Religion in Modern Asia Newsletter

Special Report: Rama V Cult in Thailand


Thailand continues to demonstrate strong feelings of reverence for the Thai royal house and kingship. Many households and businesses display photographs of the royal family. Most such photographs are those of the current King Rama IX, together with King Rama V (1853-1910), who is known to Thais as "father of modernization." But if one takes close note, it is apparent that photographs of the current King Rama IX tend to be older and faded, while those of Rama V are fresh and new looking.

In the background to this unusual phenomenon is a stunning spread in devotion to Rama V, particularly during the past four to five years. Attitudes of reverence for Rama V, and the reproduction of his image on coins and various utensils has existed as a custom for a considerable time, but during the most recent few years, the phenomenon has undergone a qualitative change. Earlier, images of Rama V were displayed as a means of indicating one's good family status, but now, they have become ritual objects used in demonstrating one's personal faith.

For example, in one department store's stationery section, a corner selling photo frames and stands features a variety of photographs of Rama V, but the number greatly exceeds those of Rama IX. Anyone can freely buy and show devotion to these photographs.

The cult of Rama V is not limited to the display of photographs in one's home or place of business. Some people wear photographs of the king in pendants or lockets, and memorial coins embossed with the king's image or symbols of his achievements are minted and collected. The most striking phenomenon may be the worship performed each Tuesday (the day of the week on which the king was born) before the image of Rama V on horseback found in front of the old National Assembly in Bangkok. The worship involves no specifically set time, collective ritual, nor leader, but from about six o'clock in the evening, people began gathering around the statue, each one offering flower garlands, candles and incense, or even more intriguing, brandy.

Currently, there is little research regarding this phenomenon of worship of Rama V. In fact, probably the sole academic study is that written in 1993 by the Thai historian Niti Iawsriwong. According to Iawsriwong, the Rama V cult has spread primarily among middle-class urban merchants and self-employed businessmen. The rapid rate of current economic growth in Thailand has led to a closer linkage between the activities of such businessmen and government policies and authorities, but that linkage involves a contradiction which Iawsriwong considers an important factor in the spread of the Rama V cult. On the one hand, the lives of merchants and entrepreneurs are tied closely to the national political situation and governmental policies, but on the other hand, businessmen have no route to approach power on the national level and voice their desires. As an alternative mechanism, they have adopted the worship of Rama V as a symbol of political stability and power.

Further, Iawsriwong also considers this phenomenon to be linked to a strengthening of Thais' consciousness of nationality and patriotism. This estimation comes from Iawsriwong's belief that the Rama V cult represents a composite of official hero-worship (conceived primarily by the bureaucracy), and religious activities elaborated by the common people (particularly middle-class urban businessmen). Namely, descriptions of the achievements of Rama V have been publicized through the educational system and the media as official "historical facts," and those "facts" have infused the common people before countering versions of the legends could be created, with the result that religious rites were stimulated based on that information.

Also, the traditional ties of regional community and family have become weakened among urban middle-class entrepreneurs, and they now tend to consider their own lives and futures first within the context of their mutual ties as Thai nationals and their relation to the state. Against this background, to participate in the cult of Rama V has the effect of strengthening their consciousness of being a "people" sharing the same "history."

Iawsriwong's theory involves a number of problems, which I would like to discuss in the following section.

First, he states that the Rama V cult is centered on the city, and that the same kind of phenomenon is not found among the shop owners and entrepreneurs of local villages. He claims this is because urban business is more strongly influenced by relations with the state, and more subject to the direct brunt of political change, as seen in changing governmental policies and centers of political power. But he gives no clear grounds for claiming that the influence of political change is not felt in the village.

