The Battle for Dominion over Time: Thailand’s Many Calendars
By Ronald Brown
A calendar is one of the universal building blocks of all religions. For any new religion to succeed or ancient religion to endure it must prove its ability to have dominion over time. The prospect of an endless and meaningless succession of days, years, and centuries, is unsupportable for human beings, to say nothing of religious communities. Calendars are like maps placing an individual and a community firmly in a flow of time that began with the Creation and will end with the Millennium.
In late December and January, during my academic break, I traveled to Thailand. What could have been a pleasant month of travel, beach, wine, dancing, food, and fun turned into a research-filled period. My research was stimulated on the first day in Bangkok when the man at the front desk prepared the receipt for my $7 a night room.
The Confused Calendar of Thailand
He took out his book of receipts, filled in the sum in Thai Baht, misspelled my name, stamped it, and handed it to me. I stuffed it into my pocket and went to my room where I crashed on my hard bed and slept the entire day. It was only later that evening as I was writing my daily journal entry that I glanced at the receipt. I took out glue stick, covered the back of the receipt with glue and attached it to the page. Only then did I notice that he had miswritten the date: the month “12” and day “30” were correct, but in place of 2016 he had simply written “60.” I thought he had simply made a mistake and wrote “60” instead of “16” and thought no more of it. But this strange date stuck in my mind. I had to find out what “60” meant.
The Buddhist Calendar
My second encounter with the wild world of Thai calendars was by accident. Having checked into my hotel, I set off to explore the neighborhood. I strolled up a major road and stopped in the middle of an elegant bridge spanning one of the many canals that crisscrossed the city giving it the name “The Venice of the East.” I glanced at the elegant Thai script that announced I was on the Mahatthai Uthit Bridge and noticed the year of construction was 2457. Puzzled, I checked my handy travel guide and read it was constructed in 1914.
It then dawned on me that there was a distinct Thai calendar and after a quick calculation, I realized the “60” on my hotel receipt was in fact the last two digits of the current Thai year 2560 and not a mistake after all.
With this strange date in my mind I went for an evening walk and eventually stumbled upon a beautiful Buddhist temple, the Royal Wat (Buddhist temple complex) Kohlak. Throngs of worshippers and tourists milled about, the tourists like myself snapping pictures while worshippers lit incense sticks, prayed, or stood in silent meditation.
A common Thai calendar showing the Western year, 2017, and Buddhist year, 2560.
Buddhists measured time from the enlightenment of the Buddha, not from the birth of Jesus. After hundreds of thousands of years of human history, a monk from northern India had achieved a historic spiritual breakthrough. For the first time, humans would be able to break through their endless cycles of birth, death and rebirth. Enlightenment and the achievement of Nirvana was finally possible. The Eightfold path to enlightenment the Buddha discovered and taught was now available to all. Like a wildfire, this new teaching spread through India, into Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Afghanistan, into Central Asia, and across the Himalayas to Tibet, China, Mongolia, Korea, and Japan, and eastward into Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, and to the islands of Malaysia and Indonesia. The Thai calendar was not in fact Thai at all; it was Buddhist, the same calendar shared by Buddhist countries from Sri Lanka to Japan. With the adoption of Buddhism and its calendar, Thailand became a member of a vast spiritual as well as earthly world.
New Year’s in Bangkok
I had just missed the wild Christmas celebration in the city but still saw posters of a North Pole clad Santa wishing everyone a Merry Christmas, artificial Christmas trees in front of department stores, and discarded holiday fliers and advertisements in the garbage. It was New Year’s and so I threw myself into the holiday.
In one corner of the disco floor was a giant screen television focusing on the tens of thousands of revelers who filled New York’s Times Square. Another giant screen transported viewers to the first populated island in the Pacific that celebrated the arrival of the New Year, Tonga. Mass hysteria filled the dancefloor every time a major city greeted the New Year, the New Zealanders in the place erupted a couple hours later followed by the many Aussies present and an especially boisterous outburst when the clock reached Bangkok. And so the New Year hysteria passed each time zone, through India, Turkey and Israel, into Europe, across the Atlantic to New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and finally to the delight of the three Hawaiians present, Honolulu. Even the new Thai king got into the act and delivered his New Year’s greetings to his subjects.
