A spirit house is a dedicated structure to honor the guardians of the land. It is a place to tune into the present moment and pay respect to Mother Earth. Cultures around the world have had their own ways of connecting to the land since their early beginnings and different kinds of spirit houses can be found all over Asia. Thai spirit houses are a creative tradition that continues to evolve with modern lifestyles.
Growing up I spent the summers in Bangkok with a Thai family where our home had two spirit houses near the entrance of the main house. Each morning before breakfast I observed various family members and caretakers making offerings of coconuts, fried rice, fruits and flowers in front of curious structures resembling a wooden doll house and a miniature palace. A peek inside the tiny windows revealed a fantastic play of animal figurines, statues of dancing ladies and a golden angel carrying a sword and a moneybag. The heady aroma of incense filled the air, transporting the family’s wishes for protection and well-being to the heavens.
Ninety-five percent of the Thai population is Buddhist yet the people engaged in daily spirit house rituals are carrying on ancient animistic practices inherited from their ancestors. The intrinsic urge to honor and communicate with nature comes from our basic dependence on nature’s life giving abundance in the great web of life; oxygen, water, food and sunshine. It acknowledges the power of unpredictable forces such as lightening, flood, drought, earthquakes and seasonal phenomena. From the animistic view, humans participate in nature on very much the same terms as everything else. What we do will effect nature, and in turn effect ourselves creating a cycle of interdependence that flows in a continual re-balancing of harmony. Nature is alive and has a potent power that can infuse itself in various concentrations into different objects such as trees, land, stones, mountains, houses, rivers, and rice. Each of these soul-essences, or spirits, has their own purpose and level of intelligence. When a Thai enters the space of one of these spirits and uses their resources they believe the best way to honor the spirit is by giving them a symbolic place of their own-- their own home. The spirit house becomes a focal point to cultivate a harmonious relationship with nature; offerings are made in exchange for abundance, protection and creative potential. It is not necessarily the accuracy of the rituals, but the act that retains a power, the power of our existence.
It’s fair to say that when real estate booms in Thailand so does the spirit house industry. In the countryside, humble wooden spirit dwellings blend into the landscape on rice fields, bridges, barns, crossroads, and Buddhist temples, termite mounds and gigantic trees. Vibrantly painted cement palaces typically sit in the gardens of rural and urban homes alike. In densely populated cities, spirit houses are placed at the entrance to gas stations, shopping malls, convenience stores, restaurants, and local markets. Modern and trendy designs guard government buildings, skyscrapers, condominiums, nightclubs and abandoned properties. Virtually no building in Thailand is erected without an accompanying spirit house.
COMMON SPIRIT HOUSES
The most popular spirit houses are the saan chao thii and the saan phra phum. The word chao thiiechoes the language of the indigenous Thai people who began their migrations into Thailand from as far away as China, Laos, and Vietnam. The saan chao thii is one of the oldest kinds of spirit houses and most often takes the form of a wooden house rooted in the earth by four pillar posts. Inside are tiny statues of an old man and old woman with white hair and glasses called Da Yai, meaning “grandmother grandfather”. It is also common to find a statue of a female dressed in a glittering costume, called Nang Mai meaning “female tree”. The figure of Nang Mai has evolved but her likeness is found in the practice of tying colorful cloth around large trees, still a common site around South East Asia. These animistic archetypes represent the ancestral energies of the place; they are ageless and date back to time immemorial. Their powers influence agricultural and household functions that interact with our immediate lives such as financial security, emotional relationships at home, safety, celebrations and dreams.
In contrast the saan phra phum tends to be more formal and impersonal, as it bestows protection and blessings from the grace of an angel. His residence is an ornate heavenly palace perched upon a single pillar post representing Mt. Sumeru, the cosmic realm of the gods. The word phum has Sanskrit roots, meaning “world”, and the resident angel named Pra Chai Monkol has links to the Hindu myths of Vishnu brought to Thailand by Indian traders and the Khmer Empire. Most often he is represented as a bronze statue covered in gold paint, holding a moneybag in his left hand (symbolizing success) and a sword for protection in his right. The saan phra phum can be likened to a satellite dish that tunes into to a powerful cosmic frequency. Its power supports our life purpose and connection between heaven and the Great Mother Earth.
Phra phum and chao thii are only two of the vast pantheon of spirits that populate the Thai universe and belong to an unpredictable realm of invisible forces that have very visible temperaments. Their powers can grant wishes and ensure crops, as well as cause nightmares, accidents, sickness and even death. The best way to maintain harmony and attract their graces is through the daily ritual offerings of fruits, incense, garlands, and pleasant words. The land guardians also enjoy servants, horses or elephants for transportation and traditional dancing performances. Traces of ancient fertility cults revealing the spirit houses deep connections to Mother Earth can be found in curious offerings like red Fanta soda (symbolizing blood) and carved wooden phalluses ranging from five centimeters to four meters tall.
OFFERINGS AND RITUAL
The average Thai knows how to perform daily offerings, but the complex rituals and rules to install or take down a spirit house must be made by a ritual expert called a Brahm priest. These masters of ceremony are skilled in astrology, chanting and Hindu rituals and are the keepers of the spirit house tradition. Most importantly they are able to communicate with the spirit world and invoke the land guardians into the statues that will be put inside the spirit house, transforming an otherwise normal object into a holy one.
The form and size of a spirit house is also chosen under the guidance of the priest. Using a combination of astrology and the land owner’s budget, he will determine the proper location, cardinal position, height, and color. The architecture and offerings given to a spirit house reflect the dominant spirit that has been invited to stay there. The names of land guardians tend to vary depending upon geographic regions. Each village brings a unique spin to their ancestral spirit worhip thorugh local foods, songs and dances. This flavor and diversity of expression gives the spirit house tradition a dynamic charm that allows it to evolve and adapt into modern lifestyles. Regardless of age or profession, Thais dutifully honor the guardians of the land. That these ancient traditions can be integrated with modern lifestyles shows that while Thailand is serious about developing into the twenty-first century, its people are not about to forget where they come from.
By Marisa Cranfill