Thai people come from several different backgrounds – the main ones being Tai, Mon, Khmer and Lowa. The blending of these different ethnic groups as well as the influence of other cultures shows up in Thai culture as a whole.
It is well known that for many centuries Thailand was deeply in fluenced by Indian and Chinese culture. India’s influence shows up in many areas such as Thai language, literature, religion, royal administration and massage to name a few. China’s influence shows up in other areas such as Thai food, art, architecture and medicine.
As Thailand is located between China and India, it is no surprise that the country was influenced by these two great civilizations. An active sea route existed between south India and southern China for at least 2000 years. There was also the famous overland Silk Trail between China and India, which passed through Burma, Thailand’s neighbor to the northwest. It is highly likely that many of the trades and travelers along these routes made a diversion to Thailand on the way.
The most notable contact, however, between India, Thailand and China was through the movement of Buddhism, which was brought to Thailand from India in the 2nd of 3rd century BC by Buddhist envoys. They were sent by India’s king, Ashoka, who asked them to propagate the teachings of the Buddha and to build temples knows as wats.
In terms of Thai massage, the movement of Buddhism to Thailand was improtant as the medical system of and Indian doctor called Jivaka Kumar Bhaccha was incorporated in the religious knowledge of the envoys. It is interesting to note here that the Thai word for massage is nuad boran which literally means ‘ancient massage’. Whether or not Thailand had an indigenous form of massage before Buddhism arrived is not known. Jivaka’s medical system was based on India’s ayurvedic and yogiv traditions. Thai massage’s Indian influence is still obvious today from the large number of yoga like postures used, its many Sanskrit and Pali words, its spiritual foundation as well as from Thai massage therapists’ veneration for Jivaka. In fact a prayer which invokes the blessings of Jivaga is still often recited before giving a Thai massage. Mention of Jivaka can be found in the Pali Canon, the scriptures of Theravada Buddhists who practice today in Thailand, Sri Lanka, Laos, Burma and Cambodia.
Jivaka’s greatness as a doctor and surgeon was legendary. “His supreme skill as a physician was matched by his supreme devotion to Lord Buddha, whom he attended three times a day. The Buddha declared Jivaka to be chief among his lay followers. Because of his medical eminence, Jivaka was three times crowned in public as ‘King of Doctors’, and is therefore known as the ‘Thrice Crowned Physician’…He was an expert in pediatrics and excelled in brain surgery. He successfully performed intricate abdominal operations.” It is no wonder that he is considered by many Thais as “The Father of Medicine”.
Thai massage theory was passed down orally from teacher to student until it was written down on palm leaves in the Pali language using the Khmer script. These texts were venerated and given the same importance as Buddhist religious writings. Unfortunately the Burmese destroyed most of these texts in 1776 when they took over Ayutthia, Thailand’s first capital
In 1832 King Rama the 3rd ordered that all of the best surviving texts be collected and studied. Based on this study, 60 stone plaques were carved of the human body – 30 of the front and 30 of the back. On these figures, points placed on the walls of Phra Chetaphon Temple, more popularly known as Wat Po, in Bangkok as it was the earliest center for public education. Explanations were carved on the walls next to the plaques.
Unfortunately, due to the limited number of texts available then and because the dissection of corpses was forbidden in earlier Thai cultures, many inconsistencies exist in the drawings and their explanations.
Wat Po is still one of the main educational centers for traditional Thai massage. Chiang Mai, Thailand’s 2nd largest city, is the other main center. Classes are available in both cities year round as well as at many other places.
Thai massage is thriving is thriving in Thailand today as more and more people realize the benefit of traditional medicine. Due to its great popularity it is now also being practiced in many other countries and has even found its way back to India.
This text covers specifically the style of massage as done by Ahjarn Pichet Boonthumme, one of Thailand’s greatest living masters who has been responsible for training many of today’s leading teachers in Chiangmai.