Okay, so that title’s a pun intended to those of a certain age and era, but if you’ve been to a wat in Northern Thailand those creatures you leaned a hand against while taking off your shoes could have been moms. Maybe.
“Aha!” I said, having learned those dragon looking creatures used as a balustrade at many temples in Thailand were actually Naga, a popular mythological beast in Thailand and throughout SE Asia.
“Aha!” I said having learned that some of those naga were actually markara, and then for the sake of clarity some too are markara with naga sprouting from their mouth,
“WTF?” I said having learned the creatures I’d just taken a photo of were neither naga or markara. Sure it looked more like a worm than a snake, but I’d just assumed it was some kind of larval naga.
Obtaining a state of enlightenment can sometimes be a bitch. Especially when it comes to all of the fanciful creatures that inhabit the typical temple in Thailand. You’d think they’d make it easy like in the Christian faith and just stick to one god. Oh, wait . . . there’s all those saints the Catholics favor too. But seriously, just how many mythical water born creatures do you need?
Evidently, as with Mount Olympus’ pantheon, when it comes to the Himmapan Forest, quantity is more important than quality. And when you lived in an agricultural community in SE Asia, you can never have enough gods to pray to for rain. Naga, the more commonly spotted cross between a snake and a dragon with anywhere from one to seven heads, has its origins in Buddhist myth by way of Hinduism; a protector of The Buddha during a nasty downpour, he’s usually associated with water. And the closer you live to the Mekong, the more his legend moves from being an influence on precipitation to holding godly sway over the mighty river.
Markara – which took the same religious journey to SE Asia as did the naga – too are a powerful symbol in a culture where water plays a crucial role in daily life and agricultural activities. If Naga can best be described as looking like a snake, markara comes closest to looking like a crocodile – except for having the snout or trunk of an elephant, the tusks and ears of a wild boar, the darting eyes of a monkey, the scales and flexible body of a fish, and the swirling tail feathers of a peacock. Like with naga, markara are often used as balustrades on northern Thai temples, sometime sprouting naga from their mouths, sometimes sprouting vegetables or plants. Which should clue you in to its heavenly purpose having much to do with fertility and rain. Once again.
Interestingly (to me) and though it has nothing to do with mom (at last not mine), markara is the origin of the word for crocodile in Hindi, which is mugger. Which in turn evolved into the same word in the English language, meaning a criminal who sneaks up and attacks someone. The Thais took a different linguistic route however, and markara are generally viewed as guardians when they appear at the entrance to buildings in wats.
So if it looks like a naga, walks like a naga, and isn’t a markara . . . if you are up north, there’s a good chance it’s a mom. Like his serpentine and crocodilian brethren, mom too are often the focal decoration at the base of stairways in Thai temples. Some scholars claim he is a Burmese / Lanna variant of the markara, but with a rounder and jowlier head. So not so much a snake or crocodile, but more of a worm. With teeth. And like with naga and markara, mom often serve as guardians at Buddhist temples whose job is to frighten monsters away.
Mom too come to Thailand by way of Hinduism, where they are depicted looking more like hybrid of a cat or lion with a bit of gecko thrown in for luck. For its Buddhist use – though supposedly a great deal smarter than humans – they serve as a warning against clinging to things; mom hold onto what they have and know, and so are unable to achieve enlightenment. More importantly to matters of physical rather than spiritual survival, they control the sources of rain and are the guardians of life-giving energy in its waters.
In ancient Lanna times – which probably also means currently in rural agricultural areas of Northern Thailand – mom are prayed to for rain. During the hot dry period, before planting, farmers would put a carved representation of the mom in a wicker basket and carry it in procession through the village and to the temple. So like with both the naga and markara, at times, mom too symbolize water and fertile soil. You wouldn’t think you’d need three different heavenly creatures for one job, but then rain to a agricultural people is often a matter of life or death. So it’s good that there is no need for putting all of your eggs in one basket. And it’s not like the holy trinity thingy hasn’t been used in other religious belief systems.
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