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Ethnicity and the galactic polity: Ideas and actualities in the history of Bangkok

  • Justin Thomas McDaniel

Edward Van Roy's Siamese melting pot: Ethnic minorities in the making of Bangkok is a tour de force and one of the most important books on the history of Bangkok and late-modern Thai history ever to be published. It is clearly written and presented, it provides excellent maps, and brings to light little-known sources and surprising facts about the history of the most iconic neighbourhoods in the city. It exposes the histories of various Muslim, Mon, Lao, Vietnamese, Chinese, European, Indian, and other communities in late Ayutthaya and Bangkok, as well as highlights various ways of seeing Bangkok as a feudal city, a vibrant port-city, or a galactic polity. Van Roy also reveals the complexities of defining ethnicity and class in Bangkok's changing neighbourhoods. In this review article I will look closely at two issues Van Roy exposes that need some theoretical and critical interrogation: the ‘galactic polity/mandala’, and ‘ethnicity’. Then I will provide a short vignette about the Chettiar community in Bangkok and the idea of Hinduism in Bangkok history that both supports and supplements Van Roy's excellent research. I write this not to discount or criticise Van Roy's monumental achievement, but because I believe a book this important to the field deserves serious attention and engagement.

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1 See further, McDaniel, Justin, ‘Transformative history: The Nihon Ryoiki and the Jinakalamalipakaranam ’, Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 25, 1 (2002): 151207 .

2 Tambiah, Stanley J., World conqueror and world renouncer: A study of Buddhism and polity in Thailand against a historical background (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976), p. 102.

3 Tambiah, Stanley, ‘The galactic polity: The structure of traditional kingdoms in Southeast Asia’, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 293, 1 (1977): 6997 .

4 Wat Arun was placed there for other more practical reasons and its phra prang was largely built under the third reign in place of two former temples; it is not Siamese, but Chinese, Persian, and Khmer in its architecture, symbolism, and design.

5 See descriptions of the movement of these Lao images in chronicle, King Mongkut's, Phra Ratchaphongsawadan Krungratanakosin Ratchakan thi 4 [Royal history of Bangkok under the reign of King Rama IV] (Bangkok: Cremation volume for Mormchao Chongkonni Watthanawong, 1965), pp. 98, 152, 319, and 384–91.

6 Relatives of Queen Srisulalai are buried in the cemetery of Ton Son mosque, and their graves can be visited today.

7 Thank you to Sri Chalaidecha (an administrator at the mosque) for pointing this out to me and showing me photos and letters from members of the Thai royal family on their visits. See also an edition of the magazine published by the mosque, featuring a visit of King Rama VIII (Ananda Mahidol) and his brother, King Rama IX (Bhumipol) — Warasan thi ni Ton Son [Ton Son Magazine] 10 (Aug. 2549 [2006]) that discusses the royal connection to the mosque.

8 See Phra Bhiksu Gaisri Kittisiri Chanthonpanya, Ratchakan thi 3 haeng boromchakri mahakasatanuson [King Rama III Memorial Book](Chiang Mai: Suthin, 2551 [2008]), esp. pp. 7591 .

9 I also thank Thongchai Likhitpornsawan and Anake Nawigamune for taking me there on a visit and introducing me to the imam and his family.

10 Thipakorawong, Chao Phraya, Phra ratchaphongsawadan krungratanakosin ratchakan thi 3 [trans.], 7th ed. (Bangkok: Krom Silpakorn, 2547 [2004]), p. 75.

11 Wat Nang Nong, a Buddhist monastery in Thonburi, was also dedicated to his Muslim mother.

12 McDaniel, Justin T., Architects of Buddhist leisure: Socially disengaged Buddhism in Asia's museums, monuments, and amusement parks (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2017), p. 81.

