Although some 95% of Thais would claim Buddhism as their religion things are not that straightforward. Thai culture is full of mysticism with stories of spirits (pee) and elements of Hindu legend and animism interwoven into everyday life.
Perhaps the most noticeable manifestation of this aspect is the spirit house that can be found outside every house, shop, hotel, restaurant, nightclub, bar, etc; the list is endless. Although spirits can be good or evil in most instances they are regarded as simply mischievous and just require a little respect. There are said to be nine guardian spirits of the land (Pra Poom Jaothee) of which the two most likely to have spirit houses will be the guardian of the house and the guardian of the garden. Thus when a new house is to be built it is feared that this will upset the spirit of the land or place and he must be taken into account. Specialist spirit house builders exist who will be familiar with the rituals associated with its construction and its eventual location, which must not be overshadowed by the house itself. If the correct procedure is followed then a Hindu, rather than Buddhist, priest would be consulted but for the normal Thai household things would not be taken to this extreme.
The other seven spirits are said to be the protector of gates and stairwells, protector of animals, protector of storehouses and barns, protector of forests, mountains and fields, protector of temples, protector of waters and finally, and perhaps somewhat strangely, the protector of military forts.
The spirit house was traditionally made from wood but nowadays other materials such as brick or concrete are being used and some even have glass incorporated into the design. Whatever the constructor and house owner think would be the most appealing for the spirit to ensure that he inhabits his own space rather than the family home. If, at a later date, the owner decides to extend his home then a similar enlargement should also be made to the spirit house.
The houses are completed with small figures that vary depending upon the owner’s purpose and personal beliefs. You are likely to find figures of dancers, elephants and horses and servants to entertain, transport and generally look after the spirit. Today you may see a toy car reflecting modern transportation and in the courtyard of Wat Sri Choom, Lampang, I have even seen a spirit house complete with the base unit of a Compaq Deskpro computer ! Around the house will be a small balcony where daily offerings of food, water, flowers, candles and incense may be placed. Indeed most spirit houses are well attended to take care of the resident spirit who, it is hoped, will in return take care of you. In Bangkok it is not uncommon to see office workers leaving a small token on their way into work in the mornings and even the girls in the ‘bar beer’ complexes would not think of starting work each night without a ‘wai’ and a few words to the spirits. Prayers directed to the spirit house are just as likely to invoke the help of Lord Buddha which confusion just adds to the religious tableau that is Thailand.
The two most commonly found spirit houses are the Sarn Jao Thee and the Sarn Pra Poom and they often appear as a pair with the latter standing a little higher of the two. The sarn jao Thee will be raised above the ground on four columns and will house the lords of the land who are usually represented by an old man and old lady. The Sarn Pra Poom will be raised above the ground on a single pillar, said to represent Mount Meru, the sacred mountain of Hindu mythology where the Gods reside. Inside the sarn pra poom you will find Pra Chai Mongkol, an angel-like figure, often gilded and holding a sword in one hand and a bag of money in the other.
There are also Sarn Piyanda which are temporary spirit houses often found on construction sites that serve a similar purpose until a more formal spirit house has been erected. This is to ensure the safety of the workmen and to a spiritual Thai probably offers greater protection than their hard hats. Finally we have the Sarn Pra Prom (Brahm) that is more associated with larger establishments such as hotels and office blocks. This has an open-sided ‘house’ and is home to Brahma, the Hindu God of creation and displays the faces of kindness, impartiality, sympathy and mercy from its four sides.
Perhaps the best-known example of a spirit house in Thailand can be found in Bangkok with the Erawan Shrine, a Sarn Pra Prom, standing at the intersection of Rajdamri and Ploenchit Roads. At the time of the construction of the Grand Hyatt Erawan Hotel in the 1950s a series of mishaps befell the project. After consultation with a spirit doctor (Mor Pee) it was recommended that a place be built especially to placate the local spirits who had been unsettled by the presence of the new hotel. This led to the erection of the grand shrine and needless to say the hotel was then completed without further problem. The shrine is really for Brahma but is more associated with his elephant Erawan.
More recently, in 2006, a man claiming to be the guardian spirit (Poo Ming) of the land that Suvarnabhumi Airport was being built on insisted that a spirit house be built here. Later, 99 monks attended a ceremony to ward off evil spirits and to bring the new airport good fortune.
Other well known spirit houses can be found at the Grand Palace for Jao Por Lak Muang, the guardian spirit of Bangkok and at Wat Chedi Luang in Chiangmai where the spirit house holds the city pillar and is large enough for quite a few men to stand inside at the same time - although no women; but this is a different story.
There are other forms of spirit house such as those found at the roadside. These may be on the scene of a fatal accident and are present to placate the tormented souls of the prematurely deceased or may also be there to prevent an accident from occurring in the first place by ‘bribing’ the spirits to not cause the mischief that leads to such accidents. High spots on roads through the mountains are a favoured location and an excellent example of this can be found when travelling along Highway 11 between Chiangmai and Lampang where literally hundreds of spirit houses can be found clustered together.
On occasion a small village may have just a single spirit house or shrine usually found on its outskirts. In such places it is often the custom to have an annual festival to honour the village spirit and ensure good fortune for all throughout the following year.
When a property changes hands the new owner may wish to install their own spirit house. On such occasions a ceremony should be held to forewarn the resident spirit so that he is prepared to move on. When a house is demolished the spirit house will also no longer be required. In both of these instances the old spirit house should be moved to a local temple or to what are becoming known as spirit house graveyards where similar houses that are no longer required have been gathered.
The spirit house fulfils a number of roles in Thai society but put simply it provides an additional insurance policy, creating peace of mind for the owner. In what is a Buddhist Kingdom the presence of the spirit house with its animist and Hindu associations may seem complex but it is an integral ingredient of the Thai essence.
Ghosts and spirits are serious business in Thailand and even the non-believer would be unwise to make jokes about this subject. Remember this and be discreet about your disbelief or you may offend more than just the Thai people !
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