Monday, November 16, 2009

Naga Fireballs

This festival celebrates one of Thailand’s most curious natural phenomena – the Naga Fireballs of Nong Khai. Taking place during the full moon of the final day of Buddhist Lent, small balls of fire rise from the Mekong River and plunge upwards of 300 metres into the night sky. The fireballs appear as eerie blobs of red, blue, pink or green light that hang in the air for around 10 seconds.

An interesting cultural event, the natural wonder of Bang Fai Phaya Nak, “Naga Fireballs,” is held in Phon Phisai district of the northeastern province of Nong Khai along the Mekong River, at the end of the three-month Buddhist Lent, or Ok Phansa, in October around 10-16.

Local residents seem to believe that the fireballs belong to the Naga, the king of serpents. This natural wonder is linked to a legend dating back to the Buddha’s times. It is said that the Buddha went to heaven to instruct his mother in his teachings. He spent three months there until his mother attained enlightenment. On the full-moon day of the eleventh lunar month, the Buddha returned to earth and celestial beings built a golden and silver staircase for him to come down. With his loving kindness, the Buddha created a miracle by opening a view of the three worlds, namely heaven, the earth, and the underworld. All nagas living in the underworld admired the Buddha for the gratitude he showed towards his mother, so they blew out flames from the bottom of the river to celebrate.

The origin of the fireballs has been much debated. One scientific study shows that the fireballs are caused by the sun warming organic matter on the riverbed, causing it to decompose into flammable phosphine and methane gas and combust in the presence of ionised oxygen. This explains why the fireballs are of uniform color, do not emit flares, smoke, or sound, and eventually dissipate without a trace. Tracking studies have indicated that the phenomenon occurs from March to May, and September and October, when the earth is closest to the sun. Naturally, the findings have been disputed by Nong Khai residents, who see their time-honored beliefs challenged by what they view as attempts to portray them as superstitious country bumpkins.

The Naga Fireball Festival also features a bazaar, a food fair, a contest of floating and illuminated boats in worship of the Naga, long-boat races, and a light and sound show. Although there are several viewpoints for watching the natural wonder of the Naga fireballs, a great number of fireballs are usually seen in Phon Phisai district.

About 600 kilometers from Bangkok, Nong Khai is situated on the bank of the Mekong River, which stretches 4,200 kilometers through six countries, namely Cambodia, China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam. As it is not far from Vientiane, the capital of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Nong Khai is regarded as a gateway to Vientiane. From the province, people can cross the Mekong River to Laos over the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge. The phenomenon of Naga fireballs can be seen from both the Thai and Lao sides.

The following video from Youtube was recorded on October 14, 2008.

Yi Peng Lantern Festival, Chiang Mai

Yee Peng Lanna festival or Loy Kratong festival is an ancient and traditional festival which has been continued since the past.  It is usually celebrated on the first full moon of November.

In a past, according to sermons story told by abbots, of the last earthly existence of the Lord Buddha. The Lanna people celebrate this holy day by decorating temples or Viharns with banana tree and sugar cane.  The main entrance of the Temple is also decorated with candle, moonshines. The people launch fire-kites, fire crackers and float offerings along the canals or rivers.

Yi Peng Lanna festival is also a kind of a Buddhist ceremony and Lanna people believed that it is an opporutunity for them to make merit, listen to sermons, and to pay respect to the Buddha.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Have you ever experienced a total blackout?

Brazil experienced a total blackout that left 800 cities and some 40 million people totally in the dark on the night of November 10th due to a storm damaged transmission line from a major dam.

On such nights, you have a chance to realize the fragility of humanity's energy systems.  You also have a chance to admire the beautiful night sky which city lights had drown out of your entire life if you were city born and bred. Chaos can be contrasted with admirable human behavior, generating both heroes and predators to go on the roam.

On August 14, 2003, I had the personal experience of the blackout that took out a chunk of Northeast America and Ontario, Canada for two nights and three days.  It affected 10 million people in Ontario and 45 million people in eight US States.

