Spirit Houses

August 21, 2000

Spirit houses abound in Thailand. They come in all forms, shapes, sizes and colors. A spirit house looks like a miniature temple often elevated on a pole. Many times a long colorful cloth is tied around its base. Spirit houses are constructed on commercial, public, and private property and serve as homes for the spirits of the land.

An array of objects can be found on or in front of these spirit houses. These objects are offerings to the spiritual guardians of the land who reside inside the house. Glasses of water, candles, burning incense, elaborately strung flowers, fruit, food, and also miniature figures and statues representing the land deities with servants, wooden elephants, and horses to serve them all are used as offerings.

People pay respect to the spirit houses by giving a ‘wai’ (a Thai greeting of respect where palms and fingers are placed together and raised to nose level) and by making these offerings to the spirits living there.

Just as210800k1.jpg there are stores that sell tractors, bicycles, and books, there are also stores that sell sprit houses. Some are modeled after Thai temples while others look like traditional Thai houses. Any size or style of spirit house can be chosen. It seems that the bigger the house or institution the larger the spirit house erected outside of it.

Once a spirit house has been purchased it needs to be put in place. Interestingly enough, the spirit house is not put in place by Buddhist monks as one may think. Rather this is a rite performed by the Brahmans.

Brahman priests look totally different from Buddhist monks. Brahman priests dress in all white and have a knot of hair at the nape of their neck. Buddhist monks have shaved heads and saffron, yellow or orange robes. There are currently about ten Brahman priests living in Bangkok. They are attached to the Royal Court and can be seen at all Royal Ceremonies.

Brahmanism itself is an ancient religion from India210800k2.jpg and is both a predecessor and contributor to Buddhism and Hinduism. It can also be classified as Orthodox Hinduism. Brahmans have been in Thailand since before the founding of the Kingdom in 1238 AD. Brahmans believe that Lord Buddha was the ninth of 10 manifestations of the god Vishnu on Earth. Brahmanism plays a much larger role than one would expect in Thailand.

Today Brahmanism is the smallest minority faith in Thailand but still plays a major role. Brahmans are called upon for wedding, groundbreaking, and religious ceremonies. They give blessings to schools, shops, and homes. They also erect spirit houses.

Choosing the spot where the spirit house will be placed, at what day, and what time is a vital task. The Brahman priest asks the spirit of the land to come live in the house. Offerings are made to the spirit such as cooked rice wrapped in banana leaves, fruit, water, juice, and sweet meat. After the spirit house is put in place, it is up to the owners of210800k3.jpg the spirit house to take care of it from this day on. This task is taken very seriously. Spirit houses sometimes become old or tattered or even need to be taken down. The old spirit houses are placed in neighborhood “resting areas.” They are left in shady places under some trees.

The extremely popular Erawan shrine at the Hyatt Grand Erawan Hotel is one of the most revered spirit houses in downtown Bangkok. This shrine is dedicated to Brahma, one of the three main gods of Hinduism, and his elephant Erawan. Back in the 1950s the hotel site had many mishaps and misfortunes and the placement of this shrine was meant to counteract the bad spirits.

The air is filled with burning incense near the Erawan shrine. The area is teeming with street vendors selling ornate flowers, wooden elephants and other offerings. And it is usually packed with people making offerings, seeking luck, and expressing gratitude for their good fortune. If someone has had particularly good luck they might hire a group of traditional Thai dancers and musicians to perform at the Erawan shrine as a celebration.

Buddhism as practiced in Thailand typically mixes animistic and Brahmanistic features into itself. Trying to learn about spirit houses led me to many different answers from both books and Thai people about why spirit houses exist and what or who resides inside them. One thing is for sure, spirit houses are highly unique and something to keep your eye out for when in Thailand.

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