13 Ibid., p. 82.

14 Tambiah, ‘The galatic polity’: 91.

15 Leonowens was Anglo-Indian (Indian/Welsh), not a governess, and never lived in England.

16 See, for example, Habegger, Alfred, Masked: The life of Anna Leonowens, schoolmistress at the Court of Siam (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2014). Susanne Kerekes and I recently studied the influence of Dr Dan Beach Bradly's wife on manuscript collecting in Bangkok. See Kerekes, Susanne Ryuyin and McDaniel, Justin, ‘Siamese manuscript collections in the United States’, in Collections and collectors in the history of Siamese manuscripts, ed. McDaniel, Justin, special issue, Manuscript Studies 2, 1 (2017): 202–38.

17 I thank several teachers there for details about the school's history and student body.

18 I have visited Wat Noi twice (thanks to Arthid Sheravanichkul for arranging the trip the first time) and document its contents extensively in a forthcoming publication.

19 Surprisingly, Van Roy does not discuss the importance of Wat Paramai at Koh Kret, a largely Mon island in the Chao Phraya a few miles north of Bangkok with an impressive collection of Mon manuscripts.

20 See two books produced by Prince Wachirayan (printed after his death) describing King Mongkut's Ariyaka script: Somdet Phra Mahasamanachao Krom Phraya Wachirayanwororot, Akson Ariyaka [Ariyaka script] (Bangkok: Mahamakut Withayalai, 2501 [1958]); Somdet Phra Mahasamanachao Krom Phraya Wachirayanwororot, Katha Chadok lae Baep Akson Ariyaka [Buddhist verses and the Ariyaka script] (Bangkok: Wat Boworniwetwihan, 2514 [1971]). The Bhumipol Foundation also produced a study of the Ariyaka and other scripts: Akson Khom lae Akson Boran Thong Thin [The Ariyaka script and original ancient scripts] (Bangkok: Munitthi Bhumipol, 2519 [1976]). Phra Sugandha (Dr Anil Sakya) has edited and reprinted one of Mongkut's four texts produced in Ariyaka script in Suat Mon [Mantras] (Bangkok: Mahamakut University Press, 2004). I thank him for his helpful advice and for showing me some of the first editions of books produced on King Mongkut's Ariyaka script printing press. See also McDaniel, Justin T., Lovelorn ghost and the magical monk: Practicing Buddhism in modern Thailand (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011).

21 King Rama III is said to have sent his half-brother, who outranked him and was passed over for the throne by Rama III, to be the abbot at Wat Boworniwet. This monastery was outside the city walls (symbolically significant, as Van Roy argues). King Rama III may have sent him there because he disapproved of the founding of the Mon-influenced Thammayut.

22 Rudner, David West, Caste and capitalism in colonial India: The Nattukottai Chettiars (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), p. 85.

23 In Thailand, ethnic Indians and other South Asian peoples are commonly referred to as khaek, often glossed as ‘guest’ and ‘foreigner’ in dictionaries, but also a derogatory term for dark-skinned foreign labourers. Si khaek refers to a yellowish-brown mustard colour — and is a term which Pakistanis, Indians, Sri Lankans, and other South Asians in Thailand avoid for themselves.

24 See, for example, the history of the Vaithi Padayatchi family — landowners and wealthy sheep and cow herders in Tamil Nadu:

25 Muthiah, S., Meyappan, Meenakshi and Ramaswamy, Visalakshi, The Chettiar heritage (Chennai: Lokavani-Hallmark, 2000), p. viii.

26 Rudner, Caste and capitalism, pp. 67–73.

27 Rudner, David West, ‘Banker's trust and the culture of banking among the Nattukootai Chettiars of colonial South India’, Modern Asian Studies 23, 3 (1989): 417–58. See also Schrader, Heiko, ‘Chettiar finance in colonial Asia’, Zeitschrift für Ethnologie 121, 1 (1996): 101–26. Schrader notes that the practice of sons of wealthy Chettiars apprenticing for other Chettiar families created bonds and decreased excessive nepotism (p. 105).

