One thing first-time visitors to Thailand find intriguing is the spirit house, ubiquitously found in the yard of almost every Thai home or building. By themselves, these ornate miniature temples, housing various animist icons, are showcases of Thai artistry and penchant for elaborate details.
Next to temples, the spirit house seems to be the centre of a Thai Buddhist’s religiosity. Almost every day, it is showered with food and flowers, with burning incense to boot. In essence, it is the Buddhist equivalent for the mini-altar found in most Catholic homes. The only difference, perhaps, is that Thai Buddhists look after their spirit houses with near fanatical devotion, while most Catholics regard their home altars as nothing more than interior décors.
Spirit houses vary in size. The most modest, of course, are found in equally modest homes. Businesses tend to have bigger spirit houses.
In Bangkok, the biggest and most popular spirit house is the one located in front of the Grand Hyatt Erawan Hotel at the corner of Rajadamri and Ploenchit Roads. Built in 1956, long before the current hotel came to be, this spirit house has over the years emerged into a major Bangkok shrine, drawing busloads of devotees not only from Thailand but also from people across Asia – Hong Kong, Taiwan, China, Singapore, even Malaysia. Hundreds of Westerners also visit the place daily, not so much to pay their respects to the Brahma god that it houses, but because the Erawan Shrine, as it is now known today, is also one of the city’s major tourist attractions.
The Erawan Shrine has an interesting behind it, which has made it a sensation among superstitious Thais.
In the mid-1950s, according to published accounts, Thailand was chosen to host an international conference. During that time, Bangkok never had a world-class hotel to house the delegates from various countries. So the government asked the private to build one, to be known as the Erawan Hotel.
But Thailand then wasn’t even a dot on the tourist map and local investors simply couldn’t figure out how they would fill the posh hotel rooms after the conference delegates had gone home. Since there were no takers, the government was left with no other choice but to build the hotel itself.
Shortly after the start of construction, the project was beset with problems that threatened to delay its completion. Accidents happened on the work site and the upcountry workers started to sense something uncanny about the whole thing. Some people learned that the place was in fact a spiritual minefield, as it used to be a site where criminals were put on public display. One incident broke the camel’s back, so to speak. A marble shipment from Italy, a major component in the construction, sank at sea.
This further confirmed the highly superstitious workers’ suspicion that the gods had something against the hotel project. Fearing a disaster could also happen to them, they put their tools down and refused to work until something was done to appease the spirits living in the area.
Pushed to the wall, the government acceded. An astrologer, a certain Rear Admiral Luang Suwicharn, was consulted. He soon figured out the project did not start on an auspicious date. To appease the spirits, a shrine was built dedicated to the highest ranking Brahma God, the four-faced Than Tao Mahaprom. From then on, the project went smoothly.
As a god of kindness, mercy, sympathy and impartiality, Than Tao Mahaprom became the object of veneration among the many Thai people. In time, the shrine became a place of pilgrimage, with people coming to plead for favours. When these wishes were granted, devotees came back to offer gifts in the form miniature teak elephants, flowers, food and money. Some hire dancers to perform at the shrine.
A story often retold is about a woman who pleaded for a husband, with a promise that if her wish were granted she would come back to dance naked. She got what she wanted and, true to her promise, she indeed came back to dance in her birthday suit. It became the talk of the town, prompting the government to discourage such vows to avoid scandalising the religious shrine.
A foreign visitor need not believe the shrine’s power to grant favors, but still it is great place to visit. The place is not only a sculptural wonder; it too affords visitors an insight into the Thais’ usually happy disposition and deep sense of spirituality.
HOW TO GET THERE: The Erawan Shine is located at the junction of Ratchadamri Road and Phloenchit Road. To get there, take the BTS Skytrain and get off at the Chit Lom Station.