I lived on the 27th floor of a 37 floor condominium, some 1,000 apartment units in our building, serviced by six elevators.  I first noticed that something was wrong when I looked out of my window and saw people thronging in the street.  Sometimes when that happens you know something hit the subway.  This one continued for some hours and my husband arrived home a bit late and told me that he had to walk home.  Fortunately for him, it was only a half hour walk and the weather was mild.  For those other people down in the streets, it meant that their chances of getting home would be several hours of negotiating chaotic traffic without lights, or boarding the emergency buses called out to service the stranded passengers.  I could see good citizens who just dropped their backpacks or briefcases and stepped in to conduct the traffic.  Stories were later told how it was past midnight before some of the commuters made it back home.

Mobile phone service was sketchy since the system was overloaded. Our land line wasn't usable because our phone was electric.  I sent my son down to buy batteries at our neighborhood grocery.  He told me they were just closing the store in fear of a rampage, there was little battery left for sale.  We used the batteries for our radio to stay posted on the news.

Our building had one elevator working on an emergency generator.  Water was not running since it relied on the pump.  We saved up what water we could in some tanks and the bathtub, we couldn't shower. We couldn't cook any of our fresh food soon to spoil because for fire safety regulations, our stove was electric. Restaurants had a boom that night, but all closed down the next day.  That first afternoon, I was told that pedestrians were given free ice cream since it would have melted to waste. Our neighborhood sushi restaurant passed around notices that they were giving out free sushi sets for the elderly.

The second night we decided to venture out in search of food.  The hotdog stands were the heroes of the moment.  The long queue was entertaining as we eavesdropped or engaged with other people's story of the drama.  When we got to the hotdog vendor, we asked him how his supplies were doing.  He told us that he had his whole family involved, running around town to search out all the supply of bread and sausages.  Sausages were easier to get to than bread, eventually he would have to close because there were no more bread to sell with the sausages.

When we strolled down the darkened streets, we passed by many foot patrol.  They were shooing people back home and warning them to take precautions of the very dark corners.  All the stores we passed were closed, locked and railed.  Nobody had an idea of how long this would last.  There could have been panic, and I really admired how the good nature of the Canadians came out in those moments of crisis.  It was relatively calm.

Late that second night, I noticed that the Four Season Hotel banner lights came on first, and a few other such powerful buildings.  Our building got its electricity back in the morning, but I was told that some older buildings had to tough it out without electricity and water a day more.  Those who made it back to their houses on the outskirts of the city were hosting barbecue parties with gas burners, enjoying the night sky for the following free days by default.

Several days later, we understood that a failure in one power line caused a cascading effect and brought down a huge system of interconnected power lines.  One couldn't help wondering where were all the engineers? How could the system have been allowed to become so vulnerable?

So now six years later, we have another story of the mother of all blackouts affecting millions.  What kind of backup infrastructure  Brazilian hospitals, subways, high rises had?  I can only wonder.  How well the people coped with it without falling into irrational fear?  I supposed the Latin nature helped things. Lucky for them it was only a night.  Their correction system also worked better than the NE American and Canadian one.

I was wondering if anyone else had a story about some dramatic blackouts?  What do people think about how so dependent we are on electricity?  We don't have to imagine the end of the world, but are we prepared if such 2-3 days or a week total blackout hit us?

PS. I now have a simple phone that doesn't rely on electricity at hand, and a stock of batteries always availabe, and my old fashioned shortwave/longwave radio has become a household treasure.

Where you can read the blackout stories:

Monday, November 9, 2009

The promise of ASEAN regional economy

ASEAN economic indicators

To see the above table, please use your browser's zoom in function.  I have organized the data from largest population size to smallest because I believe that second to a country's economic policy, it is population size which is an important key to assessing a country's economic potential.

ASEAN has matured surprising well over the past 10 years or so, considering the skepticism of many in the international community.  President Obama's signal to strengthen ties with ASEAN is a clear indication of this. Below are two sources of information (via google, of course) I found interesting whose words I could quote rather than write a whole blog about the promise of ASEAN's regional economy myself.

"Asean has a total population of 582 million people, nearly half the size of China. Market size is not only based on Asean but also the Asian region as a whole as Asean is connected to every country through its integration. Asean has a combined GDP of US$1.5 trillion and a total trade of $1.7 trillion with the world market. Of that 27 per cent of trade came from six Asean countries—Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand. Last year, Asean attracted $60 billion foreign direct investment."

and from The Heritage Foundation's policy paper:

"ASEAN countries have a combined population of more than 500 million people--larger than the population of the European Union. Their combined gross domestic product (GDP) exceeds $1 trillion, which is the 11th largest in the world, ahead of Russia and India."

