San Phra Phrom or the Erawan Shrine
To the average Thai, popular "Buddhism" plays a great role in their lives. In front of virtually every shop, store, factory, company, business building, and office building, including the house of the Ministry of Science and Technology, Spirit houses can be found, often filled with a lot of religious paraphernalia.
A Spirit house is usually a model of a temple placed on top of a 3 feet pole. They are believed to be dwelling places for local patron/guardian spirits of the land. When placed in front of hotels and business premises, the Spirit houses may be considerably larger. Inside the Spirit house, one can often find a Hindu god. It has been noted that the historical Buddhism differs significantly from contemporary popular religion. Thai religiosity consists of various varieties of belief: Animism, Hinduism, Chinese belief systems, and popular folk Buddhism, as well as the pure and more textual versions. In practice, the average middle class Thai who claims to be Buddhist believes in spirits, in astrology, and in a variety of magic practices.
An excellent spot to study contemporary Thai religiosity is the Erawan Shrine in the tourist and business area of Bangkok, near the Grand Hyatt Erawan Hotel, on the corner of Ratchadamri and Ploenchit Road.
In 1953, the Thai Government commissioned a building company to start construction of the original four-storey Erawan Hotel (demolished in late 1987) in order to host delegates of a grand international conference. But less than two years later, the Erawan Hotel management faced great misfortune. One mishap followed another and, in 1955, construction work stopped completely when a ship from Italy, loaded with marble intended for the hotel, sunk. The workers simply refused to work.
As a result, an astrologer, Real Admiral Luang Suwicharnpat, was consulted. After a detailed study of his charts, he made various calculations and concluded that the foundation stone for the hotel was not laid at an auspicious time. All was not lost after all; the Real Admiral had found a solution: he advised that it was necessary to construct a shrine in honour of Brahma, the highest ranking and the most auspicious of all gods – the four-faced Than Tao Mahaprom.
The image was designed by Jitr Pimkowit, a handicraft technician at the Fine Arts Department. It was cast in plaster of Paris and gilded with the finest quality gold and placed on the corner of Rajdamri Road and Ploenchit Road on 9th November 1956. This is the anniversary of the shrine when thousands of the faithful seek help and advice. When the shrine was in place, the rest of the construction of the hotel was completed without a hitch. His magic had worked.
The Erawan shrine is venerated by people from all fields of life, including business and hotel management. Passers-by make their ‘wais’ – a respectful gesture to greet a person, in particular a social or spiritual superior – to the statue and spread the blessing with both hands over their heads, even while driving car. People offer classical dance performances, money, acrobat shows, flowers, incense, yet most often they offer little carved wooden elephant statues to the shrine which are then given to a Buddhist temple to gain merit. A large percentage of the money donated to the shrine is re-donated to the hospitals of the country.
The Erawan Hotel Brahma Shrine Fund has been set up long ago with the money from donations and offerings part of the fee paid to the dancers and even the reselling of the wooden elephants that have been consecrated to the Lord Brahma. Its office is in the parking lot inside the present hotel. The Fund is put to good use in the community. The money is deposited separately in many banks and the Board of The Erawan Hotel Brahma Shrine Fund meet and agree on the division of the fund among public hospitals and other charities. From the opening of the shrine in 1956 up to the year 2002, a total of 550 million baht had been collected. An example of how the fund is put to good use is that part of the money has been donated to more that 300 hospitals all over the country to purchase modern medical equipment.
Although, nowadays the view of the shrine is dominated by the sky train, a symbol of materialism and modernization, the shrine remains symbolic of traditional values and culture. It co-exists with all the aspects of change in the life of the Thai people who still look for an answer to their spiritual needs.
Men and women who come to pay homage to Brahma are of all age groups, social status and from all walks of life. The number of visitors is rising every day as people are convinced that he has the power and grace to grant them happiness and peace. Modern people are burdened with personal and economic problems, which is why they seek spiritual support. Some of them resort to making offerings and asking for blessings from a deity, in this case Brahma.
