Spirit Worship

Posted on September 19, 2013

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Spirit worship is as old as mankind itself. In Thailand the phenomenon goes back to the ancient days when the Thais were beginning their slow migration from the Red River Delta in northern Vietnam to all parts of the Southeast Asian region. Spirit worship, or animism, was a religion by which the entire world lived at one time, and when Buddhism came to Southeast Asia, it developed side by side with the ancient spirit religion. Today, many of the old animistic beliefs are intertwined with Buddhism, and some animistic practices still exist in Thailand. One of these, which is practiced by almost every Thai, is the spirit house.

The spirit house can be seen at a prominent spot outside every business establishment in the country. It can be seen on a pedestal in front of every hotel. It dresses the corner garden area of a restaurant, the front of a bar or disco, and are even seen at outdoor food markets. They are built on the grounds of Buddhist temples. Outside caves in the mountains, near fishing ponds in the valleys, and occasionally in the middle of an otherwise uninhabited forest. Most importantly, however, the Thai Spirit House is built in the yard of every home.

The purpose of the spirit house is to provide an appealing shelter for the spirits, or celestial beings, who would otherwise reside in the heavens. According to folklore, the spirits themselves are neither good nor evil, but most are just finicky and mischievous, demanding respect from humans and capable of disastrous interferences if they don’t get their way. The spirit of the land, for example, expects to be informed when a human intends to start a business or engage in improvements to an existing business. If the spirit is not informed, and if the human does not respectfully request permission, the spirit can indeed cause the venture to fail.

The style and construction of a spirit house may be as simple as a typical Thai-style shelter or as elaborate as a Thai palace. The exact style often depends on two factors: which spirit the person wishes to invite, and how much one can afford for the spirit house construction. Construction itself is a specialized field, and only an expert spirit house builder would be considered for proper construction. His responsibility, in addition to construction, is to be familiar with all the necessary rituals involved so that the spirit to be invited will find it an acceptable earthly abode.

The house may be permanent or temporary, made of wood, concrete, or brick. At certain times the spirits are invited down only for special occasions, and this is when temporary spirit houses are built. The size may vary from the very small to a large, walk-in, ground-level affair. The houses are finished with statues, small figures, or symbols of many other sorts in the centre within the spirit house. In addition, there may be various animal figures, such as elephants; figures of people, such as a married couple or other images; and even furniture. Outside, around the balcony that usually surrounds a spirit house, incense holders, candle sticks, and vases for flowers are placed.

There are countless gods and other celestial beings in Thai folklore. The primary spirits the Thai’s are concerned with, however, are called the Phra Bhum Jowthee, or Guardian Spirits of the Land. There are nine guardians, and each offers a different type of protection. The Guardian of the House and the Guardian of the Gardens are so frequently consulted with and prayed to that they are the only two that have permanent spirit houses built for them.

The Guardian of the House is the spirit that watches over and protects the home. It is uncertain whether there is one spirit that watches over all homes, or if individual spirits do this for each home. However, all you have to do in Thailand is look around and you’ll see that every home has a spirit house. Thai families who believe wholeheartedly in the spirit house and its importance light incense every morning and ask the spirit to watch over and protect the home. Others do it on ritual occasions.

The Guardian of the Gardens also has a permanent spirit house shelter built for him. This spirit watches over and protects the natural surroundings, yards, gardens, and orchards of the Thai family. There is a separate spirit for rice fields, so the Guardian of Gardens should not be mistaken for a spirit protecting all of agriculture. Rather, nature, flowers, plants, and fruit are so important to the Thais that the Guardian of the Gardens receives a separate and permanent house of his own.

The other seven Guardians of the Land are Protector of Gates and Stairwells, who is believed to reside in the home doorstep; which explains why one should never step on the doorstep of a Thai home; Protector of Animals; Protector of Storehouses and Barns; Protector of Forests, Mountains, Fields, and Paddies; Protector of Temples; Protector of Waters; and Protector of Military Forts and Defence.

The various temporary spirit houses built at times requiring the intercession of a particular spirit can be constructed at any time and at any place. An example of this is a spirit house that sits in the rhododendron forests at the top of Doi Inthanon in northern Thailand. Here, in the middle of a forest hundreds of years old, is a spirit house constructed for soldiers who died in a helicopter crash years ago.

Offerings to a spirit house and the spirit who is intended to reside within can be nearly anything. The traditional offerings include flower garlands, betel leaves, bananas, rice, chicken, duck, and a wide range of other edibles and nonedibles. Candles are often used while incense is usually lit daily before a spirit house.

There are spirit houses everywhere In Thailand. Some very famous ones, such as the one that houses the Chiang Mai City Pillar, are large enough to walk into. A visit to Wat Chedi Luang in Chiang Mai will give you an opportunity to see it for yourself. At these people go to make offerings and request aid from the spirits to help them in monumental tasks such as bringing in the coming rice harvest. The ritual involved at such events often involves hundreds of people with a common goal and the spirit is called upon to help all. In return, the people make promises of future offerings in the event that they are successful. Thus, a return visit to repay the spirit for his help is another important part of the ritual.

Many people have asked about what happens to old spirit houses. When changes dictate that a new spirit house be created, a ceremony will be held to transfer the spirit from the old spirit house to the new. After that, the old spirit house can be discarded. Many are discarded near a temple, but usually at a place where other spirit houses have already been discarded. So it is common to see many old spirit houses jumbled together.

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Posted in: Thailand