When you enter the Grand Palace in Bangkok, your experience begins with an extraordinary encounter. On the threshold of the main entrance to this royal palace complex stand two imposing statues. Both statues have sharp fangs protruding from their mouths and sturdy clubs in their hands.
These statues are not just ornaments that beautify the site and make it so captivating for visitors to capture in their photographs. They also have a deep meaning in Thai mythology, representing the Yaksha, an important figure responsible for protecting palaces, temples, and other sacred sites.
The Yaksha acts as a supernatural guardian, ready to confront demons who try to besiege or curse these sacred places. Meanwhile, soldiers of the King's Guard, wearing white helmets and armed with long rifles, guard the palace against human threats.
Statues and paintings of Yakshas are scattered throughout the Grand Palace complex, which houses ceremonial halls and temples and was built in the late 18th century as the first official residence of the Bangkok monarchy.
Representations of them can also be found at a number of other historical sites in Thailand, including the 17th-century Wat Arun temple, which is located across the Chao Phraya River, a waterway across from the Grand Palace. Also, the Sukhothai Historical Park in northern Thailand houses the historical legacy of the first kingdom of Siam, the ancestor of the modern Thai kingdom we know today.
The Yaksha statue also dazzles visitors to the Phra Thai Doi Suthep Temple with its sparkle, and the Yaksha statue is even gilded. On the other hand, even if travelers don't have time to visit all these places, they can still see the Yaksha statue towering over the main departure hall of Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport.
It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when Yakshas first appeared in Thai mythology, but they have been immortalized in Thai art and culture for more than 800 years. For example, a 12th-century bronze statue depicting "Yaksha Supporting the Dragon" is currently part of the Asian Art Collection at New York’s Metropolitan Museum.
Yaksha first became known through the Ramayana, a Sanskrit epic of 24,000 stanzas that was written over many centuries (until the third century AD). It is one of the great epics of the Hindu religion, which dominated India.
Thailand is significantly influenced by Hindu culture compared to other cultures. More than 700 years ago, the Sukhothai kingdom adapted the Ramayana into Ramakien, which is strongly represented in the Grand Palace. Inside the palace, 178 murals depict the epic battle between King Rama and the demon king Tosakanth.
King Rama manages to rescue his kidnapped queen with the help of his army of monkeys, including Yaksha's involvement in his adventure. Although these shape-shifting creatures play an important role in the tale of good and evil reflected in Thai Buddhism, they do not always appear as clear-cut heroes.
These mortal beings also play an important role as protectors of the natural environment, in keeping with the belief of Theravada Buddhism, which dominates Thailand, that the entire landscape of the country is the domain of the gods. Yakshas guard certain trees that are considered to have high spiritual energy, often by decorating their trunks and branches with colorful cloth as a sign of respect.
The best example is the ribbon-laced tree at Wat Inthakhin Sadue Muang in Chiang Mai, a quiet Buddhist temple in the middle of the old town. Sometimes the protective presence of the Yakshas may not be apparent at first glance, but upon closer inspection, visitors often find murals, carvings, or statues depicting the Yakshas to ensure that their protection is felt.