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Belief in spirits is as old as humanity itself. Man's first sentient thoughts are likely to have concerned the environment and his place in it. And those thoughts must surely have been: "The environment is dangerous, and my place in it precarious." How to explain the changes of weather, violent storms, earthquakes, floods and tidal waves? How to avoid or protect against predatory beasts and strange, frightening diseases? Much later, but still a long time ago, as communities of itinerant hunters began, slowly, to settle and till the land: How to ensure fertility and make the crops grow? How to protect dwelling, possessions and family from the vagaries of capricious chance? Was it, indeed, simply a question of chance? Or were there supernatural forces which went unseen, perhaps benign as well as hostile?
Mankind's answer was a pretty universal "Yes." On this all major civilisations across the world seemed able to agree, albeit in general ignorance of each other. The question of how to deal with such supernatural forces and spirits was similarly universally addressed – avoid offence, offer appeasement, and hope for the best!
In Southeast Asia, as elsewhere, belief in spirits seems to have played a major role in early religious systems. It was accepted that there were spirits everywhere – spirits of water, wind and woods, locality spirits, tutelary spirits, spirits not so much good or bad, but powerful, unpredictable and easily angered. They had, moreover, many of the failings of human beings, being capable of vindictiveness, lust, jealousy, greed and pure malice. To appease them, offerings must be made – and, since they displayed so many characteristics of a human nature, these offerings must be pretty much what man himself would value and appreciate.
In this respect food, fresh water, alcohol and sweet-smelling flowers seemed a pretty safe bet, offered on a prominent rock or tree-stump. Later, as people became richer and more sophisticated, these became small altars where offerings were made on a regular basis – small gifts like flowers and fresh water on a regular basis, larger presents on important occasions like the start of a new farming season, or at times of birth, marriage and death.
Special offerings were also made when land was to be cleared for agriculture or building. After all, the spirits of a place were its original owners, and their feelings should be, indeed had to be, taken into consideration. It was a question both of seeking initial permission, and then of continuing placation – it being assumed the spirits weren't going anywhere, but would continue owning and living on their land. At some point – nobody is sure when, but long before any of the major world religions was born – it was decided than an effective way of placating a locality spirit was to build it a small house of its own. That way it would be comfortable, content, and – above all – wouldn't feel the urge to move in with its human neighbours!
Such beliefs have long since been denounced by all the major religious traditions – Buddhism as much as Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, Sikhism and Christianity. Consigned to the dustbin of history by a plethora of monks, priests, mullahs, rabbis and popes, spirits and spirit houses should long since have disappeared from the face of the earth. But of course, they haven't, and nowhere is this more apparent than in Thailand.
Nobody knows for sure when the various Tai-speaking peoples (who include the Shans, the Lao, and the modern-day Thai) first embraced a belief in spirits. Most probably it was long before their migration south into present-day Thailand, and certainly before their gradual conversion to Buddhism between around 800 and 1200 AD. When the first Thai migrants established themselves in the plains around Sukhothai – site of the first Thai Kingdom, founded in around 1240 – their basic unit of organisation was the muang, or group of villages under the control and protection of a wiang, or fortified town. Of crucial importance to each muang , and located at the centre of each wiang, was the city pillar – and so it remains today, from the burgeoning megalopolis that is Bangkok, through great provincial capitals like Chiang Mai, to quite small and unpretentious upcountry towns.
The city pillar, or lak muang – generally a rounded pole thought to represent a rice shoot – is the home of the guardian spirits of the city and surrounding district. It should be venerated on a regular basis, and an annual ceremony must also be held with offerings of incense, flowers and candles to ensure the continuing prosperity and safety of the muang. Long ago, the raising of city pillars was often associated with barbaric rituals from the region's animist past. Thus, according to the Lao annals, when Vientiane became the main city of Lan Xang – the celebrated "Kingdom of One Million Elephants" – a spot for the new city was chosen, and a large hole excavated to receive the heavy stone pillar chosen for the lak muang. Whilst the pillar was suspended directly over the hole, drums and gongs were sounded to summon the populace. There was a long moment of suspense as everyone waited for a volunteer to jump into the hole as a sacrifice to the locality spirit. Finally a pregnant girl leaped in, the pillar was released, and the lak muang duly consecrated.
Fortunately such rituals have long since disappeared from the scene, as gentler rituals associated with Theravada Buddhism have modified spirit beliefs. Thus the lak muang of Chiang Mai, amongst the most important in the Kingdom of Thailand, is topped by a gilded standing image of the Buddha. This association of Buddhism with spirit worship has been a two-way process however. Just as the animist tradition of the lak muang has been modified to incorporate Buddhist belief, so there can hardly be a Buddhist temple in the country which does not incorporate an elaborate spirit house in its grounds – built, at the same time as the consecration of the temple, to accommodate the displaced or inconvenienced locality spirits.