28 Muthiah et al., The Chettiar heritage, pp. viii and 58. See also Turnell, Sean and Vicary, Alison, ‘Parching the land? The Chettiars in Burma’, Australian Economic History Review 48, 1 (2008): 125 .

29 Brown, Rajeswary, ‘Chettiar capital and Southeast Asian credit networks in the interwar period’, Local suppliers of credit in the Third World, 1750–1960,  ed. Austin, Gareth and Sugihara, Kaoru (London: Macmillan, 1993), p. 262. See also Chandrasekhar, S., The Nagarathars of South India (Madras: Macmillan India, 1980), for an introduction to Chettiar history and a good bibliography of studies of the Chettiars in Southeast Asia.

30 Schrader, ‘Chettiar finance’, p. 105. See also Kratoska, Paul, ‘Chettiar moneylenders and rural credit in British Malaya’, Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society 86, 1 (2013): 6178 .

31 I thank a priest at the Sri Mariammam Temple in Bangkok, who wanted to remain anonymous, for explaining the role of Sri Mariammam today.

32 Sinha, Vineeta, ‘Unravelling “Singaporean Hinduism”: Seeing the pluralism within’, International Journal of Hindu Studies 14, 2–3 (2010): 253–79. The temple in Singapore is no longer connected to the original Pillai family, but has been since 2005 under the administration of the Sri Samayapuram Mariammam Pallaigal, which is a modern form of panchayat. Their main work is maintaining the temple, hosting annual festivals, and raising money for children's education. They also welcome Hindus (and even Taoists and Buddhists) from all backgrounds and are no longer a Tamil temple as has happened with many other Chettiar temples abroad. See Sinha, Vineeta, ‘Mixing and matching: The shape of everyday Hindu religiosity in Singapore’, Asian Journal of Social Science 37 (2009): 83106 .

33 Rudner, Caste and capitalism, pp. 123–7; Schrader, ‘Chettiar finance’: 107.

34 One exception was the patasalai in Yangon, which expanded into the Chettiar's Residential High School in 1928. Muthiah et al., The Chettiar heritage, p. 67.

35 Brown, ‘Chettiar capital’, pp. 259–61.

36 Schrader, ‘Chettiar finance’: 118. Kratoska, ‘Chettiar moneylenders’: 72. See also Kudaisya, Medha, ‘Marwari and Chettiar merchants, c.1850s–1950s: Comparative trajectories’, Chinese and Indian business: Historical antecedents, ed. Kudaisya, Malik (Boston: Brill, 2009), pp. 85119 .

37 On Hinduism in Bangkok, see McDaniel, Justin, ‘This Hindu holy man is a Thai Buddhist’, Southeast Asia Research 21, 2 (2013): 191210 . See also the recent and excellent study by McGovern, Nathan, ‘Balancing the foreign and the familiar in the articulation of kingship: The royal court Brahmans of Thailand’, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 48, 2 (2017): 283303 .

38 Hindi is still taught at the Rongrian Bharat Withayalai (Indian High School); however, besides this subject (which is not taken by all students) and some Indian cultural events and instruction, this is a ‘matrathan’ (standard) Thai high school with a government-approved curriculum. Indeed, most students are either Thai Buddhist or Muslim, and some Thai-born/ethnic Indian high school students. Instruction is in Thai. Funerals for the small ethnic Indian community take place near Wat Yannawa in Bangkok. Child blessings usually take place at the Thewasathan or are performed by Brahmins in private homes.

39 On the shrines, see McDaniel, Justin, ‘The gods of traffic: A brief look at the Hindu intersection in Buddhist Bangkok’, Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Universities 2 (2009): 4957 . For background on the figure of Brahma, see Nathan McGovern, ‘Brahmā worship in Thailand: The Ērāwan Shrine in its social and historical context’ (Masters’ thesis, University of California, Santa Barbara, 2006).

