Before Hinduism and Buddhism were introduced into Thailand there was only one religious belief, that belief was that a spirit world existed, not only did the spirits exist but they were mightily powerful and controlling, this belief is called Animism and it manifests itself in the form of spirit worship. It might not be strictly correct to call Animism a religion, maybe it is better categorized as a spiritual belief (spirit worship), but it is without doubt the oldest form of worship known to mankind, ‘Spirit Worship’ in one form or another was practiced long before all the popular world religions.
The majority religion in Thailand is Buddhism, 95 percent of the population are Buddhist but the percentage of Thais who have animist beliefs is probably slightly higher. Animism is practiced on a daily basis by most Thai people, although their religion is Buddhism they actually devote more of their time to Animist beliefs than they do practicing Buddhism.
Examples of Animism in Thailand.
In Thailand there is a rather unique religious and spiritual harmony, sorry, it’s more than that, it’s a religious, spiritual and superstitious harmony, what you might call a “spiritual fusion”. Buddhism, Hinduism and Animism all play a part in the day to day life of Thais, it is quite easy to distinguish the Buddhist activities because everyone recognizes Buddha and there is no mistaking the wais, prayers and offerings which are made in his respect. Hinduism and Animism are often misunderstood and misinterpreted by visitors to Thailand, acts of Animism and Hinduism are often presumed to be Buddhist in nature, a good example of this is the worship of the Hindu deity ‘Brahma‘ (photo below) who is often mistakenly presumed to be a four faced Buddha. Animist practices in Thailand are easy to recognize when you learn to separate spirit worship from Buddhism.
In Thailand you can find examples of Animism in nature, architecture and social behavior, the most outstanding feature of Animism in Thailand is the spirit houses situated outside homes, banks and hotels, in reality, spirit houses (see photo below) can be found outside any home or business, even rice fields, public parks, lakes and ponds, or just about anywhere people work or gather. It is not unusual to see 2 spirit houses side by side, The taller and grander of the 2 is home to a Hindu deity who if respected and well looked after will protect the land. The smaller and more humble spirit house is where the spirit of the land resides, after a piece of land is built upon, the spirit of that land must be offered a new home to both appease him and stop him from causing mischief in the new owners house.
You might typically see a Thai house owner offering incense and food and drink to the spirit at least once a day. What appears to many as a strange curiosity in Thailand is the placing of incense sticks and food and drink either on a small table, a chair or even the pavement. This usually happens outside small shops and bars which don’t have enough space to erect a spirit house, before opening for business the owner will present his offerings to the resident spirit, kneel before the offering and wai whilst asking good favor of the spirit.
When is a tree not merely a tree?!, when it is a Sacred Fig Tree. Thailand’s Sacred Fig Tree (see photo below) is another of those Thai curiosities which can be categorized as Animism but not pure Animism because on and around a sacred fig tree there will also be evidence of Buddhism and Hinduism, making it a perfect example of Thailand’s Spiritual Fusion. Thailand’s sacred fig trees are unmistakable, almost always you will find one in the grounds of a temple. Due to their religious and spiritual significance they are left undisturbed, this often means building highways around them, a perfect example of this is the Sacred Fig Tree which occupies the center of the main road at Naklua in Pattaya.
Sacred fig trees are usually adorned with coloured sashes around their trunk, a spirit house or 2 will sit at the base along with broken relics and figurines of Buddha, Hindu Deities, pictures of the King of Thailand and various other religious and spiritual artifacts. Daily offerings of incense sticks and food and drink are also regularly placed at the base of the tree. The broken relics (including spirit house) are placed their in the protective custody of Buddha, but the offerings and the prayers made by worshipers are for the spirit which resides in the tree.
I’m going to explain a truly Animist gesture to you now, you may or may not have noticed motorists beeping their horn as they drive past a sacred fig tree, you might have thought they were politely warning pedestrians hidden from their view behind the tree that they were coming and not to cross the road yet, not at all, what they are actually doing is beeping their horn to pay respect to the spirit living inside the tree. The sacred fig is not the only tree to house ghosts and spirits in Thailand, Banyan trees, Tamarind trees and many large old trees will be saved from the chop so as not to upset the resident spirit.
The Lahk Mueang (City Pillar) found in most provincial capitals of Thailand is the home of the Guardian Spirit of the city, usually made of Takian or other hardwood it stands between 1 and 2 meters tall and is housed inside a building which represents the history and character of the city. The grandeur and expense lavished on these buildings bears testament to the Thais belief in, and devotion to spirit worship.
Ghost in the bedroom.
On a personal level, I have never believed in ghosts but like most people I have had occasions when the hair on the back of my neck has stood up, other occasions when I have been scared of opening a door after hearing something go bump in the night. My wife, like most Thais most definitely does believe in ghosts, a belief which I usually dismiss because she has never told me in a convincing manner that she has seen a ghost. When my wife told me she saw a ghost in the bedroom I dismissed it as a dream, but she argued her case quite convincingly. It was only when she lavished a rather sumptuous offering of food and drink for the spirits that i had to think twice, my wife has never done that before.
Ghosts and Spirits are everywhere.
It would seem that there is a ghost or spirit for every occasion and every place in Thailand, and the Thais belief in ghosts and spirits is steadfast. There are good ghosts and bad ghosts, ancient ancestors, spirits of the land, spirits of the forest, river, lake and sea. They must all be respected in one way or another, the ghosts and spirits can do great favors for those who respect and attend to their whims or they can bring catastrophe to the selfish or disrespectful. Animism might seem outdated to you and me, but maybe, just maybe…….