BEHIND THE LANDMARK
The Giant Swing, เสาชิงช้า, is one of Thailand’s famous landmarks. It is located very near the most important palaces and temples, and would be mentioned in passing on almost every tourist excursion through the heart of Bangkok. For tour groups, the famous swing has to be explained, since there is no swing and nothing swinging.
Briefly, the Giant Swing was first erected in 1784 at the beginning of the Chakri Dynasty when the capital of the kingdom was relocated from across the river and new construction began. An annual Brahman harvest festival was held in front of a Hindu temple, now dwarfed by Wat Suthat the center for Siamese Buddhism during the reign of Rama I (reigned: 1782-1809). The swing ceremony consisted of chanting and a contest in which teams competed to be swung on a carved log high enough to grab by their teeth a sack of gold coins suspended on a pole 24 meters in the air. This commemorated a mythic creation episode in which Brahma tested the stability of the newly created world by ordering Shiva to stand on a mountain while giant snakes tried to shake him into the sea. The swing ceremony was conducted until 1935 when it was discontinued after several serious accidents and fatalities. The structure was repaired in 1920 and 1958, and completely rebuilt in 2006 and rededicated by Rama IX in 2007.
But there is more to this than tour guides will have time to reiterate as the bus maneuvers through the heavy traffic surrounding the little concrete island on which the Giant Swing is built. In fact, they might not dare point out some of the coincidences and connections between that unusual tradition and Thai royal protocol. The story behind the landmark will again swing nearly back into view during the forthcoming coronation of HM King Rama X on May 4-6 this year (2019 / 2562).
His Majesty King Rama I took great pains to reconnect his throne and kingdom to his predecessors who ruled from Ayutthaya for 400 years (1350-1767), having replaced (as they described it) the Khmer Empire (ca 800-1431) centered around famous Angkor Wat and the palatial city of Angkor Thom. The mythic roots of this lineage were both Buddhist and Hindu, with Hindu legends presumably being reiterated to legitimize royalty. This was complicated, including narrated and sculpted symbols, as well as ceremonially re-enacted ones, especially at transitional times like royal births, coronations, and funerals. In the ancient courts these ceremonies were performed by those ritually fit for such duties. So when Rama I undertook the establishment of a new court on Rattanakosin Island on the Chaopraya River across from Thornburi, he had two temples built, one for Brahman priests charged to carry out royal ceremonies, and a larger one next to it for Buddhist ceremonies. The Brahman temple was called Devasatan (เทวสถานโบสถ์พราหมณ์) or “Abode of the Gods”. It included 3 buildings in a north to south line each facing east, enshrining images of Shiva, Ganesha, and Vishnu. It is considered the leading Hindu temple in Thailand. H.G. Quaritch Wales in his 1931 writing about Brahmans’ role in state ceremonies says that there were also swings inside these buildings that were used for Hindu ceremonies. The temple compound is the residence for the court Brahmans who are descendants of Brahman priests as far back as imaginable. The men who took part in the swinging competition were also Brahmans. Aside from ceremonies related to royal persons, there were two annual Brahman ceremonies tied to agriculture, the Royal Plowing Ceremony at the time of rice planting, and the harvest ceremony called Triyampavai-Tripavai, which were the names of hymns to Shiva and Vishnu. These hymns were also included in Thai coronation rituals.
It is undoubtedly significant that metaphors and chants used in the swinging ceremony also were included in Thai coronations. There are two versions of the Hindu legend. In one version Brahma ordered Shiva to stand atop the world mountain and commanded Nagas (mythic serpents) to try to shake the mountain in order to test its stability. In the other version the Nagas wrap themselves around the world mountain as Shiva descends upon it, thus assuring its stability, after which the Nagas joyfully fling themselves away from the mountain into the surrounding sea to celebrate – and that is what the swinging recapitulates, the celebration of stability with Shiva enthroned on top of the world mountain just as the King of Siam is enthroned atop the kingdom. Why, then, would the swinging ceremony be allowed to lapse, being so metaphorically significant, as Rama I, II, and III well knew?
The official version which tour guides repeat in order to pass their examination for licensing is that the ceremony was discontinued because it was dangerous and men died doing it. It is a bit suspicious, however, that the decision came in 1935 right after the abdication of HM King Rama VII, during euphoria over the installation of a constitutional demotion of royal status, when the whole issue of whether to even retain the royal household was being considered by the military leaders in power.
H.G. Quaritch Wales (Siamese State Ceremonies (1931)), who was an adviser in the courts of both Rama VI and VII, makes a case that the Brahman priests in the Siamese court were retained because they symbolized continuity. Because all their texts and leaders were lost in the fall of Ayutthaya, those brought forth to continue the tradition were unable to even read and write Sanskrit or to recite chants intelligibly (he said they mumbled and had texts in transliterated Thai script the meaning of which they did not know). That, the author said in 1931 was what he found, and it helps explain why their importance faded. Moreover, they had all to become Buddhists before taking Brahman vows, and so they were prevented from many Hindu rituals, including animal sacrifices. The Brahmans were Buddhist-Brahmans. Even the plowing ceremony, which was a main event for them, was retained because it was so popular with the public. [These days the one who presides at the Royal Plowing Ceremony is the Minister of Agriculture.] Almost everything the Brahmans used to do is now being done by others, Quaritch Wales says, including the role of court astrologer and management of royal events. [We may be sure that the court Brahmans today are better educated than the ones in 1931 supposedly were.]
HM Rama IV had been a Buddhist monk before he rather unexpectedly ascended to the throne. One of his major efforts was regulation of diverse Buddhist groups under a central authoritative hierarchy, which would be a unifying factor as parts of the Siamese Empire were pulled into Bangkok’s orbit to oppose the threat of Western colonization. As Bangkok Buddhism’s role increased, other religions were also ceremonially incorporated into the kingdom and regulated, in order to function in behalf of it. This pattern of religious toleration, use of leaders of other religions to ratify the monarchy and national unity, and repetition of cultural heritage going back to mythic pre-history continued through the reigns of Rama V, VI and VII. It continues today.
When Rama VII abdicated, his nephew was still a boy. He became king with a regent as his guardian and official voice. Then Japan invaded Thailand, and the King remained in Switzerland for the duration. His brother, still a teenager, took over as Rama IX upon the sudden death of Rama VIII (June 1946), and began what was to be a 70-year restoration of the viability, prestige and significance of the throne.
In 2006, during the 60th anniversary of the reign of King Rama IX, at the height of his popularity, the Giant Swing was replaced. It is said the old wood was deteriorated, so new teak logs were brought down from Prae Province and the Giant Swing was rebuilt. The whole process was extensively reported and important. The finished reconstruction was dedicated by the King in September 2007.
As the events to follow in May this year will show, Brahmans still have a role to play in connecting the throne in the Grand Palace to the peak of the world mountain in the midst of the mythic Himapan Forest. And as newspapers tell us, the military rulers of the country are assisting in the restoration of the monarchy’s lost power. The Giant Swing ceremonies and the famous contest have not yet been restored. But the imposing red towers, symbols of stability, are ready. Maybe it’s just a matter of time.
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Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.