Sunday, March 16, 2014

Engaging the Spirits of the Land

You can’t go very far in Thailand without encountering one. Lavish ones are located at the front of five star hotels, exclusive shopping malls and skyscraper office blocks. They decrease in size, opulence and grandeur seemingly in direct proportion to the size of the building plot on which they are sited.
They can look like miniature temples, with tiered roofs and stately gilt ‘prangs’ or spires or simple wooden replicas of a traditional Thai dwelling.
Their exact location must be determined by an expert. They serve as shrines for the spirit of the land on which the building stands – The ‘Phraphum Chaotee’ which translates into ‘the guardian spirit inhabiting the homestead’. [The Legend of Phraphum Chaotee, which is one of the Thai folklore tales in a book called ‘The Life of Brahma’, is described by Denis Segaller in his book ‘More Thai Ways.] It is too complicated to describe here but the tale ends with the rider “Learned persons please judge it according to your own opinion”. Building a house in Thailand is a very serious matter – not only the expense but also not offending the ‘spirit of the land’ on which it is to be built. Thai people will always consult an astrologer to decide when is the best time to build a house and get ‘the maximum protection from ill-fortune and live in serenity, happiness and prosperity’. For example never start building a house on a Sunday, Tuesday or Saturday [most definitely not a Saturday!!!]. This will lead to a heap of trouble. There is also a popular belief that construction should be started in an even-numbered month, or else in the ninth month. Nine is a lucky number in Thailand – you will see this number crop up time and again throughout the items in the blog.
You might ask, is there a link between spirits and Buddhism? Belief in spirits is far older than Buddhism. Not only do spirits guard individual pieces of land but also villages, cities and trees. To avoid problems and ensure harmony and prosperity they must be placated with specially prepared offerings. These beliefs coexist with Buddhism and sometimes overlap in ways we Westerners find difficult to understand. To promote ‘harmony and prosperity’ the guardian spirit is placated with daily offerings by household members. The most basic being fragrant incense sticks, candles and flowers. Spiritual abodes in wealthier compounds are lavishly supplied with a variety of offerings: small dolls to symbolise attendants, floral displays, fresh fruits and carefully prepared and presented full meals. As you travel through Thailand you will pass compounds containing hundreds of different ‘spirit houses’. Somehow seeing them displayed in this way they lose a bit of their mystique. But then again they have not been fully activated! They are 'spiritless'.

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