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Illuminating Darkness: The Monk-Cave-Bat-Ecosystem Complex in Thailand

Leslie E. Sponsel, University of Hawai`i
Poranee Natadecha-Sponsel, Chaminade University


Buddhist monks and nuns dwelled and meditated in caves in northern India some 2,500 years ago.  Subsequently this practice spread with Buddhism to other parts of Asia.  The sacredness of a cave usually discourages, if not completely excludes, the human use of the animal species in it, and to some degree, around it.  Bats are the most important fauna in most caves.  They are also keystone (critical) species in forest and other ecosystems as pollinators, seed dispersers, and insect predators while they forage widely at night.  Consequently, we hypothesize that there is an ecological connection between Buddhist practices in sacred caves on the one hand, and on the other the conservation of bats and the maintenance of the ecosystems in which they forage.  Given the antiquity, multitude, and widespread distribution of such sacred caves, they are a significant force in environmental and biodiversity conservation, even if previously unrecognized as such.  In this essay we explore these and other propositions and provide supportive background information.

Sacred Caves1

Archaeology reveals that humans have used caves opportunistically as habitation, grave, art, and ritual sites since far back into prehistory.  This may help explain the attraction, fascination, and mystery that caves hold for most people (Bonsall and Tolan-Smith 1997, Fagan 1998).  It explains one curious fact--- bats and humans have in common the same cosmopolitan species of bed bug (Cimex lectularius)(Hill and Smith 1984:170).

In India, the use of caves for religious practices by individuals and groups goes back in time for millennia.  The Buddha dwelled and meditated in caves, forests, and other kinds of sites, practices which became common for Buddhist monks and nuns during his lifetime and beyond (Munier 1998).  Whenever Buddhism expanded into other parts of Asia--- the South, Central, East, and Southeast regions--- this use of caves spread as well (Barnes 1995, Whitfield, et al. 2000).

Long before Buddhism came to Thailand, paintings imply that caves were used for ritual purposes by shamans practicing Animism, a religious belief in spirit beings in nature (Munier 1998:181-188).  One of the most famous is Spirit Cave in Mae Hong Son province in the north around 9,000 years ago (Munier 1998:155).  The earliest known use of caves by Buddhists in Thailand dates back to at least the 6th to 7th centuries A.D. with Roesi, Fa Tho, Chin and Cham caves on Khao Ngu mountain, and Narai cave in Phra Puttha Bat district (Munier 1998:34).  According to legends, the Buddha even visited some caves in either the Lamphun or Mae Sai districts, the latter including Pum, Pla, and Pleo Plong Fa caves (Munier 1998:36, 121, 171).  In Thailand, at least 112 Buddhist sacred caves (tham in Thai) have been identified, and 60 of them described in some detail (Munier 1998:153-154, 235-236).  Furthermore, it is likely that there are many more caves in Thailand, hundreds if not thousands, given the combination of several limestone mountain ranges which run from north to the south through the western portion of the country, and the heavy tropical monsoon rainfall with some acid content that can slowly erode these soluble carbonate rocks over long periods of geological time (see Pongsabutra, et al., 1991).  Kanchanaburi province is especially rich with caves.  The caves throughout the country are all natural, except for the two at Khao Khuha which are carved out of the rock and were used as a Hindu temple in the 6th and 7th centuries (Munier 1998:33, 188).2

Munier (1998) states that a key point of Buddhism is "to understand our human nature we need to be immersed in Nature" (p. 164) and also "The Buddhist taste for natural places favorable to a spiritual quest often led to the worship of natural places" (p. 42).  He defines a sacred place "as a space separate from the profane, a space of mystery, divine, both intimidating and appealing" (Munier 1998:39).  Also Munier (1998:37-42) identifies several functions of caves as sacred places: resonance chambers for chanting; a secluded, quiet, and peaceful receptacle of spiritual energy for cultivating inner peace through meditation; places for birth and rebirth; spaces adjacent to or in the cave for reliquaries and tombs including for monks, the mountain containing the cave simulating a grand stupa; and gates into the subterranean world and dwelling sites of supernatural creatures like demons, ghosts, angels, and Nagas (snake-like deities).  He concludes that: "Today, Buddhist caves in Thailand are still part of its active Buddhist culture and even those with an archaeological or historical value are lively sanctuaries" (Munier 1998:36).

