Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Spirit Houses

In my opinion, one of the more interesting aspects of Thai culture is how superstitious the Thai people are.  Although most Thais are Buddhist, there is a very strong influence of Hinduism and Animism on Thai spiritual life.  Animism (according to Wikipedia) is the belief that non-human entities are spiritual beings and that souls and spirits exist, not only in humans, but also in animals.  These influences, coupled with the Buddhist belief of the cycle of death & re-birth to attain fulfillment and enlightenment, make for some very interesting experiences in Thailand. 

A friend here in Nichada had a horrible problem with ants coming into her home.  She found two very large ant hills in her front yard and called maintenance to have them destroyed.  However, the maintenance men, rather than spraying the ant hills or putting ant poison in & around her home, insisted on "relocating" the ants.  Yes, you read right.  Relocating.  Apparently, there is a lot of relocating that goes on here... snakes, rats, stray cats, soi dogs, etc.  The Thais are very reluctant to harm or kill any animal because of a connection to its soul.  As a friend recently told me, the rat that was in my garbage can last week could have very well been someone's mother who did not do too well in a previous life and is still in the Buddhist cycle of death & rebirth.  It is impossible to find a vet here who will put a pet to sleep, regardless of how sick and in pain the animal might be.  I guess that is one reason there are so many disease-ridden soi dogs running around on their last legs (literally). 

Another interesting, and much more pleasant, sight are the spirit houses that can be found all over Thailand.  I know, "spirit houses" sounds like bad grammar; however, even plural, they are never "spirit homes".  Spirit houses are found all over Thailand and you will see at least one  (usually many more) on every street in Bangkok.  The Thai people believe that when a new home, business or hotel is built, the spirits that previously occupied that space are left homeless.  If the spirits are left homeless for too long, they will become very angry and bring their wrath upon the new occupants of the property who will suffer bad luck, accidents and other troubles.  The Thai solution to this is to pacify the spirits by offering them a new place, a spirit house, to call home.  The spirit house is built to house and honor the former spirits so they look favorably upon the new inhabitants and bring them health, prosperity and happiness during their time on the property.

A spirit house is essentially a shrine.  It is a small building (looks very much like a dollhouse) that is built on columns or on an altar in a  corner of the property.  A spirit house is typically built after much consultation with and the blessing of a Brahman priest or a Buddhist monk.  Some of the spirit houses I have seen are large and ornate, others are very small and plain.  The Thais honor the spirits with the traditional wai greeting and leave daily gifts at the house.

From what I have read about spirit houses, the hardest part is trying to keep the spirits happy!  The spirits prefer their houses to be as big and as eye-catching as possible.  The daily offerings to the spirits typically include food, drinks, garlands of flowers, figurines, candles, and incenses.  Vendors sell all of these items right on the street so there is never an excuse not to make an offering!  The figurines placed might be men/women to be company for the spirits or there might be figurines of  horses/elephants which the spirits will use as transport.  Some of the more progressive spirit houses have toy cars and plastic jet planes offered.  Some owners decorate their spirit houses with Christmas lights which are to help guide the spirits home after a night on the town.  The larger and more elaborate spirit houses are really a sight to see! 

In fact, what gave me the idea to write about this topic was this spirit house (photo below) that we saw downtown on Sunday.  This is, by far, the largest and most elaborate spirit house I have seen.  Some spirit houses downtown or around Nichada are fancier (scroll down for more photos) but this one was so big and had so many offerings placed on it that a table had to be set up for the overflow.
Below are some more spirit houses from around Bangkok. 
Some offerings to the spirits...
Caitlynne and I once saw a whole (cooked) chicken propped up on the spirit house with burning incense sticks stuck in it.  It was a very unusual sight! 

Finally, while reading up for this post, I found that it is very unwise to remove or destroy a spirit house.  If, at all possible, the old spirit house should be left "as is" and the new owners should build a new one along side of it and then "care" for both of them.  Apparently, it is not uncommon to see a property that has been demolished and all that stands is the spirit house (like the one below). 

If there is no other option and the spirit house must be removed, a process similar to its installation (with a priest or monk in attendance) must be followed for the removal.   The Thais believe that if the spirit doesn't rest in peace when in death, the landowner will never find peace in life so removal should be done VERY carefully.

A quick "edit" to add that Burma, Cambodia, and Laos are other countries in southeast Asia that honor spirits with spirit houses.  It is not just a Thai belief.
And with that, I bid you, "good night!"


AnnaMarie said...

What an interesting post, Kristen! It reminds me of when I went to the Philippines 10 years ago to visit my family and how superstitious everyone there was. Everything had a meaning. If you heard a certain bird at breakfast, then that means someone will visit you. As a single girl at the the time, I couldn't get up from the dinner table until the eldest person was finished or I wouldn't get married. Come to think of it, a lot of it was to young girls to do or not do this or they wouldn't get married.
Even though 80% of Philippine citizens are Catholic I can see the religious and cultural similarities. I've seen similar spirit houses but with Christian motif too. Thanks for sharing and keep up the great work with the blog.

Marie AKA *B l u*

klmcdona17@gmail.com said...

This is so interesting! I love the things that you learn living in different places (or reading the blogs of friends in different places). Sounds like things are going well and there is a lot to see and do! Hope you guys are doing well.xoxox Kelly

Erin R. said...

Wow, I love your posts! This one is my favorite so far, second to the one where Caitlynne carried her notebook to the Dr's office so sh could write her will! Lol The Thais' beliefs are so interesting in comparison to the American way, love the pictures of the spirit houses and the offerings sold by vendors!