Unesco brings Wat Pho relief

A Thai conservationist talks about the recent addition of the medicinal inscriptions on Wat Phra Chetupon , or Wat Pho to the UNESCO Memory of the World programme.

Wat Pho Medicinal Texts

Unesco brings Wat Pho relief
Bangkok Post, 08 April 2008
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Unesco brings Wat Pho relief

Conservationist hopes the public will help protect national heritage, writes Piyaporn Wongruang

Preeda Tangtrongchitr sighed with relief after Wat Pho’s wall inscriptions on Thai traditional knowledge and wisdom won recognition from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) and were included in the regional Memory of the World (MOW). Mr Preeda, 70, a key decrypter of the Thai massage and yoga knowledge inscriptions, will now no longer fear that the precious knowledge could come under threat again from false intellectual property rights claims similar to a case a few years ago.

Mr Preeda still remembers well how the Rusie Dutton, or Thai ”hermit” yoga postures, came under this kind of threat from a Japanese yoga business operator who tried to register Rusie Dutton as a company name.

Protecting the national heritage can be quite a difficult task as everyone involved can tell you, although they managed to win the case as eventually the Japan Patent Office rejected the request.

”The inscribed knowledge is our national heritage which our ancestors gave us in the hope that it would be useful to mankind,” said Mr Preeda.

”It is not right if we have to pay an opportunist for the knowledge taken from our very own temple. National heritage should always be given a certain level of protection to ensure it can continue benefiting the public at large,” he said.

Mr Preeda’s wish came true on March 31, when Unesco presented a certificate declaring the temple’s marble inscriptions of Thai traditional knowledge and wisdom as the Memory of the World (MOW) for Asia Pacific.

It is the country’s second documentary heritage to have received the MOW recognition from Unesco. The first item was King Ramkhamhaeng’s inscriptions, which were registered as the International MOW in August 2003.

Conservationists hope the public is now more aware of the importance of the country’s heritage and will help protect it from future threats, including patenting attempts.

During the past few years, the significance of national documentary heritage has been heightened partly due to the MOW national committee’s attempts to promote them.

According to the committee, Thai documentary heritage, which is rich in indigenous knowledge, covers various subjects. At least 70 inscriptions plus about 4,800 sheets of stone rubbings are kept in the national library.

Apart from these items, the country also has over 225,000 palm-leaf manuscripts and 33,500 traditional books, waiting to be explored and listed as national treasures.

The committee has noted that some documents are in such a bad state that they need special attention, both from local and international communities, if they are to be saved and preserved.

These include the marble inscriptions at Wat Pho.

Created under the instruction of King Rama III to serve as a cradle of education for the people, a total of 1,360 inscriptions on a wide range of subjects covering traditional Thai knowledge_from literature to public health_ were drawn up. However, some of the inscriptions have deteriorated due to the effects of humidity and rain that their capacity to serve their purpose has been undermined.

Phra Rajawatee, assistant to Wat Pho’s abbot, said apart from rain and moisture, the inscriptions were also unintentionally damaged by visitors touching their surface without realising that that would damage them. The temple is trying its best to restore the inscriptions with the support of the Fine Arts Department, but the scattered locations of the inscriptions on the walls around the temple has made the task difficult.

Mr Preeda, who has been decoding the knowledge on Thai traditional massage and medicines recorded in the temple’s inscriptions for more than 40 years, said only tiny parts of the inscribed knowledge have been seriously studied and applied for public use so far.

Despite his efforts over more than 40 years, he said that so far he has only been able to extract the wisdom on Thai traditional massage from 36 inscription plates.

And the knowledge has been constructed into various courses at Wat Pho Thai Traditional Medical and Massage School, the country’s first traditional massage school opened in 1955.

The school has now expanded and has four other branches, including one in the northern province of Chiang Mai. Over 200,000 Thais and more than 80,000 foreign students, from up to 120 countries, have already graduated from these schools.

Mr Preeda said as people have to confront rising uncertainties in their lives these days, this kind of alternative knowledge can sometimes be very useful.

Although much questioned by modern knowledge, it is a good option for people to pick up and explore, he said.

Mr Preeda said if these schools want to explore traditional medicines further so that advances could be made in healthcare, future generations would have to play an important role.

He urged the public to pay serious attention to the knowledge their ancestors have left behind for them, learning and making use of it as much as possible. ”I think we are lucky that we have this knowledge providing us with a base to move up. Now, it really depends on us whether we can preserve it and apply it to our modern lifestyles,” said Mr Preeda.

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Author: Noel Tan

Dr Noel Hidalgo Tan is the Senior Specialist in Archaeology at SEAMEO-SPAFA, the Southeast Asian Regional Centre for Archaelogy and Fine Arts.

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