I visited Thailand as an ambassador for my massage school in 2004. We were scouting schools and instructors for a Thai Massage class trip we wanted to offer our students. The instructor who taught our group was educated at a school next to Wat Po in Bangkok. From what I read before I went, Wat Po is the oldest and largest temple complex in Bangkok… it is also the first place in Thailand to teach Thai massage to people other than Thai monks. It wasn’t until I went to Bangkok that I realized the magnificence of not only the buildings of Wat Po, but the history behind them.
The story of Wat Po begins in Ayuthaya. It was once a city of tremendous size and beauty. It was also the national capital of Thailand for over four centuries. Ayudhaya had housed art, architecture, and an elaborate assortment of healing modalities passed down for over two thousand years. Unfortunately, most of that was lost when Ayudhaya fell to an invading Burmese army in 1767. Apparently this battle was the culmination of decades of armed conflict between the two countries, and Ayudhaya was destroyed. The king of Thailand, King Rama the First, and his army, fled from the ruins. They traveled south, where they built the new Royal Palace and capital city next to the temples of Wat Po.
This was the information I gathered from various web pages and history segments in my “National Geographic Thailand Travel Guide”. It wasn’t until I went to Bangkok during my second week in Thailand that I realized the depth of the history behind the creation of Wat Po, and its dedication to the survival of Thai Massage.
2500 Years Of Knowledge
What the brief histories and travel guides failed illustrate was the immense loss of knowledge caused by the savage and violent massacre of Ayudhaya by the Burmese army. At the time of the attack, Ayudhaya was an enormous city. it housed beautiful architecture, temples, art, and medical knowledge absorbed and expanded on for over two-thousand years.
A great deal of this medical knowledge, now know as the healing art of Thailand, or Thai Massage in the West, can be traced back to a man named Jivaka Kumar Bhaccha, also known as “Father Doctor,” who was a contemporary and personal physician to Guatama Buddha. He was also the physician to Magadha King Bimbisara of India. Bhaccha had founded several of the techniques used in Thai massage over 2,500 years ago in India. The art combined of body manipulation techniques, instruction in proper diet, herbology and occult practices. Overtime, Bhaccha’s teachings became codified as part of the Buddhist doctrines. This gave rise to the monk-healers as monasteries spread through Asia.
Bhaccha’s teachings are said to have reached Thailand, along with Buddhism, in the 2nd or 3rd century BC. The Thai people, like many others in Asia adopted aspects of Buddhism, and it’s healing practices, into their own methodology, beliefs, and medical practices. And, since Thailand is situated along the great trade route between India and China, its history and culture, along with its medicine, was affected by its location. For over two thousand years the monks and physicians of Thailand intergraded healing practices from both its eastern and western influences.
When the Burmese attacked in 1767, thousands were slaughtered. The city was burnt down, and over two-thousand years worth of medical knowledge was lost, or so it seemed.
Visiting The Ruins
I saw the severity of this attack when I visited the ruins of Ayudhaya. I figured it would be like going to the ruins of an old temple or civilization covered in overgrowth from years of being abandoned. What I found was much different. Two of my friends and I traveled to three different sites. The first temple, Wat Lokaya Sutharam, housed a sixty-seven foot reclining Buddha. Now white and open to the elements, it was once covered in gold and housed in a beautiful temple.
It was here that I realized that these were not runes from a long lost civilization… they were what remained of a massacre that occurred only two hundred year ago. The fallen brick and ruined temples looked like pictures I had seen of Warsaw after the Germans invaded in WWII. When we reached Wihan Phra Mongkhon Bophit, I just sat down and started crying as I looked over the acres and acres of scattered foundations, crumbling walls, and broken footpaths. I have never seen anything like this except on television or in old war movies. I have never witnessed the result of a war in person. Pictures and brief travel log descriptions can’t describe how it feels to look over the ruins of what must have been a catastrophic and horrifying experience for the people of that city.
Healing Art Was Saved
King Rama the First declared the area near Wat Po to be the new national capital. Afterward, the Thai people began the construction of the new royal palace. They also restored Wat Po, so it could become the new center for the healing arts. Only fragments of Ayudhaya’s medical texts survived the Burmese invasion. It wasn’t until years after the attack that King Rama II and King Rama III tried to collect what information they could from scattered documents and knowledge passed down between family members and monasteries. This knowledge was then cataloged and housed at Wat Po. Once there, it became the only remaining source for the Ancient Thai healing techniques.
The most important information on these techniques was placed in a series of sixty stone carvings. These carvings line the temple walls diagramming the “sen lines” of the human body. Before his death, King Rama III opened the temple doors for public learning. He did this so that the information he gathered could be passed on through generations. By doing this, he insured that the healing art would never be lost again.
Thai Massage Today
Today, the Thai massage school has outgrown the temple and was moved across the street. I took the picture below from the roof of the school where you can see the tops of the original temples.
Inside the temple grounds are paintings, statues, and inscriptions. Each of them deal with varied subjects like yoga, herbal remedies, and murals depicting the life of Buddha. Though it is full of tourists, it is still an active monastery where monks come to worship and commune with each other.
I visited the grounds twice. During my first visit, I was a bit overwhelmed by all the tourists. Plus I didn’t really understand the history behind what I was seeing. I took pictures of a few Buddha statues and left feeling like I had experienced all there was for me to learn. After I came back from Ayudhaya, I went back with some friends of mine and walked through everything again. This time I had a better understanding of Wat Po’s history. I felt more connected to what I was seeing, and a great respect for the events that lead toward its creation.
Appreciation Of The Art
It is from my experience at Wat Po, and Ayudhaya, that I am able to appreciate the effort, sacrifice, and determination it took to keep the healing art of Thai massage alive. Thai massage is not just an important part of the history and heritage of the Thai people, it is an indispensable part of their current medical practice, and it has grown considerably since the 1950s when it was realized that western medicine was not as superior as the Thai people once thought.
I am honored to continue a tradition that was kept alive against great odds by a civilization who’s primary goal is the education and exploration of how to harmonize ones mind, body, and soul.