"The measure of ASEAN's integration is not only intraregional trade and investment flows, but also its attractiveness as an investment destination. From the 1992 launch of the ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA) to the signing of its Economic Community Blueprint in November 2007, achieving economy of scale in ASEAN has always meant attracting greater levels of foreign investment. Yet even as it has sought ever new ways to stay competitive as a region, it has lagged behind market-leader China-- particularly since the 1997 Asian financial crisis. (A few years prior to the crisis, ASEAN actually led China as an investment destination.)"

Towards the end of the above quoted policy paper is a section titled "Why ASEAN's Economic Integration Matters to America", which I will not copy-paste here since it deserves to be read in full at the Heritages website:

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Google's view timeline search

Being someone who like to read and write about history and therefore loves timeline, a reader's comments led me to discover google's experimental search timeline.  It was difficult to find how to get there since it is still just an experiment with google.  I hope it stays and improves, but just so that I can find it, I'm collecting some links below.

Results of google search for "search timeline".
Google view timeline page

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Don't let Saxena die

Second part of Khun Thanong's report, published on The Nation, November 3, 2009.

Deliberate leak of bank documents triggered BBC and Thai economy's collapse but will financier spill the beans on dodgy deals in '96? 

In his second part of the series on the Bangkok Bank of Commerce scandal, Thanong Khanthong asks who ordered the closure of the bank in 1996 that triggered off the 1997 financial crisis.

In his fight against being extradited from Canada over the past 13 years, Rakesh argued that if he were to be sent back to Bangkok, his life could be at risk. He also said prison conditions in Thailand were horrible - compared, of course, to his luxury home where he was stuck under house arrest in Vancouver.

Indeed Rakesh Saxena's life may be in danger. But Korbsak Sabhavasu, the deputy prime minister, wrote in his web blog that Rakesh could not die as that would throw the political mess out of control.
Saxena lost the dramatic extradition case when the Supreme Court of Canada rejected any further appeal and sent him back to Bangkok last Friday. It gave no reason for rejecting his appeal.

However, Saxena has a full list of the politicians involved in the Bangkok Bank of Commerce scandal in 1996. Before leaving Vancouver, he issued a threat that he would tell all. Krirkkiat Jalichandra, the former president of BBC, also kept all documents to him?self.

If Saxena were to strike a pre-trial bargain plea with the Abhisit government by implicating politicians benefiting from BBC, he could compromise his safety in spite of the authorities' full assurance to protect him.

Saxena is now detained under 24-hour surveillance in the Bangkok Remand Prison hospital. His food is carefully screened. The Abhisit government has a full obligation to provide full and fair justice within the law to Saxena because it has won the extradition case. If the Saxena case is not handled with due process, chances are Thailand would have a difficult time winning extradition cases with other countries in the future.

Justice Minister Phiraphand Salirathawiphak said yesterday he had instructed the director general of the Corrections Department and the head of the Bangkok Remand Prison to look after Saxena, whose health is fragile. Saxena, 57, suffered minor paralysis on his left side after a stroke in March.

"I would like to stress that Rakesh is not receiving any privileges more than other inmates," Phiraphand said. "Since he is sick, he needs to be looked after. We have the same standard practice as applied to other inmates. Now Rakesh is being held in the hospital within the compound of the prison, with a surrounding wall and tight security. He is not getting any privileges."

The Democrat government has a lot of incentives to provide top security and safety to Saxena, because he could provide a link to politicians involved in the BBC scandal. Many of them are in the coalition government. Having Saxena in their control could help the Democrats hold their coalition partners in check. The Democrats want the coalition to survive till at least June 2010.

The politicians who benefited from the BBC are now not having a good night's sleep. They definitely do not want Saxena to open his mouth.

The man at the centre of the BBC affair was Ekachai Athikomnantha, then the bank's senior executive vice president.

He was politically connected to Sanan Kachornprasat, then the Democrat whip, and the PM Banharn Silapa-archa. Through Sanan, Saxena was introduced to the bank as Saxena impressed Sanan and others with his financial prowess. He practiced swaps, futures and options well before Thai bankers knew about these strange financial products. Thai financial laws did not cover these products, which allowed Saxena to test the law to the limit.

Although he was centrally involved in BBC, the name Ekachai quickly disappeared from public view after the bank collapsed. Sanan also quickly stepped out of the shadow of BBC before the financial scandal broke out.