Along with Levi jeans and New Balance sneakers, Coca Cola and McDonald’s, Ford and IBM, Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson, John Steinbeck and Hollywood movies, and the American army and Wall Street banks, the December 31-January 1 New Year’s celebration had turned the globe into the American backyard.
Rama IV, King of Siam (Thailand) from 1851-68, sought to stave off the vicious European colonial expansion into Asia by modernizing his ancient kingdom. Military uniforms and style of marching, post offices and modern banking systems, science and mathematics in modern schools, foreign language education, railroads and modern ports, decimal measures and weights, Western advisors and administrators, and the Western calendar flooded into the country.
The Hindu Calendar
King Rama IX had died in October 2016 and the country was deep into the year-long period of royal mourning. Thousands of black-clad Thais had come to the palace to show their respects for their much beloved late king who ruled the kingdom for 70 years, and been celebrated by the world as the planet’s longest-ruling monarch.
In spite of the multitudes of Buddhist monks preparing for the royal funeral and the ever-present Buddha statues in the palace, Buddhism did not provide the central rituals and symbols for a royal funeral. The ancient myths and ceremonies of Hinduism provided the six-day royal funeral and 100-day royal mourning period, the ceremonies of the funeral, and the royal chariot that would carry the body to its cremation and internment. Both the Western and Buddhist calendars stepped aside when it came to the burial of a Thai king. In their place, the much more ancient Hindu calendar took over and the kingdom was plunged into the mythical world of the emergence of Hinduism during the Indus Valley civilization, over 11,000 years ago.
The royal barge that would bear the late king was a gilded model of the sacred multi-tiered mountain Sumeru in northern India that was abode of the Hindu god Indra, the head of the heavenly beings. The brochure provided by the Royal Museum said that Mount Sumeru was the epicenter of the Hindu universe. In Thailand the achievement of individual Nirvana has become the domain of the Buddhist monks and monasteries, while the affairs of government and kingship remained the domain of Hinduism.
The late King Rama IX surrounded by Hindu deities. Thai kings claim to be reincarnations of the God Rama, the green-skinned deity on the right.
Artisans built the Royal Great Victory Carriage following the concept of Hindu cosmology. The Thai kings claimed to be the reincarnations of the god Indra, who came down from Mount Sumeru to ease suffering according to Hinduism, or Vishnu who is the giver and provider of things. According to the brochure, “when he departs, concluding his mission on earth, he returns to his heavenly dwelling on Mount Sumeru.” There he resides with all the Hindu gods and goddesses forever. The name of the ruling dynasty is even named after the Hindu god “Rama.”
The Feast of the Epiphany
The following Sunday found me in the seaside resort of Hua Hin. I decided to visit the new Catholic church I noticed not far from the hotel. The early Mass was in Thai with a handful of older Western men who had married much younger Thai girls and actually produced children.
The church brochure announced that January 8 was the feast of the Epiphany of the Lord. This holiday commemorates the arrival of the three Kings from the Orient to pay homage to the newborn king. Christian theologians cherished this holiday as the first revelation of Jesus to the Gentile (non-Jewish) world. This holiday plunged worshippers into the Catholic calendar that, like all calendars, divides, categorizes, highlights, and exercises dominion over every minute, day, month, year, and even century differently. Thai Catholics celebrated the seasons of Lent and Advent that led to the Holy Days of Easter and Christmas, and every event of Jesus’ life was assigned a special day. Countless saints had their special days, and a plethora of rituals ranging from collective rosary recitations, benedictions, the Stations of the Cross, and perpetual adorations, joined Sunday and Holy Day Mass schedules making sure no minute of the year was left uncelebrated. December 26 is especially honored as the day when seven Catholics were martyred by an anti-Christian king in 1940.
