SPIRITS AND FOLK RELIGION IN THAILAND
The predominant animistic belief system in Thailand involves phi, or the spirits, either of ancestral origin or those residing in natural objects. The spirits can inflict illnesses and misfortune upon individuals for deviant conduct, or, on the contrary, they can provide protection, healing, and bring about fortune for those who follow ethics and placate the spirits.
The world of the Thai villager (and that of many city folk as well) is inhabited by a host of spirits of greater or lesser relevance to an individual's well-being. Although many of these are not sanctioned by Buddhist scripture or even by Buddhist tradition, many monks, themselves of rural origin and essentially tied to the village, are as likely as the peasant to accept the beliefs and rituals associated with spirits. [Source: Library of Congress]
Spirit worship is probably the oldest form of religion in the world. When Buddhism came to Southeast Asia, it developed alongside the ancient spirit worship already in place. Today many of the beliefs remain intertwined with Buddhism and form part of everyday life for Thai people. Spirits are thought to play a part in many different aspects of life. Because they are believed to be mischievous trouble makers they are placated with offering. Thai spirits are known for their fickleness and unpredictability. This is due in part to a lack of hierarchy. They are however easily bribed.
The propitiation of an individual's khwan (body spirit or life soul) remains a basic feature of Thai family rites. Any ceremony undertaken to benefit a person, animal, or plant is referred to as the making of khwan. On important occasions, such as birth, ordination into the priesthood, marriage, a return from a long journey, or the reception of an honored guest, a khwan ceremony is performed.
Women Possessed by Spirits
According to Encyclopedia of Sexuality: Thailand : “A cross-gendered phenomenon is found primarily in women in the cults of the ancestral spirits (phii) in northern Thailand. Members of the phii cults believe that ancestral guardian spirits are passed on matrilineally to young women in order to maintain health, harmony, and well-being in the family. Certain women, by becoming “possessed” by the phii, serve as medium for the spirits, and they are called maa khii. In their annual ritual, these women, and sometimes children, are possessed by their ancestral spirits and perform dances, which include displays of wild and rude behaviors (e.g., drinking, smoking Thai cigars, and shouting expletives and insults) as well as stereotypically masculine behaviors (e.g., wearing men's clothes and flirting and dancing with young women). [Source: Encyclopedia of Sexuality: Thailand (Muang Thai) by Kittiwut Jod Taywaditep, M.D., M.A., Eli Coleman, Ph.D. and Pacharin Dumronggittigule, M.Sc., late 1990s; www2.hu-berlin.de/sexology/IES/thailand
“However, because of their revered role as maa khii, many of these women are held in high esteem. Outside these rituals and performances, these women, most of whom are married to a man and hold respectable roles (e.g., healers and midwives) in their village community, return to their everyday behavior typical of the female gender. Although most of these women do not remember the specific events during the trance, they are well aware of the male characters they take on during the dances. In an interesting twist of role, these women hold positions of power, in contrast to the general patriarchal Thai society and the male domination in Buddhism. [Ibid]
“While most maa khii are women, a noticeable minority are male, and many are also kathoey. We have observed that the maa khii who are kathoey also enjoy a more-revered place in the community, overcoming some of the ordinary stigma they would otherwise experience. During the spiritual dance (fawn phii), the mediums who are kathoey, like their female counterparts, exhibit male-stereotypical behavior remarkably different from their own manners during ordinary circumstances. [Ibid]
Buddhism and Spirits
Even though Buddhism does notrecognise superstition, Thai Buddhists often seek protection from supernatural powers. A manifestation of this is the fact that spirit houses have become a household item in addition to Buddha images. [Source: Wattana Boonjub, The Study of Thai Traditional Architecture as a Resource for Contemporary Building Design in Thailand, a Thesis for the Degree Doctor of Philosophy, Program of Architectural Heritage Management and Tourism (International Program), Silpakorn University]
Thai Buddhists also seek help from supernatural powers when making career moves or seeking ways to have a happy life. For this, they look to spirits and ghosts for protection and blessings. It is said the belief in other worlds stems from Buddhism, which fosters to a certain extent supernatural beliefs. It points to the ideology of reincarnation and the belief that bad and good deeds one does in the present life will affect his next life or determine the place to where he will be born.
