I sit on my patio and look out toward the street. Traffic, as it is, is heavy. It’s all relative. Scooters sputter by, dogs chase one another barking, yipping and squealing when caught and subdued by the alpha dogs. Little children walk with their grandmothers and the two heavy set teenage girls from next door walk to the store around the corner for another round of hot dogs, chips or ice cream. Two small gold-painted temples sit on pedestals in the corner of the yard within my line of sight. They are set apart and have a position of distinction, respect. They are there to protect me and my rental house.
These are spirit houses (saan phra phum) and they are common sights throughout Thailand. Even though Thailand is more than 95% Buddhist these spirit houses hark back to earlier religions, to a time before Buddhism, when people believed in spirits and practiced what is now called animism. Animists worship the souls of the dead and of the unseen spirits of the heavens and the earth. There is a belief that all parts of nature have a soul. Animism is seen as primitive by many, as something practiced by primitive tribes in primitive times. Different forms of animism still exist and are practiced today around the world: in Hinduism, Shintoism, in many traditional African and Native American religions, in Indonesia and in the Philippines, as well as in the New Age movement.
In learning a bit about animism and of the history of Buddhism, it’s easy to see the attraction of one to the other and the similarities between the two. I’ve come to understand that animists see themselves as part of their environment, not apart from it, not above it, but on par with it and all its components. Buddhists, too, have a deep respect for nature and for all living beings; we are all a part of the same chain. Many animist cultures observe some practice of reverence to ancestors, whether they see those ancestors as living in another world, or instead embodied in the natural features of this world. Animists believe that prayers and offerings to and for the dead are important elements of maintaining harmony with the spirit world. Respect and admiration for one’s elders are deeply engrained in the national psyche of Thailand.
Spirit houses are erected and maintained to give the spirits of ancestors and of heaven and earth someplace to call home. There isn’t a belief that these spirits are necessarily good or evil but rather that they need to be honored and respected, to have a place of their own to reside. If they are not so esteemed, they may take up residence in a house or business and cause mischief for us humans still here on earth. Spirit houses can be found outside homes, in places of honor in the front yard, in the back yard, and on the roofs of buildings in urban areas. Many businesses have spirit houses: car dealers, gas stations, markets, hotels, restaurants. And the placement of the spirit house, a ritual in itself, can alter the main building’s placement and design, having an effect upon urban planning. Spiritual guides, often times a Brahmin priest, are usually consulted for the best location, the appropriate color, and for the optimal day and time for the spirit house installation and the subsequent occupation of the adjacent home or business. There are some traditional ground rules for the most fitting placement of these houses, among them: the spirit house should not be in the shadow of the house being protected, and the spirit house should not face a toilet or a road.
In my front yard, there are two spirit houses. The one on the higher pedestal, the one resembling a Buddhist temple in design and ornamentation, is the saan phra phum. These sit on a single pedestal and are erected for the Guardian of homes and businesses. (Other Guardians exist, for gardens, rice paddies, mountains, military installations, barns.) Inside the temple of the one in my yard are figurines of two dancing women and tucked in the back is a man holding a sword and a moneybag. A garland of flowers hangs from the roof.
The shorter house, sitting on four pillars is the saan chao thii, and sometimes referred to as the Da-Yai (Grandfather-Grandmother), it honors the spirits of the ancestors. This house is not as elaborate as the temple, the architecture resembles more the traditional houses of old Siam. A ladder leads up to the house from the ground. A statuette of white-haired elders sits reverently inside along the back wall. Outside both houses, around the perimeter, are lines of people and animals; servants to attend to the inhabitants; elephants, horses, and many times zebras, to help transport the spirits and their belongings. Bands of colorful cloth, crinoline and brocade, are tied around the pedestals. This tradition comes from the veneration of the goddess Nang Mai, a female tree deity. Many tree trunks throughout the country have bands of colorful cloth wrapped around them. This tradition has been adapted to tying these multi-colored strips of cloth around the pedestals of spirit houses in honor of Nang Mai. Oddly, you can see these same strips of cloth tied around termite mounds.
Always there are offerings at the entrance of the houses: vases of flowers, bottles or glasses of water (many times colored red, spirits love red), candleholders with candles and a container of sand to hold sticks of incense. Once a week my landlady comes to clean the houses and the containers, refresh the flowers and the water, light new candles and incense and pray to the spirits. She offers food, a tray of bananas and other in-season fruit and she always brings a coconut with a straw so the spirits can refresh themselves with the coconut water. My landlady believes she is protecting my house from mischief and harm. I may not have the same beliefs as she does, but I have had very little mischief in my house. What goes on on my patio overnight is another story, for another time.