The profane and the sacred


» Country? Thailand.

» In a few words, what is the idea? It might seem weird to you, but the truth is that this division has an enormous significance in Thai society and culture. A difference that explains many things.

» Duration?

» For whom? Travellers with a special interest in this kind of stuff.

» Where? During the trip to Thailand.

» When? Anytime.


Profane‘ and ‘sacred‘ are two concepts with a continuous presence in the history and life of the Thai people. They define the essence of many architectural and ornamental objects and project themselves into Thai behaviour and social manners.

We all know what they mean but it is easy to overlook their enormous significance.
Watching this post will help you to understand a little better many of the things you see and you are told on your trip to Thailand.

There are sacred mountains and sacred rivers, sacred animals, sacred persons and sacred actions.

And then there’s the rest, the world of the profane, of what is accessible to everyone and no more transcendental than the actual outcome of what happens there.

We use the concepts of ‘sacred’ and ‘profane’ to organize knowledge – for example, ‘sacred’ art as opposed to ‘secular’ art.

For thousands of years, these two concepts have been instrumental in our understanding of the world and organisation of public life. This same classification of reality into two categories is common to Christians and Muslims, Hindus and Apache Indians, the Inuit Eskimos and the Aborigines of Australia, and also Buddhists.

In many places during your trip, you will find something that announces you are entering a holy place, that women have no access to a particular site or that you should avoid physical contact with certain people. 

The daily life of the Thai people and other peoples living in the region has traditionally been organised and regulated on the basis of the ‘sacred‘ and the ‘profane‘.

Wailing wall in Jerusalem.

In comparable terms for those who do not profess any particular faith of heart, it could be likened to the way we in the western world separate each day between work time and leisure time. Both parts of our lives are generally well defined and are not usually mixed. How we are expected to behave or to dress differs according to whether it one time of day or the other. In fact, many groups of friends frown on talking ‘shop’ when they are spending their free time together.
Well, something like that is what happens between the sacred and the profane.

The realm of the sacred has to do with the transcendental dimension of life and society, with the spirit, with the bond between human beings and nature and the forces that govern the universe.

Artistic work in the White Temple in Chiang Rai

Coping in the sacred world calls for a person to have special conditions and to display prudence and expertise. It also requires a profound respect for the rules so as not to cause mayhem. And never, never should it be mixed with the profane.

In the realm of the profane, anyone can move with as much freedom as allowed by the particular situation, without any special precautions, to eat and drink whatever they fancy and can find, to walk without fear or to stop to contemplate the city.
This division is important and all groups of humans attempt to draw very clear boundaries to avoid possible confusion.

Here in Thailand, temples have architectural features that warn visitors they are entering a holy place.

Muay Thai is no ordinary fight or a simple sport. The preluding rituals form part of its sacred character.

Monks praying.

And Buddhist monks are given separate areas in public waiting rooms not because they aspire to a higher status but because, after the ordination ritual, they form part of the sacred universe.

All matters sacred demand special treatment and as guests in a foreign country, it is best to heed whatever indications you are given that explain how they should be respected.

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Article Name
The profane and the sacred
It might seem weird to you, but the truth is that this division has an enormous significance in Thai society and culture. A difference that explains many things.
Publisher Name
Manuel Francisco Jalón

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