Buddhism's holy text tells of four gods in the heaven plane: 1) ghost or leader of the East; 2) god leader of the South; 3) naga leader of the West; and 4) giant leader of the North. The four gods protect the earth and assign lesser gods to protect the earth in their jurisdiction areas. Gods are also hierarchically classified depending on their duties, which come in various levels: national, provincial, district, and village.
Ironically, some worshipers mistake superstitious rituals for Buddhist ceremonies. For instance, some people offer foods to Buddha statues — the representation of the Lord Buddha — despite the fact that this ritual does not exist in Buddhism. In fact, the offerings are for deities who protect the statues. Nowadays the belief about protector gods still remains, despite the rise in the number of western-educated population.
Types of Thai Spirits
A number of spirits has traditionally been recognized by Thais. These include guardian spirits of houses and villages, harvest beings such as the Rice Mother, possession spirits that cause illness and helpful spirts that provide assistance. Most important are the spirits included in the rather heterogeneous category of phi, thought to have power over human beings. The category includes spirits believed to have a permanent existence and others that are reincarnations of deceased human beings. Phi exist virtually everywhere--in trees, hills, water, animals, the earth, and so on. Some are malevolent, others beneficial. Phi Pa, for example, is a spirit that dwells in the forest. Hunters have traditionally left a piece of their catch to appease and show respect to this spirit, normally a bit of the eyelid, lip, tongue or foot of a killed animal.
Another category consists of the chao (guardian spirits), of which perhaps the most important is the chao thi, or guardian of the house compound (an alternative name is phra phum). Fixed on a post in the compound of most houses in Thailand's central region is a small spirit dwelling. Food offerings are made to the chao thi on the anniversary of the spirit's installation in the house, on New Year's Day, and on other special days. The spirit is told of the arrival of guests who are to stay any length of time, of projected journeys by members of the family, and of births and deaths. The spirit's intercession is also sought during illness and misfortune.
Other spirits protect gardens, the rice fields, and the wat. The spirit of the rice field is worshiped only once a year, at the beginning of the rice planting; the Rice Goddess receives offerings when the seedbed is to be prepared and when the harvest is ready. The Mother Earth Goddess often receives offerings at transplanting time. Phi Nang Tani — A female tree spirit which lives in banana trees and appears on a full moon night— is regarded as a good ghost and will give bananas as food and occasionally may fill the alms bowls of itinerant monks.
Phi Thuk Khun is the lifeforce of a living person which has to leave the physical body and be sent out on astral journey on a weekly basis. If this does not happen then harm will come to its owner. Phi Khamod (aka Phi Kaserg) is a spirit that misleads travellers and takes the form of a red star. After waking from a bad dream and going to the toilet you should ask your excretement to go peacefully before flushing so the spirit Phi Kee can take away any bad luck.
In ancient times, gods and humans shared some similar characteristics. While humans tried to make merits, hoping for a better life, gods have a desire to achieve higher realms. This is evident in a number of shrines of gods who are higher than those at the level. It is believed that these gods come down to the earth to ease human's suffering, to cure illnesses, or persuade humans to do good deeds. It is believed that a result from these good deeds will help these gods attain the higher realms.
Types of Thai Ghosts and Spirits
There's an abundance of ghosts that are said to inhabit Thailand, some are good and some harmful. The ghosts of persons who died violently under mysterious circumstances or whose funeral rites were improperly performed constitute a entire class of phi; almost all of these spirits are malevolent. In contrast, the ghosts of notable people are said to reside in small shrines along the roads and are referred to as "spirit lords." They are often petitioned in prayers and can enter and possess the bodies of mediums to give oracles.
Among the more important of the spirits and ghosts is the evil Phi Pop (ghoul spirit), which, at the instigation of witches, can enter human beings and consume their internal organs. Phi Pob are regarded as very devious. They will infest a victim and eat away their entrails before leaving their victims body. In public people infested with the Phi Pob pretend to be ill but when given the opportunity they will steal uncooked meat to eat at night.
