ANIMISM IS AS MUCH A THAI RELIGIOUS PRACTICE as Buddhism, and has its own sacred architecture: the miniature houses, temples, and palaces built as shrines for guardian spirits of the land (ศาลพระภูมิ; sǎn phrá phum). But spirit houses resist—or their spirits resist—generalization. I’m guessing that each spirit house’s caretaker could explain all aspects of their spirit house, its resident spirit, and their customs for serving it, to the smallest detail—site, provincial origins, colors, fabric, figurine selection and arrangement, offerings, the time of offerings, and the name and story of the spirit—but in the absence of 99 separate interviews, we are left with approximations.
Three such approximations follow, each from excellent, authoritative authors steeped in Thai culture. Each one can be shown to express a different partial truth, when compared to the ground truths shown in the photographs collected in this book. This is less a criticism of the writers than a testimony to the resilience of Thai animism itself.
Broman and Warren’s Spirit Houses of Thailand (see the bibliography below) gives the most accurate, because least rigid, approximation. From page 1:
The grandest are miniature palaces in wood and cement1 that, with their stepped roofs, gilded spires, mirror-encrusted facades and carefully carved doors and window-sills, resemble Buddhist temples, while the simplest are ramshackle bamboo huts found in the poor up-country areas or the slums of Bangkok. Though each house is unique, the basic structure is always the same: a room in which Phra Phum lives, and a portico or veranda on which the daily offerings of food, fresh flowers, incense sticks, garlands and water are placed. He should be provided with objects, such as a retinue of miniature servants, horses, elephants or cattle; these will make the inhabitant feel at home in a way that befits his status.
Ground truth differs: I am not sure there is always one spirit; sometimes there are entire families (#70 Fronds); similarly, spirit houses placed near accident scenes are likely to house multiple spirits (#82 The Good Grandmother). Nor are there always offerings (#71 Straw). Offerings are not always daily, even if the spirit house has not been abandoned; sometimes, one will see a fresh bottle of Red Fanta (The Golden Land #37), but red incense sticks faded to pink, for example. Sometimes the “portico or veranda” for offerings is integrated into the house, like a front porch (#15 Yellow); at other times (especially for the cement versions) there is a table in front of the house (#6 Food Cart, #7 Triptych). I have seen one case (not for this book) where there isn’t even a house!
Here is a second approximation. It has a family resemblance to the first, but is not identical to it. From Philip Cornwel-Smith and John Goss’s magisterial study of Thai material culture, Very Thai, page 219:
In ancient indigenous beliefs, spirits governed a location and needed to be placated to ensure a safe journey or activity. That survives most clearly today through spirit houses being tended daily with offerings and requests for things like the spirit’s permission to build, marry, or cut trees. Spirit houses typically come in pairs. Chao thii—the animist spirit of the place—occupies the lower one, a plain miniature house on four or six legs. The other, a taller, painted masonry shrine, looks like an opulent Khmer sanctuary upon a pedestal and reflects the subsequent Hindu influence on Thai culture. Inside stands a gilded icon of the “spirit of the land” holding a sword and money bag, who gets a prestigious Thai name, phra phanum. Illustrating the authority of phra phanum, servants flank the shrine’s upper levels, male to the right, female left, while elephants, horses, and female dancers cavort on the lower deck. Offering tables in front support incense, candles, and tiny bowls for whatever food and drinks that spirit prefers.
Ground truth differs once more. Spirit houses typically come in pairs at condo towers and many commercial buildings (#10 Ochre; #11 White; #94 Drill), but not always (#18 Red, #63 Pain Clinic, and #79 Aspirations are for a radio station, a repair shop, and a wedding shop respectively). Nor is it true in the vernacular (#14 Pink, #72 Post Office, and #89 Rope Lights are singletons). Unlike Broman and Warren, Cornwel-Smith and Goss recognize the presence of tables, although not the veranda; but I would count myself lucky to see a “gilded icon” in the House, and have certainly never seen one with the accoutrements—sword and moneybag—described.
A final approximation, similar but not identical to the previous two. From Nithi Sthapitanonda and Brian Mertens, Architecture of Thailand, page 116:
Spirit houses probably outnumber any other single genre of building in Thailand.
Indeed they do! And:
A sǎn phrá phum is installed when a new building is constructed2 in order to placate the spirit displaced by the project. It must be far enough from the building to stand outside its shadow, and be installed at a time recommended as propitious by a Brahmin priest or astrologer. A ceremony then takes place inviting the spirit to move in and become the area’s guardian. The shrine is populated with figurines of humans, elephants, and horses which are meant to act as servants to the spirit, who is represented by a small ceramic or plastic statue. Regular offerings of lit candles, incense, flowers, food and drink ensure that the spirit will protect rather than harm.
Ground truth differs, here in practice. Spirit houses are not only installed when a new building is constructed (#9 Guard Dogs, #23 Chiang Mai Women’s Prison). I doubt that the more humble spirit houses will ever involve Brahmin priests (#64 Horse). More importantly, none of these approximations give an account of the life-cycle of spirit houses. Sometimes spirit houses are bulldozed (#69 Roots), at other times abandoned (#27 Bottle Weight, #64 Horse), and at other times re-animated by a new caretaker after being abandoned.
I have been able to discern but one universal: the peaked roof, to which I am so attuned that I hone in on any small, far off triangular shape, whether colorful and contrasty or not. Maryvelma O’Neil, in Bangkok: A Cultural History, page 128, adds a second: “In all my wanderings throughout Bangkok I never saw a single [case of] abuse” of a spirit house (as with graffitti, or vandalism). I agree. The closest case I have seen to abuse is #75 History, and even that was site-specific. Indeed, spirit houses would seem to be under some form of protection!
A third universal would be the presence of a spirit, however unique to the place. Certainly most Thais are believers. (For my view, see #41 In Memoriam, in Captions.) During a recent journey by bus, I saw a Jintara Poonlarp music video on the overhead screen: The troubles of a family with a drinking husband, a worried wife, and an angry son—the low point was when the wife reached into her purse to pay for dinner at a food cart and found her money was gone—were resolved when a spirit, manifesting as a boy robed in white, appeared to the son at a spirit house and gave him a winning lottery ticket! May all Thais find their relations with the spirits as propitious.
I realize I have overlooked the “offerings and shrines” of the title. Here again Thai animism is pervasive. Any thing can be made sacred by draping it with a garland (#42 Blue Collar), or tying fabric or a ribbon around it (#38 Power (1)). Any place can be made sacred by presenting an offering to its guardian spirit, as with food (#39 Plate, #44 Power (2)), drink, cigars (#43 Tobacco), incense sticks (#31 Stool), or more elaborate constructs (#29 Cycle). Offerings and shrines, as categories, are just as fuzzy at the edges as spirit houses, admittedly, but neither will have a peaked roof.
1. The cement houses are mass-produced and sold in the Thai equivalent of Western home and garden shops.
2. The history of the relationship between spirit houses and real estate development has yet to be written.