Caves are a place in nature especially conducive to quiet seclusion for meditation (see Tiyavanich 1997:144-148).  When a monk inhabits a cave a yellow cloth is hung at the entrance or parts where he lives.  The monk meditates and sleeps in the cave.  Usually he only leaves to walk the morning almsround to obtain food from villagers who may be kilometers away.  A monk can occupy a cave for only a few days, or for months or even years.  Other monks and/or lay people may visit, the latter sometimes for short or long retreats.  When the number of monks and/or nuns grows, then they use the cave only as a sanctuary and pursue other activities in an adjacent monastery.  Thus caves are often either a part of monasteries or located nearby them (Munier 1998).

Caves typically contain rows of several sizes of seated statues of the Buddha in the meditation posture, and often a huge reclining statue as well.  The arrangement of the statues depends on the natural configuration of the cave.  Statues are placed where sunlight illuminates them if available, otherwise artificial lighting is used.  Other Buddha statues may be installed in various cavities or nooks in the rock formations and walls of the cave.  Statues of holy hermits and/or monks are usually in a side chamber.  In some caves stalactites are worshipped as well when they resemble figures associated with Buddhism.  Naga figures are frequently located at the entrance and inside the cave, a symbol of protection for the Buddha and for Buddhism.  Over time the number, types, and arrangement of statues and associated religious objects changes (Munier 1998:159-170). 

As Munier (1998:195) observes:

While living in a cave seems inconceivable at the end of the 20th century, Buddhist monks in Thailand, following a 2500-year-old Buddhist tradition, continue to practice their religion in caves for short or longer periods.  It seems there is some kind of correspondence between "inside" (the cave) and "inner" (search), and that as long as Buddhism exists, so also will caves.

Some caves are famous and visited by tourists, whereas others are kept secret.  Many Thais fear caves because they believe ghosts and spirits (phi) inhabit them (Munier 1998:159).  Some monks have seen this as a challenge to overcome, a test of their faith in the Dharma, the teachings of the Buddha (Tiyavanich 1997:123-126).  In particular, such creatures challenge the monk to demonstrate compassion and loving kindness.  Also it is noteworthy that the great Buddhist caves were among the favorite excursion sites for the kings of Thailand during the 19th and 20th century (Munier 1998:231).


Bats (Order Chiroptera) are one of the largest and most widely distributed group of mammals (Class Mammalia) in the whole world and also in Thailand.  There are nearly 1,000 species of bats in the world comprising about one quarter of all mammalian species.  Like other mammals, including humans, bats are warm blooded, hairy, give birth to live young, and nurse their young with milk.  Bats are found on every continent except Antarctica (Bat Conservation International 2002).  In Thailand 107 species of bats have been identified thus far, 38% of the 280 species of mammals in the country (Stewart-Cox 1995:36).  Bats are common in most terrestrial ecosystems in the nation, not only mountains and forests, but also farm lands and even inside villages, towns, and cities (Graham and Round 95).

Bats roost in a variety of places, depending on the species.

Some roost mainly or exclusively in caves which offer constant climate with protection from the weather, thereby reducing the challenge of regulating a constant body temperature.  Cave roosting also avoids most predators (Hill and Smith 1984:82).  Some bat colonies are the largest concentrations of mammalian populations on Earth (Bat Conservation International 2002).  In Thailand, cave colonies of the whiskered bat (Myotis mystacinus) contain over 10,000 individuals, and those of the wrinkled-lipped bat (Tadarida plicata) over 200,000 (Lekagul and McNeely 1988:194, 266).

