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If all one saw of Bangkok was the glitzy Siam Square shopping district along Rama I Road, they might pass the city off as a place of gaudy malls and materialistic locals who have little interest in spirituality. Yet this maze of malls is still part of Bangkok, and the spiritual undercurrents that pervade the city are evidenced day and night by the faithful’s unceasing offerings to the famous image of the Hindu god, Brahma, at Erawan shrine.
The depiction of Phra Phrom (aka “Thao Maha Phrom”, the Thai representation of the Hindu god Brahma) at Erawan shrine is a relatively new edition to the city’s sacred scene. During the construction of the nearby Erawan Hotel in the early 1950s, a handful of deaths and several other accidents led workers to quit their jobs en masse due to fears that the spirits of the land had not been sufficiently placated before building began and were, as a result, unleashing their anger on the unfortunate workers.
Following the instructions of a renowned astrologer, a gold plated, four-faced statue of Phra Phrom was dedicated on an auspicious date in 1956 to soothe the terrestrial spirits. Before being officially mounted in its glittering open-air case, the statue underwent an elaborate series of ceremonies that included being consecrated by both Buddhist monks and Hindu Brahmans in some of Bangkok’s most sacred venues. Every last detail of the statue’s consecration and official debut was carefully considered, right down to the exact minute it was mounted.
With Phra Phrom now watching over it, the hotel construction was finished without a hitch, and the immediate area surrounding the shrine is said to have enjoyed prosperity ever since. News of the shrine’s powers soon spread, and devotees from throughout Thailand, as well as India, Taiwan and other Asian countries, began visiting in droves to make offerings and pray for good fortune.
Although Thailand is generally considered a Theravada Buddhist country, Hinduism has long played a prominent role, and in reality Thailand’s spiritual cosmology is a mixed bag of Buddhism, Hinduism, Brahmanism, animist spirit worship, and even Islam and Christianity.
Displaying the prominence of Hinduism in Thailand, two spirit houses are found in carefully chosen spots around virtually all buildings and homes throughout Thailand; the lower one is dedicated to the “ordinary” spirits and ancestors of the area, while the higher one is a dedication to Phra Phrom. In short, Brahma is credited with creating not one but many universes and everything in them, including the earth and human beings, so you can see why he gets so much attention.
The Hindu god of weather and war, Indra, also plays a prominent role in Thai mythology and literature, and the shrine was named after Indra’s three-headed elephant, Erawan. This seems a tad odd considering the only three-headed elephant statues we’ve seen in the area are those at the gates of the nearby Grand Hyatt Erawan Hotel (Hyatt eventually took over the original hotel but kept “Erawan” in the name) and along the steps of the shiny Erawan shopping centre. If wanting to check out the real Erawan, head to the magnificent Erawan Museum in Samut Prakan just south of Bangkok.
Although it’s a small, open-air shrine with little else to see, making an offering or just standing back and watching the mystical atmosphere surrounding Phra Phrom can be an interesting, if not moving experience. Incense smoke fills the air. The flames of candles flicker. Gold phoung malai garlands and other offerings such as fruit and even the odd pig’s head adorn the tables surrounding the shrine. Seeing as Phra Phrom has four faces and four arms (signifying the four directions), worshippers are careful to place offerings on all four sides of the image. Somehow, the scene is chaotic yet orderly all at once.
Traditional Thai dancers are often hired to perform on one side of the shrine. On another side, the faithful cleanse their heads and bodies with the holy water found in a large bronze basin. Outside the immediate shrine area, a line of vendors sell flowers and incense, and a few peddle lottery tickets to those hoping to hit the jackpot after praying to Phra Phrom for wealth.
Contributing to its storied past, Erawan shrine was at the centre of a bizarre and tragic occurrence in 2006. One evening around 01:00, an apparently mentally disturbed man smashed the original hollow statue to pieces with a hammer. Immediately afterwards, a handful of local on-lookers were swept up in a fit of rage, beating the vandal to death, and two street sweepers were ultimately charged for the horrific crime. Without a doubt, the inexcusable act of violence strongly opposed the tolerance-oriented teachings of Hinduism and Buddhism, but the instance highlights the immense level of devotion that many have for Erawan shrine.
By the end of 2006, the Thai fine arts department had created a replica image, though this time they used a stronger alloy containing a mix of several metals, including gold and silver. Despite the new Phra Phrom being just over five years old, the allure of Erawan is as powerful as ever.
How to get there
Take exit #2 out of Chitlom BTS station, walk straight at the bottom of the stairs, and the shrine is just past Amarin Plaza shopping mall on the left. The shrine is open all hours of the day, every day. Admission is free, but incense and flowers will cost you around 50 baht.
By David Luekens
Last updated on 15th May, 2014.