Thai Cosmology: Cultural Context of Thai Orality and Literacy

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Thai Cosmology: Cultural Context of Thai Orality and Literacy

Culture, according to Vansina, “can be defined as what is common in the minds of a given group of people.” Culture is a society’s collective representation of ideas, values, and images. Each culture expresses and conceives its messages in its own unique cognitive terms. An understanding of a society’s cultural context is, therefore, helpful in any attempt at social analysis.

Thailand’s geographical location in the southeastern peninsular of the Asian continent places it as a crucial crossing point on ancient major trade routes between India and China. This geographical advantage exposed Thailand to a millennium of cultural and linguistic influences not only from those two giants, but also from far away trading nations such as Persian and the European colonial powers. These external influences were always adapted and mixed with its local traditions, producing a unique Thai culture.

Two of the most important determining cultural elements of Thai society are the closely related ordering principles of Buddhism and monarchy. The King has always been seen as an upholder of moral Buddhist values who holds the order of Thailand in place. A monarch’s role as topmost center of social power fits with the Thai hierarchical model of the universe.

Thai interpretation of Buddhism is blended with elements of Hindu, Brahmin and local animistic spirit worship. Representations of Thai cosmology can be found in abundance in arts and crafts, architecture, and cultural traditions. Temples jedis, tiered royal umbrellas, mural paintings of the Thai universe, flower arrangements, textiles, pottery, silver/copper/neillo wares, and jewelry designs, all contain some form of circular symbols representing Mt. Meru, the center of the universe, which is defined by its seven concentric rings of alternating lands and oceans.

In mandalic form, this central “mountain” is seen as stabilized by four cardinal points (NW, NE,...
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