Who is that cute old couple inside a spirit house?
Sunday, December 7 2014

Marisa Cranfill

For a moment, imagine your great, great, great, great, grandfather going all the way back to the beginning of time. Now do the same on your grandmother’s side. Where did they begin? How many lands did they inhabit? How many languages did they speak? How many houses did they live in? What seeds did they plant? How much pain did they suffer? How many people did they love? How much wisdom did they transform?

Connecting to our ancestors is a hard wired instinct that we all have inside us. We literally carry our ancestors in our DNA. Although the ancient Thai people didn’t know about DNA, they honored their ancestors as spirit guardians that watched over their land, their tribes, villages and their families. Today Thai society still believes that the spirits of their ancestors and other nature spirits influence their lives. These guardian spirits have the ability to protect the community from harm, to aid in crop production, assist with challenges and to cause wrath if offended. To maintain a harmonious relationship with their land guardians, they offer them a spirit house commonly called a saan jaow thii, the Abode of the Lord of the Place.

There are many kinds of guardian spirits that can inhabit a saan jaow thii depending on what aspect of nature the spirit is connected to; land spirits, tree spirits, forest spirits, mountain spirits, rice spirits and village spirits to name a few. But nowadays the most popular pair of land guardian spirits you find inside a saan jaow thii are statues of an old man and old woman with white hair, glasses and walking sticks. Actually, old is not the word for them; they are ageless.

Their names are Da-Yai, meaning ‘grandfather – grandmother’ and they are probably the most endearing spirits you will ever meet next to Casper the friendly ghost. My favorite personification of these powerful land guardians is the version where Great Grandma has her head resting on Great Grandpa’s shoulder. Relaxed, happy and ready to please – exactly how you would want the guardian spirits of your land to be. But don’t get too comfortable, Da-Yai have temperaments and can get offended if not respected.

To keep Da-Yai smiling Thais offer food, flowers, incense, kind words and other goodies at their spirit house. Da-Yai especially love betel nut, a natural intoxicant (when mixed with lime) that grows from the areca palm. In ancient times betel was used to welcome guests into one’s home and chewed to keep the breath fresh. Although it is not popular any more (it stains the teeth dark red) you can still find elderly folks and shamans with a mouth full of betel in the countryside as well as little packets of rolled up leaves and nuts offered in front of the saan jaow thii.

The origins of Da-Yai trace back to the first groups of ethnic Tai tribes that migrated into Thailand. As the tribes settled, they created a deep bond with the spirits of the land and consummated their ethnic identity as agricultural communities. The first saan jaow thii were not placed on individual properties; rather, one large spirit house for a village guardian spirit served the whole village. This communal spirit united the people and created a feeling of protection and order. Village spirit guardians still hold a very important role in the various regions of Thailand. For example the people of E-sarn honor a village land guardian spirit called Pi Poo Ta. The Tai Dam or Black Tai tribe (one of the last remaining purely animist Thai tribes today) do not have individual spirit houses at all, only communal ones. The spirit house offered to the land guardian of the village is a large and empty wooden house with no statue inside, usually placed on a hillside to watch over the community.

Over time, as villages expanded, intermarried and aquired their own land, families began to set up spirit houses to personal land guardians. Farmers typically pass their land down through many generations maintaining a family connection with their land guardians steeped in story and legend. These land guardians were personified in statues and were given more elaborate daily offerings than the village spirit houses, reflecting their intimate presence on each property. Although they are called ‘grandfather grandmother’, the land guardians aren’t necessarily traced to a specific family bloodline (Thais have separate ancestor shrines inside the house for their deceased relatives). Da-Yai are archetypes – collective symbols that all members of society understand—that represent the spirits of the original owners of the land. Their power is connected to the earth and they express the aspirations and personalities of each local they represent. As a result, the diversity of Thailand’s land guardians and their spirit houses are reflected in regional dialect and landscape. All over Thailand they are called by different names. The word Da-Yai is actually a central Thai dialect. In the North of Thailand they are called Pii Po Ya, Pii Hern or Pii A Hark. In the Eastern region they are called Pii Poo Ta and in the South Pii Ta Yi. Pii means ‘spirit’ in Thai, and the word that follows signifies the ancestral lineage. In Thai language the names for grandmother and grandfather differ depending on which side they are on and reflect the social structure of kinship, matriarchal or patriarchal. For example in the south of Thailand Pii Ta-Yin means ‘spirit of grandfather on mothers side (Ta)’ – ‘grandmother on mothers side (Yin)’ reflecting the southern Thai matriarchal social system. In the north the land guardians are called by the paternal lineage names on the grandfather’s side.

The relationship between Thai people and Da-Yai has changed through the process of modernization. In cities saan jaow thii are found on individual properties, as well as convenience stores, banks, restaurants and shopping arcades. What was once a guardian connected to specific tribes has adapted to the masses. In urban society where there is a higher rate of social mobility and property exchange, Da-Yai represent the spirits of the original owners of the land who may not have any significance to the ancestral lineage connected to the current property owner. The Bangkok urbanite pays respect to Da-Yai because they represent the spirits that were there first and they believe that these spirits still have power and influence on the property. In Bangkok one priest told me that the land guardians of my apartment building were Muslim spirits and that I should not offer them pork or they will be offended. It is interesting to note that Thai Muslims themselves do not have spirit houses or practice animism. The belief that the land guardian is a Muslim on a Thai Buddhist’s property is a fascinating aspect of spiritual inclusivism. Never the less, the statues used to represent the Muslim land guardians are the same little old couple Da-Yai.

Regardless of the differences between rural and urban interpretations of the land guardians, I have found that Da-Yai serve a common function for all Thai people today as an archetype of their Thai identity connected specifically to the land, as well as a connection to the inherent power of nature. In the countryside, life revolves around nature’s unpredictable moods like floods, earthquakes, lightning strikes, fires and drought. In the city uncertainties of life come through unstable politics, competitive job positions, inflation, car accidents, and a rapidly changing landscape. In both situations there is a desire for peace and balance -- aspirations that a spirit house fulfills. Regardless if the spirits of Da-Yai are scientifically real or not, respect for the ancestors is a social value that is an integral part of Thai identity and brings them a sense of stability in a rapidly changing world. The charming little statues of Da-Yai remind us all that we are only guests here on the planet and when we are gone, the land guardians of the earth will continue to watch over generations to come.

For more charming images of Da-Yai click here:



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