If you’ve ever been to Thailand, you must have noticed the country is dotted with colourful miniature houses that look like little temples or doll houses. They are constructed in front of the houses, shops, night clubs, shopping malls, skyscrapers, trees and even roadsides. They are beautifully decorated with flowers and surrounded with offerings like incense sticks, fruits and glasses/bottles of red liquid. Some of them are big with modern architecture, others are small ones with a rustic touch. If you wonder what these fascinating little houses are – they are the Spirit Houses. Yes, the spirits are believed to live in these tiny buildings assigned to them so that they don’t bother the inhabitants of the land.
Although Thailand is a land of Buddhism as a predominant religion, their beliefs and traditions are rooted in Hinduism and animism. Thai people strongly believe in mysticism and the presence of spirits everywhere. They believe that there are all types of spirits around us – good, bad, trustworthy, helpful and mischievous spirits, spirits that live in trees, rivers, land, mountains, stones, wind, homes, etc. According to Thai beliefs, each spirit has its own unique role to play and it cannot interfere in another spirit’s role. For example, to get a good harvest, you need to call the rice spirit. But it cannot provide protection to your house. For that, you need to call the guardian spirit. To avoid upsetting the spirits and to call them for protection, wealth and prosperity, spirit houses or ‘Phi Houses’ are constructed.
Types of Spirit Houses
There are four types of Spirit Houses seen in Thailand.
1. San Chao Tii – This spirit house has four pillars ground into the earth. Its inhabitants are the lords of the land who are represented by figurines of an old man and an old woman called ’Da Yai’, which means ‘grandfather and grandmother’. You may also find figurines of servants, butlers, gatekeepers and traditional Thai dancers for their company, service and entertainment. In addition to these, there are little models of elephants, horses, miniature cars, airplanes etc. that symbolise the means of transport for spirits. These spirit houses are built to pacify the spirits rather than revere them. Thai devotion is reserved for Buddha and the celestial beings.
2. Saan Phra Phum – This spirit house stands next to San Chao Tii and is erected a little higher than the former. It tends to be more formal and impersonal. Saan Phra Phum is constructed for the guardian spirit – Phra Chai Monkol. She is represented by a gold painted bronze statue holding a sword in her right hand and a money bag in her left. She is believed to protect the owners of the land and bring them good fortune. Constructed on a single thick pillar, it resembles a Thai Buddhist temple often topped with a Khmer style prang. The single pillar represents ‘Mount Sumeru’ – the sacred mountain according to Buddhist and Hindu beliefs.
3. Saan Phra Brahm – This spirit house is large and open-sided. It is dedicated to the Hindu God of creation – Phra Brahma. The open sides of the spirit house represent four faces and four virtues of the God – mercy, sympathy, kindness and impartiality.
4. San Piyanda – This type of spirit house is generally found on construction sites. It is a temporary spirit house built for the lords of the land to ensure workers’ safety until a permanent one is constructed.
Construction of Spirit Houses
Spirit houses cannot be constructed just anywhere and anytime. The land owner needs to consult a Thai Buddhist monk or a Brahman priest to select the direction, date, time, colour and size of the spirit house. It ideally faces north or northeast direction. The size is generally a blend of astrology and the land owner’s budget. Phi House is constructed high enough to demand respect but low enough to easily make offerings. The architecture, decorations and the offerings reflect the dominant spirit that has been invited to live in the house. The construction is followed by various rituals and daily offerings to the spirits.
Offerings are made to the spirits in exchange for protection, abundance, prosperity, wealth, good fortune and to fulfil many other wishes. These offerings include fruits, vegetables, flowers, garlands, betel nuts and carved wooden phalluses as a symbol of fertility.
According to Thai beliefs, blood is considered as a symbol of life. Owing to this mythology, animal blood was also offered to the spirits in the earliest times. However, the animal sacrifice was made illegal by King Rama I. Since then, the blood is replaced by a red drink (strawberry Fanta soda) symbolising blood. The incense sticks are also lit while making the offerings. It is believed that the rising smoke transports their wishes to the heavens.
Good Spirits and Bad Spirits
According to Thai beliefs, good spirits are the trusted spirits who, in most cases, are thought to be the deceased family members. They are the ones who can reside in the family home generally on a high shelf where the offerings are provided. The spirits of dead people who fail to be reborn are considered as bad spirits. Most of these spirits are bad ones, if not all. Spirits are believed to be attracted to trouble. Therefore, Thai people are taught not to attract undue attention by being loud. They are taught to be calm and avoid trouble wherever possible.
Thai people believe in spirit doctors known as Mor Phi. If anyone needs help with a mischievous or bad spirit, they can call upon Mor Phi and they can help find the anti-spirit. Interesting, isn’t it?
Death of the Spirit House
Removing a Phi house completely should be avoided. If it is damaged or crumbling, a new spirit house needs to be built before removing the old one. If you’ve acquired a new land, the old spirit houses should be left intact and the new one can be built alongside.
Spirits are the tenants you called to live in those little houses. Evicting them may bring misfortune to the land owner. However, in situations where you need to remove it, a ceremony needs to take place on the date and time determined by a Buddhist monk or a Brahmin priest. There is a funeral march to the spirit house’s final resting place, which is a blessed and dedicated spirit house graveyard.
Have you ever seen the spirit houses? Do you find them fascinating? Kindly leave a comment below. I would love to know your thoughts. Thanks for reading.