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Cover story : 25 Feb 2004
Vol. 20 No. 22

The Lotus A Symbol of Buddhism
By Thawat Wattana
Photos by In-chan

One of Some Best Buys




If you come from Europe or America, you may not be familiar with the lotus, an aquatic plant with large white or pink flowers commonly found in shallow water in tropical and temperate Asian countries.

The lotus plays a very important role in many aspects of the everyday life of the Thai people and is held sacred because of its close association with Buddhism and Brahmanism.
The lotus is called bua in Thai. But the Thai word has a broader meaning: it is used as the common name for three main varieties of water-lilies: First, bua luang or pathum (Nelumbo nucifera), which is the equivalent of the lotus and the chief concern of this article; secondly, bua sai or ubon (Nymphaea lotus), another kind of water-lily whose leaves float on the water surface and whose stem is edible; and thirdly, bua kradong (Victoria sp.), whose round leaves, also floating on water but turning upwards at the edge, are as large as a dining table and whose flowers have a stronger fragrance than the other two varieties.
The lotus occupies a very special place in Thai life because Thailand is a Buddhist country and the lotus is the traditional flower of Buddhism. Legend has it that the Lord Buddha was able to walk on his birth, and that when he took his first seven steps in this mortal world, lotus blooms opened up from underneath to support the tender soles of his feet.

In murals in Buddhist temples and in other paintings with a Buddhist theme, the Buddha is invariably portrayed, from Birth to Nirvana, with one or more lotus flowers beneath him, whether he is sitting, standing, walking, or reclining. The Buddha images, too, are usually placed on a seat in the form of a lotus.
Part of a mural painting on the inside
wall of Phuttha Prathip Temple, London,
depicting the Lord Buddha
sitting on the lotus flower.
This tradition has come from the spiritual symbolism the lotus represents. In the minds of the Buddhists, the flower stands for purity of spirit. Rooting in mud, the plant is able to rise up above the dirty water and yield a flower of such perfect beauty and purity.
The Lord Buddha himself often used the lotus as a simile in preaching. He compared the striving humans to the lotus to inspire them to make greater efforts to attain Nirvana. As a well-known Buddhist dictum has it: "He who is low-born may develop and improve himself like the lotus growing out of the mire. The followers of the Buddha shine above others through their wisdom like the lotus."
The lotus is also associated with Brahmanism, which has been influential in Thai history. Many Brahmanic goddesses familiar to the Thais are depicted in paintings with lotus blooms in their hands. In the Ramakian, the Thai version of the epic in ancient India, the Ramayana, the lotus is the main feature in a description of the Erawan, the celestial elephant that carries the Brahmanical god Indra.
Above & this picture:
Bua-hua-sao is a decorative component of
Thai architecture using the form of
the lotus petals to decorate the pillar capitals of
Buddhist temples and palaces.
According to this account, the Erawan has as many as 79,233 lotus flowers blooming on its 33 elegant heads and in each of the 7 petals of each flowers reside 7 goddesses, each attended by 7 heavenly maidens!
The Thai people, therefore, always use lotus blooms, along with joss-sticks and candles in paying homage to Buddha images and those of Brahmanical gods, such as the four-faced god at the Ratchaprasong Intersection in Bangkok.
On account of its strong links with religions and its use as a symbol of feminine beauty, the lotus has enriched the literature and other art forms of Thailand since ancient times. Thai poets have used the suggestive form of a lotus bud to describe metaphorically a part of the female body and a lotus petal of a girl's ear. The most celebrated poet Sunthonphu once wrote of his journey to the former capital Ayutthaya, describing how his boat twisted across the flooded fields under the gentle moonlight amid water-lilies in full bloom.
Chedis and stupas of Mahathat Temple,
Sukhothai province, were decorated in the
"Phum Khao Bin" style which is
shaped like a lotus bud.
The word bua and its synonyms ubon and pathum are often used to name girls, places and Buddhist temples because of their propitious connotations. Places so named include two provinces -- Ubon Ratchathani (Capital of the Lotus) in the northeast and Pathum Thani (The Lotus City) near Bangkok and nine counties (amphoe), such as Pathum Wan of Bangkok and Lat Bua Luang of Ayutthaya.
Apart from its flowers which are used as offerings, the lotus plant is useful in several other ways. The petals, stamens and roots of certain varieties have medicinal values. They are major ingredients of various recipes prescribed by traditional herbalists. Almost every part of the lotus is edible. Its dried seeds boiled in syrup, sometimes with crushed ice added, is a popular sweet. Its root, cut into thin slices and boiled with pork ribs, is a delicious soup. The crisp young leaf and the long fleshy stem of the bua sai are also made into different tasty dishes. Even the large leaf, which is too tough to eat is sometimes used to wrap rice which, when steamed, has the subtle aroma of the leaf.
Last but not least, the lotus is valued for its beauty. Its unblemished petals, its fine shape, its slender stem, all add to the charm of the natural surroundings. Since the plant is so common in Thailand, it is one of the refreshing sights that you should not pass unnoticed while travelling in this country.

For the correct pronunciation of romanized Thai words, see
Romanization System of the Thai Language.

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