Bangkok is full of what look like elaborate bird houses, most mounted on poles or pedestals. But they are not for birds. These are spirit houses, homes for the myriad spirits of diverse origin and attitude that populate the cosmos of many Thais.
Hannah Beech has a delightful story
in the NY Times about honoring the spirits during the pandemic, a habit which some Thais think has kept their nation from suffering badly:
Mr. Kitsana, 47, thinks this may help explain why the coronavirus pandemic has so far largely bypassed the country. Thailand, a nation of 70 million people, has recorded only about 3,120 cases of the virus, with 58 deaths, despite having had the first confirmed case outside of China.
“Thai people respect ghosts and spirits,” he said. “Everyday we pray and, you will notice, our country has not had many cases of coronavirus. The spirits listen to our prayers.”
People make offerings daily to the spirits that live around them. In the public markets are many stalls that sell only gifts for spirits, such as garlands of marigold flowers. Outsiders writing about Thailand often mention this
as one reason the country feels so spiritual.
The spirits come in many kinds. Some are old deities from the Hindu pantheon, or other South Asian mythologies. Some are family ancestors. Some live in mighty old trees, which is why such trees are often festooned with garlands and have lavish meals laid around their feet. Others are attached to the land. Some are honored around Thailand and beyond, while others are known only in a single spot.
Most spirits are generally benevolent, so long as they receive their regular honors. Here is Kuman Thong, a mischievous boy spirit who likes to receive toys as gifts. Thailand also has an extensive folklore of very nasty ghosts
out to kill you and drink your blood, but the bad spirits do not seem to figure in the ordinary sort of spirit house.
The spirits who live on the land have to be propitiated when any new building is constructed, and provided with a new home; in the picture above, a house is being consecrated for the spirits who once lived on the site of a new condominium building.
As I have worked on this post, various members of my family have come by and asked what I am writing about. When I explained they all asked, "Do people really believe in them or not?" That, I increasingly think, is the wrong question. The meaning of rituals like this is in the doing of them more than in what people believe about them. Belief, I think, is – at least in our age – a slippery thing, and few people believe in spirits the way they believe in tables or chairs. After all Thais who are serious about religion are mostly Buddhists, and in the cosmos of rigorous monks such spirits are just another trivial thing to be left behind on the path to enlightenment. But many people enjoy rites that transport them, for a moment or a time, to a place where there are spirits, and where they feel tied to something beyond their own small selves: to the cosmos, to their communities, to being Thai. Or the familiar practice – visiting the same stall to buy a marigold garland from the same seller to put on the same spirit house while reciting the same prayers – anchors them in our floating world.
Your reflection on whether Thais believe in the spirits reminds me of an old Woody Allen line: "To you, I'm an atheist. To Him I'm the loyal opposition."
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