June 23, 2016
Traditions of Thailand – Royal Tonsure Ceremony
Tonsure is the practice of cutting or shaving some or all of the hair on the scalp, as a sign of religious devotion or humility.
Many cultures through-out the world have their own Tonsure rituals, generally it marks the transition from infancy to adolescence and is when the topknot of the child is ceremonially cut. In Buddhism, tonsure is a part of the rite of pabbajja and also a part of becoming a monk (Skt. Bhikshu) or nun (Skt. Bhikshuni), which involves shaving both the head and face.
It is believed that here in Thailand this ancient ceremony (also known as the ritual of the topknot or chuk in Thai), as with so much in the Kingdom has its roots in Hinduism.
The rite is traditionally performed during an uneven year of the child’s age (the ninth, 11th or 13th year) and before he or she has reached puberty. This is because odd numbers are regarded as favorable to the Thai people.
Since the bloodless revolution in 1932 the custom regarding the king’s own children has long fallen out of favor and into disuse however, the traditional topknot ceremony with all its rituals, is still practiced among a number of Thai people. The ceremony would normally be played out over three days, with monks and guests taking part in Buddhist chanting and sermons, plus entertainment by way of theatrical events and a party, with the arrival of dawn on the third day when the topknot is cut.
One also sees the custom maintained, though increasingly rarely, among the children of the Mon ethnic minority living along the banks of the Chao Phraya River; the famous River of Kings, running through Bangkok. The writer De Young (1898 – 1984) wrote at the turn of the century “no other event in the life of any Siamese is celebrated with anything like the expense that attends the topknot cutting, except perhaps a funeral’’
The Royal Chuk
The above picture shows H.M. King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) waiting for the palanquin that would carry HRH Crown Prince Maha Vajirunhis (standing infront of the King) during the Crown Prince’s tonsure ceremony
For the royal children, (the last such royal occasion was 3 months prior to the 1932 coupe), the rite was an elaborate ceremony that sometimes lasted seven days and was for centuries held at the Grand Palace in Bangkok, the ceremony culminated with the king cutting off the hair knot, which was then normally placed on a banana leaf and allowed to drift away on the Chao Phraya River.
Both Buddhist monks and Brahmin priests officiated at the royal tonsure (as they do today for those that still practice the ceremony), with the actual date of the ceremony carefully chosen by the royal astrologers, as it had to be free of any malign influence, plus the alignment of the stars had to be just right.
As with most Thai ceremonies and festivals, superstition and elaborate rituals are interwoven into the event, usually derived from a multitude of beliefs and customs of varying origin.
Touching the head of an adult in Thailand
This once common, colourful ceremony also goes some way to explain why it is not acceptable to touch an adult Thai persons head.
In Thailand, a culture much influenced by Hindu beliefs and ritual, it is believed the spirit of life enters the top of the cranium and from which it departs again at death. For this reason, in Thailand, the head is the sacred portal of the spirit and therefore not to be treated lightly.