Banking authorities sent Krirkkiat Jalichandra to be BBC president and rescue the bank. BBC was in big trouble with huge bad loans on its books. But the task of salvaging the bank was formidable. When Saxena came aboard as the bank's financial adviser, it was agreed the bank would shift away from normal practice to high finance - to try to strike gold on the stock market. If the bank could make quick profits, it would be able to clear all its bad debts in a swoop.

Saxena's unique position as financial adviser within BBC would not have been possible without strong political backup.

BBC tested the first drama script with a takeover bid from Song Watcharasriroj, alias Sia Song. More takeovers and acrobatic financial dealings would follow while money from the bank was drained overseas, first through Lebuan and the British Virgins Island and other financial centres of the globe. At the same time, the politicians, who tolerated this practice, got benefits from a series of questionable loans.

But this high finance ran against the tide. The stock market slumped by 40 per cent in 1996, as the real estate bubble was set to go bust. If the stock market was rally, Krirkkiat and Saxena would have emerged as heroes.

Vijit Supinit, then governor of the Bank of Thailand, kept the bank under his radar. He wanted a soft approach. The financial supervisors had asked him to take harsh action against BBC, but Vijit sat on it. He was doing everything to save BBC through a bail-out. He brought in the Financial Institutions and Development Fund and the Government Savings Bank to rescue BBC with a Bt60 billion capital increase. But it was too little.

Vijit had a good relationship with Krirkkiat. Vijit realised that closing down BBC would bring about a run of the financial system. But the politicians were all over his head.

At the time, the economy was severely overheated. The current account deficit hit 8 per cent of gross domestic product. The inflow from the Bangkok International Banking Fund (BIBF) made things worse as cheap money from offshore moved here enjoy the interest rate differential.

Later on, many questioned the sustainability of the Bank of Thailand's fixed exchange rate regime. The situation was aggravated by political conflict between Banharn Silapa-archa, the PM, and the Group of 16, who were trying to consolidate their own power. They included Suchart Tancharoen, Newin Chidchob, Varathep Ratanakorn, Sora-at Klinpathum, Thanee Yisarn, Wittaya and Sonthaya Khunplume. Their political ambition was boundless.

Suchart Tancharoen was deputy Interior minister in control of the police, while Newin Chidchob was deputy finance minister.

A minister belonging to the government leaked confidential bank documents to Suthep Thaugsuban, in the Democrat Party, then in opposition. The ulterior motive was to destroy the Group of 16. If anything were to happen to the bank, BBC could be shut down.

Suthep took the bait. Based on the documents, he launched a no-confidence debate in Parliament on May 9, 1996, and exposed how the Group of 16 benefited from a loan scandal at the bank. The world was shocked. Many Thais rushed to withdraw deposits from the bank.

On an order from Prime Minister Banharn, Surakiart Sathirathai told Vijit to close the bank. The implications were: 1/ The Group of 16 would be destroyed; 2/ The bank scandal would be covered up; 3/ blame could be shifted to Krirkkiat, Saxena, Vijit, and Surakiart.

Taxpayers had to foot initial losses at BBC of Bt200 billion. But the implications were much larger. The scandal triggered a loss confidence in the Thai financial system and the baht exchange rate, which subsequently turned into a loss of Bt4 trillion for Thailand as the economy collapsed like a house of cards in 1997-1998.

The road to scandal

Published by Khun Thanong, on the Nation, on October 31, 2009.

Thanong Khanthong examines the Bangkok Bank of Commerce saga, which emerged as the ailing symptoms of the 1996.

A turning point at the Bank of Thailand in mid-1996 revolved around the Bangkok Bank of Commerce (BBC).

With the credibility of the BOT hit hard, governor Vijit Supinit was forced to resign on July 1, 1996, bringing an abrupt, but hardly surprising, end to his six-year reign.

Vijit had become embroiled in the BBC scandal. The BOT had looked the other way while the rogue bank got itself into trouble dabbling in high finance. Most of its loans went towards stock-market speculation and takeover deals, as well as to politicians (at cheap rates). As the stock market headed downward, BBC quickly lost its capital.

But the central bank assisted BBC in its recapitalisation. Vijit did not think BBC had a big problem at the time. The problem, he argued, had more to do with Thai politics. If there were confidence in political stability, the financial markets would soon nurse BBC back to its normal health.
That was Vijit's view of the BBC affair.