Second, Iawsriwong appears to believe that national consciousness roused through the Rama V cult is linked in a simple and direct way to patriotism, but in fact, the relationship is likely a bit more complex. From the example of the Rama V cult, it would in fact appear that national consciousness and patriotism, understood as the consciousness relating to the state, is divided between the really existing state and an "ideal" state. If so, then depending on the circumstances, the feeling of patriotism, reverence and "history" directed toward the ideal nation and king could conceivably become the spiritual nucleus for opposition to the current situation and its various existing authorities. Namely, it would appear that overlapping national consciousness and patriotism have woven their own respective intricate relationships. Further, there is also the problem with the nuance of what constitutes "patriotism"; certainly, there is the possibility that the Rama V cult has encouraged patriotism toward an ideal nation. But on the other hand, in this cult, the nation is an object of awe through magical, ritualistic action, possibly making it appear to the participants an external entity, something outside their own realm of responsibility and powers of manipulation. In the sense that they cannot escape from this "awesome" external entity, the people who have subjective identity as a "nation" are not necessarily expressing a simple sense of patriotism toward that entity. Namely, it would appear that a difference should be maintained between ordinary patriotism, and a patriotism held toward an ideal nation.

Third, it is not necessarily the case that a weakening of community and family ties is immediately absorbed within the consciousness of a "nation." On the contrary, it might be considered that the nucleus of identity is shifted to individual families, new urban networks, and gender. For example, one woman acquaintance who is a devotee of the Rama V cult has indicated that she reveres the king from the perspective of women's liberation, emphasizing that the king's achievements included abolishing slavery and instituting a secular education system. And certainly, it would appear that women form a high proportion of participants in the Rama V cult, compared to the cult of amulets which has swept through Thai since the 1960s.

According to anthropologist Stanley Tambiah, the cult of amulets reflects the various political crises which have afflicted Thailand in the 1960s and '70s. In particular, he characterizes it as an attempt to restore the sinking respect held for the central government in matters of politics and religion, through the medium of a mystical power based on the meditation-activities of monks who are both geographically and institutionally marginal. Tambiah also notes that cult of amulets becomes the object of collectors, with the most expensive examples tending to be concentrated in the hands of the powerful.

Compared to the amulet cult, the cult of Rama V is not particularly characterized by traits lending it to participation by those with a hobby of making collections of valuable objects, and it is more typically a private practice available to anyone with a minimum of capital. Further, there is little possibility of emphasizing a linkage between the cult and males, or those in authority (with the exception of official hero-worship). Based on these observations, it is my opinion that the cult of Rama V must be considered in its linkage not only to national, but also to gender identity.

Fourth, while the nucleus of the Rama V cult may be the urban middle-class of merchants and entrepreneurs, it needs to be pointed out that today, the cult is quietly penetrating various other categories of people as well. Photographs of Rama V can now be seen worn by some white-collar workers, students, and taxi drivers.

Finally, I want to express the view that this phenomenon is a new, and one of a small number of instances of religion centered on the urban middle class. Since the 1970s, the urban middle class has become an increasingly important phenomenon, and until now, three groups or movements have been suggested as typical religious movements of this class. Those three are the temples associated with Santi Asok, Thammakaay, and Buddhadasa. At the same time, this means that from the reverse perspective, over a period of some four and one-half centuries, only three such examples have become noteworthy.

In contrast, one hears that the rise of the cult of Kannon also has ties to the urban middle class, and the Japanese anthropologist Tanabe has reported that new spiritualist cults are appearing in northern Thailand with clienteles drawn from the working class and members of the middle class.

Even with the addition of these examples, however, the apparent rarity of such movements remains noteworthy. A final judgment is difficult to make, since the impression of such lack may be in part the result of a lack of sufficiently broad surveys, and lacunas in our research. If such research insufficiencies are not the root cause of the impression, one must consider the possibility that the appearance of new religious movements is being discouraged by existing religious powers, or as a result of the saturation of the religious market relevant to the urban middle-class population. In short, it may be necessary to pay attention not only to the burgeoning urban middle class and the emergence of its religious movements, but also to the existence of forces which might suppress such emergence.

-- Jan 1, 1996, YANO Hidetake

Last updated: 2001/11/28 14:33:41

Copyright © 2001 Institute for Japanese Culture and Classics, Kokugakuin University. All Rights Reserved.