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Hindu Gods in Thai Culture

You may certainly have noticed that Hindu gods are very prominent in Thai culture. Thus, there are often images of these gods in Thai temples and shrines. In fact, Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva are the three most important Hindu gods representing the recurring and continual cycles of birth, life, death and rebirth.

At the Ganesha Park (photo credit: Amporn Konglapumnuay)

At the Ganesha Park (photo credit: Amporn Konglapumnuay)

Hindu Gods in Thai Culture

This trinity, along with the god Indra, Ganesha and some enlightened divinities and demons, have been converted to the Buddhist doctrine according to Buddhist belief. Hence, these gods often occur as guardians of temples and monasteries. In addition, they may also be seen attending the Buddha on important events in his life.

Brahma, Hindu gods (photo credit: Amporn Konglapumnuay)

Brahma, Hindu gods at the Ancient City, Samut Prakan (photo credit: Amporn Konglapumnuay)

First there is Brahma (in Thai: Phra Phrom) who is the creator in the Hindu trinity. He is commonly depicted having four heads and the book of Vedas in his hand. His female aspect is the goddess of learning, Sarasvadi and his mount is the mythical celestial swan called Hong or Hamsa. Brahma is considered a guard of doors and pediments in temples. Furthermore, he is also popular as a protector of Thai hotels. Thus, in Thai culture, he is a deity of good fortune and protection.

Wat Yannawa Brahma (credit: photo dharma, Anandajoti Bhikku, wikimedia.org)

Wat Yannawa Brahma (credit: photo dharma, Anandajoti Bhikku, wikimedia.org)

In Thai art, Brahma is depicted in attendance to Buddhism along with Indra, at the crucial events in Buddha’s life. Hence, he is also considered to be converted to Buddhism. By the way, Hindu gods might also be the subject of one or the other Thai song. For instance, Noi (Krissada Sukosol), singer of the band Pru, featured a song called ‘Brahma Brahma’. I think this song is from the horror movie ‘Pawn Shop’ (Long Jamnam, 2013).

Another important god is Vishnu who is the preserver deity of the Hindu triad. In his hand, he often holds a disk and a conch shell. His mount is Garuda, the mythical bird that is half-human and half-eagle and the natural enemy of the Nagas. In other words, Garuda can be seen as the vehicle of Vishnu. What is more, Vishnu’s avatar is Rama, the hero of the Ramakien tale. In addition, this god is also associated with Thai royalty since the kings of the Chakkri dynasty have ‘Rama’ as part of their names. Similar to Brahma, Vishnu often functions as a (door) Wat guardian.

หน้าบันรูปพระนารายณ์ Vishnu tympanum (photo credit: กสิณธร ราชโอรส, wikimedia.org)

Vishnu tympanum (photo credit: wikimedia.org)

Shiva is the destroyer and regenerator aspect of the Hindu trinity. He usually has a third eye that is centred vertically on his forehead. Further characteristics are a brahmanical cord across his torso and sometimes a crescent moon which is caught in his tangled hair. Parvati is his consort and his mount is the bull Nandi.

Shiva on the bull Nandi, Prasat Muang Tam (photo credit: Ddalbiez, wikimedia.org)

Shiva on the bull Nandi, Prasat Muang Tam (photo credit: Ddalbiez, wikimedia.org)

The image of Ganesha (in Thai: Phra Pikanet) is also very prominent in Thai culture. For example, there is the Ganesha park in Nakhon Nayok which is considered a tribute to this elephant-headed god who is Shiva’s son. In Thailand, he is commonly seated at temple portals. What is more, he is also the patron of the arts and a protector of business.

Ganesha (photo credit: Amporn Konglapumnuay)

Ganesha at the same-named park in Nakhon Nayok (photo credit: Amporn Konglapumnuay)

Finally, we have the god Indra who is the god of Tavatimsa heaven. Hence, he is also the god of weather and war wielding a lightening bolt and riding Erawan, the multi-headed elephant. Indra is a temple guardian of portals and pediments. He is also prominent in the Vessantara story which is the last life of the Buddha-to-be. In addition, Indra occurs on mural paintings where he can be identified by his green colour. Along with Brahma, he is kneeling when attending Buddha during particular life events. Thus, it is indicated that the Hindu gods are subservient to Buddhism.

