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Reviewed by:
  • Sacred Rocks and Buddhist Caves in Thailand
  • Rasmi Shoocongdej
Sacred Rocks and Buddhist Caves in Thailand. Christophe Munier. Bangkok: White Lotus, 1998. xii + 266 pp.; illustrations (some in color); maps. Hardcover.

It is always a pleasure to read a comprehensive book about Thailand. In Sacred Rocks and Buddhist Caves in Thailand, French scholar Christophe Munier makes a wonderful effort to integrate archaeological data with his knowledge of Thai Buddhist culture and his experiences traveling in Thailand between 1985 and 1994.

The focus of this volume is a study of the symbolic value of rocks and caves within historical, cultural, and religious contexts. The volume is illustrated with 300 plates, maps, and diagrams. Information on other Asian countries is also included, providing useful information for both the interested reader and the tourist.

Munier defines "sacred" rocks as those that are widely worshipped by the Thai, not exclusively from the Buddhist context, and he covers myths, animism, and other religious beliefs. "Buddhist caves" refers to caves with cosmogonic elements of the Buddhist landscape that are not commonly found in the present-day context.

The volume is divided into three parts: a general introduction, followed by separate sections devoted to sacred rocks and to Buddhist caves in Thailand. Each section contains pictures, maps, and plans of sites, which provide the relevant supporting evidence for the temporal and spatial information mentioned in the text.

The introduction gives a brief survey of historical development in Thailand prior to the Sukhothai period (Sukhothai is the first kingdom of the "Thai" people) through the Chakri dynasty of the Bangkok period. It also outlines the concept of sacred rocks and Buddhist caves found in Asia and raises several issues. Munier reviews the evidence of sacred and worshipped rocks and Buddhist caves that have been discovered throughout Asia—from Sri Lanka, Burma, Cambodia, Thailand, India, China, Viet Nam, and Malaysia—by comparing the similarities and differences of the symbolic meanings and the worship practices. Here, the subheadings are not well structured and it would have been helpful to have a brief explanation about the organization of this section before launching into the history of Thailand right away.

In the section that focuses on sacred rocks in Thailand, Munier hypothesizes that the sacred rocks are linked to the Buddha as a person and everyday utilitarian objects in the Buddha's life, as well as special Buddhist events. He classifies these into ten parts: the introduction of Buddhism at the end of prehistory, rock umbrellas and canopies, the Buddha's shadows, the Buddha's footprints, the Buddha's alms bowl, the Buddha's throne and bed, the divine balance, animals, a rock offered by the angels, and phallic rocks. The materials presented cover a wide time frame, from prehistory to the present day. However, this section seems to focus largely on the Dvaravati culture (the earliest Buddhist state founded in northeastern Thailand, C. A.D. 6) and the Phu Phra Bat site, a Buddhist shelter in Udonthani Province in particular. Munier also mentions the sites in northern, southern, western, and eastern Thailand [End Page 305] according to the above classification. At the end of each part, he provides a map and guide to the sites.

The section on Thai Buddhist caves that follows is divided into five parts, including an introduction to Thai Buddhist caves, caves used as ritual and religious places from prehistoric time to the present, high and low reliefs, painted caves, and text and signatures. Under each of these topics, a brief summary of the most interesting caves around Thailand and guides on how to get there are given. At this point, Munier includes some material that does not entirely relate to the concept of the Buddhist cave; for example, he includes the historical records (text and signatures) of King Rama V of the Chakri dynasty's visit to one cave. It seems that most of the descriptive information and interpretations contained in this part are a summary of archaeological data on prehistoric rock paintings and historical caves that has been researched by Thai archaeologists from the Royal Thai Fine Arts Department over a number of decades. Unfortunately, apart from acknowledging Srisuchat, Munier does not give...