Thailand Pages: Buddhists at Prayer at the Erawan Shrine in Bangkok
NEWS REPORT: On 17th August 2015 a bomb at the Erawan Shrine destroyed the tranquility of this little shrine and killed many innocent people. My thoughts are with the victims, their relatives and all the dancers, musicians and others who work at the shrine - one of my favourite places in Bangkok. This page was written in 2012.
Thailand is a country in which the predominant faith is Buddhism. About 95% of the population belong to the Theravada School of Buddhism, and the spectacular ornate temples of this faith are of course among the most important buildings in the country. However numerous other symbols of Buddhism, including statues and smaller devotional shrines are to be found throughout the country. One such devotional shrine - The Erawan Shrine - is perhaps the most famous and remarkable, not so much for its design or historical significance, as for its extraordinary location on one of the busiest crossroads in Bangkok.
All photos on this page were taken by the author in the City of Bangkok.
The Location of the Shrine
Thanon Rama 1 is one of the major highways to be found in the City of Bangkok running west-east across the very centre of the metropolis. But as one progresses east, the road has a name change and becomes Thanon PloenChit. This name change occurs at the Ratchaprasong intersection - one of the busiest junctions in the whole of the city. Here, another major road, Thanon Ratchadamri, meets and crosses the west-east highway. And above the intersection of these roads, the Bangkok Skytrain overhead rail system diverges to head south and east. In close proximity are luxury hotels, big department stores, the second largest shopping mall in South-East Asia, and the focal point of Bangkok New Year celebrations.
Ratchaprasong is clearly one major intersection, and in one corner of this intersection stands the Grand Hyatt Erawan Hotel. But it is in the forecourt of this impressive modern edifice of international good living that a little sanctury of ancient Thai culture is to be found. This is the Erawan Shrine.
Location of the Shrine
The History of the Shrine
The origins of the shrine are founded in the ancient belief that local spirits or deities may be found inhabiting any and every plot of land. Before any disruptive work is done on the land, the local deity needs to be placated by appropriate ceremonies, and a 'spirit house' constructed as a new home for the displaced deity. In 1952-3 work had commenced on the building of a new hotel on the Ratchaprasong intersection. It was to be called the Erawan Hotel. There were the usual ceremonies conducted in advance of construction, and yet despite this the initial stages were beset with many problems, including the accidental deaths of several of the workforce. Superstitions at the time led many of the workers to down tools in the belief that angry spirits at the site had to be further appeased before construction continued. After consultations with religious leaders, the decision was taken to erect a shrine to placate the spirits. The Erawan Shrine was inaugurated on 9th November 1956, and immediately it seems that the fatalities ceased. Consequently the shrine developed a powerful aura, and prospered as a place of worship.
Indeed, the little shrine could be said to have outlasted the hotel which had spawned it. In 1991, the old 'Erawan Hotel' was replaced by the luxurious 'Grand Hyatt Erawan Bangkok'.
The Focus of Worship
Under a glittering canopy, the shrine incorporates a golden statue of Phra Phrom, alternatively known as Than Tao Mahaprom - both are names for the Thai manifestation of the Hindu God of Creation, Brahma. That in itself, may seem rather strange in a Buddhist country, as an essentially Hindu Shrine is being worshipped here. However, links between the two religions are quite profound (in much the same way as Christianity and Judaism both have common origins and similarly revered figures in the Old Testament before the birth of Jesus). The Buddha was himself born to a Hindu King called Suddhodana Gautama, and so the integration of Hindu Brahman beliefs forms a part of Thai Buddhism.
Unfortunately, the picture is rather more complex than that, as Hinduism - one of the most ancient faiths - has undergone many developments and re-interpretations throughout the millennia, whilst Thai incorporation of some Hindu Gods into Buddhism has further complicated the situation - not least in the naming of the shrine. At the time of the shrine's inauguration, the God Brahma was chosen as the most auspicious deity to be imaged. However, the Thai version of Brahman belief merged the characteristics of Brahma with those of another God, Indra, and in popular usage the shrine (and the hotel) were to become known as Erawan, after Indra's three-headed elephant mount - a revered animal here, because later on in Buddhist mythology, Erawan the Elephant was to become the chosen mount of Lord Buddha himself.
The most apparent feature of the Brahma God statue is that he is four-headed, and the four faces of Brahma represent different qualities which are associated with the God - qualities of kindness, mercy, sympathy and impartiality. An observer at the shrine may note that many devotees will offer prayers at each of the four faces in turn, because each face represents different blessings which may be bestowed on the worshipper.
