The first practitioners of Thai massage were the monks of the Buddhist temples.
The immense exchange among cultures is not exclusive to to the globalized world of today. Also in ancient eras did cultures mingle and co-develop.
Surprising for some perhaps, to find the roots of Traditional Thai Massage we have to travel back to India. Until today Thai massage practitioners honor its founder Dr. Shivago Komarpaj from northern India, who was a contemporary of the Buddha and doctor of the Magadha King Bimbisara as well as of the spiritual community (Sangha). He is mentioned in ancient scriptures of Theravada Buddhism and many Thais pay respect to him as the ‘Father of Medicine’. In the traditional schools a ritual ceremony consisting of a prayer in Pali language (wai khru) is performed at the start and end of each day. Being closely related to spiritual teachings, its early practitioners were monks that were living in the temples (wat). Just like Indian ayurveda, Thai massage developed as a healing art based on a holistic approach including herbs, minerals and steam baths.
Shivago Kormapaj, founder of Thai massage. Contemporary of the Buddha
The teachings of Dr. Shivago Komarpaj probably reached Thailand as early as the 3rd or 2nd century B.C., simultaneously with the rise of Buddhism. There is a significant parallel to the Indian system of Yoga in its theoretical foundation, whereas both are based on the concept of invisible energy lines running through the etheric body. On a more surface level the positions and stretching movements were obviously also influenced by Yoga.
Besides the Indian influence Chinese concepts of acupuncture and acupressure represent a second big component in Thai massage. How, where and when exactly the two were combined, and whether there was already a regional form of massage, is largely unknown as like in Indian traditions, knowledge of this sort was transmitted exclusively from teacher to student.
There is mention of massage in 17th century scriptures in Pali language, but sadly most texts were destroyed with the Burmese invasion of the former Thai capital, Ayutthaya, in 1767. Selected surviving fragments were carved in stone and placed into the walls of the famous Wat Pho temple in Bangkok in 1832. There are about 60 diagrams that unfortunately are not always consistent with one another. From an physiological and anatomical point of view some of the diagrams also lack accuracy since dissection was forbidden in traditional Thai medicine. The diagrams are mostly representations of the invisible energy lines and acupressure points and how they
effect the body in all its subtleties. To become a good practitioner one thus needs a fair dose of sensitivity and intuition.
With the rise of Western medicine the temples became less of a center for education and healing but since the late 80’s a revival in alternative therapy and health care initiated a renewed interest in traditional Thai massage. High costs and limitations of Western medicine’s often impersonal, fragmented and allopathic approach to healing caused many to look for more holistic and humane ways. Professionals and travelers alike started to travel to Thailand curious to know more about traditional Thai massage and since the 90’s there is an abundance of schools to learn and practice. Unfortunately not all of these will offer a great depth of knowledge but besides some local masters renowned schools such as ITM, Old Medicine Hospital, Sunshine Massage School in Chiang Mai and Wat Pho in Bangkok are still plentiful.