 the angry Naga. The head of the Makara frequently resembles an elephant trunk while the neck is encircled by three ruffs.

The Mythical Mom, an aquatic being

Mythical creatures, the Mom, an aquatic four legged guardian (photo credit: unseenthailand.org)

Thai mythical creatures, the Mom, an aquatic four legged guardian (photo credit: unseenthailand.org)

Apart from the Naga and Makara there is another similar creature called the Mythical Mom which is a mighty aquatic creature with scales and four legs. This representation can be occasionally spotted at the entrance of temples in Northern Thailand.

Singh, the Mythical Lion

Singh, the mythical lion (photo taken by myself)

Singh, the mythical lion (photo: Sirinya’s Thailand Blog)

Another common guardian is the mythical lion that is referred to as Singh or Singha. This figure usually comes in pairs at the entrance to a temple or another sacred structure. In the Chinese-Thai version, the female lion is on the left side with her cub while the male lion is on the right side having a ball under his paw.

Khochasi, the Mythical Lion & Elephant Composite

Khochasi next to Buddha statue (photo credit: jeffenjane.com)

Khochasi next to a Buddha statue (photo credit: jeffenjane.com)

This creature, 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.

Hong, the Celestial Swan

Sao Hong, the mythical swan (photo credit: Saad Akhtar, Flickr)

Sao Hong, the mythical swan (photo credit: Saad Akhtar, Flickr)

The 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 (that is held on a long string from his beak) is moved by the breeze, prayers are lifted to heaven. The Celestial Swan often occurs on the roof ridges in northern temples.

Kinnara & Kinnari, the Mythical Swan & Divinity Composite

Kinnara at Wat Phra Kaew (photo credit: Michael Janich, wikimedia.org)

Kinnara at Wat Phra Kaew (photo credit: Michael Janich, wikimedia.org)

In the female (Kinnari) and the male (Kinnara) form, this creature is a half celestial dancer and a half celestial swan (hong). They occur in architectural decoration and mural paintings. The female Kinnari symbolizes feminine beauty, grace and cultural accomplishment in singing and dancing. There is also the Shan dance of the Kinnari and Kinnara which is the Thai Yai (Shan) bird dance. The following clip shows you an example of the Kinnari & Kinnara dance.

Garuda, the Mythical Bird

Garuda detail at the Grand Palace in Bangkok (photo taken by myself)

Garuda detail at the Grand Palace in Bangkok (photo taken by myself)

Garuda is a mythical bird. It is the king of the birds and natural enemy of the Nagas. It has a human body but the wings, legs and beak of a bird. It is the vehicle of the Hindu god Vishnu.

Finally, we can say that Thai mythical creatures show how intricately the strands of Buddhism, Hinduism and animism are intertwined in Thai culture and tradition. What is more, mythical beings are also a popular subject in classical Thai art and painting. For instance, Thai National Artist Chakrabhand Posayakrit created amazing pictures of the Kinnari. In this context, I also suggest you check out my Thai Art Motifs Glossary for more general information, if you like 🙂

Yours, Sirinya

(Reference, Carol Stratton, What’s What In A Wat, Silkworm Books, 2010)

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