Bats are nocturnal, some species flying out from their roosts before dusk, and others well afterward.  They usually follow the same narrow aerial routes (a meter or two wide) to their feeding areas and back (Lekagul and McNeely 1988:46).  Among bat species in Thailand, 89 are insectivorous (eat insects), while 18 are frugivorous (eat fruit and nectar) (Stewart-Cox 1995:36).  At the minimum, 27 species of insectivorous bats and four species of frugivorous bats roost in caves, although not necessarily exclusively (data extracted from Lekagul and McNeely 1988).

Despite the importance of the bat fauna of Thailand, relatively little is known about their status, distribution, behavior, and ecology.  There haven't even been any comprehensive surveys of the bats in national parks and wildlife sanctuaries (Graham and Round 1994:99).  However, advances in technology make nocturnal observation easier with special instruments for radio tags, night-vision, and even detection of echolocation sounds, the latter otherwise beyond the normal range of human hearing.  Yet detailed field studies of the behavior and ecology of any bat species are rare (e.g., Fleming 1988).3 


Bats are a keystone species.  Keystone species play a disproportionate role in an ecosystem and the extirpation of a population or extinction of a whole species would precipitate far reaching ecological changes.  Frugivorous bats are especially important in pollination and seed dispersal, while insectivorous bats are significant in controlling insect populations.

Distances flown in foraging vary with the type and availability of the preferred resources, and that can vary through time (daily, seasonally, annually, and so on).  In tropical forests, bats fly over long distances to locate and feed on trees with appropriate fruit, because the trees of the same species are widely dispersed, different trees of the same species fruit at different times, and even on the same tree fruit can be in markedly different stages of maturity.  For example, Geoffroy's rousette bat (Rousettus aplexicaudatus) makes nightly roundtrips of 40-50 km between its cave and fruit foraging areas (Lekagul and McNeely 1988:69).  On the other hand, insectivorous bats are able to forage much closer to their diurnal roosts (Hill and Smith 1984:70-71).

Some species of flowers and bats co-evolved; the flowers have particular morphological adaptations to facilitate pollination by bats (Graham and Round 1994:42).  Bat-pollinated flowers or flower-heads are usually large and positioned singly on long sturdy stalks which facilitate perching by bats (Graham and Round 1994:96).  Some flowers open only at night and have strong odors which attract bats (Hill and Smith 1984:69).

Bats are also important as pollinators of human food crops.  For example, the flowers of the famous durian tree open only at night when they are pollinated exclusively by the cave-dwelling, nectar-eating bat (Eonycteris spelaea)(Graham and Round 1994:96).  Throughout Asia, the durian fruit industry is worth $100 million a year.  Among the other plants which bats pollinate exclusively are wild bananas, sataw beans, and kapok.  Bats as well as other animals pollinate breadfruit, mangoes, guavas, avocados, cashews, and figs (Bat Conservation International 2002).  One of the mangrove trees (Sonneratia spp.) is exclusively pollinated by just one species of fruit bats, Cynopterus sphinx (Stewart-Cox 1995:28, 36).

In tropical regions, the seedlings of most plants will not grow and mature in the shade of the parent, and the latter may even produce toxins which prevent such growth.  These species are solely dependent on animal agents to disperse their seeds.  Furthermore, the seeds of some, like Ficus species, will not germinate until they are stimulated by the chemicals in the digestive tracts of bats or birds.  Most fruit-eaters do not damage the seeds they swallow.  Whole seeds are simply dropped wherever the animal defecates and thus widely scattered (Hill and Smith 1984:67).  Fruit bats, unlike other frugivores, defecate in flight, thus they often scatter seeds over degraded forests and scrublands which in turn promotes tree growth and forest regeneration (Stewart-Cox 1995:36).  Huge bat colonies of a million individuals can disperse many millions of seeds every night.