Thus we find the city, the centre of traditional Thai society, protected by the lak muang which in turn accommodates and honours the guardian spirits of the muang. Close by – and in great profusion in a city like Chiang Mai, which has more than a hundred temples – are the spirit houses of individual temples, the Buddhist establishments discreet but formal acquiescence in the role still played by spirit worship. Yet this isn't – never has been – enough. Thai people believe that every house must, in turn, have its own spirit house provided for the well-being of the locality spirit. These may be anywhere in the garden (even, in big cities, on the roof), with the important proviso that the shadow of human habitation should never fall on the spirit house, the home of the original and true owner of the land – the chao thii.
Naturally, this belief extends to shops and commerce as well. Scarcely a business in Thailand – from corner shop to multinational – is without at least one, and often have two spirit houses. The first of these, raised on a pillar or in some high place, is purely Thai in origin. The second, generally to be found on the ground and decorated with Chinese characters and images of Confucian or Taoist sages, is purely Chinese and represents the pre-eminent position of Thai-Chinese in the world of commerce. Together they function to protect the owner and his family, and to make the business flourish.
As if this wasn't enough, the Thais also feel obliged to consider the world outside the muang, beyond city, town and village. Traditionally, these regions have been considered the home of wild animals, primitive peoples, and evil spirits. If the lak muang was the centre of civilisation and safety, the jungled hills and inaccessible mountains were the opposite. What could be more natural, then, than for Thai people to erect spirit houses along the roads linking their settlements, paying particular attention to dangerous reaches of track and threatening or ominous landscapes?
As a result, even today every pass or steep section of road is topped by a spirit house to accommodate the inconvenienced locality spirit. Passing drivers beep their horns in a frenzy of salutation, and not a few drivers stop to offer flowers, incense and (incongruously, perhaps, in these days of increased concern over road safety) bottles of local alcohol. Spirit houses are also raised in fields, whether the crop is rice or rubber, pineapples or lychees, to appease the locality spirits and ensure the safety of the crop. In Buddhist Thailand – which excludes only the Muslim south – spiritual abodes are truly ubiquitous!
Phallus Shrines: Certain spirit shrines are believed to have special properties, or their residents are believed to have special powers to redress specific problems. A noteworthy and accessible example is the shrine of Jao Mae Thapthim, a female deity considered to reside in a venerable banyan tree in Nai Loet Park, right behind the Bangkok Hilton. Jao Mae Thapthim has the power to induce fertility, and many young women seeking to become pregnant visit the shrine, leaving the usual presents of flowers and incense, as well as the less common offering of wooden phalluses of all sizes, from a few inches long to giant representations over a metre and a half long , standing on legs!
The Buddhist establishment, which can sometimes be a little prudish, takes a dimmer view than usual of this practise. Whilst the well-known shrine at the Hilton remains, apparently, inviolate, Buddhist reformers have ‘cleaned up' a similar phallus shrine at Doi Nang Kaew on the road between Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai. Several years ago the wooden phalluses were collected up and taken away, whilst a notice in Thai was erected advising would-be supplicants that "Nang Kaew has died and gone to heaven, and no longer requires phalluses!"
Erawan Phra Phum: Perhaps the best-known spirit house in all of Thailand is that of the Saan Phra Phrom, in the grounds of the prestigious Erawan Hotel in downtown Bangkok – within walking distance of the Mae Thapthim phallus shrine at the nearby Hilton. This was originally built to ward off bad luck which was dogging the construction of the original Erawan Hotel some decades ago. The four-faced deity in the centre of the shrine – the Indian god Brahma (Phra Phrom in Thai) – proved so effective that it draws a constant stream of devotees and has its own team of musicians and dancers. This is an excellent place for visitors to Thailand to witness the ritual involved with spirit worship, and to see classical Thai dancers giving impromptu performances at the behest of (paying) worshippers.
Consecrating a Spirit House: Setting up a spirit house is no simple or random matter, but requires the good offices of a professional. Usually this is a Brahmin priest (clad in white, in distinction to the universal Buddhist saffron) called a phram, or at least someone schooled in Brahmin ritual. Small coins are scattered in the vicinity of the site chosen for the new spirit house, and in the soil beneath the foundations. Then the spirit house is raised, and offerings are made of flowers (usually elegant garlands of jasmine), money, candles and incense – the latter often inserted in the crown of a pig's head. The phram, the householder and various relatives and friends then pray to the spirits, beseeching the local chao thii, or Master of the Locality, to take up residence in the new spirit house.
Spirit houses are often beautifully decorated, and to entice the chao thii into his new home various inducements are generally added. These may include (traditionally), dancers, ponies, servants and other household necessities made of plaster of Paris or wood, as well as (in a more contemporary spirit) racing cars and other modern toys designed to catch the spirit's fancy.
‘Retiring' a Spirit House: Disposing of an old or damaged spirit house isn't difficult, but it is more complex than might at first be thought. Thais don't just throw away old spirit houses. They must be taken to a suitable locale, usually at the foot of a massive and venerable banyan tree, and, with appropriate thanks, there left to rest in the company of other similarly ‘retired' spiritual abodes. It's not uncommon to find these homes for old spirit houses near temples and beside rivers or roads all over Thailand.
Text by Andrew Forbes; Photos by David Henley & Pictures From History – © CPA Media