Spiritually the congregation was transported to the far-away land of Israel where the newborn baby Jesus, the son of the Virgin Mary and her husband Joseph, were visited by the Three Magi from the Orient. The congregation had just celebrated the birth of this child on December 25 with much solemnity and would in turn commemorate every event of Jesus’ life throughout the year.
The Muslim Calendar
After a week in Hua Hin, I decided to travel to the far south of Thailand, the predominately Muslim provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat.
Almost every woman in the south wore a headscarf, and many even shrouded all but their eyes in black. “The men go off into the jungle to fight the government with guns, we women wage warfare with our headscarves,” one woman told me. The only place I could find a bottle of wine was in the back room of a Chinese grocery store. Not one tattoo parlor was to be found, no massage girls beckoned from storefronts, the night was not marked by the thump, thump, thump of disco music, and I was the only Westerner I saw my entire week in the “Deep South.”
I had barely settled into my hotel when I heard the call from the nearby Rayo Mosque, often called the Old Central Mosque, echoing across the neighborhood calling the faithful to prayers. The five-times a day call to prayer and the call to Friday evening congregational prayers echoed through the city and throughout the mosques of the land telling the population to turn toward their sacred city of Mecca and intone the holy Arabic-language words revealed to the Prophet Mohammed 1438 years earlier. In front of every mosque a panel announced that day’s official time for the five daily prayers. Inside the mosque it was not the newly celebrated year 2017, or the Buddhist year 2560, or the Hindu year 5119. It was the year 1438 of the Muslim calendar.
After a week in three Muslim southern provinces of Thailand, I returned to Bangkok for my last week. I had more than enough material for my holiday article but this last week of January proved to be a gold mine of new efforts to achieve dominion over the fleeting pace of time.
The many-armed warrior god, Rama. Rama is the royal title taken by Thai monarchs.
The Jewish Calendar
Back in Bangkok, I went out for coffee and was immediately confronted by a burly, bearded Western-looking guy. He looked at me, half-smiled, and asked me in English, “Are you a Jew?” As if the Western, Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim calendars were not enough for my planned article, the man informed me the Jewish Sabbath began in 14 minutes and I was welcome to join them at the local Chabad house and stay for a kosher dinner afterwards. As I had learned from my years in Jerusalem and my many years teaching at Touro College in New York City, the beginning of the Sabbath was strictly regulated by the rising and setting of the sun and the holidays by the cycles of the moon. For Jews, there was no 9 and 11 o’clock Sunday Mass but an ever-changing time determined by the phases of the sun, moon and the stars. Modern-day observant Jews consulted websites, synagogue bulletins, or learned rabbis to find out the exact minute when the Sabbath began. Both the young guy at the door and the sign beside it informed me the Sabbath began at 5:54 pm.
For most attending the service it was Friday, January 20, 2017, but the synagogue flier noted that according to the Jewish calendar it was the 22 day of the month of Tevet, in the year 5777 — 5777 years after the creation of the world according to the Book of Genesis.
The Torah reading for that day was the first six verses of the Book of Exodus, which describe the story of Moses being put adrift in a wicker basket, his rise to power and wealth, and the beginning of his efforts to free the Hebrews from slavery. Jews around the world, each congregation at its appointed time, read the same passage. With the striking of the clock they were transported back to slavery in Egypt, the martyrdom of all male babies at birth by the Pharaoh, and Moses’ miraculous survival.
The Moses story of Exodus was not a question of God’s intervention in history but a seminal episode in the collective history of the Jews. The year 5777, the month Tevet, the day 22, and the time 5:54 pm were traditions that bound Jews into a historical community that had somehow survived for thousands of years. The sound of Hebrew, which most participants did not understand, nonetheless faintly reminded them that they belonged to a distinct people, even the kosher food that followed was a reminder of their ancient and still enduring civilization. Some no longer believed in a god, heaven or hell, but there remained a faint feeling they belonged to a people and shared a distinct civilization.
