Of House and Home – Spirit HousesKirsty Turner
They can be seen all around Thailand; the tall, slender wooden structures which are set in prominent places outside every house and building. Available in a wide range of sizes and available in all the colours of the rainbow, these spirit houses are an intriguing mystery to westerners.
Spirit houses vaguely resemble bird houses, which can be found in many gardens in western countries. However, rather than attracting birds, these houses are intended to serve as resting places for the spirits.
Spirit houses are built for two purposes: to attract the spirits from the heavens and as alternative accommodation for the spirits that live in the homes of humans. It is believed that if the spirits are treated with respect they have the power to grant wishes, protect people and bring them good health and luck.
If, however, the spirits feel as though they have been mistreated or disrespected, they can cause businesses to fail, loss of fortune and health. For this reason, the spirits must be informed when an important venture – such as a new business or marriage – is planned.
The spirits which reside in spirit houses are known as Phra Bhum Jowthee, or Guardian Spirits of the Land. There are nine different types of Phra Bhum Jowthee, each performing different functions and bestowing various blessings. When selecting their spirit house, Thai people are careful to decorate and adorn it with objects that will appeal to a specific type of spirit.
The main types of spirits that are revered are The Guardian of the House and The Guardian of the Gardens. In fact, these are the only types of spirits that have permanent spirit houses built for them, although temporary spirit houses may be built for other spirits on special occasions.
The main role of The Guardian of the House is to watch over and protect the home. Without exception, every spirit house in modern Thai society has a spirit house for this function and the spirit is also expected to provide financial security and help in business matters.
Many households will also have a second spirit house to accommodate The Guardian of the Gardens, which watches over the garden and areas of natural beauty. The spirit houses are particularly prominent in public parks and gardens.
Paying respect to the spirit house is a matter of instinct and ritual. People always wai to pay respect to their spirit house when they leave and when they return at the end of the day. They will also pay respect to the spirit house at the work and can be seen waiing to large, prominent spirit houses they pass on the street.
In today’s modern society it is often difficult to determine how much of this spirit worship is belief and how much is routine. However, it would seem as though most people genuinely want to show their respect. As a good friend told me; “I always wai when I pass the spirit house. I pay for a safe journey, riches and good health. If I forget by accident I feel guilty and make sure I apologize later.”
Indeed, spirit worship is one tradition that is actually strengthening, especially in the city. In the past, communities would share spirit houses, but now each household has their own personal spirit.
When a new house or other building is constructed, a spirit house will be specially constructed. There are many rules regarding the selection and placing of the spirit house. For example, the spirit house should not stand in the shade of another building and should preferably be located next to a tree. The colours of the spirit house are specially selected to match the birthday colour of the owner of the property. The birthday colour relates to the day of the week when the person was born.
Usually, a Hindu priest will perform a ceremony inviting the spirit to make its home in the spirit house. At this time, offering are made such as a pig’s head, fruit, rice wrapped in banana leaves and a coconut. The spirit houses often contain figures and small animal statues, especially statues of elephants.
Daily maintenance of the spirit house is an important ritual. Each day fresh candles, garlands of flowers and incense are placed inside, as well as gifts of food and drink. Traditionally, the food and drink would be small parcels of rice and meat, water and tea, but today almost anything can be offered, even brightly-coloured bottles of Fanta.
As I have said, spirit houses can be seen absolutely everywhere in Thailand. People looking for outstanding examples could go to Wat Chedi Luang in Chiang Mai, where hundreds of people gather to make offerings, say prayers and have wishes granted. Other examples can be found outside large hospitals, markets and hotels.
About the author:
Kirsty Turner (Kay) is a freelance writer currently living in Bangkok. She has kindly agreed to write for KhaoSanRoad.com and share her love of all things Thai and, especially, all things Khao San Road!