Rites inherited from Tamil South India are still applied in Thailand, Cambodia.
The recent coronation of King Rama X of Thailand brought back memories from several years ago. I recall a gala dinner at the hotel Prince de Galles in Paris given to honour the exiled royal family of Laos. The son of the last monarch, Prince Sauryang Savang was the chief guest and Prince Mangkra Souvanna Phuma, whose late father had been a Prime Minister, attended along with his wife Tiao Rangsi and a few other members of that large family, all as proud of their Sanskrit names as they were at ease in black ties. I had met them on previous occasions and was charmed the blend of oriental refinement and French culture they personified.
The crown prince was knowledgeable about the Indian connections of his people and dynasty, and did not fail to point out that his country, lying along the shores of the Mahaganga or Mekong had inherited the name of Prince Lava, son of Sri Rama long before partaking in the Khmer heritage of neighbouring Cambodia. Like Indian rulers of yore the kings of Laos kept a white elephant in the royal stable as the symbol of good fortune and a blessing for the realm. The national style of architecture, painting and sculpture and styles were governed by Sanskrit shastras and Pali sutras and jatakas, just as the vast Angkor urban and religious complex reflected the codes enshrined in the sciences of vastu, mayamata, sulba and shilpa and the age-old syncretistic coexistence between Sanatan Dharma and Buddha Dhamma. Centuries of Chinese overlordship and decades of French rule fostering a strong missionary presence had not changed the Hindu and Buddhist character of the Laotians, who still venerate Vedic deities after surviving years of an agnostic Communist regime. I reminded Souvanna Phuma (Suvarnabhuma) that the famous French novelist Paul Morand had described Laos, under the pseudonym of Karastha, as the land where medieval Indian civilisation might have been preserved better than in many parts of India.
The same could not be said of Vietnam, whose deposed Emperor Bao Dai was also present at the table with his sixth and last consort, Monique Vinh Thuy. The 13th sovereign of the Nguyen dynasty, at his advanced age remained a “bon vivant”, who enjoyed narrating his hunting exploits in the Tonkin forests and evoking memories of his cruises aboard his yacht usually moored at Monte Carlo. Bao Dai had converted to Catholicism, but he somehow retained a Confucian attitude, well aware of the Buddhist culture of his nation where Brahmins of the Cham ethnic group kept their Hindu rituals. “Like Cambodia, we have both Mandarins and Balamons (Brahmins)”, he noted “and that is why we were all called Indochinese”. I had seen his pictures as a young sovereign seated on the dragon throne of Hue’s Purple Forbidden City, wearing the traditional turban that was perhaps the only “Indian” feature in the hieratic imperial attire inherited from a millennium of vassalage to the Middle Kingdom.
In Thailand and Cambodia, where the monarchy has survived, the Vedic rites are still applied in the forms inherited from Tamil South India, whose Pallava and Chola trading kingdoms had an extensive presence and direct influence on Indochina and Indonesia in the medieval heydays. King Vajiralongkorn, Rama X belongs to the Chakri (Chakravartin) dynasty, which succeeded the ruler of Thonburi (Dhanpuri) and founded Ratnakosin, now known as Bangkok, in the late 18th century, claiming the legacy of the earlier dynasty of Ayutthaya (Ayodhya). His intronisation was preceded by homas and a ritual bath, followed by the rajabhisheka. Then he took his seat on the golden bhadrapitha, a throne made of ficus wood (the peepal tree), amidst the singing of Vedic mantras, put the crown on his head and a Shivaite Brahmin recited the first verse of the Tamil Thiruvempavai, a section of Manickavachagar’s Thiruvasagam composed in the 8th century CE in praise of Lord Shiva. Subsequently, the monarch was taken on a chariot around the central part of his capital and made various stops to pay homage to major Buddhist shrines. (These details are gratefully taken from an article by S. Krishnan in Swarajya magazine). He thus became the dharmaraja in succession to this father Bhumibol Adulyadej (Bhumipala Atulyatejas).
The ceremonies would not be complete without the famed procession of the golden royal barges on the Me Nam (Mother Water) Chao Phraya (royal stream) river, up to the national Wat Arun, the temple of dawn. The barges bear the name Souvannahangsa (the golden swan), Narai Song Suban (Narayana on his vahana Garuda) and Anantanakkharat (Ananta king of Nagas), among others.
The symbolism of those practices is profound and its significance has contributed to the survival of the royal institution, which guarantees the stability and integrity of the nation, over and above political and economic vagaries. Even in Muslim Malaysia, Sultans have kept various Hindu customs and rituals, including the ceremonial reference to the padukas of Lord Rama in their intronisation. Thailand and Cambodia both have large non-Buddhist populations, whose religious freedom is not impinged upon by the preservation of ancestral Indic ceremonies and cultural traditions. One cannot help notice that similar rituals linking spiritual authority with temporal power remained in use in India in the princely states until Independence. The new Republic rested on the ostensible separation of government institutions from the traditional notion of power as a sacred trusteeship answerable to a transcendent and immortal dispensation, the Ritam or the Dharma. The break with the past brought about by colonial rule and enshrined in the Indian Constitution was due to the adoption of a modified concept of western secularism, which is in itself difficult to define. Indeed it was only under Emergency in 1977 that Prime Minister Indira Gandhi inserted the word in the Preamble as an attribute of the polity without explaining it.
As India explores and highlights her Dharmic roots and original identity, she may also revive and cultivate the precious features of her political civilisation and the rites of statecraft rooted in a cosmic, ecological consciousness, that is a deep awareness of the inseparability of human society from nature, which contemporary socio-economic institutions still in effect ignore and which was the bedrock of Indic cultures. Apart from restoring some hoary bonds with the sister-nations to the east, invoking the wisdom of the past may place Bharat at the forefront of the environmentally minded transformation that the global community is now obliged to undergo under the threat of a planetary biological collapse.