Sacred shrine amid the malls
Set amid the unabashed materialism of the Siam Square area, streams of visitors come from China, India and throughout Thailand, among others, to offer flower garlands, incense, golden elephants and dance performances to an image of the Hindu god Brahma at the famous Erawan Shrine.
The shrine’s sordid history begins with the construction of the nearby Erawan Hotel (now the Hyatt) in the 1950s, when a handful of deaths and several other accidents led many workers to quit due to fears that the terrestrial spirits had not been sufficiently placated before building began. As a result, it was thought, the spirits unleashed their anger on the workers.
At the recommendation of an astrologer, a gold-plated, four-faced statue of Phra Phrom (the Thai representation of Brahma) was dedicated on an auspicious date in 1956 to soothe the spirits. Before it was mounted, Buddhist monks and Hindu Brahmans consecrated the statue in elaborate ceremonies. Even the exact minute of its mounting was pre-determined, and afterwards the hotel construction finished smoothly.
Why Brahma? The common Thai form of Buddhism is blended with Hinduism and spirit worship, and Brahma is one of the most highly revered deities throughout the Hindu world. In Thailand, this is evidenced by the placement of Brahma images in the spirit houses that front skyscrapers and humble houses throughout Thailand. In short, Brahma is credited with creating many universes and everything in them, including the earth and human beings, so you can see why he gets so much attention. The shrine was named after the hotel it sits beside, but you won’t find actual images of Erawan, the three-headed elephant and vehicle for Indra in Hindu mythology.
Though it’s a relatively small open-air shrine, soaking in the spiritually charged atmosphere near several massive shopping malls makes for a memorable Bangkok experience. Incense smoke clouds the air. Candle flames flicker. Fragrant flowers, fruit, figurines and the odd pig’s head collect on the altars as crowds wait to kneel and pray at all hours of the day and night. 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.
Traditional Thai dancers perform as a continual offering on one side of the shrine. On another side, the faithful cleanse their heads and bodies with holy water from a bronze basin. Outside the immediate shrine area, a line of vendors sell flowers and incense, and a few offer lottery tickets to those hoping to hit the jackpot after praying to Phra Phrom for wealth. If you’re not sure what to offer, check out a menu on a sign with prices posted for offerings like “wooden elephant” and “large garland set”.
Unfortunately the shrine’s association with bad fortune did not end when the hotel was completed. Late one night in 2006, an apparently mentally disturbed man shattered the original statue with a hammer and was immediately beaten to death by a mob—two street sweepers were later charged for the killing. In 2010, the shrine sat near the epicentre of a stretch of “red shirt” protests that ended with a deadly military crackdown. In a last thrust of anger, a group of protesters torched Central World, the largest mall in Thailand, which sits across the intersection from Erawan Shrine.
But the worst came on 7 August 2015 when a bomb targeted the shrine and left more than 20 dead and scores injured in the worst terrorist attack to hit Bangkok in recent memory. Two men with ties to the Uyghur cause in China were later charged—Thailand had deported Uyghur asylum seekers back to China not long before the attack—but a lot of unknowns persist. The shrine returned to normality quick and continues to draw in the droves.
Erawan Shrine overlooks the Ratchaprasong intersection at the corner of Ratchadamri Rd and Rama I Rd. It can be accessed and viewed from the skywalk connecting Chit Lom and Siam BTS stations. It’s open 24 hours a day and admission is free.
David Luekens first came to Thailand in 2005 when Thai friends from his former home of Burlington, Vermont led him on a life-changing trip. Based in Thailand since 2011, he spends much of his time eating in Bangkok street markets and island hopping the Andaman Sea.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
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