The Banharn Silapa-Archa government was having a tough time managing the economic downturn. The Thai bubble economy was losing its steam, and asset quality of the banks was fast deteriorating. Indeed, the Thai crisis actually started in 1996 with an infection, which then burst in July 1997.
In the end, BBC could not survive. The Democrats exposed the BBC scandal in Parliament, telling the whole world that politicians had been dining at a BBC buffet.

The central bank ended up losing Bt120 billion in the bail-out for BBC, whose non-performing loans stood at almost 100 per cent. The episode dealt a serious blow to the BOT's credibility. If BBC was in this big a mess, how about other banks and finance companies?

Prime minister Banharn wanted to remove Vijit, and it fell to finance minister Bodi Chunnananda to do the dirty work. He instructed Vijit to lodge criminal charges against BBC president Krirk-kiat Jalichandra and his accomplice, Indian-born financier Rakesh Saxena, for causing such huge damage to the bank.

Both Krirk-kiat and Saxena were responsible from shifting the bank from routine banking operations to high finance, stock-market speculation and takeover deals. Several dozen dummy companies had been involved, with bank deposits shuffled around in deals involving both local and international banks.

Politicians belonging to the Chart Thai Party had benefited from the sweetheart deals with BBC, and Saxena was furious that Chart Thai had betrayed him.

Bodi threatened to fire Vijit if he failed to bring the case to court, so Vijit scrambled to put the case together. He filed charges against Krirk-kiat and Saxena with the police, but they did not carry much weight, because they were put together in too much of a hurry.

Saxena had the last laugh, as he had already left Thailand quietly, leaving Krirk-kiat holding the bag.
Still, Vijit was unable to keep his job. He did not stay in office long enough to witness the baht attack in November and December 1996.

Rerngchai Marakanond succeeded Vijit as governor and promised to launch a full in-house inquiry into the BOT's inept handling of the BBC scandal. Nevertheless, he hinted the inquiry would not begin until after the central bank had concluded talks with the Industrial Finance Corp of Thailand over the prospects of assuming management of the failed bank. That deal would never happen.

Rerngchai was aware if he did not attend to this scandal that had done so much damage to the BOT's reputation, someone else would. The opposition, led by the Democrat Party, had threatened to launch a House inquiry.

How was a bail-out of BBC with Bt90 billion in public funds allowed to proceed with such poorly outlined details?

Rerngchai had been frozen out by his predecessor, Vijit, confined for six years to running the obscure note-printing house. He was not even the first choice for the governorship when Vijit was sacked in July 1996.

Immediately upon assuming office, Rerngchai faced a series of crises, from an economic crash-landing, a financial meltdown and a currency war to the BBC scandal. Yet, as governor he had to act to restore the integrity of the BOT, which had previously been held as one of Thailand's finest institutions.

The central bank was a gathering of top-notched technocrats. Of its 5,185 employees, 180 work in the Supervision and Development of Financial Institutions Department, 40 in Legal Affairs, 285 in the Commercial Bank Examination Department and 200 in Finance Company Examination Department.
A source familiar with the BOT vouched for the integrity of both the central bank's examination and the legal officials handling the BBC case.

"The problem was that when their BBC reports were submitted to their superiors, no action was taken," the source said.

Phenwan Thongdithae, the BOT's top examiner and assistant governor, called on Vijit to take action against BBC management. Vijit replied to Phenwan's recommendations by reassigning him to a dead-end post under Chaiyawat Wibulswasdi, another assistant governor.

The reassignment marked the first time in the history of the BOT that a senior assistant governor was placed under another assistant governor.

Honest though he was, deputy governor Jaroong Ngukuan must have been aware of the rot at BBC. He worked closely with Vijit and read every report, yet he could not bring himself to warn the governor of the danger of letting BBC continue to play. Jaroong was simply a passive onlooker as the BBC collapsed at his feet.

BOT reports made public in May 1996 by Suthep Thaugsuban, at the time a Democrat MP from Surat Thani, indicated central-bank officials must have detected wrongdoing inside BBC as early as 1992, when its bad loans soared to Bt11.11 billion.

Despite warnings from the central bank, the management, led by Krirk-kiat, continued to flout banking regulations by lending money to cronies and other high-risk borrowers.

