Thailand's Rich and Ancient History of Women in Buddhism

Thailand has a rich and ancient history of women in Buddhism, from the 3rd century BCE, when Asokan-era arahant missionaries Sona and Uttara Thera came from India to the ancient land of Suvarnabhumi first sharing the Buddha's teaching, ordaining more than 3,000 noble men and 1,500 noble women as bhikkhus and bhikkhunis. This was the foundation of Buddhism in Thailand, where Buddhism is still very much alive and flourishing to this day, with more than 90% of the population being Buddhists of the Theravada School. Thailand also has many Chinese-Thai Mahayana Buddhists, and an old and recently reviving history of Vajrayana Buddhism. The ancient land of Survarnamubhumi or Suvannabhumi in the Pali-Buddhist language -- the Land of Gold -- used to include all of Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and the South of Vietnam and China.

This blog showcases a little of the immense wealth of the rich heritage and history of Thailand's Buddhist women - and of all of the Thai people and culture - from ancient to modern times. We hope you enjoy your Women in Buddhism Tour here and during your stay in Thailand!

(If you enjoy this blog, please be sure to read the "Older Posts" - click link at the bottom of this page. Most more recent posts are focused around Bangkok and Ayutthaya. Older posts are mostly from further afield upcountry in Thailand's Northeast and Northwest.)

Monday, January 3, 2011

Ancient Mon Buddhist Queen Cama Devi - Chiang Mai

In recent years, popular folk veneration of Cama Devi has grown in a nationwide resurgence. A newly constructed memorial statue of Cama Devi in the northern Thai town of Lamphun (formerly Haripunjaya) has become a devotional center. At the same time, scholarly circles have focused increased interest in the study of northern Thai chronicles. One of these chronicles, the Camadevivimsa has recently been studied and translated into English (see the bottom of this page). It is primarily a document of religious instruction, presenting the 7th century CE founding of Cama Devi's kingdom, Haripunjaya, not just as a historical story, but as a religious and cosmologically significant event.

One of Lamphun's most important temples, about a kilometer out of town, is Wat Kukut, also known as Wat Chama Devi after the princess who founded and first ruled Haripunchai. Her son, King Mahandayok, built the wat in the early 8th c.

It is worth visiting if only to see its two chedis which are magnificent examples of Mon architecture. The larger of the two, 21 m (69 ft) high, holds Queen Chama Devi's ashes, and is the more important, even though lightning has robbed it of its spire. This is in fact how it acquired its present name - Ku in Thai means something like "chedi" and Kut stands for "with a broken-off spire". It rises from its mighty terraced plinth in five stories, with little chedis on the corners and three ornate niches at each level and on
each side.

These contain stucco Buddhas, 60 in all, and in various states of preservation, each originally with one hand raised in the gesture of dispelling fear, clearly showing the Khmer influence. Although most of them have their original bodies their heads have had to be renewed or restored in nearly every case.

Below is one of the images of the Buddha which is suspected to bear the original likeness of the Queen. The statue at the top of this page is a modern style which might bear her no likeness other than in the period costume.

The Sun-disc many-spoked Dhamma Wheel was adopted as a popular Buddhist symbol in Queen Cama's empire.

The Legend of Queen Cama (Camadevivamsa), an early fifteenth-century Pali chronicle written by Mahathera Bodhiramsi, recounts the story of the founding of the kingdom of Haripunjaya in the Chiang Mai valley of Northern Thailand in the seventh century C.E. Similar to other Theravada Pali chronicles, the legend integrates religious and political stories, namely, Queen Cama's founding of a dynastic lineage and the fortunes of Buddhism within it. The book offers revealing insights into the nature of Buddhism as a living tradition during one of the greatest periods in the history of Thai Buddhism. These insights include the symbolic structure of Buddhist cosmology, the close association of Buddhism and the founding of city states, the interrelationship of popular Buddhist ethical teachings and devotional religion, and the inherently syncretic nature of Buddhism as presented in a text indebted to the folkloric traditions of Northern Thailand.
One of the most striking features of the book is the parallelism between the text's dominant narratives -- the Buddha's journey to Northern Thailand and his prediction of the discovery of a Buddha relic by King Adittaraja (eleventh century C.E.), and the founding by Queen Cama of a lineage destined to govern Haripunjaya for five hundred years. The Buddha and Queen Cama are equal partners in this creative, cosmically significant act.
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