To Thai people, spirits are everywhere – in trees, plants, boats, on the ground and in the house. Although a Buddhist country, animism, Hinduism, Taoism and superstition also form part of Thai beliefs. This is evidenced by the lovingly tended spirit houses, which can be spotted outside homes, business premises, hospitals, hotels, schools, universities, government offices and shopping malls all over Thailand.
Built in the form of a small house or sometimes a castle, spirit houses are elaborate in design and placed in an auspicious spot, most often in a corner of the property. They are usually adorned with offerings like flowers, garlands, fruit, food, drinks and dolls. They sit on a pole or a pillar and are high enough to show respect, but low enough for worshippers to make offerings.
A spirit house is a shrine to the protective spirit(s) of a place or to Gods and Goddesses. The best known in Thailand is the Erawan Shrine at the Ratchaprasong intersection in downtown Bangkok, which is home to a statue of the Hindu God Brahma. Worshippers come from around the world to pay homage and sometimes arrange a classical Thai dance to please God or express thanks when they receive what they prayed for.
The spirit house is not, however, part of Buddhism. Traditional Thai society had great respect for Mother Nature and anything they did not recognise became a spirit. As they settled down and acquired such material belongings as a house, boat, rice stock and utensils, they felt comfortable about “creating” (believing in) protective spirits to look after their property and assets. They then started to give daily offerings and to pay respect to these spirits.
Thai people firmly believe that if the spirits are happy, their homes and workplaces will be safe and happy too.
Chulapassorn Panomvan na Ayudhya, an expert in Thai culture, explains that the idea of worshipping spirits had expanded when this traditional belief was blended with the cultures of newcomers to the land such as the Chinese and Indians. They too had gods and goddesses and they also needed shrines. Such new cultures elevated the spirits to a new level, making them even more sacred.
People worshipped the sacred beings and gods and lived happily. Their farms and rice fields were fertile and to show their gratitude, they came up with rituals to worship the spirits.
“No one knows exactly how long spirit houses have been around in Thailand but the worship of gods who control the fertility of the land is mentioned in the Ayutthaya-period book “The Twelve-Month Rite” (“Phra Raja Phidhi Sib Song Duen”), as is a ceremony for Mae Pho Sop (the goddess of Rice). This shows that the concept of sacred beings taking care of our lives has been around for a long time,” Chulapassorn says.
In the old days, the spirit houses were made of wood. Yet, some, beautiful wooden “houses” can still be seen in remote areas. However, most spirit houses nowadays are factory produced and sold mostly at outdoor stores similar to garden centres. Major producers also sell their spirit houses online and deliver them to buyers.
While not every building has to have a spirit house, an office building or business complex will usually have at least one shrine. Moreover, a housing estate or condominium will have a big shrine near the entrance, thus doing away the need for all properties to have one of their own.
The look and the size of spirit houses or shrines depend on the wealth of the owner. Shopping malls and government offices have large, stylish ones, while an average family may have a modest shrine. Prices start from a few thousand baht for a small, simply designed spirit house to more than 30,000 baht for the more lavished ones. Before installing a new spirit house, astrological charts have to be consulted to obtain auspicious date and time. There is also a dos and don’ts list that people can follow. Some also seek advice from a monk or a fortune-teller before putting up the shrine. For a shrine honouring a Brahma God or any Hindu God, a Brahmin priest must lead the placement ceremony.
Most Thais pay respect to spirit houses and many will wai as they pass in acknowledgement of the spirits or Gods. No one will think any the worse of you if you don’t wai but if you want to make an offering, choose a garland, a simple fruit or a bottle of water, or the popular Strawberry Fanta (no one knows why it has become the favourite flavour for offering).
People often make offerings to spirit houses and shrines to express gratitude when their wishes and prayers are answered. When worshippers do not have special requests, they pray for their well-being and fortune. Normally, Thais seek a spirit’s help when they are in trouble or about to start something new. They also make an abundance of offerings to the spirit house or shrine on Chinese New Year.
But even with Thailand wholeheartedly embracing the digital era, many traditions have not vanished. As a matter of fact, they have adapted to modern times. These days, people can seek advice from fortune tellers online or watch Feng Shui TV shows. Construction technology may have progressed but Feng Shui is still considered important when building a house.
Will the spirit houses continue to be important in Thai society? “As long as people still believe in things that are invisible to them, the spirit houses and the worship will not disappear. No matter how society and the context in each period change, the core of our culture such as gratitude, respect for sacred things remains unaltered,” Chulapassorn stresses.