Little House of Spirits
Anyone living over in Thailand will know one thing, the Thais are a superstitious people. Even though they are outwardly a modern and progressive nation, like many other countries across the globe, they have kept their traditions. Think about the little superstitions across the UK alone. Saying 'bless you' after sneezing to protect you from inexplicably expelling a demon through your nose at high-speed. What about touching wood for luck, harking back to the time when Druids would tap on the trees to bring forth the tree spirits to help them with their magic?
Many people in the UK do these things without thinking or being aware of the origin, let alone truly believing in these odd and fascinating archaic rituals. In Thailand however, these traditions are not taken as lightly. They have as much importance for people today as they did for the ancestors that founded the practices. They are as prevalent and as important as they were several hundreds of years ago, and this is not going to change any time soon.
When spending any time in Thailand, you will notice in many a home across the width and breadth of the country, small ornate houses located in the front garden of multiple properties. Even businesses, large somewhat soulless corporations that you would suspect would have no time for any form of spirituality, have these beautiful little abodes on their premises. They are the famous 'Spirit Houses' of Thailand.
The owning of spirit houses has a long tradition here. Its origins, like much of Buddhist folklore, are caught up with legends and beliefs spawned from Hinduism. There are numerous crossovers between the two religions, a symbiosis that has given benefit to millions over the years. The benevolence offered by these two beautiful religions working hand in hand cannot be understated and enriches our global cultural heritage.
Like a home's current occupiers see their residence as the focal point of their lives, the ancestors of the land on which the building stands, according to Thai lore, is still significant to them. This makes perfect sense. If, when alive, you spent your time in a place that saw you grow, love, prosper and eventually depart this mortal coil, the attachment to that place may linger, be it in the physical or spiritual plane.
What are the rules on having one of these on your property? Well, there are a e few things to consider. Our Thai friends over here have enlightened us, that as 'farangs' (foreigners) the ancestral spirits will except some oversight on our behalf, as, without sounding patronising, we don't know any better. This means that they are aware we are not used to these customs so they won't take offence. However, they can be picky if they don't like you. Our friend explained it best. Think of them like 'alive' people rather than 'dead' people and you be closer to understanding the spirits.
If you are disrespectful or if you are unfortunate enough to have a detestable personality, then chances are, the spirits won't like you, just like other people may not like you. If you are a positive, friendly and courteous person, you may become good friends. The Thais understand this well. They have high standards of hospitably and reverence.
Some of the more devout people among the population will put out offerings every morning to the Guardian of the House and the land's ancestors. Conversely, some Buddhists will not have any spirit house on their property at all, as they believe that if you are a good enough Buddhist, the house is irrelevant - guardians will protect you and support you regardless due to your other vigilances.
It is quite often that you will see two of these miniature houses dwelling in a property. Having two houses is covering more bases so to speak. The smaller of the two is called 'San Da-Yai' (Grandparent's House} and the larger is the 'San Phra Phum' (Lord Phra Phum's House)/ The former is the representation of a house for the ancestors of the land, the latter is for Lord Phra Phum, guardian of the homestead.
As the majority of all of us like to furnish their dwellings, the same goes with the spirits and theirs. They just need some assistance. There are statuettes inside both. San Da-Yai has small representations of the grandparents of the land, San Phra Phum has an idol of himself, resplendent in traditional garb.
Trying to scratch even just the surface of ceremonial life in Thailand would require many blogs. To many Thai people, having a ceremony in their everyday life is no different from taking a shower when waking up. Observance goes hand in hand with so many aspects of workaday life. Thais believe that there are a lot of entities there for you to thank for a good life, more to lean on for guidance and some to help you become affluent. It is remiss to botch these ceremonies up and will not go down well with the spirit you're eager to contact or appease.
What you need for the 'spirit house' ceremony is a candle, incense and some food and drink. Again, when doing this, think of looking after some of your beloved ones. Remember you must do this thing with the utmost respect. Approaching the platform on which the houses stand, you request to begin the ceremony. You first need to light the candle. Making sure, you have the right number of incense for the right house (5 for San Da-Yai and 7 for San Phra Phum).
You light the incense using the candle and as the smoke gently rises, you speak to the spirits (you can do this in your head if you are feeling somewhat awkward). Prayers in Sanskrit are traditionally used, but quite often, a quiet monologue, as if talking to your elders, will suffice. You can thank them for your good life. for good health, wealth and happiness. You can ask for things as well. Maybe spiritual guidance or protection. Maybe if you are feeling a financial pinch, you can ask for money or assets, or maybe assistance with whatever contemporary issues that may be helped along by a supportive ethereal friendship. Once finished, you stand the incense in an ornate pot of sand, culminating in a final reverential 'Wai' as you leave the platform, remembering to leave your beautifully prepared food behind for the spirits to indulge.
These ceremonies can take place any day. There are, however, more potent times that it should be done. Any Buddhist holy day is a given. These days are governed by the lunar calendar. Another outstanding day to help yourself out, is to do it on the day of your birth. Not on your birthday, but on the day of the week you were born. I was born on a Saturday, makes sense for me to do it on a Saturday.
It would be apropos to briefly discuss what the ceremonial accoutrements symbolize and of course, a quick passover some potential ceremonial faux pas. Again, as with the ceremonies, trying to discuss the meanings behind everything would take another blog.
The incense. Incense is a common offering made to a venerable person as a sign of deference. It can also be symbolic and has many meanings depending on number, In fact, the number of incense used in a religious offering can go up to 100! One would represent a dead person if you were, say lighting one in a temple. In the spirit house, as mentioned before, the small house requires 5 and the bigger can have 7 or sometimes 9.
It needs to be understood, that three incense bundle together, is like the foundation of which to build off. These 3 incense represent the 'three gems' - Buddha, his teachings and his followers. In the 'San Da-Yai' we use the three gems, another incense for your parents and one more for you teachers or spirit guides, totalling the required five. Paying respect to your parents and teachers is a sure-fire way to show respect to ancestors.
Lord Phra Phum's house has the same five previously mentioned, plus two more to show respect to Lord Phra Phum and the Sun. People sometimes add another two to appease other high lords such as Shiva or Ganesh.
Gastronomically speaking, the spirits have quite a palate. They enjoy a variety of foods, only there are ones to avoid. They like to indulge in pig's head, duck, chicken, shrimp, fish and even a nice Thai curry! Their favourite fruits to placate their sweet tooth would be some banana, orange, dragon fruit or Asian pear. Some foods need to be avoided, usually due to their name. Mangosteen, for example, translated into Thai, sounds like 'unlucky in love'. Putting something like that on the house is not really going to usher in any positive karma.
To wash down the feast, you can leave water, but it is well-known throughout Thailand that the preferred spiritual tipple is red soda. It doesn't take superior intelligence to infer the archaic meaning from this drink. Yes, it represents the aeons old practice of blood sacrifice, but this is just the pre-watershed version.
To finish off the culinary experience, the food, after the incense has burnt down to naught, is to be consumed by you, the land-owner and the lucky recipient of a spiritually attuned meal. Beware though, do not devour the food if it has been left out for the wellness of a baby ghost. This just welcomes bad luck.
The spirit house is an absolute staple of the Thai way of life. For many, they are as essential as their own house. They are still very spiritually in touch over here. They are a mix of the old and the new. Traditions guide and dictate the Thai mentality, and spirits are their support network. They epitomise wisdom and knowledge, offer a tantalising glimpse into a life unknown after this one, and that, is as fascinating as it is endearing.