Other dreaded ghost include: 1) Phi Am, a ghost which sits on the chest or liver of people whilst they sleep causing discomfort. It can be harmful; 2) Phi Braed, a giant male of female ghost with a sucker-like mouth that is feared because it is said to kill parents; 3) Phi Duat Leut (aka Phi Kang Kaw), a ghost that resembles the western Vampire in that it sucks the blood of it's victim; and 4) Phi Ha (aka Phi Tong Kom), the spirit of a woman who has died in childbirth, which is considered to be particularly violent. [Source: ghostsofthailand.com
Phi Hai (aka Phi Tay Hong) spirits inhabit places or areas where someone has died an unnatural or violent death. In search of victims to possess they are easily offended and will possess people at every given opportunity. They can be tempted to leave from their victim by making an offering however if this is not sufficient for the ghost then an exorcism will be required involving incantations and special water. Should this fail then a whip will be used to drive the ghost from its host.
Phi Kra-sue are probably the most feared ghosts in Thailand. Malicious and very dangerous, they are often seen in long flowing dresses to hide the fact that they have no lower body, just a mass of internal organs and intestines suspended from their head. It is said that when the Phi Kra-sue were alive they ate something which looked delicious but was not cooked sufficiently and contained worms that away at their insides. Kra-sue sometimes take the form of beautiful women who glide along messmarising their prey.
Phi Krasy (aka Phi Sing) live inside the body of witches. Witches can be recognised in the daytime by having a glazed look about them. Unable to blink, they will not look at anyone in the face and, like a vampire, they do not cast a reflection in a mirror. At night the Phi Krasy escapes through the mouth of the sleeping witch to feed on dirt and occasionally entrails, which ,if they are yours, will result in your death. Krasy have a tennis-ball-sized head and bluish, meter-long tail and not regarded as a very harmful unless they eats your entrails. Before a witch dies here spittle must be consumed by someone else for the Krasy to be passed to a new host.
Phi Peta are hungry ghosts. It is said people who preoccupied with material attachments and ignore the spiritual side will be reborn as a Peta when they die. They have a giant belly and a mouth as small as the eye of a needle with an enormous appetite for almost everything, food, money, power or sex. A Peta ghost can sometimes be heard whistling at night, looking for someone to make merit for them. This ghost is ill tempered and agressive as they constantly remain unsatisfied.
Phi Phrai is the unfortunate spirit of a woman who has died during childbirth. An burden placed on them is the use their body in a ceremony to extract Phi Thai Hong lotion — which lotion is said to drive men wild and attract them to the woman that administers the concoction. The lotion is obtained by a sorcerer who extracts essential oils from the corpse of a woman who has died during childbirth by putting a lighted candle under the deceased person’s chin. Phi Tai Tong Glom is a seriously evil ghost of a female who died giving birth and lost baby too. This doubles the evil strength of this spirit and is definitely one to avoid. This ghost is actually a variant of Phi Tai Hong and is sometimes referred to as Phi Tai Hong Tong Glom.
Phi Lok are roaming ghosts that haunt various localities. Seen as well as felt, they aim to scare, frighten and mislead people. Phi Nang Ta-kean is the ghost of a beautiful young lady that haunts the Hopea tree . As a result many Thai people do not like to have a Hopea tree growing in their garden. Phi Pawb is the spirit of someone that has died violently and sits on the shoulders of their victim causing the victim to appear lop sided. Phi Poang Khang are spirits that take shape of black monkeys and like to suck the big toe of people sleeping in the jungle. It is said they live near salt licks.
Phi Ka are spirits that dwell inside women. Similar to Phi Pob, they can be violent and attack people. Unless treated by eating raw eggs they can be passed onto others without their knowledge. Phi Chamob is a ghost that is said to haunt the place where a woman has died in the jungle. This spirit does not do any harm. Phi Tai Ha is the spirit of a woman who has died of malaria. It has the ability to spread the deadly disease. Phi Kra-hang appears as a man with feathers and a tail like a bird which it uses to fly around. Said to be an unpleasant and frightening spirit, it reportedly eats filth and is seen at night with a glowing aura.
