Sunday, February 15, 2009

Ancient Bead with Brahmin script points to 5th century BC Buddhism in Thailand

As someone who is fascinated by miniatures, I couldn't help but be intrigued by this article about Dr Bunchar Pongpanich, secretary of the Suthee-Rattana Foundation in Nakhon Si Thammarat, who collects ancient beads in Thailand. His collection is now being exhibited at the National Discovery Museum. I also noticed that his collection includes a Roman aureus inscribed with Antonius that a local villager unearthed.

Dr Bunchar said he was directing a tsunami relief operation in Krabi's Khlong Thom district when a villager came across the tiny object and handed it to him for examination.

"The engraved script on the pendant was made in a dialect called Brahmin that was used from the reign of King Ashoka [c 265 to 238 BC] up to the 5th century of the Buddhist Era [1st to 2nd century BC]," said Dr Bunchar.

Even though the meaning of the script remains a mystery, he said, it is potential evidence to mark the arrival of Buddhism in this region at that period.

"That may tell something about Suvarnabhumi. We know that Buddhism arrived in the region at that time but archaeological evidence that has been found in the country dates back only to the 9th century. But this bead dates farther back, to the 5th century."

He also found several other ancient signs used by Buddhists before the creation of Buddha images, including a tiny bead called Tri Rattana.

HISTORY: Beads of various origins and periods at the exhibition. They were loaned by Dr Bunchar Pongpanich of the Suthee-Rattana Foundation.

The bead, despite its importance, remains largely unknown to Buddhists, he said.

"Due to its peculiar, shoulder-like design, some villagers call it a 'doll bead'. I called it a 'frog bead' which did not make any sense," he said.

It was not until he met a French archaeologist who studied beads in Khao Sam Kaeo in Chumphon in 2007, that he realised that the bead, which is made of several kinds of stones including rock crystal and carnelian, signified the Three Gems of Buddhist beliefs.

"People don't recognise it largely because they look at it upside down. The round design at the bottom is a lotus, which is dhamma, the middle part is dharmachakra, the wheel of law, and the flame at the top is the spread of Buddhism."

Dr Bunchar said he then returned to the Suan Mokkh sanctuary and went through a note written by Phra Buddhadasa during his trip to India in 1955. "His note showed that the revered monk had seen this type of bead in that country and already knew of its meanings. I noticed also that the Tri Rattana sign is a motif of some of the walls of Suan Mokkh buildings."