Fruit bats, however, do not reduce the fruit crop for farm export, since unripe fruits are shipped, and the bats only eat fruit which ripened prematurely or after the main crop is picked.  Thereby bats reduce the risk of crop pests like fruit flies and fungus (Bat Conservation International 2002).

The majority of the species of bats worldwide (70%) and in Thailand (83%) are insectivores.  Bats are the only major predator limiting the populations of nocturnal insects like rice- hoppers and mosquitoes.  Capturing insects in flight requires fast and highly maneuverable flight styles, and that means high energy expenditure.  Thus insectivorous bats consume large quantities of insects, estimates are from a quarter to half of their body weight each night (Hill and Smith 1984:15).  One foraging bat can eat up to 600 insects/hour, or 3,000/night (Bat Conservation International 2002).  The insectivorous wrinkle-lipped bat (Tadarida plicata) roosts in limestone caves in huge numbers of half a million or more.  At Khao Chong Phran in Ratchburi Province, it is estimated that the bat population consumes 30-40 million insects each night (Lekagul and McNeely 1988:266).  A single colony of bats can consume hundreds of tons of insects annually (Hill and Smith 1984:63).  Insectivorous bats are quite beneficial to human health and economy.  Indeed, extirpation of a local population or extinction of a species of bats could release mosquitoes from predation pressure and trigger an explosion of their populations and consequently of malaria.

The above are some of the ways in which bats are known to be vital for the health of most terrestrial ecosystems in Thailand.  Bats rarely transmit diseases to humans and normally bite only in self-defense or when handled.  Otherwise, they are shy, gentle, and intelligent mammals, and avoid human contact.  Because of the multifaceted role of bats as keystone species, either reduction or extirpation of populations, or extinction of whole species, could have severe negative consequences for forest ecology, farming economy, and human health.


 Bats are especially vulnerable.  They are the slowest reproducing mammal in the world for their body size, most species producing only one young annually (Bat Conservation International 2002).  Many bat species are rare, occurring in few habitat types and with restricted geographical ranges (Stewart-Cox 1995:36).    Major factors threatening or endangering bat populations and species include: habitat destruction (roosting locations and depletion of critical food resources); poisoning from chemical pesticides; and human over-exploitation (for food, tourism, and other economic uses).  Global warming is a new threat.  Bat populations have declined worldwide in recent decades (Bat Conservation International 2002).

Prior to WWII, more than 70% of Thailand was forested, whereas today, estimates are less than 20% (e.g., Hirsch 1997).  Massive deforestation has no doubt already severely impacted bat populations and species in many parts of the country.  Much of this deforestation is caused by agricultural expansion.  The widespread use of toxic chemical pesticides by farmers and others is increasingly concentrated as the residue flows up the food chain (biomagnification) and thus endangers bats too (Hill and Smith 1984:63).

Limestone or karst terrain is an inherently fragile and vulnerable landscape (Williams 1993).  It is also critical for sustaining the populations of many species of bats which use caves and other rocky areas for roosting (Graham and Round 1994:23).  For instance, the Kitti's hog-nosed or bumblebee bat (Craseonycteris thonglongyai) is the smallest mammal in the world, measuring about 3 cm in body length, 8 cm in wing span, and weighing 2 g.  It is extremely rare, its roosting sites being limited to caves in Kanchanaburi Province of western Thailand.  Dr. Boonsong's roundleaf bat (Hipposideros lekaguli) is known from only a few limestone caves in Saraburi Province (Graham and Round 1994:95-96).  The disc-nosed bat (genus and species not identified) is endemic to central Thailand where it roosts in a limited number of caves (Stewart-Cox 1995:36).  Quarrying operations to mine limestone for roads and other construction purposes threatens or displaces many bat colonies.  Quarrying, and other activities like deforestation, can even lead to changes in the hydrological regime (surface and underground drainage systems) and even to rocky desertification (Williams 1993).

