After your massage therapist offers you some loose-fitting and exceptionally breathable clothes to change into, you see her put her hands together in prayer.
The therapist then uses her hands, forearms, elbows, and more to knead your body, finding knots you didn’t know you had. Later, she guides your body into various contortions, stretching your tired muscles and cracking joints. You emerge from the whole ordeal feeling relaxed, yet invigorated. This is the traditional Thai massage.
While your first Thai massage therapy session may offer a few surprises, Nuad Thai, or traditional Thai massage, has been with the Thai people for over 2,500 years. Its benefits are so globally recognized that it’s performed around the world and not just by Thais.
Join us as we embark on an exploration of Thai massage’s Buddhists roots, introduction to Siamese royalty, and eventual inscription as a UNESCO intangible cultural heritage of humanity.
Roots in Buddhist faith
A branch of Thai traditional medicine, Nuad Thai is firmly rooted in the country’s prevailing religion of Buddhism. Legend has it the ancient methodology of Nuad Thai originated in Thailand with the arrival of two Buddhist missionary monks around 3 B.E. (Buddhist Era) or 546 C.E. on the Gregorian calendar. They were sent by the Indian Emperor Asoka and also brought with them the teachings of Chiwaka Komparaphat, Buddha’s personal physician.
Chiwaka Komparaphat is said to have introduced Buddhist monks to Ayurveda treatment such as herbal remedies, massage therapy, yoga, and meditation. Yoga, for instance, was practiced by the monks to relieve muscle pain resulting from long hours of meditation. Buddhist temples also served as healing centers where monks used the Ayurveda wisdom to treat sick and injured community members and also to pass this wisdom on.
Ask any Nuad Thai practitioner and they will tell you theirs is a spiritual discipline and application of the Buddhist tenet of metta or compassion. Nuad Thai is also steeped in Buddhist tradition. Before any massage session, practitioners offer a Wai Kru prayer of thanks to their mentors, including Buddha’s personal physician Chiwaka Komparaphat. In fact, an annual Wai Kru ceremony is held to express gratitude to the ancestral teachers. These rituals provide moral and professional guidance for Nuad Thai therapists.
From royal courts to humble homes
Nuad Thai also made its way into the royal court, which is the source of almost all of its earliest written evidence. In 1455, King Trailokanat of Ayutthaya issued a royal decree listing Krom Mor Nuad (Department of Massage) as one of six royal medical care departments, proving that Thai massage was a regular practice in those ancient times. However, subsequent turmoil resulted in many traditional Thai medicine manuscripts being destroyed and Nuad Thai adepts either fleeing or losing their lives.
Nuad Thai made a comeback with the monarchs of the Chakri Dynasty. The founding monarch, His Majesty King Buddha Yodfa Chulalok the Great (King Rama I) ordered 80 “Reusi Dadton” (also spelled “Reusi Dat Ton”) or contorted hermit figures to be molded from clay and placed on the grounds of the royal temple, Wat Phra Chetuphon Vimonmangklaram (popularly referred to as Wat Pho or Wat Po). These statues each depict a different yogi pose for people to learn and are an element of Nuad Thai.
Later on, His Majesty King Nang Klao (King Rama III) wished to make Wat Pho a public learning center. He had the eroded Reusi Dadton statues re-cast in a metal alloy and traditional Thai medical knowledge inscribed on marble plaques that were placed along the temple’s walls. The stone inscriptions included 60 detailed massage diagrams of the human body. These plaques, now collectively known as the Epigraphic Archives of Wat Pho, are officially recognized as the most complete and comprehensive archives of Nuad Thai evidence.
Nuad Thai, of course, inevitably found its way into ordinary Thai homes. The earliest adopters can be traced back to the rural villages, which would each have a designated Nuad Thai healer and where farmers, tired from working in the rice paddies, would soothe their aching muscles with Nuad Thai techniques.
Thai parents or grandparents—taught when they themselves were young to massage their elders—would get their young ones to do Nuad Thai for them. Why even this humble Thai writer recalls being given instructions as a young child on where and how to step on her mother’s back to ease the pain.
Heritage offers us a sense of identity and continuity, which are ever more important in today’s fast-changing world. While UNESCO’s World Heritage List helps preserve sites like the naturally wondrous Galápagos Islands and the majestic Taj Mahal, its Intangible Cultural Heritage Lists ensure that impalpable traditions, skills, and practices are safeguarded, too.
Over 584 elements from 131 countries have been claimed intangible cultural heritage because they’re traditional, contemporary, and living; inclusive; representative; and community-based. According to UNESCO, the world’s intangible cultural heritage helps maintain “cultural diversity in the face of growing globalization” and promotes intercultural dialogue and mutual respect.
Given its rich history, traditions and profound ties to Thai spirituality, the monarchy, and the community, Nuad Thai was inscribed on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity on December 12th, 2019, joining Thailand’s Khon masked dance drama, which was inscribed in 2018.
An evolving tradition
Nuad Thai is more than the amalgamation of traditional texts and inscriptions. It also includes knowledge gained from hands-on experience and exchanges with other practitioners, as well as knowledge passed on from community elders and masters to apprentices. Thai massage continued to evolve with the addition of healthcare wisdom shared by others, including Chinese immigrants to Siam. And even though Nuad Thai was traditionally passed down among men, women have never been restricted from learning and practicing it.
As Nuad Thai gained popularity, traditional Thai massage establishments grew in number, and though some offer their own unique variations of Nuad Thai or specialized applications, their techniques all remain bound to the same original sources of knowledge.