Thailand: A Confernece in the Royal Tropics
Bangkok's new airport, Suvarnabhumi (or "Golden Land"), is breathtaking—a huge, airy edifice, with beautiful gardens at one end and lots of smiling, friendly staff. It takes a moment or two to get used to all the bowing and greeting, but I decided that I could live with it. One of the earliest impressions of Thailand that I had through my jet-lagged haze (more than 24 hours traveling) was a predominance of yellow. Yellow clothes, yellow signs, yellow flowers everywhere. Once I first catch sight of the king's photo then I understand—it is the national color. I am glad I remembered to snap up a yellow scarf in the market in Darjeeling, ready for official occasions.
On leaving the airport there are even larger billboards celebrating and honoring the king. I had been told that casting aspersions on the king could land you in jail and now I began to understand why. The next encounter is with Bangkok's infamous traffic scene, but mercifully it only takes us about an hour to reach our destination, Mahidol University. This is a pleasant and modern university campus on the outskirts of Bangkok (Salaya, Nakhompathom), with plenty of tropical greenery. Compared to the University of Calcutta where I gave a talk in the Human Rights program, there appear to be plenty of amenities. Our conference is organized by the Institute for Language and Culture for Rural Development, where they conduct linguistic, folklore, and development research on cultural minorities.
The next morning we are instructed to be in our places by 8 am for the opening ceremony, an hour before Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn arrives, because of security considerations. I am hurriedly trying to finish my speech and do last-minute checks on protocol. The university staff and faculty were issuing strict instructions about not crossing your legs or having anything on your lap if you are sitting on the front row, and no photography. It is a long time since I had been told to sit so demurely. Some of the Western participants find the tone a little paternalistic, but as an American colleague put it, the king and queen are the parents of the nation, and the people are their children.
After delivering her speech in English--which is apparently unusual, but appreciated as a gesture to the international nature of the gathering (more than 300 participants from nearly 50 countries)—there was standing applause, except from the Buddhist monks who remained seated. Her Royal Highness very graciously came over to greet me in my capacity as President of the parent organization (the International Association for the History of Religions) of the regional association, the South and South-East Asian Association for the Study of Culture and Religion (SSEASR)—the conference organizers.
The director of the conference, Dr Amarjiva Lochan (who teaches at the University of Delhi but conducts research in Thailand and Cambodia) explained to me after the event that the Princess is a very educated woman, passionate about modern technology, who speaks five languages and has a two Master's degrees and a PhD in Educational Development. She is considered to her father's intellectual successor. I was a little taken aback that she took time to apologize to me that she had not had time to write a longer speech because of all the activities surrounding the year of the 80th birthday of the King! The Princess purportedly favors less protocol and distance from the people. That notwithstanding, I watched one or two female attendants retreat from her on their knees. She is a very popular figure, and has many supporters who would like to see her inherit the throne. However, she has recently renounced any such considerations.
After her departure, several people—many of them from India--wanted a photo with me. I couldn't decide whether it was because of the merit ("phu mii bun") I had instantly accrued from shaking hands with royalty or because of the Indian clothes I was wearing. As you can see from one of the attached photos, I looked a lot less royal than some of the participants!
During the special symposium on kingship and religion, that followed the opening ceremony, Thanphuying Putrie Viravaidya, Deputy Principal Private Secretary to His Majesty the King, emphasized in her speech that the Thai Buddhist monarch was bound to protect and support all religions in the Kingdom with loving kindness, compassion and charity. I enjoyed hearing about Bhutan from Dr. Lungtaen Gyatso, a Buddhist (Tantric Vajrayana) monk and director of the Institute of Language and Culture Studies at the Royal University of Bhutan. He spoke about Bhutan's development philosophy of Gross National Happiness or GNH! For the next three days we heard papers on all aspects of religion from every corner of the region—from Bangalore to Bangladesh and the Philippines to Pakistan. Not all the presenters were scholars of religion as such, and a few unfortunately used the forum to promote their own religious positions (happily this was criticized publicly at the final assembly). There was a significant bevy of Sanskrit scholars.
When it came to food time, the cultural and religious differences became even more readily apparent. I have never been at a professional conference or meeting where the vegetarians were almost in the majority! The conference organizers had laid on some wonderful cultural performances and films for us to enjoy in the evenings, from traditional Thai and Indian dances to Sanskrit literary quizzes and contemporary Japanese films. These together with the heat and humidity meant that we were pretty exhausted come bedtime.
On the final morning, during the General Assembly, which I was asked to chair at the last minute, there was some drama as Dr. Lochan, the President of the SSEASR, fell down the steps at the back of the stage and broke his foot. While he was at the hospital the rest of us headed downtown in the afternoon for the much-anticipated excursion to the main sights. Bangkok is such a popular city with foreign visitors because it combines both the traditional and the modern—distinctive temples and stylish shopping districts, not forgetting the entertainment scene and fabulous food. Despite the heat and a late afternoon monsoon-type downpour, we were able to relish the spectacular beauty of the Royal Palace and temple buildings, contemplate the famed Emerald (jade) Buddha, and gasp at the magnificent golden reclining Buddha at Wat Pho. On the outgoing journey, I was fortunate to be invited to ride in the VIP car rather than the bus and enjoyed a most stimulating conversation on Thai politics and culture with a Thai retired history professor. I learned later that he was a cousin of the King. He let it be known that he was against recent efforts by a Buddhist faction to declare Buddhism the state religion.