Ritual Sovereignty in Siam: Royal Sacraments and Brahmanical Liturgies in Ayutthaya and Rattanakosin

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Saran Suebsantiwongse

Abstract

Although Thailand’s population is predominantly Buddhist, many customs and traditions are deeply rooted in the Vedic rituals of ancient India; the rites of passage and associated rituals known in Sanskrit as saṃskāras, which are performed in the Thai court, clearly demonstrate this fact. The Indic saṃskāras are sixteen in number, comprising ceremonies to mark different stages of one’s life: from birth to death.  Similarly, the courtly ceremonies of Thailand have the same functions, but they are also conducted for the benefit of the population and are not limited to the personages of the court. Moreover, Brahmanical rituals utilising Śaiva and Vaiṣṇava hymns from south India namely the Tiruveṃpāvai and Tiruppāvai are also carried out, thus suggesting that Hinduism once played the central role in the socio-religious backdrop in the kingdom. The sources of these rituals, both courtly and public, can be found in The Royal Ceremonies of Twelve Months written by King Chulalongkorn who expounds them in great detail. Apart from outlining the significance of rituals and connecting them to the courtly protocols of the Ayutthaya period, Chulalongkorn provides glimpses into the 19th-century royal ceremonies. In the present era, these rituals can still be observed in the palace and are officiated by the court Brahmins who claim ancestry from the early Indian diaspora in the present-day Thailand. Besides presenting the history and practices of Thai Brahmins, this paper also aims to compare the royal rituals with the Indian saṃskāras. Additionally, it aims to highlight the role of Brahmins in the Thai court and how their sacred liturgies ordain the king with the ritual sovereignty in exchange for the royal patronage that supports their livelihood and sustains their existence.

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