Household spirit has played a significant part in Thai houses since ancient times. The belief in household spirits may stem from the belief in ancestors’ spirits. However, this belief faded away when Thais started to pay respect to Thao Chatulokaban, a group of gods believed to protect the world. They adopted these gods as household spirits that can affect their families both in good and bad ways. [Source: Wattana Boonjub, The Study of Thai Traditional Architecture as a Resource for Contemporary Building Design in Thailand, a Thesis for the Degree Doctor of Philosophy, Program of Architectural Heritage Management and Tourism (International Program), Silpakorn University]
The organization of Thai household spirit is hierarchically complex. It starts with spirits of ancestors believed to provide protection to their children. These household spirits, however, only support moral occupants. According to traditional beliefs, every house has some bad spirits. Fear of these spirit discourages family members from bad conducts. At the same time, they helps prevent outsiders from trespassing on certain parts of the house, especially the inner area reserved for family members. Offending them is believed to lead to bad luck or ill health.
Apart from household spirits, people set up a shrine for community ancestors' spirits. It came from an old tradition that ancient people established a shrine for their ancestors’ spirits whenever they migrated to a new place. They believed the spirits would follow them wherever they are in order to provide protection. The shrine also serves as the household pillar. It should be noted that people paid respect not only to ancestors' spirits but also local spirits like mountain or forest ghosts and others. They also built a shrine and regularly performed a ceremony to ask for their protection.
Buddhism mentions household spirits but rarely attaches the importance to them. It merely classifies them as creatures in the Sensuous Planes. Indeed, it is Hinduism that recognises these spirits and offers a method to invite these spirits to desired places. In certain areas where there is no ancestor spirit worship, people may recognise ancestor spirits as household spirits. It is such belief that leads people to build irit houses in their residences.
The type of household deity or god in a house depends on the type of structures in the house. This results in various sizes of shrines, including city pillar shrines, community shrines, palace shrines and spirit houses. These shrines can also be found at public and private organisations, including institutions whose work deals with science and science-related subjects.
In addition, some gods reside in as well as protect natural settings such as mountains, rivers, trees and big anthills. Even some transport like boatsand cars are believed to be protected by a female goddess. Protector gods living at the same level as living people have a duty to record good and bad deeds of humans in their jurisdiction areas. For this reason, most houses have a spirit house or shrine that serves as their residence.
Almost every home, business, school, and building—plus some public areas too—have small "spirit houses" outside them that look like ornate dollhouses or miniature temples, where flowers and charms are offered daily to the spirits that reside in the property occupied by the buildings. Some are strung with fairy lights at night. [Source: Rosanne Turner, travelfish.org January 27, 2012, Joe Cummings, Lonely Planet guide for Thailand]
Spirit houses ( san phra phum ) are strategically positioned outside buildings. They provide an appealing shelter for the spirits who reside on the land where the buildings have been built. The idea behind the spirit house is that spirits are found everywhere and every building is inhabited by at least one. Because spirits can cause mischief and bring harm such as disease people try to get them out of the buildings they use by making a fabulous spirit house the spirits will find appealing and choose to live in rather the building itself. Offerings are made to the spirits houses to appease the spirits and make the spirit house that much more appealing and auspicious.
Permission needs to be granted by the spirits before building commences. Before a house is built the land must be cleansed of spirits by a professional spirit exterminator. A special ceremony s often conducted to open the house and welcome the spirits to it. It is presided over by a phaw khru or mae khru (“father or mother teacher”).
They can be constructed of wood, concrete or brick. The construction can be simple, like that of a basic Thai-style bungalow home, or as intricate as a palace. The position of a spirit house is very important; it should never be placed where the shadow of the building will fall on it and is usually placed in a prominent position that required advanced planning and is usually worked out when the plans for the house are formulated. The size of the spirit house is often in relation to the size of a building with some spirit houses for hotels or hospitals cover 100 square meters or more. Resorts in particular often boast elaborate spirit houses with generous offerings. When a house is enlarged the spirt house is often enlarged too.
Spirit houses are sometimes positioned at dangerous curves in the road or places of frequent accidents. This is done in order to keep the spirits at the dangerous place happy, and ask for their protection of all that use the road. A good example of this is on Ko Samui’s Ring Road just past Chaweng Noi, on the way to Lamai, where a large, impressive spirit house overlooks the bend. When passing it locals driving past hoot three times to acknowledge the spirits. One will often find colorful strips of cloth tied around large trees in forests or gardens. It is believed that spirits reside in old trees. Offerings are placed at the foot of the tree or in lower branches, and the bright ribbons are a symbolic warning for others not to cut down the tree.