Bangkok Wat Arun Phra Prang, God Indra and the three-headed Erawan (photo credit Tsui, wikimedia.org)

Bangkok Wat Arun Phra Prang, God Indra and the three-headed Erawan (photo credit Tsui, wikimedia.org)

Summing up, we may claim that Hindu gods play a significant role in Thai culture. As a matter of fact, they not only show that Buddhism and Hinduism are intertwined but also represent a subservience of Hinduism to Buddhism. In this context, you might also want to check out my Thai Art Motifs Glossary for more general information 🙂

Yours, Sirinya

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




The Erawan Museum in Samut Prakan

The Erawan Museum is located on Sukhumvit Road in Samut Prakan province, south of Klong Samrong, Thailand. In fact, it is a museum and a temple combined created by Khun Lek Viriyapant (1914-2000) who is also the architect of the Ancient City (Mueang Boran). Thus, it can be considered a place preserving Thai heritage through visual arts and religion. In addition, the museum is surrounded by an amazing tropical garden including some unique Thai sculptures.

The Erawan Museum

The Erawan Museum*

The Erawan Museum*

Even though this place is outside Bangkok, it is merely a few kilometres away from Bang Na BTS station. This museum is famous for its gigantic three-headed elephant which is 43,6 metres high and weights around 250 tons. There are Hindu gods in Thai culture and Erawan is the vehicle of Indra, the god of Tavatimsa heaven which is located on top of Mount Meru in Buddhist cosmology.

Upstairs to heaven*

Upstairs to heaven*

In fact, the inside of the museum is constructed to represent the Hindu image of the universe. Hence, there is the underworld (1st floor), earth or human world (2nd floor), and heaven (top floor). The latter is located in the elephant’s belly whereas the other two are inside the pedestal.

The pedestal, caption the beautiful colours*

The pedestal, caption the beautiful colours*

The first floor or the basement section, which is supposed to stand for the underworld, contains a private collection of ceramics and art belonging to the museum owner Lek Viriyapant. Hence, there is a great collection of Chinese vases from the Ming and Qinq dynasties and a history and overview of the museum’s construction in the form of photographs and wall placards.

Statue and Chinese vases*

Statue and Chinese vases*

In the second floor that represents the earth, there are precious arts and antiques stored. Among the collector pieces there are also European ceramics. What is more, there is Guanyin, the Chinese Goddess with a thousand arms, who is the female representation of Avalokiteshvara, the Buddha of compassion. This floor includes also the area around the rounded staircase and the stuccowork.

The intricate staircase*

The intricate staircase*

Indeed, the cream and blue colours are reminiscent of an Italian or more specifically, a Venetian design 🙂 This impression is reinforced by the stunning rounded stained glass window which was created by the German artist and glass painter Jakob Schwarzkopf (1926-2001).

The glass window reminscent of an Italian design*

The glass window is reminiscent of an Italian design*

The top floor representing the Tavatimsa heaven is rather cool, dark and cave-like. There is a Buddhist shrine which reaches towards heaven, some Buddha relics and old Buddha images from different eras like Ayutthaya, Lanna, Lopburi and Rattanakosin. There are paintings on the wall depicting the cosmos which were also designed by the German artist Schwarzkopf.

The Buddha shrine on the top floor*

The Buddha shrine on the top floor*

I think this is an amazing but also versatile place. Hence, apart from the museum, you can also enjoy a stroll around the marvellous tropical garden.

The tropical garden at the museum*

The tropical garden at the museum*

Summing up, we can say that the Erawan Museum with its three-headed elephant is one of the most unique and awesome places to visit near Bangkok.

Yours, Sirinya

(*photo credit: Amporn Konglapumnuay)