Spirit Houses – Animism in Thai Life

Like a lot of things I’ve encountered these past several months of travel in Asia, they aren’t always what they may first appear to be. For example, what I had thought were mini-Buddhist temples, located by almost every structure in this country, are actually nothing of the sort. Rather, there are a holdover from Animistic practices that predate all religions, based on the belief that a spirit or soul exists in every object, including plants, animals and inanimate things. Spirit Houses can be found in every part of Asia, but are particularly prevalent in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar. Almost every building, home, shop and business has some form of these spirited mini-domiciles on their grounds. But never to be located in an area that will be shadowed by the building itself, you understand!

Yesterday, I took another of my frequent walking tours of Chiang Mai and photographed as many Spirit Houses as I could find. My goal was to capture their unique charm and design and to detail some of the special aspects that are mandated through this ancient tradition’s history.

As a Buddhist country, the inclusion of beliefs based on Animism may seem at odds. But Thais and others have borrowed traditions from both the Hindu and Animistic realm and blended them into their overall belief and behaviors quite successfully. Spirit Houses, in essence, are places for the displaced spirits, who previously inhabited the area on which a structure is built, to inhabit. Some of these spirits and good and are considered guardians. Some, well, not so much. The key, good or bad, is to provide proper shelter for them and to ensure that their needs are met.

And those needs can include a wide variety of items, including food of all kinds, water, seeds and grains and even bottles of Fanta (Orange seems to be a spirit favorite) soda, straws included.

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In addition to the items mentioned above, the altars for the houses are adorned with everything from flowers (often freshly cut), swaths of colorful fabric, incense, small gift items, animal figurines and anything else that a fussy ancient spirit might require to protect the success, safety and happiness of the home or business. Inside many of the houses are small, lifelike human statues, representing the keepers or guardians of the house, in the form of a mom, dad, immediate or extended family and friends.

The identification of the appropriate spot for erecting a Spirit House, as well the official ceremony to officially “welcome” the spirits into their new home, is done by a Brahmin priest. Special precautions must be taken as to where the house is placed, to the left of a door for example, and in what direction it faces, i.e. not facing either a toilet or a road. Some houses are large and ornate, often associated with a commercial building or a temple, while others are quite small, even “inferred”, as a couple of these photos demonstrate. Houses can be built of wood, metal, plaster, concrete – or even plastic.

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Alas, Spirit Homes don’t last forever, but removing one can be a risky venture (those spirits can be nasty when evicted!) if not done properly. Again, the Brahmin priest is called in to advise and officiate. In some cases, a new house is built alongside the old structure. Often, a funeral procession is held to remove the old house and to place it with other “uncommissioned” (my term) homes in an area especially designated for such a purpose, often close to a temple. In the case below, the area is indeed near a temple, but regrettably also close to an unsightly trash heap.

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All over Thailand you will find statues and images of sacred beings and spirits associated with Hindu, Buddhist and Animist traditions. Unlike most Western countries, there is little effort to separate church and state. Religious and spiritual icons remain a highly visible thread in the fabric of Thai life. The images vary widely, yet each one represents a specific purpose or meaning.

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While on my photographic journey yesterday, I got a couple of good shots of both the Ping River that meanders elegantly through Chiang Mai, as well as the centuries-old canal, filled with fountains, that rims the crumbling stone walls of the old city. In addition, I was allowed to take a couple of photos of Buddhist monks at Wat (Temple) Phanthong who insisted that I get a shot with them, as well!

If you are interested in reading more about Spirit Houses, their history and integration into Asian life, particularly here in Thailand, go to this link: Facts: Spirit Houses. Considering that I thought Animism that had something to do simply with the deification of animals, you may benefit, as I did, from checking out this edifying link: Facts: Animism.

To the unexposed, these spirit-filled, yet charming structures, might at first appear to resemble a large bird house or even a highly stylized child’s doll house. Once you read about their history, however, you understand that their spiritual importance and religious meaning are deeply embedded into the culture and beliefs of the inhabitants of this vast continent. Culture and beliefs, I might, for which I’ve gained immeasurable respect and insight over these last several months.

Next up…The Elephants of Thailand!