Because spirit houses need to be well-maintained, there comes a time when they need to be replaced. Old spirit houses cannot merely be dumped. The spirits are coaxed into the new house, and the old one is laid to rest in communal ‘burial grounds’ for old spirit houses, usually a location well known to be rich in spirit activity at the base of a banyan tree. On Samui, a road known as the Ghost Road is the local spot to offload broken spirit houses. It is a rather eerie sight to drive along this road, a back route to the airport, and see hundreds of dumped spirit houses.
Spirit House Figurines and Offerings
Spirit houses are often decorated with little figurines of people and animals, incense holders and vases for flowers. Some contain miniature furniture. The figurines represent the property’s guardian spirits, the most important of which, the chao thi (“place lord”), embodies the phra phum that reigns over a specific part of the property. Large spirit houses often have figurines representing family members and servants of the resident spirits. Figurines, miniature furniture and kitchenware for spirit houses can be purchased at supermarkets in Thailand. [Source: Rosanne Turner, travelfish.org January 27, 2012, Joe Cummings, Lonely Planet guide for Thailand]
There are nine guardian spirits, each offering a different kind of protection, but only two are frequently prayed to and consulted. The main spirits the Thai are concerned with are the Phra Bhum Jowthee, (garden spirits of the land). These are the Guardian of the house who keeps watch over the home, protecting it from harm and business matters and the Guardian of the garden who watches and protects the natural surroundings such as the gardens, orchards and yards. These two are the only ones who have spirit homes built especially for them. There are separate guardians for taking care of things such as the rice fields and agriculture.
The nine main guardian spirts and their spheres of influence are: 1) Phra Chaimongkhon (houses); 2) Phra Nakhonrat (gates, portals, ladders); 3) Phra Khonthan (honeymoon homes); 4) Phra Khan Thoraphon (roads, cattle pens); 5) Phra Chai Kassapa (granaries); 6) Phra Thamahora (fields); 7) Phra Than Thirat (gardens, orchards); 8) Phra Chaimongkut (farmyards, compounds); 9) Phra That Tara (Temples, shrines monasteries).
One can regularly see Thais presenting offerings to the spirits. These can include fresh fruit, rice, chicken or duck, beer, water and other drinks — red and orange Fanta are particularly popular — candles and incense, fresh flowers in the vases and garlands. When an offering is made to a spirit house, incense or candles are lit, the offering are left on a stool, rice is sprinkled on the ground and flowers are put in the spirit box. Before the harvest families leave offerings of cucumbers, red pork, bamboo shoot stew, shrimp paste dip and rice before a spirit house.
Modern Spirit Houses
Todsaporn Jamsuwan co-founded of Holy Plus, a company that makes “modern” spirit houses. Thomas Fuller wrote in the New York Times: Mr. Todsaporn’s company has tweaked the idea of the spirit house, replacing wood with modern construction materials like ceramics, glass and granite panels. With electric wiring and indoor lighting, the Holy Plus spirit houses resemble the glass-and-steel office buildings and condominiums they are meant to protect.[Source: Thomas Fuller, New York Times, December 28, 2010]
When Mr. Todsaporn first introduced the modern versions, “we had to answer a lot of questions from our customers and their Brahmin priests,” he said. The construction of the new spirit houses — ceramic tile instead of wood — was seen as not hospitable for the spirits. “Some people said, celestial beings will not stay here because it’s not in the style of a temple — they won’t live here,” Mr. Todsaporn said. “I answered, ‘Have you ever talked to a spirit? How would you know?”’
