At the corner of Rachadamri and Plenchit Roads in the heart of Bangkok is one of the most interesting sites you are likely to come across in the City of Angels. This busy intersection lies under the shadow of Bangkok’s new sky train and is bustling with people in expensive suits who give the impression that they are in a hurry to get somewhere important. The sky is hard to see for the tall buildings and the streets in all directions are heavily congested. Basically, its not much different from any major intersection in any major city in North America or Europe and it is a prime example of the modernization of this great city. Except for one thing: the Erawan Shrine on the south-east corner; an addition that could only exist in a city like Bangkok and one that proves that no matter how much the outside world influences the development of this nation, nothing can change its underlying beliefs and traditions.
The history of the Erawan Shrine is fascinating, to say the least. In the mid-1950’s the government began construction of the Erawan Hotel in preparation for an upcoming international conference. Since it was felt that other hotels in the city wouldn’t cut it with international visitors, it was important that this one be completed in time. However, every stage of construction was met with delays and minor accidents. The final straw occurred when a ship carrying Italian marble was mysteriously lost at sea. The workers, who were mostly from small northern towns, en masse put down their tools and refused to work, sensing that a major disaster was imminent.
It was brought to the attention of persons in charge that the foundation stones had not been set on an auspicious date and that the spirit that resided in the land was angry. Thais believe that all properties are inhabited by spirits and that in exchange for living in their space one must make the proper, daily offerings. Clearly, the spirit living at the Rachadamri and Plenchit Roads was pissed off that no one had thought to build it a house or give it any presents.
Eminent astrologer Rear Admiral Luang Suwicharnpat was called in to see what could possibly be done to help the situation. After detailed study of charts and many calculations, Suwicharnpat determined that a shrine must be built and opened on the 9th of November, 1956. The shrine was to be dedicated to Brahma and the land spirit. The highest ranking Brahma God was chosen, the four faced Than Tao Mahaprom as it is thought to symbolize much luck. The statue at the center of the shrine was designed by Jitr Pimkowit from the Fine Arts Department and is gilded in the highest quality gold.
Than Tao Mahaprom is believed to be a Brahma god full of kindness, mercy, sympathy and impartiality. Each virtue is represented in the four faces of the image, radiating serene grace. His name for most foreign visitors was to hard to remember let alone pronounce. So with time he became known as the Erawan Shrine, named after his personal vechile, the three headed Erawan Elephant. This symbol of to be adopted as the logo for the hotel and today is the sub-symbol for Grand Hyatt Erawan Bangkok.
As soon as the shrine was in place, construction continued and was completed without any further problems. The land spirit made it clear that it was satisfied. Word of the miracle spread quickly and the Shrine became internationally known. People began to gather in droves to make offerings, asking for luck in marriage, business and with other money matters. They still do today.
Approaching the shrine is like walking into a different world. At one moment, you are in Bangkok, the modern, sprawling city with its skyscrapers and pollution and the next you are overwhelmed by the clouds of incense and the melodies of traditional Thai music. Dozens of people from all walks of life are crowded here, dressed in suits or dressed in rags, they are all paying reverence and hoping for a better future. In the first few years, the shrine collected money from donations far in excess of its need for maintenance and it was decided to donate what wasn’t used for upkeep to hospitals in rural areas. To date, the shrine has donated over 467 million Baht, about 10, 500 000 US dollars.
The shrine receives so many offerings of flowers and incense that caretakers are on hand at all hours to remove the excess to make room for more. The amount is simply astounding. Satisfied customers sometimes hire dancers and musicians to additionally thank the land spirit and this is a good opportunity for visitors to get a sampling of these beautiful Thai arts.
The Erawan Shrine is on several major transit routes and is located directly outside of the Hyatt Erawan Hotel. It is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, all days of the year. Admission is free, but you might be tempted to make an offering yourself in hope of better luck in your affairs. If you are in Bangkok, you can not miss it.
To see pictures of Erawan Shrine and a detailed write up on the history of Brahma, visit this site:
I end this with one interesting tale which further demonstrates the dedication of Thais to tradition. This could only happen in Bangkok.
There is a tale of one lady that needed some help with important aspect of her personal life, no doubt the chance to marry, that she promised if her wish was granted, she would return and dance naked in the moonlight. She got what she wanted and duly returned. A screen was put up around the shrine and under the cover of darkness performed the dance, dressed as just as she had been born.
One can do nothing in Bangkok without someone gossiping about it. Tongues wagged as expected. While understanding the lady’s wish to repay her debt of honour, it was felt to be lacking in respect for the God to expose oneself to him The practice was immediately discouraged.