BANGKOK Ė The Mon people, who account for 0.2 percent of Thailandís population and scatter in small communities in the central and western parts of the country, are descendants of a civilization that once held sway over a large chunk of Southeast Asia.
Before the Thai ancestors arrived in the region from southwestern China, Mon was a predominant culture in the Dvaravati Buddhist civilization which occupied part of what is present-day Thailand between the 7th and 13th centuries.
The Mon were the first people to adopt Theravada, the school of Buddhism that is one of the major faiths in Southeast Asian countries.
The Mon community, however, is still faithful to the animist beliefs relating to the existence of the soul, as seen in the Lian Phii, a ceremony held to invite spirits to eat, Raman Salapan, a Mon leader in Lat Krabang district in eastern Bangkok, told EFE.
Raman says animist rituals distinguish the Thai from the Mon people, although both practice the same school of Buddhism.
For instance, each Mon household sacrifices a particular animal linked to the spirits of their deceased ancestors, who are venerated at an altar.
In Ramanís family, the tortoise is offered on the altar, before it is later cooked and consumed by the family.
While the Mon culture dates back to the Dvaravati period or even earlier, ancestors of many community members arrived in Thailand in the early 19th century from Myanmar.
Pranit Anong, retired professor and Sutthaphote Mon Museum advisor, said Mon people settled in Lat Krabang for the first time in the second half of the 19th century.
At the time, Lat Krabang lands were owned by Sonklin, one of King Rama IVís concubines, whose grandfather was a Mon noble who had been taken in by King Rama I at the beginning of the century upon fleeing conflict and persecution in Myanmar.
Interestingly, historians Chris Baker and Pasuk Phongpaichit believe Rama I Ė the first king of Thailandís Chakri dynasty Ė could be of Mon descent.
Dvaravatiís Mon civilization was heavily Buddhist as cities and architecture, scriptures, as well as sophisticated court are modeled after India, says British archaeologist Charles Higham, in an email sent to EFE.
It was not until several centuries later that the Thais uprooted the Mon and Khmer civilizations, and established large empires such as Sukhothai (1238-1438 AD) and Ayutthaya (1351-1767).
The Burmese started invading the last Mon kingdom of Hanthawaddy in 1750 and eventually abolished it, turning the Mon into a stateless people ever since.