Spirit Worship is as old as mankind itself. In Thailand the phenomenon goes back to the ancient days when the Tai’s were beginning their slow migration from the Red River Delta in northern Vietnam to all parts of the Southeast Asian region. Spirit Worship, or Animism, was a religion by which the entire world lived at one time, and when Buddhism came to Southeast Asia, it developed side by side with the ancient spirit religion. Today, many of the old animistic beliefs are intertwined with Buddhism and some animistic practices still exist in Thailand. One of these which is practiced by every Thai is the Spirit House.
The Spirit House can be seen at a prominent spot outside every business establishment in the country. It can be seen on a pedestal in Front of every hotel. It dresses the corner garden area of a restaurant, the Front of a bar, disco or pub. Spirit houses are even seen at outdoor food markets. They are built on the grounds of Buddhist temples. outside caves in the mountains, near Fishing ponds in the valleys, and occasionally in the middle of an otherwise uninhabited forest. Most importantly, however. the Thai Spirit House is built at the yard of every home.
The purpose of the Spirit House is to provide an appealing shelter for the spirits, or celestial beings, who would otherwise reside in the heavens, Find a place in large trees, or in caves, cliffs. waterfalls or other natural surroundings. According to folklore, the spirits themselves are neither good or evil, but most are just finicky and mischievous, demanding respect from humans and capable of disastrous interferences if they don’t get their way, The spirit of the land, for example. expects to be informed when a human intends to start a business or engage in improvements to an existing business. If the spirit is not informed, and if the human does not respectfully request permission, the spirit can indeed cause the venture to fail.
The style and construction of a spirit house may be as simple as a typical Thai-style shelter or as elaborate as a Thai palace. The exact style often depends on two Factors, which spirit the person wishes to invite and how much one can afford for the spirit house construction. Construction itself is a specialized field and only an expert Spirit House builder would be considered for proper construction. His responsibility, in addition to construction, is to be familiar with all the necessary rituals involved so that the spirit to be invited will find it an acceptable earthly abode.
The house may be permanent or temporary, made of wood, concrete or brick. At certain times the spirits are invited down only for special occasions and this is when temporary spirit houses are built. the size may vary from the very small to a large, walk-in, ground-level affair. The houses are finished with statues, small figures, or symbols of many other sorts in the center within the spirit house. In addition, there may be various animal figures, such as elephants or horses; figures of people, such as a married couple or other images; and even furniture. Outside, around the balcony that usually surrounds a spirit house, incense holders, candlesticks, and vases for flowers are placed.
There are countless gods and other celestial beings in Thai folklore, The primary spirits the Thai’s are concerned with, however, are called the Phra Bhum Jowthee , or Guardian Spirits of the Land, There are nine of guardians and each offers a different type of protection. The Guardian of the House and the Guardian of the Gardens are so frequently consulted with and prayed to that they are the only two that have permanent spirit houses built for them.
The Guardian of the House is the spirit that watches over and protects the home. It is uncertain whether there is one spirit that watches over all homes, or if individual spirits do this for each home. However, all you have to do in Thailand is look around and you’ll see that every home has a spirit house. Thai families who believe wholeheartedly in the spirit house and it’s importance light incense every morning and ask the spirit to watch over and protect the home. Others do it on ritual occasions.
The Guardian of the House includes the spirit or spirits who help In business matters, and spirit houses at business sites are of the same type. More often than not in Thailand, the business and the home are in the same location.
The Guardian of the Gardens also has a permanent spirit house shelter built for him. This spirit watches over and protects the natural surroundings, yards, gardens and orchards of the Thai family. There is a separate spirit for rice fields, so the Guardian of Gardens should not be mistaken for a spirit protecting all of agriculture. Rather, nature, flowers, plants and fruit are so important to the Thais that the Guardian of the Gardens receives a separate and permanent house of his own.
The other seven Guardians of the Land are Protector of Gates and Stairwells, who is believed to reside in the home doorstep which explains why one should never step on the doorstep of a Thai home; Protector of Animals ; Protector of Storehouses and Barns; Protector of Forests; Mountains; fields and Paddles; Protector of Temples; Protector of Waters ; and Protector of Military Forts and Defence.
The various temporary spirit houses built at times requiring the intercession of a particular spirit can be constructed at any time and at any place. An example of this is a spirit house that sits in the rhododendron forests at the top of Doi Inthanon in northern Thailand. Here In the middle of a forest hundreds of years old is a spirit house constructed for soldiers who died in a helicopter crash years ago. At the front of this spirit house, in addition to candle holders and incense holders, are small ledges for the placement of burning cigarettes. This because those in the helicopter were believed to have liked to smoke.
Offerings to a spirit house and the spirit who is intended to reside within can be nearly anything. The traditional offerings include flower garlands, betel leaves, bananas, rice, chicken, duck, and a wide range of other edibles and non edibles. Candles are often used while incense is usually lit daily before a spirit house.
There are spirit houses everywhere In Thailand. Some very famous ones such as the one that houses the Chiang Mai City Pillar are large enough to walk into. A visit to Wat Chedi Luang in Chiang Mai will give you an opportunity to see it for yourself. At these people go to make offerings and request aid from the spirits to help them in monumental tasks such as bringing in the coming rice harvest. The ritual involved at such events often involves hundreds of people with a common goal and the spirit is called upon to help all. In return the people make promises of future offerings in the event that they are successful. Thus. a return visit to repay the spirit for his help is another important part of the ritual.
The Spirit House is one of the most fundamental features of Thai life even today and it is easily the most obvious. In Thailand devotion to Buddhism most often shows itself in ritual within a temple while Thai devotion to the spirits and especially the Guardians of the land and most often shows itself in their own front yards.
