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The true colours of Eastern cultures

The sudden downpours last week in Bangkok made white clothes and saffron robes stand out with a saturated intensity of colour against the grey light.

india Updated: Jun 18, 2011 23:38 IST
Renuka Narayanan

The sudden downpours last week in Bangkok made white clothes and saffron robes stand out with a saturated intensity of colour against the grey light. It made me recall that it was in South Thailand, in the region called Seevichai (Srivijaya) that I discovered that the polite colour to wear anywhere in Thailand to a Buddhist ceremony, holy place or happy event is absolutely not black but white, cream or pastel. Black here is the colour of mourning. Thai people are too polite to tell us that, but if asked, they might. So ideally, if you’re going to do business in Thailand, it might be a good idea to pack some clothes in light colours for those corporate parties. Isn’t it interesting how the palette shifts from sunset to sunlight, from the navy blue, black or charcoal grey of ‘global’ Western formals to the fawn, beige, pale blue, cream and white of correct Eastern formals? Indians have been sailing to ‘Suvannaphum’ since the Jatakas in search of wealth in the ‘Golden Land’, but thanks to colonial histories, we now know each other mainly through English, through the filter of the western mind and the references that come with the English language - which naturally draws many core concept-words from its own religion, culture and history despite its amazing global elasticity.

Besides seeing exquisite shrines to Ganesha, Brahma, Shiva and Indra everywhere, many far neater than at home, I was fascinated to learn that Thais say ‘Buddhist Lent’ in English for the three months of retreat during the rains. That made me culturally curious. As an Indian, I like learning new words and I like the Thai name for this period, ‘Khao Phansa’, a time of important merit-making ceremonies for lay Buddhists. This year, Khao Phansa starts in mid-July and ends around mid-October. Monks stay put in one wat (temple) and there are important festival days before and after this period. In particular, the day before Khao Phansa is Asalha Bucha (Asadh Puja) that commemorates the First Sermon by the Buddha at the Deer Park in Sarnath and the founding of the Buddhist Sangha. It was interesting, though, to read in local guide books by authors with Anglo-Chinese names that “Buddhism comes from its founder, Siddhartha Gautama (563-483 BC) of Nepal.” A stray thought: “Ehi passiko” (“Come and see,” to quote from a Pali quote attributed to the Sakyamuni?).

Renuka Narayanan writes on religion and culture.