Over-exploitation of bat populations by human hunters is yet another serious problem.  Usually hunters can readily catch bats in nets when they exit caves at dusk to forage.  Some Thais eat bats like other wildlife, either as a subsistence necessity for the poor, or for those who can afford to buy it at special "jungle meat" market stalls or restaurants (Sponsel and Natadecha-Sponsel 1992).  Also the famous Kitti's hog-nosed bat is hunted to sell to tourists for mementoes (Stewart-Cox 1995:124).

On the other hand, there are economic uses of bats that do not harm them.  For example, bat droppings accumulate on the cave floor of large colonies.  This guano is a high-grade fertilizer which is gathered for sale by some villagers who are thus interested in protecting the bats.  Indeed, the temple of Khao Chong Pran, in Ratchaburi, has a cave housing more than two million free-tailed bats (Rhinopoma hardwickei).  Every two weeks local villagers are allowed to collect the guano, and the income earned is used by the monks to support a school and various development projects (Stewart-Cox 1995:36).

Of course, government protected areas, such as national parks and wildlife sanctuaries, can promote bat conservation, but only if they are effectively administered on the ground rather than merely "paper parks."  For instance, there are at least 60 species of bats alone in Thung Yai National Park in western Thailand (Stewart-Cox 1995:134).  However, there are distinctive advantages and disadvantages for nature conservation with secular and sacred places (Sponsel, et al., 1998, cf. McNeely and Somchevita 1996).


A number of hypotheses follow from the above considerations.  Sacred caves usually discourage, if not completely exclude, the molestation or exploitation of the fauna therein and nearby, thus effectively promoting the conservation of roosting bats.  This in turn helps guard their role as keystone species in forests and other ecosystems which may be a long distance from the caves.  In turn, sacred caves are a component of a very ancient, widespread, and diverse system of sacred places throughout Thailand which have important and far reaching significance for environmental and biodiversity conservation (Sponsel, et al., 1998).

 This monk-cave-bat-ecosystem complex is a complementary coincidence of three mutually reinforcing anomalies associated with caves, monks, and bats.  Caves are not merely holes in the ground, but usually cavities in mountain sides, and mountains are recognized as special locations where earth and sky meet, thus they are often considered sacred in many parts of the world (Bernbaum 1992, Einarsen 1995).  Caves are natural but anomalous features of the landscape, the interface of the under ground (subterranean) and the above ground (surface) worlds.

Monks are also something of an anomaly.  They serve as intermediaries between the social and spiritual worlds.  Also they function in an anti-structural (challenging by contrast) role in relation to society, given their commitment to monasticism, selflessness, simplicity, poverty, equality, celibacy, and nonviolence.4

Bats are also something of an anomaly, being the only true flying mammals and given their nocturnal habit.  They are often thought to be blind, but are not.  Instead many species have small eyes and these often appear to be hidden.  Fruit eating bats in the tropics have very good eyesight and sense of smell to locate ripe fruit and do not use echolocation.  Furthermore, from a Thai cultural perspective, bats (khang khao) do not readily fit into the cultural classification of nonhuman animals (tua)--- village/domesticated (sad baan) or forest/wild (sad paa), or other common categories like mammals (sad kinnom)(Tambiah 1969).  In particular, bats are neither a rodent (nuu) nor a bird (nog); they resemble a rodent, but they are equipped with wings and fly like a bird.  There is also ambiguity as to whether bats are edible or inedible.

Anthropologists, like Mary Douglas (1970), have observed that cultures recognize anomalies by affording them special symbolic and ritual status.  (This has yet to be explored in the field in the case of bats in Thailand).  We hypothesize that the interdependencies among the system components of monks, caves, bats, and ecosystems are synergetic, the components being mutually reinforcing and enhancing.  Furthermore, the anomalous status of monks, caves, and bats renders the complex far more powerful than otherwise.  This complex can be a formidable force for biodiversity and environmental conservation.