Money Trees in Thailand
According to the blog Thaizer: “If you are travelling in Thailand for any length of time you may see a money tree at some stage during your journey. These can often be seen in temples after they’ve been donated, but whilst the trees are still ‘growing’ I’ve also seen them in restaurants, markets and bars. They are usually set up by communities or groups for a specific purpose such as contributing towards repair work at a local temple. Donating to a money tree is one way of making merit (thambun) which plays a fundamental part in Buddhist culture in Thailand. Once the tree is full, a procession usually takes place accompanied by music and festivity as the money tree is donated along with other individual contributions and goods. [Source: Thaizer, December 21, 2011]
“Any denomination note can be donated with 20, 50, 100 and 1,000 Baht notes used to form a colourful display. The notes are placed on split bamboo holders and coloured cloth or ribbon may also be tied to the stick. Although the money tree is a relatively modern introduction, the symbolism behind it has its roots in ancient traditions. Hundreds of years ago, Buddhist monks in Thailand used abandoned pieces of cloth to make their robes because they were unable to receive robes directly from lay people. To make things easier for the monks who lived in the forest, the people in the countryside would deliberately leave good cloth attached to trees and bushes. This cloth would then be sewn together and dyed by the monks. In modern-day Thailand robes can now be donated to monks, but the coloured attachments to the money tree are symbolic of former times. [Ibid]
Amulets in Thailand
There are three main kinds of amulets in Thailand: 1)phra khreuang (Buddha pendants or likenesses of famous monks) ; 2) khreuang-rang (aids with specific intents such as tiger teeth, buffalo horn or elephant tusk; 3) khreuang-rang pluk-sek (secret formulae that are usually memorized but are sometimes written down.
It is said Buddhist images are never “bought” and ‘sold.” Rather amulets that bear Buddha images are “rented.” Amulets with Buddha images are designed to protect wearers from physical harm but some also act as ‘”love charms.” Amulets regarded as especially powerful sometimes are sold for thousands of baht. They are often worn by soldiers, tuk tuk drivers other people that have dangerous jobs. Thais also buy amulets with Indian deities.
Explaining why amulets are so popular in Buddhist Thailand, Ajarn Narit, a local guide and historian, told the BBC it was partly to do with the times, and partly the nature of Buddhist belief in Thailand. With the political situation still so uncertain, people feel the need for re-assurance, he said. Buddhism has always been based on faith in many things, he said, not just one god. "We believe in reincarnation, in karma, in the accumulation of merit, and it is all too easy to believe in the power of other supernatural beings," he added. Veteran Buddhist scholar Sulak Sivaraksa is disgusted by what he sees as a perversion of the teachings of the Buddha. "They've lost their way", he said. "Monks are supposed to renounce money. The teachings of the Buddha have been killed by the demonic religion of consumerism." [Source: Jonathan Head, BBC News, September 3, 2007]
According to the Lucky BOBI Website, a commercial site that sells Thai Buddhist amulets, Thai amulets are divided into two groups: the authentic & the black magic type.The difference between these two types are their making materials and sources. The authentic type basically is made by eminent monks or monks in temples. Its materials are taken from the nature, such as pollen, sacred soil, scripture powder, incense ash, clay etc. Some can be easily found and some are hard to get. The black magic types are made from materials such as bone ash, and corpse oil by a master black magician ( gong tau ). It is said the effects of wearing an authentic type Buddha amulet is long-lasting and steady, while the black magic type is faster-acting. You are advised to think twice before choosing a black magic amulet as there are dangers. [Source: Lucky BOBI Website, September 25, 2012]
Common types of Thai amulets include: 1) Somdej (King of Thai Buddha amulets) help businesses prosper, bring wealth and good luck, ward off the evil, enhance interpersonal relations and help in careers. 2) . Phra Pidta come in different types: with two hands, four hands hands or eight hands. They ward off the evil an offer protection from dangers and bad people. 3) General Khun Paen brings good interpersonal relation, especially those involved in attracting the opposite sex. The also help the wearer to avoid dangers and harm. 4). Ganesha (the Hindu elephant-headed god) attracts wealth, brings luck and wisdom and is helpful to students studying for exams 5) Goddess of Wealth (Nanguat) brings wealth, keeps the wearer safe from harm and helps one’s career. 6) The Butterfly amulet attracts opposite sex, help in business and increase personal charm. 7) Er Ge Feng attracts wealth and easy money and brings gambling luck. 8) Rahu wards off evil spirit, villains and black magic. 9. Hanuman (the Hindu monkey god) symbolizes authority wards off avoid disasters and dangers. It is said people who wear Hanuman amulets will be loved, respected and more energetic. [Ibid]
Dinosaur fossils stolen in northeast Thailand have been carved into lucky Buddhist charms. The fossils were dug up at night by laborer hired by amulet dealers. Thais believe that wearing Buddhist amulets around their necks ward off evil spirits. It is widely believed that the older the material used for amulet the greater its power.