Chinese New Year in Bangkok
Hoping to just enjoy my last days in Bangkok, I decided to visit its famed Chinatown. Still another calendar was exercising dominion over time.
For many Chinese, and no doubt the Chinese government in not so far away Beijing, the festive Chinese New Year rooster (for the new Chinese year of 4715 that began January 28) represented the rise of China after several centuries of decline. For the Thai, the Chinese New Year’s tradition of gift-giving and festivities had already grown into a $1.5 billion industry, one of the country’s largest. Not only Thai Chinese and increasingly Thais, but the thousands of tourists from China accounted for over half the revenue. During the “Golden Week” that preceded the holiday, I saw packed hotels, bars and restaurants, Chinese tourists carting giant packages from the stores and malls of the city, sleek busses with Chinese markings carting tourists from famed Buddhist temple to shrine, and gigantic signs in Thai, Chinese and English luring tourists to their stores and websites.
Martin Jacques wrote in When China Rules the World that the emergence of China as a major economic world power will profoundly alter global institutions and cultures.
The author in Thailand, January 2017.
The Unificationist Heavenly Parent’s Day in Bangkok
On my last day in Thailand, two more calendars emerged. An e-mail from a Unificationist friend informed me that January 28 was also Heavenly Parent’s Day. Reverend Moon’s new holiday would celebrate the founding of a “new breed” of humans, “citizens” of a new nation that he was founding. Formerly called “God’s Day,” it joined the growing calendar of Unificationist holidays, including Parents Day, Children’s Day, Day of All Things, and Foundation Day, as key days commemorating seminal events in the evolution of the movement. January 28, the start of the Lunar New Year, began the fifth year of the new Cheon Il Guk calendar.
The Adventist Anti-calendar
Before boarding my flight I made the rounds of the airport collecting reading material, one of which was a flyer from a Hong Kong Seventh-day Adventist organization. Already fascinated by the plethora of calendars that coexist in Thailand, I spent my last half hour in the country reading it.
Unlike Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, and Confucianism that founded religious, social, economic, political, and cultural institutions to last for thousands of years, Jesus preached that the end was imminent. Drawing on the Apocalyptic and Messianic trends of Judaism, he promised that the present generation would not pass away before his return. But when the first Christians realized Jesus’ Second Coming was indefinitely delayed, they set about building religious institutions and elaborating liturgical calendars. But the Adventists continued to believe Jesus’ return was imminent, even tomorrow morning. They had no need for either institutions or calendars. “Are you ready to welcome your Lord and Savior” was all they needed.
Such were the thoughts that would fill the long flight that awaited me. Every vacation is a working vacation. Well, it was 2017 years and Jesus still hadn’t returned, so putting aside the Adventist warnings, I started organizing my notes for an article on the battle for dominion over time in Thailand.
Calendars are ideally essential instruments in uniting followers into a distinct people, but in the case of contemporary Thailand, the various calendars employed by its diverse religious groups have become instruments of division, conflict, and even warfare that risk tearing the country apart. My month there illustrated that the war for dominion over time is one of the central battlefields of Samuel P. Huntington’s much discussed “Clash of Civilizations.”
While mountains, cities, and even nations can be won or lost in this clash, on a particular holiday the eyes, ears, and prayers of the faithful turn toward this long lost or recently gained bit of real estate. During holidays, ancient heroes, saints, teachers, and gods come alive for a day or a month, dead languages reemerge in their ancient splendor, distant mountains become reality, and worshippers remember ancient teachings.♦
Adapted from an article to appear in the forthcoming 2017 issue of the Journal of Unification Studies.
Dr. Ronald J. Brown is a professor of history, political science and ethnic studies at Touro College and teaches courses in world religion at Unification Theological Seminary. A docent at the New York Historical Society with degrees from Harvard Divinity School, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and the University of Geneva, Switzerland, Brown is the author of A Religious History of Flushing, Queens; Into the Soul of African-American Harlem; and, How New York Became the Empire City.