The monk-cave-bat-ecosystem complex is a previously unrecognized relationship of considerable significance which is identified here for the first time (cf. McNeely and Sochaczewski 1995).  While this is an exercise in deductive reasoning, and the argument is logical, plausible, and probable, it needs to be explored systematically with field research in the future to be affirmed, explicated, and contextualized (e.g., Kunz 1988).  Nevertheless, this essay provides another example of the relevance and importance of Buddhism in spiritual ecology, sacred places, and environmental and biodiversity conservation in Thailand (Sponsel and Natadecha-Sponsel 2001).  It also has implications beyond Thailand in any area where Buddhists use caves for religious purposes rendering them sacred and thus protective of the fauna therein.  This probably includes much of Asia.

Even though bats compose 38% of the mammalian species of Thailand, they are only one component of its ecosystems.  Those species that roost exclusively in caves are fewer in number.  Also the number of caves is limited.  In any case, the monk-cave-bat-ecosystem complex assumes further importance when viewed in the wider context of the very ancient and ubiquitous larger system of sacred places in the spiritual ecology of Thailand as a whole which includes many other components such as sacred trees, groves, forests, and mountains (Sponsel, et al., 1998).  This complex is yet another evidence of the existence of this great ancient system of nature conservation reflecting the sacred geography of the country, something that is little recognized let alone adequately appreciated and promoted (cf. Gesick 1985). 

Calling attention to this and its future potential for nature conservation is not necessarily a reversion to some irrational superstition.  There is, indeed, an eco-logic to sacred places in nature which, whether somehow intentional or merely inadvertent, serves multiple positive sociocultural and ecological functions.  In many respects, Thailand's greatest resource is its religion, and that in turn has the potential to protect natural resources and ecosystems as well as society and culture.  One reason for resource depletion and environmental degradation in Thailand, this in spite of a viable spiritual ecology, is the weakening of adherence to religious and cultural ideals in actual behavior as a result wholeheartedly embracing Westernization (Sponsel and Natadecha-Sponsel 1993:86-90).

Buddhism, nevertheless, is in principle one of the more environmentally benign religions, a fact which could be used to great advantage for nature conservation in countries like Thailand that are predominantly Buddhist, if better recognized and promoted (Sponsel and Natadecha-Sponsel 2002).  But the study of spiritual ecology (including Buddhist ecology and environmentalism), and of the conservation relevance of sacred places in nature, have emerged mostly in the 1990s, and they are only just now beginning to be recognized (Sponsel 2001, 2003).


  This essay touches on several concerns that Ajhan Sulak Sivaraksa has pursued throughout his life, including religion and environment.  It is a privilege to write it to honor this visionary social critic and activist who has contributed so much to Thai society and the world.  If only there were more people like Sulak, then the future would be more enlightened and much brighter for everyone.  Accordingly, we sincerely hope Sulak will enjoy good health for many years to come and continue his creative service as a Buddhist to his fellow beings.


1Christopher Munier (1998) researched and published the most comprehensive study by far on sacred caves in Thailand, although he does not deal with the ecological aspects discussed here.  We are greatly indebted to Munier's treatise for most information in this section unless otherwise indicated.

2The oldest evidence for cave dwelling is Zhoukoutien near Beijing, China, where the fossil skeletal remains of an early human, Homo erectus, were found and date to about half a million years ago.  Upper Palaeolithic art in the caves at Altamira, Spain, and Lascaux, France, and other caves in southern Europe date back to about 35,000 years ago (Bonsall and Tolan-Smith 1997, Fagan 1998).  In Thailand, the oldest human use of a rock shelter (not cave) is Lang Rongrian in the south, which dates around 37,000 years ago (Anderson 1987).

3For further information on bats see Hill and Smith (1984), Kunz (1982, 1988), and the most informative website of Bat Conservation International (http://www.batcon.org).

4See Sponsel and Natadecha-Sponsel (1997) for further explication.

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