Sunday, November 26, 2006

An American journey through realm of spirit houses

Thai Takes

Inside the shrine, which resembled a Thai-style wooden house, were two 10cm-tall figurines of an old man and an old woman. Porcelain miniatures of elephants, horses and servants, and offerings of a can of Fanta Red, candies and sliced betel nuts were placed outside this shrine.

Next to it was a shrine that resembled a pint-sized Khmer temple. It housed pra chaimongkon, a 15cm-high golden angel figurine holding a moneybag and a sword.

On the compound of Evergreen View Tower Condominium in Bangna, a Bangkok suburb, Wanida Yahata, who was a few footsteps away from her workplace, stopped in front of the shrines. She pressed her palms together near her chest and bowed to them.

Wanida, 22, a receptionist at Evergreen View Tower, would wai (a respectful Thai gesture of thanks, apology or greeting) whenever she passed the spirit houses.

Why the wai?

“I ask the spirits for good things to happen to me,” she explained.

Except in the Muslim-majority south, spirit houses are ubiquitous in Thailand, and most houses and buildings have them.

“(An uninitiated foreigner) wonders why Thais have this little dollhouse in front of every building and why they pray to it,” noted American Marisa Cranfill, who is in the midst of pre-editing a book titled, Invoking the Land Gods; Understanding the Thai Spirit House.

They also find it very mysterious and that there's something powerful in there, she added.

Mysterious? Perhaps that was why the Beckhams in their June 2003 visit to Thailand bought several spirit houses and had them shipped to England.

Hopefully, the Beckhams knew that the main purpose of a spirit house is to provide a space for the land god to reside in and to take care of the land. “Or for the angel to come and protect the land,” explained Cranfill, 29.

The spirit house with the angelic figurine was called san pra poom. And Thais paid reverence to the golden angel.

“They see it as a benevolent compassionate force that will bestow its grace and goodness to them,” Cranfill said.

The spirit house with the old couple was called san jao thi phoon. It housed the land god.

“The Thais' relationship with the land god is very personal because it affects their daily life,” Cranfill explained. “You give the land god what it likes and it will give back good things. It is like a bargain.”

Ignoring or treating the spirit house disrespectfully might bring all sorts of trouble, she warned. “You may have a bad dream or sickness or something unlucky might happen, like a flood or fire.”

Cranfill was 16 years old when she became fascinated with spirit houses.

“I liked the way they looked,” said the American who has travelled constantly to Thailand since she was 12. Her mother owned a silk business in Bangkok.

Two years ago, her fascination turned into a journey to find out more about spirit houses.

As there was little anthropological information on spirit houses in English-language books, the Thai-speaking Cranfill travelled extensively throughout Thailand and Laos to learn about the subject from shamans.

She learnt to perform the rituals required when erecting a spirit house and discovered that the Thai reverence of the spirit house came from the harmonious blend of indigenous Thai, Brahmanistic Indian and Buddhist beliefs.

“This blend is what makes spirit houses so mysterious yet so fascinating,” said Cranfill.

This assimilation is successful in the spirit house tradition, as it harmoniously blends all three views or ultimate realities of three religions, yet and at the same time maintains spiritual value, meaning and satisfaction for the participant on each level.

“Even more interesting is the ability of the spirit house to endure and adapt in modern cities,” said the fashion designer who runs a clothing company called Marisa Baratelli and shuttles between Los Angeles and Bangkok.

When the real estate industry in Thailand is booming, the spirit house-making industry also thrives.

Cranfill's coffee-table book will have contemporary academic content and about 100 photographs taken by her 30-something Californian friend, Frank A. Fuller, a Thailand-based photographer.

For a year, the two journeyed throughout Thailand in search of spirit houses that were set in a background that was worthy of photography.

(Published in The Star on Nov 26, 2006. Photograph courtesy of Frank A. Fuller)