By the end of 1995, BBC's bad debts had skyrocketed to almost Bt80 billion.
Instead of taking drastic action against BBC's management, Vijit sought to bail out the bank with money from the Fund for Rehabilitation and Development of the Financial Institutes and the Government Savings Bank (GSB).

The GSB, under the chairmanship of Nibhat Bhukkanasut, approved a deal to buy a 3.125-per-cent stake in BBC for more than Bt400 million. This ill-advised investment ended up with a huge loss.
At that point, about Bt60 billion had been injected into the bank - but Bt30 billion more was needed just to keep it on its feet.

Asked by finance minister Surakiart Sathirathai for details of the BBC affair, due to its political implications, Vijit duly submitted confidential reports.

A letter written by Surachai Phruekbamrung, the BOT's director for supervision and examination of commercial banks, summarised alleged defrauding of the bank by Krirk-kiat, Saxena and Ekachai Athikomnantha. The letter, dated January 23, 1996, was submitted to Jaroong.

Yet it was not until that June that Vijit was forced to file charges against BBC executives for violating banking law. Actually, Vijit had no intention of bringing Krirk-kiat and his cohorts to justice in the first place, which explains the delay.

When the case was forwarded to the Economic Crime Investigation Division, it was handled in an extremely sloppy manner. Neither BOT officials nor the police knew for sure the exact date the one-year statute of limitations in the case would expire, from either not talking to each other or simply not wanting to follow up on the case.

When Rerngchai learned the attorney-general had decided to drop the case against the three suspects in the BBC scandal, he was shocked. By this time, BBC had become a full-blown political scandal, which gave interior minister Snoh Thienthong and his Rambo-style deputy, Chalerm Yoobamrung, the ammunition they needed to settle old scores with attorney-general Khanit na Nakhon.

Only after Khanit put up a strong fight by arguing the statutory period should have started with the BOT's January 23 letter - not February 12, when the BOT informed the BBC executives they were under investigation - did he escape Snoh and Chalerm's vendetta. By this time, prime minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh and finance minister Amnuay Viravan, who had formed a new government in late 1996, had no choice but to look into the matter - as much as they preferred to distance themselves from this hot potato.

A special panel headed by Ackaratorn Chularat, secretary-general of the Office of the Council of State, was quickly formed to determine the flaws in the legal process that had resulted in failure to bring the notorious case to trial.

It was clear the central bank, after failing to supervise BBC adequately, could not afford to let a "technical mistake" further tarnish its reputation. Hence, Rerngchai's promise to launch an internal inquiry into the BOT's handling of the BBC scandal that would prove, not surprisingly, to go nowhere.

The several names of a Stupa

An important Bhuddhist structure, the Stupa, is a mound-like structure containing Buddhist relics. The word ‘stupa’ is a Sanskrit word, in Pali, the language that Gautama Buddha used for teaching the Buddhist religion, the related word is ‘thupa’.  In the Thai language, it is more commonly known as ‘chedi’, which is related to the Pali word, ‘cetiya’.  In a more colloquial Thai, or the northeastern dialect, it is also know as ‘pra that’, which is related to the Sanskrit word, ‘dhatu’, for which the Sinhalese’s name for the stupa, “dagobah’ is derived from.  In Tibet, the stupa is known as a ‘chorten’.  In Koren, Vietnam, China and Japan, they are known as ‘Tap’, ‘Thap', 'Ta', and 'To', respectively.

Shwegaddon Pagoda, Myanmar

In Myanmar, the stupa is more commonly known as ‘pagoda’, the general English term for tiered tower with multiple eaves. According to wikipedia, the word is first attested for in English in the period c. 1625–35; introduced from the Portuguese pagode, temple, from the Persian butkada (but idol + kada temple, dwelling.)  Another etymology, found in many English language dictionaries, is modern English pagoda from Portuguese (via Dravidian), from Sanskrit bhagavati, feminine of bhagavat "blessed" bhaga "good fortune."

The architectural structure of the stupa has spread across Asia, taking on many diverse forms as details specific to different regions are incorporated into the overall design.  After his conversion to Buddhism in the third century BC, King Ashoka had several thousand stupas build across the Mauryan empire. According to Brahmi, Kharoshti, Pali and Sanskrit edicts Ashoka The Great  founded 84,000 stupas all over the south Asia.


