Thai Massage Intro -07 History
Massage and herbal healing remedies are likely as old as the human race. After hunter-gatherers came home with aching limbs, their mates presumably tried to rub away muscles’ soreness and stiffness in joints. While searching for food, early humans discovered plants with additional benefits. Over time, this knowledge was refined and passed down orally through generations.
In the part of the world we now know as Thailand, there is evidence that people existed earlier than almost anywhere in the world. According to the story, Samut Khoi (Thai: สมุดไทย [sā. mùt tʰāj]) were folding-book manuscripts widely used in many Buddhist cultures, including Cambodia, Laos, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Myanmar, where they are known as parabaik. As trade and relations developed between villages, then city-states, and finally kingdoms, this knowledge was shared by travelers and adopted by the locals.
Legend tells us that Thai medicine’s origin ultimately traces back to Shivagakomarpaj, a historical figure who served as a physician to the Buddha’s Sangha (community of monks and nuns). Although he was a minor personality in the scriptures, Shivago holds a deified status in Thai Buddhism. He is lauded throughout the country as Father Doctor and statues of him appear alongside the Buddha on nearly every healing practitioner’s altar everywhere you go.
The King Ramkhamhaeng Stone Inscription (dated 1292) is the earliest evidence of Thai healing, as it describes the royal plant garden in Sukhothai, the Thai capital at the time. Even before this, during the Khmer Empire that ruled the Northeast, there is evidence that King Jayavarman VII (reigned c.1181–1218) established 102 traditional healing centers. In the 16th century, while King Narai ruled the country from Ayutthaya, he created both hospitals and herbal dispensaries for the kingdom.
When Burmese enemies sacked the old Siamese capital of Ayutthaya in 1767, they also destroyed most medicine records.
Years later, Rama, I became king of Siam and initiated a cultural renaissance to restore the kingdom’s former glory. He and his descendants collected and preserved the arts and sciences, renovated temples, and built schools. Rama I codified and organized all surviving medical knowledge into a system closely following Indian Ayurveda. After the fall of Ayutthaya and Bangkok’s founding (1782), King Rama III began to promote Traditional healing, establishing the school at Wat Pho. However, interest declined as the government and people increasingly put their trust in Western medicine brought into the area by Christian missionaries.
In 1927, the World Health Organization promoted the preservation of ethnoheritage. Consequently, the Ministry of Health focused on revitalizing indigenous treatments. This led to the establishment of the Foundation for the Promotion of Thai Traditional Medicine and other related organizations and agencies, which national economic and social development plans have supported.
With World War II and a scarcity of drugs, the Thai government again turned its attention to herbal remedies, employing German expertise to create an experimental medicinal garden in the eastern province of Chanthaburi, which cataloged over 400 indigenous plants along with their characteristics and medicinal values.
In 1977, the Thai government established the Foundation for the Promotion of Thai Traditional Medicine and added ethnomedicine to its five-year university program in response to the World Health Organization’s promotion of Thailand’s traditional national heritage. Since then, the importance of Thai herbal healing has continued to grow.