The images are everywhere, particularly in the Buddhist temples and shrines, even if they have little to do with the religion as such. But they are connected to the world into which the Buddha was born and a Thai wat without them would appear rather strange. What are they and what do they represent?
Most commonly seen, especially in temples of the North and in Laos, is the mythical serpent-like creature supposedly emerging from sacred ponds, lakes and rivers or from dark, deep caves. The Naga appears in both Hindu and Buddhist mythology, originating in India and later travelling around Asia as the religions spread in various forms. In Thailand and Laos, naga effigies usually with king cobra-like heads often protect Buddhist temple entrances from evil spirits. Some have several heads, even as many as nine, to protect a Buddha image but more commonly a lower odd number. Ancient buildings would have a “naga” roof ridge and gables with fins and a raised serpent head at the end. These became increasingly stylized into the decorative finials seen on top of most temples these days. Thai myth talks of a naga creature that lives in the Mekong River projecting fireballs into the night sky on certain Buddhist festival days. Locals believe these “Mekong Lights” are symbolically revealing the spirit of life-giving water.
Mani Mekkhala (มณีเมขลา)
Also from Indian mythology is the goddess, Mani Mekkhala, known as “Guardian of the Seas”, namely the Indian Ocean and South China Sea, who protects virtuous beings from shipwreck. She is also thought of in legend as “Goddess of Lightning”, due to her crystal ball clashing with the axe of Parashurama, the sixth human manifestation of Vishnu. The Hindu deity, wanting to possess both Mani Mekkhala and her crystal ball, gives chase but, unable to catch her, he throws his axe many times at her, always missing because of the glaring light from her crystal ball.
It is, though, from another story by which most Thai people will better know Mani Mekkhala. Swimming in mid-ocean as the sole survivor from a ship bound for Suvannabhumi (the Golden Land) that was sunk in a storm, Prince Mahajanaka persevered against all odds to find land. When the Goddess of the Seas saw him, she asked why he went on swimming when there was no shore in sight. Mahajanaka replied that if he persisted with perseverance, the destination would one day be achieved. Impressed with his determination, Mani Mekkhala carried him to the safety of land.
Using details researched from ancient Buddhist scriptures associated with this simple tale, H.M. King Bhumiphol Adulyadej The Great, our much lamented late King, wrote a book “The Story of Mahajanaka” in which he extolls the virtues of individual and collective perseverance, truth and duty and, as a consequence, to enjoy Ultimate Peace in the future.
The Universal Truth in The Story of Mahajanaka is an encouragement for everyone to face problems with courage and perseverance in all circumstances. In Mani Mekkhala, we are reminded by His Majesty that with a virtuous attitude and determination to seek the truth, we will find guidance and support towards happiness and well-being.
(Note: HM the late King translated The Story of Mahajanaka from the Thai text into English language in 1988)