40 See for example, Coedès, Georges, Les états Hindouisés d'Indochine et d'Indonésie: Histoire du Monde Tome VIII (Paris: E. de Boccard, 1948); Diskul, Subhadradis, Hindu gods at Sukhodaya (Bangkok: White Lotus, 1995); Woodward, Hiram, The art and architecture of Thailand: From prehistoric times through the thirteenth century (Leiden: Brill, 2005); O'Connor, Stanley, ‘Hindu gods of peninsular Siam’, Artibus Asiae supplementum 28 (1982): 173 ; Bowie, Theodore, Griswold, A.B., Diskul, M.C. Subhadradis, The sculpture of Thailand (Sydney: Visual Arts Board, 1977); Frederic, Louis, The temples and sculptures of Southeast Asia (London: Thames & Hudson, 1965); Brown, Robert, The Dvaravati wheels of the law and the Indianization of South East Asia (Leiden: Brill, 1996); Devi, Gauri, Hindu deities in Thai art (Varanasi: Aditya Prakashan, 1998). See also the catalogues (many online) for the museums at Ayutthaya (; Chiang Mai University Center for Art and Culture (; and Kampaengphet (, among others.

41 They are (in order of rank): Phra Maharatchakhru Phithisriwisutthikhun (family name: Khawin Rangsiphrahmanakhun), Phra Ratchakhru Siwachan (Thawon Bhavangkhanan), Phra Khru Sathanathamuni (Arun Sayomaphop), Phra Khru Yananasayambhu (Khachon Nakhanawethin), Phra Khru Sitthikhayabadi (Khon Komonwethin), Phrahm Sombat Ratanaphrahm, Phrahm Sisonphan Rangsiphrahmanakhun, Phrahm Phisana Rangsiphrahmanakhun, Phrahm Bhatihari Sayomaphop, Phrahm Bharikhawut Nakhanawethin, Phrahm Khawankhat Ratanaphrahm, Phrahm Phathan Wuthiphrahm, Phrahm Kharan Buransiri, and Phrahm Thawutthi Komonwethin. From this list, you can see that these positions are often a father-brother-uncle-son affair.

42 I thank Arthid Sheravanichkul for helping me arrange this interview and to the Buddhist monk Phra Sompong Santikaro for his help at the Thewasathan.

43 Although I did not closely read or translate them, from their appearance they were central Thai-style samut khoi manuscripts from the mid-nineteenth century.

44 Of course, there are problems with the terms Hinduisation and Indianisation which have been discussed in Southeast Asian Studies for three decades. The two main problems being that they: 1. suggest that the influence was only one-way and that Southeast Asian writers, thinkers, and artists had no influence on Indic culture; 2. there was no creative engagement with Indic art, literature, science, etc., and so Southeast Asian cultural producers accepted Indic culture wholesale and did not adapt it. Prapod Assavavirulhakarn's The ascendancy of Theravāda Buddhism in Southeast Asia (Chiang Mai: Silkworm, 2010) is a good example of how to examine Indic influences on Thailand in a sophisticated and balanced way. See also the seminal articles by Mabbett, Ian: ‘The Indianization of Southeast Asia: Reflections on the pre-historic sources’, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 8, 1 (1977): 114 ; and Indianization of Southeast Asia: Reflections on historical sources’, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 8, 2 (1977): 143–61. Many major textbooks on the region and the Cambridge History of Southeast Asia also discuss problems with the Indianisation approach to understanding Southeast Asian culture. The concomitant problems with ‘Hinduisation’ or ‘Hinduism in Thailand’ have not been extensively explored. Of course, in Japanese, French and even Victorian English, Hindou, Hindoo, Hindouisme sometimes have a wider lexical import and can often be equivalent with ‘Indian culture’ and do not always simply specify the ‘Hindu’ religion as they do in contemporary English. John Holt's study The Buddhist Vishnu (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004) tackles the problem of separating Buddhist and Hindu deities in everyday practice in Sri Lanka and is highly recommended.

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