Thai massage, known as "Nuad Boran" in Thai, or "Yoga Massage" in the global context, boasts a rich history of therapeutic influence on the human body. With a practice dating back thousands of years, Thai massage is grounded in the teachings of invisible energy lines that intricately traverse the human body, akin to Chinese traditional medicine, Ayurveda, and Indian yoga.
Thai massage addresses various discomforts and pains through its impact on various acupressure points found along the body's energy lines. This traditional Thai healing practice is quite prevalent in Thailand. So, let's delve into the origins and profound techniques of Thai massage.
Traditionally credited as the founder of Thai massage is Jivaka Kumar Bhaccha (pictured on the left), who lived over two and a half millennia ago and is considered a close associate of Buddha. He is also known by the name Shivago Komarpaj. Jivaka Kumar Bhaccha was a physician and is revered as the progenitor of Thai medicine.
It is believed that Jivaka Kumar Bhaccha's teachings reached what is now Thailand around the same time as Buddhism, roughly in the 2nd or 3rd century CE. Whether local forms of massage existed in Thailand before this period or the extent of influence from Chinese and Japanese traditional medicine, particularly acupuncture and acupressure, on Thai massage theory and practice remains uncertain. Over centuries, the transmission of medical knowledge from teachers to students, following the oral tradition prevalent in India, makes it challenging to ascertain precise details.
The Medicine Buddha "Bhaisajyaguru" thangka below reflects the healers and their followers. Medicine Buddha Thangka (1653-1705) We are interested in its upper right corner.
In the transcript of the thangka we find Dr. Jivaka Kumar Bhashi. Jivaka Kumar Bhashi (right) Upali (center) Kasiapa (right) Read more about Buddha medicine.
References in Texts
Thai massage finds mention in the 17th-century Pali Canon, ancient texts of Southern Theravada Buddhism primarily discovered today in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand. These texts, written on palm leaves in the Pali language using Khmer script, are invaluable. Sadly, during the Burmese invasion, the ancient capital was destroyed, and many manuscripts were lost.
Texts containing medical knowledge were carefully preserved in the ancient city of Ayutthaya and revered alongside religious scriptures. However, humanity often fails to safeguard its greatest treasures—experience and knowledge. Many invaluable texts were lost when Burmese invaders captured Ayutthaya in 1767.
In 1832, under the decree of King Rama III, the surviving materials were etched into stone within the premises of Wat Pho, the largest monastery in Bangkok. The choice of this location was deliberate, as Buddhism formed the very foundation and fabric of Thailand's existence. Consequently, like many other aspects, Thai massage became an integral part of monastic practices in Buddhist temples, from where it later gained broader recognition.
Thai massage's evolution is a testament to the resilience and adaptability of ancient practices, ensuring that the art of healing and well-being perseveres through the ages.
Preservation of Ancient Texts
Only fragments of these texts survived, and in 1832, King Rama III utilized them in the construction of Wat Pho temple (commonly known as Wat Pho) in Bangkok. Fragments of these texts were collected, studied, and then engraved as inscriptions on the temple's stone walls.
In a publication by the Traditional Thai Medicine School Association, released in 1977 in the Thai language, there are "medical texts that His Majesty King Rama III ordered to be recorded in Wat Pho temple in 1832." These texts feature illustrations and explanations with some inconsistencies; they don't depict ribs and vertebrae, among other inaccuracies. However, these ancient texts remain the richest and only source for researchers delving into the theoretical roots of Thai massage. The illustrations mark various energy lines referred to as "sen" in Thai and the therapeutic points located along them.
Viewing these ancient depictions through the lens of modern Western anatomical concepts, they may appear, at the very least, unconventional. This is because ancient Thai massage didn't emphasize anatomy, but rather the overall impact on the body. Until recently, scientific surgery was virtually unknown in Thailand, and theoretical knowledge of anatomy was practically nonexistent. The drawings illustrating massage didn't claim to be physiologically accurate but rather served as schematics to demonstrate energy lines and acupuncture points, as well as their influence on the body and its functions.
Influence of Ayurveda
It's challenging to determine to what extent the Thai healing system borrowed principles from Ayurveda, as many Ayurvedic postulates frequently appear in Thai herbalism. As Harald "Asokananda" Brust (1) states, "Many parallels with Ayurveda can be found in the Thai tradition, including some Thai concepts (such as tridosha and nadis) even share the same names as in Ayurveda. However, most scholars tend to view these as later additions rather than the foundation of the Thai system."
Jean Mulholland (2), a prominent anthropologist of Thai medicine, mentions in discussions about one of the traditional herbal compendiums, "I can no longer claim that Thai traditional medicine is primarily based on Ayurvedic philosophy. Instead... a few short passages and recipes are based on Ayurveda."
Viggo Brun and Trond Schumacher (3) concluded that in the Thai system, the theory [of Ayurveda]... is imported from India but not integrated into practice, only used as a reference system or an explanatory model.
Most experts on Thai medicine have also come to the conclusion that Ayurveda is not central to the Thai herbal healing system. (For more detailed information, one can refer to Dr. David Frawley's book "Ayurvedic Herbs").
Asokananda (Harald Brust), Thai Traditional Massage (Bangkok: Editions Duang Kamol, 1990), 4–5.
Jean Mulholland, "Ayurveda, Congenital Disease and Birthdays in Thai Traditional Medicine,” Journal of the Siam Society 76 (1988): 175.
Viggo Brun and Trond Schumacher, Traditional Herbal Medicine in Northern Thailand (Bangkok: White Lotus, 1994), 32.