Advanced engineering techniques and knowledge, for example the use of lightning conductors, were used and shared across cultures in their construction. Numerous stupas across South and Southeast Asia have been standing undamaged for a thousand years or two.

A stupa is essentially made up of a square base, a hemispherical dome, a conical spire, a crescent moon, and a circular disc, representing the five purified elements which constitute the fabric of manifest existence.  The elements are earth, water, fire, air and space. The shape of the stupa represents the Buddha, crowned and sitting in meditation posture on a lion throne. His crown is the top of the spire; his head is the square at the spire's base; his body is the vase shape; his legs are the four steps of the lower terrace, and the base is his throne.

To build a stupa, transmission and ceremonies from a monk is necessary.  Which kind of stupa to be constructed in a certain area, is decided together with the teacher assisting in the construction. Some times the kind is directly connected with events that have taken place that certain area.  All stupas contain a treasury filled with various objects.

A very important element in every stupa is the Tree of Life. It is a wooden pole covered with gems and thousand of mantras, and placed in the central channel of the stupa.  It is placed here during a ceremony or initiation, where all the participant hold colorful ribbons connected to the Tree of Life. Together all make their most positive and powerful wishes, which are stored in the Tree of Life. In this way the stupa is charged up, and will start to function.

There are eight kinds of stupas which are related to major events of the Buddha’s life, however, a ninth, the Kalachakra Stupa’s symbolism relates to Tibetan Kalachakra Tantra, is created to protect against negative energies.  A Kalachakra Stupa was built in Karma Guen, Benalmádena city, Spain in 1994.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

If it had not been for King Ashoka

The visit of cvltvre's colleagues to India prompted me to reread the few books I had about that great country, especially one written by John Keay, "India Discovered: The Recovery of a Lost Civilation".
My favorite chapters were "Thus Spake Ashoka" and "Black and Time-Stained Rocks", about how James Prinsep, a British official sent to work at the mint in Bengal in 1819, who was key to the deciphering of then unknown scripts found on impressive polished sandstone pillars and boundary stones scattered over an area so wide it was challenging to imagine who had done such a remarkable feat.

from flickr, photographer: Sunaina Suneja.

Nowadays, we know that these remarkable pillars and edicts were left by King Ashoka two thousand years ago, forgotten until it caught the intrigue of British enthusiasts in the early nineteenth century.

King Ashoka (304 BC-232BC), who had signed these edicts as "Devam Piya Priyadasi Raja", was grandson of Chandragupta (also known in ancient Greece as Sandracottus), founder of the Mauryan Empire.

Ashoka was a terrible warrior, and in his rage for the murder of his mother, he not only murdered his half-brothers who had schemed against him, but also killed some 100,000 people of Kalinga. However, once the war was over, the sight of such destruction sickened him to the heart and turned him to pursue ahimsa (non-violence) and thus became the greatest patron of then relatively new religion of Buddhism, building temples, hospitals, universities, irrigation systems, sending monks to many parts of the world to spread its teaching.

King Ashoka convened the Third Buddhist Council, led by his brother, an ordained monk, in 250-253 BC. He also sent his own son and daughter to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) to spread the teachings of Buddha where it has never faded out as it had in India soon after his death. Historically significant for Thailand (where I am from) was sending of Sohn Uttar Sthavira, a royal monk and many other with sacred texts to Suvannabhumi (Burma and Thailand) around 228 BC.

The following entry in wikipedia ( explains how important King Asokha was for Thai culture:

"One of the more enduring legacies of Ashoka Maurya was the model that he provided for the relationship between Buddhism and the state. Throughout Theravada Southeastern Asia, the model of ruler ship embodied by Ashoka replaced the notion of divine kingship that had previously dominated (in the Angkhor kingdom, for instance). Under this model of 'Buddhist kingship', the king sought to legitimize his rule not through descent from a divine source, but by supporting and earning the approval of the Buddhist sangha. Following Ashoka's example, kings established monasteries, funded the construction of stupas, and supported the ordination of monks in their kingdom. Many rulers also took an active role in resolving disputes over the status and regulation of the sangha, as Ashoka had in calling a conclave to settle a number of contentious issues during his reign. This development ultimately lead to a close association in many Southeast Asian countries between the monarchy and the religious hierarchy, an association that can still be seen today in the state-supported Buddhism of Thailand and the traditional role of the Thai king as both a religious and secular leader."