[Editor’s note: many people have asked about what happens to old spirit houses. When changes dictate that a new spirit house be created, a ceremony will be held to transfer the spirit from the old spirit house to the new. After that, the old spirit house can be discarded. Many are discarded near a temple or wat, but usually at a place where other spirit houses have been discarded . ￼So it is common to see many old spirit houses jumbled together.]
Asked about their religion, most Thais will happily respond that they are Buddhists. Indeed, about 97 % of the Thais adhere to Buddhism. However, the exact response to the question about religion should be : We are Buddhists and then some… Indeed, elements of Animism and Hinduism are interwoven in daily prayers and even important religious ceremonies. The system of beliefs of Thai people is a complicated one, and we would challenge any foreigner to be able to fully understand it. Thais do have a spiritual (and often superstitious) inclination that makes them respect more than just the teachings of the Buddha. Passing any religious shrine (also when travelling by bus), you will see Thais wai, as a sign of respect. They may beep the horn and bow or wai. All school children do a wai when they enter to school grounds.
Animism and Hinduism are represented also in the ubiquitous Thai Spirit Houses. Spirit Houses can be seen closeby most houses, apartment buildings and office buildings (and Buddhist temples!).
Spirit Houses seen around Bangkok’s streets come in two main varieties. [Larger structures may better be referred to as ‘shrines’. See Hindu Shrines in Bangkok]
￼ The Lords of the Land, are represented by figurines of an old man and an old woman. They inhabit the San Jao Thi. Here pictured at the San Jao Thi at Sino-Thai tower.
One variety (probably originating earlier) is the San Jao Thi (San Chao Thi) or Abode of the Landlord. It resembles an old wooden Thai house, raised above ground level by usually 4 pillars. The Lords of the Land will be represented by figurines of an old man and woman. As with the other type of Spirit House, the San Phra Phum, there will be a variety of attendants, angels, offerings, dancing girls, elephants etc. around, to provide an enticing environment for the Landlords. The relationship with the Landlords in mutually beneficial : we look after you (by giving you a nice house), and you will look after us.
The San Phra Phum (in English, the Abode of the Land Guardian Angel, but the Thai meaning is very similar to the meaning of San Jao Thi), when adjacent to the San Jao Thi, is usually positioned higher. It stands on a single thick pillar (rather a pedestal).
San Phra Phum almost invariably will be topped by a Khmer style Prang. This building structure, common since the Khmer Empire, and in modified forms throughout the Sukhothai and Ayutthaya era, resembles a corncob. It represents Mount Meru, a sacred mountain in Hindu mythology. [on mural paintings in Buddhist Thai Temples, Mount Meru is also regularly depicted]
￼ Phra Chai Mongkol (height about 15 cm) inside the ‘door’ of the San Phra Phum at SrinakharinWirot University compound in soi 23, Sukhumvit Road. The right hand holds a sword, the left hand carries a bag of money.
Inside the San Phra Phum, you will usually see an image of Phra Chai Mongkol, an angel like figurine, often gilded, and holding a sword in one hand, a money bag in the other hand. Phra Chai Mongkol origin lies in Hinduism. Suffice it to say, that she is there to protect the land and its inhabitants.
The Thai Spirit House in front of most houses and buildings, is well attended to. It is common to see office girls pray in front of the Spirit House, make some small offerings of foods and drinks, and make sure that the Spirit House is well kept. What prayers are offered? Well, often prayers are directed to the Lord Buddha, which ads something more to the puzzle of Thai spirituality.
Buying and installing a Thai Spirit House is not a simple affair. Often a new Spirit House will be commissioned and installed before or at the start of building. A suitable place has to be found. The Spirit House should not stand in the shade of the building (quite difficult in Bangkok, for sure). A tree nearby is a good thing. The color of the Spirit House is also not random, and should be related to the color associated with the birthday of the owner of the property. If done properly, Hindu priests (but not Buddhist Monks) are involved in finding the right spot. An elaborate ceremony with invocations of the Gods and Mother Earth will be organized, when installing the Spirit House.
When a new owner occupies a building, a new Spirit House will often be installed, with the old one staying in place (or removed with a proper ceremony). There are some so-called Spirit House Graveyards in Thailand, where Spirit Houses that are not anymore in use, are gathered.
￼ Beautiful wooden San Jao Thi, in front of an old condominium in Soi 23, Sukhumvit Road.
The images of Spirit Houses seen on this (and next) page were not taken during an elaborate field trip. We just walked around our soi on Sukhumvit Road, and took some pictures.
￼ Lots of figurines can be seen in Thai Spirit Houses. They are good company for the Lords of the Land. This collection was seen at a car repair shop.
Spirit Houses are usually located just outside a building and can be different types. Generally there will be two. One is on a pedestal and the other is usually on four stilts or pillars. There are hundreds of sizes, colors, and differing workmanship depending on the property they protect and look after.
When one is considering a Spirit House they must seek the guidance of a Brahim. He will advise the owner as to the placement of and quality of such a house. The Spirit House should reflect the status of the property it is placed on. If there is no room for it around the building, it could be placed on the roof. A welcome party is held…like a house warming and the owner must provide a celebration commensurate to the status of the property. If the owner chinzes on the expenditures for the festive occasion, they may face bad luck down the road. The Spirit House on a pedestal houses an older couple that represent the landlords of the property. The other houses the ancestral spirits of the people that used to occupy the property before and as such are treated as guests and offerings are made in the form of food, pretty flowers, animals for pets and company. If the owner should decide to tear down the building and build a larger edifice, they must move the Spirit Houses and build new ones befitting the new property. Generally the Spirit Houses may be moved to the country…perhaps on a bend in the road to protect those passing by. They may be discarded in a Temple area with other spirit houses.