Buddhism is a religion not concerned with the existence or non-existence of God, or gods, or spirits. The belief in supernatural elements, however, is part of the common religious life of the people. They worship heavenly beings in various forms, and for fairly earthly wishes, such as money or fertility.
The Erawan shrine can tell you more about the city and its people than a whole tour of the more obvious sights. In their unique character the Thais combine a respect for traditions with a joyful exuberance, a love of ‘sanuk’, having a good time.
Even though the site of the Erawan Shrine is a corner heavily polluted by Bangkok road traffic, it's still the smell of incense sticks that predominates the air; For a tourist, this offers the opportunity to see authentic traditional Thai dance and hear authentic traditional Thai music played on traditional instruments – not tainted by what tourism managers believe as being appealing to foreign visitors, and free of charge above that. It's amazing how undisturbed the traditional activities go on in spite of the proximity to modern day city life.
Popular Thai Buddhism is highly ritualistic in nature. Openings, company anniversaries, contract signings, and many other events have to be marked by some sort of religious confirmation. Each year, 87.8% of the business people engage in Buddhist ceremonies. According to a survey by Ms. Suntaree Komin, Ph.D., 38.1 % of business people consider religion a major influence in their lives, while 45.2% considered if to be of moderate importance.
According to the same survey, a considerable part of Thailand’s educated and professional classes consult various types of ’’mohdu’’ – astrologers and fortune tellers – on a regular basis. 35% of the business people report consulting a fortune teller, a palm reader, or astrologer at least once a year. Surprisingly, higher educational levels correlate positively with an increased tendency to consult metaphysical practitioners. 47% of MA and PhD holders and 35% of all business people report that they consult such practitioners with a frequency of one to twenty times a year. Ms. Suntaree Komin also found out that Bangkok residents "engaged in such behaviour more often than rural people", and that "the highly educated seek fortune telling as often as the uneducated".
This is what you may observe at the Erawan Corner and around the Brahma's shrine. The modernization and urbanization of Thailand do not seem to decrease the religiosity of the educated Thai. Rather it removes it even further away from the textual and orthodox Theravada Buddhism. There is middle class religiosity emerging in the developing parts of Thailand. It is a religiosity that "guarantees" power and success. Whatever our religion we all need something to believe in during times of hardship and crisis. The Erawan Shrine has given many people the inner strength to ease the burden of their lives while struggling to overcome problems.
Thanks to Pekka Hiltunen (Helsinki) and Kukdej Kantamara (Associate Professor, Faculty of Fine Arts, Chulalongkorn University) for their contribution.
Erawan: the Thai name given to the three-headed elephant Airavata, produced during the churning of the ocean of milk (original waters in the Hindu mythology). He is the symbol of the clouds. Contrary to what many people think, Erawan is not the personal vehicle of Brahma but the one of Indra, said to be the god of rain and atmospherics.
The seal of Bangkok city shows the god Indra riding in the clouds on his white elephant. Erewan is sometimes portrayed with three heads. In his hand Indra, holds a thunder bolt, his weapon to drive away drought. The seal is based on a painting by His Royal Highness the Prince Kromphraya Narisra-Nuwattiwong.
Phra Phrom (Brahma): He has four faces and eight hands. Each of the four right hands, from back to front, holds the chakra (disk), a staff, a pot, with the last placed on his breast. Each of the left hands, from back to front, holds a sceptre, the Hindu scriptures, a conch shell and a string of beads (rosary). Brahma's vehicle is a swan (Hamsa), which is known to distinguish between good and evil. Saraswati is his consort. She is the goddess of knowledge and music.
There is a tale of one lady that needed some help with important aspect of her personal life, no doubt the chance to marry, that she promised if her wish was granted, she would return and dance naked in the moonlight. She got what she wanted and duly returned. A screen was put up around the shrine and under the cover of darkness performed the dance, dressed as just as she had been born.
That's an interesting, if somewhat serious, interruption to the usual type of submission.