As the new year begins the world over, social media feeds abound with resolutions and reflections. In Thailand, the commencement of life’s annual chapter refresh does not generally take the form of personal resolves — which are a fairly western construct. In this deeply Buddhist kingdom, we do not make promises to ourselves, we pray and ask to receive. In contrast to what is commonly assumed, the act of asking for divine deliverance or generosity does not take place at temples, but at shrines throughout the country which have little to do with Buddhism. Nowhere is this spiritual pull more apparent than at the Erawan Shrine located in the heart of Bangkok’s gleaming commercial district.
When you live long enough in a city famous the world over for its temples, you quickly realise from the street level that it is not the glittering houses of worship that play a primary role in the daily life of most Bangkokians. Far more ubiquitous are the innumerable shrines and sprit houses that grace almost every property or piece of land — large and small — not only in the capital, but throughout the country. This belief in the guardian spirits that reside everywhere in the land, long predate Buddhism and has its roots in animistic traditions and Brahmanism (an ancient form of Hinduism), although spirit houses can and do accommodate all manner of religious deities, pagan icons, even ghosts.
The Erawan Shrine is possibly the most famous and compelling symbol of the Thai belief in guardian spirits, serving as a standard bearer for our propensity to absorb and adapt non-Buddhist elements into daily life. Consecrated in 1956 to address a spate of bad karmic incidences surrounding the construction of what was then the site of the government owned Erawan Hotel, this decidedly non-Buddhist shrine —consisting of a golden eight-armed image of Brahma — has evolved into something far more significant in the hearts and minds of this city’s populace. It has transcended from simply being the spirit house of a particular piece of land, into an undeniable talisman of faith for Thais and foreigners alike who make frequent pilgrimages to pray for luck, success and prosperity in any and all aspects of life — a decidedly materialistic practice in a country that is predominantly Buddhist, a religion whose primary tenet shuns the material world. This duality and dichotomy nevertheless suits Thais like myself perfectly.
My earliest childhood recollections of the Erawan Shrine is that of a spirit house unlike any other, perpetually dazzling from its glass mosaic decorations — a hybrid structure somewhere between a mythical pavilion and a disco ball. The site, on one of the city’s busiest intersections, commonly known as Ratchaprasong (meaning Royal Order) was forever shrouded in the floral and sandalwood fragrance of thousands of incense sticks and candles that used to be lit over and over and over again throughout every single day of the year. The distinctive tempo and syncopation of traditional Thai music filled the air, as well as the mesmeric high pitched chanting of the silk and gold adorned dance troupe, with their pre-RuPaul stage makeup, frequently employed to add that extra level of spiritual acknowledgment (they do in fact chant your name). Even then, throngs of people —both faithful and curious — representing the very broadest swaths of life — every colour and creed — crowded the shrine area silently whispering prayers, bowing and genuflecting, sometimes with tears in their eyes and trembling hands, employing gestures from other religions as a sign of respect, more often than not, from a lack of understanding of what exactly you’re supposed to do at the shrine. The mild confusion is commonplace and I always found it part of the joyous communal feel to the place. The generally understood practice is to watch first, and then do.
To this day, very little about the shrine has changed. People both local and foreign still flock to this corner, a Mecca of sorts for the spiritually prone —what has changed is the area around it. More than any other intersection in the city, Ratchaprasong has come to physically embody the futuristic modernity of South East Asia’s second largest economy. Bangkok itself was recently ranked as the world’s most visited city. Some of Bangkok’s most shimmering temples of retail and hospitality now tower over the shrine. Two of the city’s game-changing Skytrain lines converge over the intersection, in addition to a primary section of Bangkok’s signature skywalk pedestrian pathway — providing the best views from above of the shrine itself. This Bladerunner-like setting is straight out of the creative minds of a Hollywood set designer. Ratchaprasong intersection is frequently the site of the city’s volatile (and sometimes combustible) political activism and has seen it’s share of protests — both peaceful and brazenly violent. The shrine itself has been vandalised in an attack in 2006 and a deadly bombing in 2015, both incidents brought with them a dark and ominous air owing to the importance and superstition people accord with the site.
Through it all the shrine thrives, defensively wrapped in its own protective mysticism. The Erawan shrine is now one of no less than ten major sanctums in the immediate vicinity dedicated to deities such as Indra, Lakshmi, Narayana, Jatu Lokbal, Ganesh, Trimurti, Umathevi, Phra Phrom and even a Chinese Shrine — none of which are Buddhist. In fact, the shrines are jointly promoted by the commercial partners of the district as attractions in themselves — an odd shop-and-pray approach to experiencing the area.
Visitors to the shrine are now provided with laminated instructions in three languages on what to chant (there is also a QR Code alternative for personal devices) and numerous staff diligently flit back and forth gently assisting the never-ending crowds of people on the what and where and how of shrine etiquette. The musicians are still there, so are the dancers (now provided with co-working space style electrical and USB outlets for their personal devices in between chants). The micro economy of worshipping still exists with everything from gold leaf and wooden elephants and dancing figurines, mountains of marigold and lotus blossoms, incense sticks and candles (now no longer permitted to be lit). Cages of birds that are meant to be released as an act of freedom and merit, still miraculously fly back towards the cages after a while in what can only fairly and amusingly be described as a fully sustainable business model.
Where once you bought donations and tributes onsite with whatever cash you had on hand, now you can do electronic transfers and PromptPay through online banking apps. And the cash does indeed flow, more than ever before. There is an enormous, but little noticed public announcement board that indicates (again in three languages) the amount of money raised at the close of the previous year — an amount that is subsequently distributed to numerous ‘deserving’ charities (which are not detailed). To be precise, at the end of 2021 (the figure of 2022 having not yet been publicly released), the amount of money donated to the shrine was valued at THB 2,469,612,132.92 — approximately seventy two million USD. That is indeed a lot of wishes.
All over the city and throughout the country, there are millions of shrines like the Erawan that serve as private and community focal points — a repository of hopes and dreams, gilded bulwarks that serve as an intangible (and sometimes unreliable) insurance policy against the vagaries of life for countless individuals. If you keep your eyes open, you will notice that there are more shrines than convenience stores. Many Thais may readily walk past a temple, but woe be to anyone who disrespects or ignores a significant shrine. I know some people who do not sleep in a new residence or even a hotel without a visit to pay their respects first at the local shrine. The same applies to starting a new job, a new school, a new life. There is never a shortage of reasons to find yourself in front of a shrine at one point or another. The ritual reinforces a stronger sense of place to where you find yourself.
I do not consider myself to be a particularly religious person, while I have respect for how I was brought up, I am also thankful I have never felt terribly constrained by my religion. I do however consider myself a very spiritual person, and regardless of how many digital and technological parameters I have access to now that can indicate my health, happiness, and mental well being, in the two decades I have lived in Bangkok I have NEVER walked or driven by the Erawan Shrine and not privately acknowledged it or paid my respects to it in one form or another. In fact I know almost no one who would not do the same. Call it superstition, call it fear of tempting fate, almost all Bangkokian show their respect to shrines like the Erawan. There is a reason that one other sub-economy not only exists, but typically thrives around such shrines —lottery ticket vendors — would you risk missing divine intervention in the form of a fateful combination of numbers whispered from Brahma’s lips? I think not.
The Erawan Shrine
494 Ratchadamri Rd, Lumphini, Pathum Wan, Bangkok 10330
The Footpath Files
Stories from the Streets of Bangkok
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