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by James Sullivan

4 June 2010

Did it finally come true?


Foreigners living long enough in Thailand agree this is a land of paradoxes. The longer you stay, in some ways the less you really know. If you think you have something ‘figured-out’, rest assured the opposite is also true. Emotion and politics often seem to rule stronger than law or our own western concepts of logic.

For example, Thailand is predominantly a Buddhist country; a philosophy that eschews superstitions or black magic. However, it could be said that Thais are, at the same time, almost universally superstitious people, with superstition infiltrating aspects of the daily lives of many Thai people.


‘Spirit-houses’ – small temple-replica shrines – are seen throughout Thailand. Spirit house (San-Phra-Phoom) ‘worship’ is said to have arrived in Thailand from India – a part of Hindu culture – prior to the arrival of Buddhism. Many spirit houses in Thailand have a four-headed Brahma god-figure regally occupying the center of the throne.

The belief is that empty plots of land are originally governed by an overseeing ‘spirit’, or reigning lord (Chao-thii). Spirit houses are shrines meant to appease these spirits when construction of a building or home disturbs the area. Ritual offerings of fruit and rice and strawberry Fanta soda please the spirit – who is not considered mean-tempered or possibly harmful – but may bring good fortune in the form of a winning lottery ticket or protection from misfortune (such as a motorcycle accident or a home break-in). Students failing to prepare for a school exam may pray for last-minute assistance from the lord of the spirit house at their own home or school.
It is generally known that superstitious beliefs, such as seeking advice from a fortune-teller, have also played a role to some degree in guiding the shape of modern Thai politics. Rituals may be used with hopes to harness supernatural influences; cast away bad fortune, exorcise evil spirits, weaken the enemy, or empower certain individuals or groups.


Perhaps the most famous spirit house in Thailand is the Erawan Shrine, which was originally constructed along with the Erawan Hotel in the heart of Bangkok.

When the building was near complete in 1956, the managers consulted an astrologer in order to set an auspicious date for the opening ceremony. While researching the background of the project, the astrologer discovered that the date when the stone foundation was laid was a highly unfavorable choice. In order to correct the error, the astrologer advised adding a suitably grand guardian-spirit house to the site.
Interestingly, mysterious events associated with the construction process had begun occurring early-on, including a series of unexplainable accidents causing the loss of laborers’ lives. At one point the construction crew held a strike demanding that a ritual and offering be performed in order to appease the property’s assumed malevolent spirits.
The Erawan spirit house, which is often referred to as a Brahma shrine (or the Erawan Shrine), is now a famous Bangkok tourist attraction for both Thais and visiting foreigners (an impressive replica can also be seen at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas). An elegant four-faced, four-armed depiction of Brahma god of creation occupies the center of the shrine. The hotel borrowed its name from this god’s 33-headed servant-elephant.

The original Erawan hotel was demolished in 1987 and replaced by the Grand Hyatt Erawan Hotel. The well-known spirit-house shrine was left intact, receiving a larger share of tourists and Thai visitors each year. The atmosphere typically has a vibrant, festival-feel; with an eclectic mix of traditional Thai-dance troupes, musicians, worshippers, and street vendors hawking flowers, incense and teak-carved elephants.   


In 2006, while Thaksin Shinawatra was still Thailand’s Prime Minister, the Erawan Shrine was vandalized by a 27-year old mentally-unstable man. Just after midnight the deranged man used a large hammer to smash the figure of the Brahma deity into pieces. A crowd of angry-bystanders led by two city street-sweepers then beat the man to death at the site. (Rumor says that the city-workers were arrested over the incident, but then were quietly set free by local officials soon thereafter). 

After this incident the shrine was closed and to the public and the broken four-headed icon was tightly enveloped in white sheets. Astrologers warned that this terrible event reignited the ‘bad karma’ originally associated with the series of unfortunate events that had occurred during the construction of the original Erawan Hotel (karma is the process, or cycle, of cause and effect instigated by positive or negative actions). The power of the Brahma spirit at the Erawan Shrine is so revered and influential, said astrologers, the desecration of the Brahma icon housed in the shrine cursed the City of Angels to unthinkable horrors.
Eventually the Erawan Shrine was refurbished and reopened. Thaksin himself reigned over the inauguration ceremony, setting-free nine sparrows (considered a lucky number) and paying his own personal respects to the new Brahma statue – said to be made of plaster mixed with gold and other precious metals, as well as pieces of the original statue.

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