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Miniature homes for big beliefs

  • Thailand’s ‘spirit houses’ are dollhouse-like structures, speaking of a culture of gratitude and spirituality
  • These are erected for the holy spirits to live in, so one continues to receive their blessings

Spirit houses are decorated with furniture and figurines to represent the spirits of ancestors
Spirit houses are decorated with furniture and figurines to represent the spirits of ancestors (Photo: iStock)

It was early morning when I arrived at the small inn in Bangkok where I would be staying. The Thai owner was in the middle of her prayers when she ushered me in, gesturing that I remain silent. I followed her as she walked from room to room with a fistful of burning incense sticks. From then on, the aroma of the sticks, the sound of prayer bells and the fragrance of flowers seemed to follow me for the rest of my holiday. When people think of Thailand, they picture a tropical paradise with beaches, parties and heavenly massages. That’s what I went there for, but I came away with a sense of a culture in which spirituality is deeply ingrained.

A spirit house outside a home in a floating village in Bangkok.
A spirit house outside a home in a floating village in Bangkok. (Photo: iStock)

One of my first outings was to Bangkok’s Damnoen Saduak floating market. Behind it, navigating the narrow canals branching out of the Mae Klong river, we arrived at a floating village. It is a settlement of the sort commonly seen around Thailand, with houses built on raised platforms along the banks of a canal. Floating past, I spotted small structures outside that looked a little like the small mandaps on road corners in Mumbai where Ganesh idols are kept, except that here, there was one outside each building, vividly painted and decorated with flowers.

From my guide, I learnt that these are spirit houses.

In India, people perform bhoomi pooja when they purchase a plot or are about to build a house. The ceremony is about offering prayers to the land, seeking divine blessings, and requesting the spirits dwelling there to move elsewhere. The Thai do something similar, but instead of asking the spirits to leave, they construct a little house for them on the same plot and request them to move in there.

“Is the belief in spirits common?" I asked my guide. “Of course," he exclaimed. Fascinated, I started looking out for the spirit houses and saw them nearly everywhere, not just outside homes, but also in front of malls, banks and corporate offices. Sizes varied, as did the decoration.

Before installing a spirit house, a priest or monk is called to look at the astrological charts of the family members and decide the colour of the spirit house, its location on the property and the day and time when it should be installed. Two houses are installed as a unit, one for the family’s forebears and another for the angel of prosperity. Made of wood or cement, they can be purchased readymade. Before the spirit house is installed, preferable under the shade of a tree, a pit is dug and filled with coins, amulets, metal pieces and gems. This is believed to bring positive energy.

The entire process resonated with me, since it is very similar to the way idols are installed in a temple’s sanctum sanctorum.

Returning to my homestay, I noticed the spirit house outside that I had missed previously. Early next morning, I joined my host as she performed her prayers there. Peeping inside, I saw an old couple seated on chairs in a properly furnished miniature home. In front of the house were figurines of a cock and hens, goats and pigs. My host cleaned the space around the house, adorned the house with a garland of flowers, lit incense sticks and offered prayers. Then she carefully arranged real food items—an open soft drink bottle with a straw, a paper plate with jaggery-stuffed coconut rice pudding and a spoon to eat it with, an open packet of chips, a cup of water—on the porch outside the house. There was so much attention to detail that the house even had a staircase winding up the pole it stood on, so the spirits could leave the house and go for a walk if they liked.

As she finished her prayers, my host gestured, suggesting I join her. “Do you believe that there are spirits?" I asked her. With a look of surprise, she said, “What next? Will you question God too?"

Regardless of my own beliefs, I was moved by the intensity of hers. Thereafter, whenever I passed a spirit house, even in the villages of a remote tribal community called Palong where a makeshift tin box served as one, I would bow my head in respect.

Bengaluru-based Chittra M. writes on travel, culture and wildlife.

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