Frenzy Over Jatukam Ramathep Amulets in 2007
Jonathan Head of BBC News wrote: For advertisers in Thailand, the most spectacular location to promote their products is on the side of the country's tallest building, the Baiyoke Tower in Bangkok. But the image that appeared there a few weeks ago was not the usual logo for shampoo or a mobile phone company. It depicted the statuesque head of a mythical Hindu figure,Jatukam Ramathep — actually a combination of two ancient deities, the guardians of some of Thailand's holiest Buddhist relics. So what was it doing on a Bangkok skyscraper? The answer is that was selling itself, and doing a whole lot better than the rest of the Thai economy.[Source: Jonathan Head, BBC News, September 3, 2007]
“Thais have always been keen on amulets. Usually bearing the likeness of the Buddha or other religious figures, they are worn round the neck to bring good fortune. But no amulet has ever been as popular as the Jatukam Ramathep. These amulets have been made for about 20 years, and were promoted without much success by Police Major-General Phantarak Rajadej, a police chief in Nakhon Si Thammarat, the town where the relics are thought to be located. [Ibid]
“Phantarak Rajadej's death last year changed everything. A larger-than-life character who was reputed to possess magical powers, his funeral was attended by tens of thousands of people, including Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, the heir to the Thai throne. Copies of the amulet were given out at the funeral — many of them not authentic, complained his family — and belief in their mystical powers began to spread, pushing up the value of older versions. [Ibid]
“On Sunday mornings, crowds build around the main temple in Nakhon Si Thammarat, Wat Mahathat, one of Thailand's most revered Buddhist temples. They file between the heavy white-washed walls into a small room, filled floor-to-ceiling with an array of statues depicting giants and mythical animals, all bedecked with flowers. There they pray on their knees, holding incense sticks, before the gilded figures representing the two gods, Jatukam and Ramathep. Almost everyone is wearing one of the amulets, some small, some as big as beer mats and very garish. To be endowed with real power, an amulet must be blessed by a senior monk at the temple. So when I visited, there was a long queue waiting to see the abbot, Phra Rajthamsuthee. One group had driven 1500km (900 miles) from Chantaburi to see him. [Ibid]
“The temple has an old metal foot-powered press, and a clay mix for the tablets which usually includes sacred material like ash from temple incense. I watched the abbot use the squeaky press to make the first few, and then splash holy water on a batch that had already been baked and glazed. He did not want to talk about how much he charges for this service, but local people suggested it would be US$1500-$3000. No wonder the temple has some ambitious refurbishment plans. [Ibid]
“The amulet business has literally taken over the town. All-day trucks with loudspeakers drive around blaring promotions for the latest series of amulets, with names like the Super-Rich Millionaire series, the Rich as the Heavens series and the Money Falling Like Rain series. Huge, colourful posters cover every wall. It is a staggeringly lucrative business, estimated by one financial research group in Bangkok to be worth 22 billion baht (US$650 million) in 2007. Nakhon Si Thammarat's little airport now sees four times as many flights coming in every day as it did in the past. Believers come from as far away as China and Singapore. [Ibid]
“I ran into Preston Cheng, a Bangkok-based exporter with a group of colleagues on a day tour to the temple. His friends kept teasing him that he was already rich, and he did not need the amulet. But he admitted, slightly embarrassed, that he did believe in its powers, and he already owned several of them. All around him there were stalls selling a bewildering variety of them, some simple clay tablets imprinted with a likeness of the deity, others dyed in rainbow colours or glittering with gold. [Ibid]
“I found it hard to fathom the credulity of buyers. Why would they believe in the powers of amulets now being produced in their tens of thousands? Why do some cost just a couple of hundred baht, others several million? How do you know whether a "rare" or "first edition" amulet is genuine? And what has this obscure, apparently Hindu deity got to do with modern Buddhism? Ajarn Narit, a local guide, says political uncertainty is fuelling the industry. But it is easy to see this frenzy being driven by another, less spiritual motive. As earlier versions have rocketed in value, people have been buying up later editions in the hope of selling them on for a profit. It works like pyramid selling. And like all pyramid schemes, this one is beginning to unravel. As I write, with millions of Jatukam amulets manufactured, prices are plunging. But the craze has already made a lot of people in Thailand very rich. [Ibid]
