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In Thailand, cultural influences from India run deep. Thai kings are referred to as “Rama” after the main character in the Indian epic, Ramayana, and Thai religion is a blend of Buddhism and Hinduism, both from India. Early influences like these are now indistinguishable from greater Thai culture, but two distinct Indian communities continue to thrive in Bangkok. Little India Pahurat is well worth a visit, but don’t miss the other Little India, in the Bangrak part of town.
In Bangkok, the term “Little India” typically refers to the small but vibrant Pahurat neighbourhood just west of Chinatown, which is tucked between Pahurat Road, Chakraphet Road and Triphet Road and is home to many descendents of northwestern Indian Punjabi Sikhs who settled here in the early 20th century. Built in 1932 and said to be the second largest Sikh temple outside of India, Pahurat’s centrepiece is the enormous Sri Guru Singh Sabah temple.
Along with this temple and a handful of Indian-run stores and restaurants (Toney Restaurant is a great one), Pahurat is home to countless shops that sell fine Indian textiles. Similar to the tightly packed markets in Chinatown, the narrow alleys behind Pahurat Road are fascinating but exhausting places to soak up the atmosphere while trying on a sari or two. If you’re the claustrophobic type, the new Indian Emporium Plaza next to Sri Guru Singh Sabah offers similar products at higher prices thanks to its modern and spacious air-con confines.
The northwestern Punjabi-Indians certainly made their mark at Pahurat, but an earlier, unrelated wave of Hindu immigrants arrived in Bangkok from Tamil-Nadu in Southern India in the 1800s. These Tamil speakers carved out their own community in an area that spans the western sides of Silom Road, Surawong Road and everything in between, in the Bangrak part of town. It may not have the pronounced “Indian” feel of Pahurat — the area is also home to many Thai eateries and an Irish pub — but hundreds who trace their ancestry back to these Southern Indians still have homes and businesses here. Among these are numerous gem dealers.
Bangkok’s best-known Hindu temple — Sri Maha Mariamman — was constructed in the 1860s by the Southern Indian newcomers, and it remains an instrumental aspect of life in the area. Inside the temple, white-robed Brahmans splotch a bindi on foreheads of the faithful each day, a tradition that’s continued for well over a century.
Although Sri Maha Mariamman is the standout Indian feature of what we’ll call “Little India Silom”, it’s not the only one. Indian music pumps daily from the soundsystems of footpath vendors selling Bollywood movies and posters of Hindu gods near Silom Soi 20. Several Indian-run restaurants (Chennai is a good one here), hotels and tailor shops are scattered along Silom between Soi 19 and Naradhiwas Road, which itself was named by the Indian community. Dozens of Indian-run gem shops along Surasak Road sell fine Indian stones, and a cluster of Southern Indian restaurants are also found further west on Surawong Road.
Each year in late October, Little India Silom’s mixed Thai-Indian community celebrates its Hindu heritage during the Navratri Festival. On this night, the western half of Silom Road is closed to traffic to make way for Sri Maha Mariamman temple’s main shrine-image of the Hindu god, Shakti, which is paraded through the streets on a human-powered chariot as onlookers cheer and offer streams of flower garlands. Notably, the mainly Sikh Pahurat area sees little action related to this Hindu festival.
Arguably more so than any other country, India is a complex mix of subcultures, languages and traditions. It should be no surprise, then, that the capital city of a country such as Thailand, which is so heavily influenced by Indian culture, is home to two very different Indian communities. They’re both worth exploring, and with historic Charoen Krung Road connecting one to the other with Chinatown wedged in between, a full-day cultural walk might be in order.
By David Luekens
Last updated on 12th January, 2015.