If the statue of Phra Phrom looks familiar to anyone who has visited Las Vegas, this would not be surprising - Caesar's Palace houses a replica of the Erawan Shrine.
A Colourful Spectacle
The Erawan Shrine, though tiny by the standards of the world's significant religious sites, is a riot of colour and sound and smells.
Ceremonial offerings are made in the form of floral garlands, fruits and even teak elephant models so that the prayers of the faithful may be heard and answered. And in addition to the brilliant yellow of marigold flowers, and the contrasting colour of other flowers such as lotus and jasmine, incense is burned creating a heavily smoky atmosphere, and musicians play and dancers dance. (More about these performers in the next section).
All around, people are going about their business, saying their prayers, or just watching as interested onlookers, and vendors are busy selling both to the faithful and to the tourists. The vendors surrounding the shrine sell flowers, candles and incense. The proceeds of the religious offerings are handled by a charity and funds are distributed to charitable organisations and hospitals in Thailand. Beyond the shrine and the courtyard at a discreet distance, souvenirs and more prosaic items are for sale, including small touristy religious icons and lottery tickets.
Dancers and Musicians
There is a resident traditional dance troupe and some musicians at the site who can be hired by worshippers who wish for accompaniment as they pray. The cost of hiring the elaborately made-up dancers to perform varies between about 250 and 720 baht, depending on how many of the troupe the worshipper chooses to hire. Up to eight dancers are available. While the dancers perform, musicians will play xylophones and double-sided drums. The dancers don't have an easy time of it because they have to be available throughout the day to perform when requested, and the burning of incense can choke the lungs. And bare foot dancing also leads to sore feet. It is, however, a satisfying opportunity for these classically trained dancers to perform for the faithful (at the same time providing a free and interesting spectacle for tourists).
On 21st March 2006 in the small hours of the morning, an incident ocurred here which briefly soured the peaceful serenity of the place. A young Thai man called Thanakorn Pakdeepol approached the shrine armed with a hammer and proceeded to deface it, smashing the statue of Phra Phrom. Unfortunately, an act of vandalism was then made even worse by two road sweepers who chased Pakdeepol and caught him before administering a fatal beating. Islamic tattoos on the man's body led to a belief that there may have been an extremist religious motive by the minority Muslim religion in the south of the country. Allegations of political motivations by one of the parties involved in local elections were also aired. However, his father revealed that Pakdeepol had been undergoing treatment for mental illness, and it seems that a disturbed state of mind was the primary cause of his action. Briefly the shrine was closed, before a photograph of the statue was temporarily installed for worshippers to pray to. Two months later, the shrine's Brahman statue was replaced with a new statue of plaster, gold and bronze.
Visitor Respect When Taking Photographs
This article is being written from the perspective of a tourist who is not a member of the Buddhist faith, and I must confess I have some worries when taking photographs of people at prayer as to whether I am intruding on their private moments. Buddhism appears to be the most tolerant of religions, and no one has given any indication of any concern. Of course, I would suggest that visitors should be respectful and use common sense. It would be utterly insensitive to stand close in front of someone in solemn prayer snapping away like they are some kind of exhibit. Recognise the difference between those who are in deep need of a quiet moment to themselves, and those who are just passing by and using the opportunity to wish for a bit of good luck. Keep your distance, and avoid getting in anyone's way when taking photographs. Hold those basic sensitivities in mind, and no one appears to be upset by the presence of the tourists. When I've taken photos at the shrine, nobody pays much attention to what I am doing.
The Erawan Shrine
This video by Barbara Weibel, gives a very good impression of the atmosphere, the noise, the colour, and the vibrancy of the daily gatherings at the Erawan Shrine. Beginning with the Bangkok traffic including the concrete overpass of the sky train, and then showing the great numbers of worshippers at the shrine, the gifts they bestow to Phra Phrom, and the incense they burn, the video also shows some of the music and dancing which accompanies the prayers by day and by night. this is a video, well worth watching.
I am not religious, so I can see the shrine only from the perspective of an interested observer. Nonetheless, it is an enchanting and touching spectacle to behold. The shrine, in spite of its tiny size and its Brahman influences, attracts thousands of worshippers every day - a lot more than many of the city's big temples.
To many of the faithful it is without doubt a very welcome sanctuary in the middle of a very modern and not necessarily entirely spiritual city.
To others like myself, the Erawan Shrine provides an opportunity to see genuine local culture at first hand, and to soak in the sights, the sounds and the aromas of real Buddhist Thailand in the heart of Bangkok. The Erawan Shrine does not exist for the tourists, and yet it is a site which should last longer in the memories of visitors to Bangkok than many of the more commercial and more superficial attractions the city has to offer.
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