Thai Penis Amulets
According to luckymojo.com, a site that sells them: “The Thai name for a penis amulet is palad khik , which means "honorable surrogate penis." These small charms, averaging less than five centimeters in length, are worn by boys and men on a waist-string under the clothes, off-center from the real penis, in the hope that they will attract and absorb any magical injury directed toward the generative organs. It is not uncommon for a man to wear several palad khiks at one time, one to increase gambling luck, for instance, another to attract women, and a third for invulnerability from bullets and knives. With the exception of a few kinds, women in Thailand do not generally wear palad khiks, nor is there a Thai equivalent of the vulva amulet for them to use — although a circular disk amulet called a chaping is worn by young girls to protect their genitals from evil forces. [Source: luckymojo.com
The palad khik amulet is said to be an adaption of the Hindu Siva linga from of India and was brought to Thailand by Khmer monks from Angkor in the A.D. 8th century. Early styles of palad khik bear inscribed invocations, entreaties, and praises to Siva; later ones combine these with interlineated invocations and praises to Buddha; modern ones bear uniformly Buddhist inscriptions, invariably written in an old form of script that cannot be read by contemporary Thais.
Palad khik amulets carved from wood, bone, or horn are made by monks who specialize in their manufacture, and the efficacy of a given amulet is dependant on the charisma and reputation of its creator. The lettering of the inscriptions is a matter of serious ritual and can take several days to complete. Cast metal palad khiks do not always bear inscriptions, but they may carry the additional symbolism embodied in an animal holding the penis. Although palad khik amulets are not designed specifically for use in love spells, they are sometimes used for such purposes by American pagans, witches, and magicians.
One three-centimeter penis amulet cast in bronze or sterling silver features the primordial "penis animal," sculpted in the form of an erect penis with the crouching rear quarters of a lion, its tail arched over its back to form a loop for hanging. It is decorated with Buddhist motifs and ancient Thai lettering. The crouching animal design of this "lion-haunched" penis-animal is reminiscent of penis amulets of the late Roman era, but there is a distinctly Asian character to the ornamentation and lettering.
Another three-centimeters penis amulet made of sterling silver or bronze depicts Hanuman, the Monkey God of the Hindus, crouched upon an erect penis, his tail arched over his back to form a hanging loop. When you turn the amulet over, you can see that Hanuman has his own small erect penis on the underside of the charm. A happy customer who bought one of these wrote: ‘This is one of the CUTEST amulets I have ever seen in my entire life. I was so taken with it that I was moved to KISS IT THREE TIMES — right before the eyes of the rather amused old gay man who sold it to me. This amulet is cute the way girls say the word cute: it is Kee-yooooooooot. It is, in fact, adorable.”
A five-centimeters penis amulet is made from brass in the form of a tiger treading the shaft of a penis. Like the monkey on the Hanuman charm, the tiger is equipped with his own small penis and testicles on the underside of the amulet. Strangely, the tiger's penis is human, not feline, and it proportionately quite large. A two-centimeter penis amulet cast in pewter bears no inscriptions and emerges from coiled snail shell, creating a subtle visual pun on the appearance of a snail. One three-centimeter penis amulet cast in bronze depicts a crocodile surmounting a large, uninscribed penis, the downturned tail of the animal forming a hanging loop. Unlike the monkey and tiger amulets, the crocodile has no testicles or penis of its own.
One particularly handsome Thai penis amulet is hand-carved of black buffalo horn. It is six centimeters long and is lightly inscribed with Thai script. Inside each one there is a mystery inclusion, a bead or seed that rattles when the amulet is shaken. A seven-centimeter penis amulet hand-carved from jackfruit wood and inscribed with Buddhist invocations, features penis with naked woman bent backward in the yoga position called "the bridge." This style of palad khik is the carried by women, who place it in their purses as a form of magical protection to deter purse-snatchers and ward off assaults by men.
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourist Authority of Thailand, Thailand Foreign Office, The Government Public Relations Department, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated May 2014