To Americans, whose interests in things outside our borders is close to nil, Buddhism is an exotic and rather strange religion. Most are familiar with the Dalai Lama, or at least the idea of the Dalai Lama, know Buddhists don’t kill bugs, and have a muddled knowledge involving Richard Gere and the religion, though whether his religious beliefs have anything to do with his fondness of gerbils is anyone’s call. Few realize that there is more than one branch of Buddhism, just as there are with the other major religions of the world, and that the type of Buddhism practiced in Tibet – the one most Americans have at least minimal knowledge of – has little to do with that practiced in most of SE Asia. That makes Bangkok’s Erawan shrine a fitting introduction to Buddhism in Thailand for visitors from the States, since it is a Hindu, not Buddhist, shrine and the current statue that is the shrine’s focal point is a replacement for the one that originally brought the shrine its fame and glory.
Smack dab in the middle of Thailand’s capital city’s premier shopping district, the Erawan Shrine is passed by thousands of tourists every day either zipping above on the Skytrain or plodding along stuck in the town’s notorious traffic jams. Those traveling on the former may not realize they have just passed one of Bangkok’s most famous religious sites, other than to note how many fellow passengers just turned and let loose with a reverent wai. Those enjoying the air-conditioned comfort of a taxi too may not notice the small shrine, other than to note the crowds or the bank of smoke drifting outwards from its corner location (though they too may take note their driver just turned to wai, completely ignoring the job he is supposed to be doing: driving).
Many wander in attracted by the scene, often as a break from scurrying from one massive shopping mall to the next. Others make a beeline for the place following the recommendation of a guide book and its section on the four-headed Buddha, proving GIGO was alive and well even before the internet came along. Fortunately the shrine does not rely on clueless visitors, there are plenty who come to Erawan daily for what the shrine is really all about. And that’s money, wealth, and good fortune.
Another error unsuspecting visitors make is to take the small open-aired shrine in with a quick glance. Spend a bit more time to see what is really going on there and you’ll be rewarded with the sight of a Thai classic dance troupe, merit makers bringing in bags full of offerings of statues and floral arrangements, and attendants whisking away tributes left – in what sometimes is but a matter of minutes – deposited straight into a trash can with a studied nonchalance that would make the reverent blanch if it were not for the logic of the procedure; the shrine is so popular it would be buried in a mass of flowers if not constantly attended to.
There is also the sight of those who are obvious working girls asking for the gods to favor them, a small basin where devotees anoint themselves in a fashion that would be familiar to Catholics, gaggles of local kids with their mom or dad as bored with the proceedings as any youngster attending church on Sunday back in the States, and flocks of small birds being released from their red wood cages by those who’ve paid to make merit by their flight. It is a bustling, vibrant, heady scene, with a McDonald’s conveniently located just a few steps away. And it is all thanks to the Thai government’s decision to build a luxury hotel in downtown Bangkok back in 1953.
Even though a ceremony was held to appease the land deity where the Erawan Hotel was to be built, early construction was plagued by delays and mishaps, including cost overruns, injuries, and the loss of a shipload of Italian marble intended for use in the construction, which spooked the superstitious Thai construction workers to the point of calling a work stoppage. In desperation, a well-respected astrologer was consulted, who discovered the foundation stone for the building had not been laid on an auspicious date.
The erection of a shrine to honor the four-faced Brahma God, Than Tao Mahaprom, was considered to be the ticket to reversing the tide of misfortune that had been plaguing the construction site, and a magnificent image of the Brahma god was cast, gilded, and then inaugurated on November 9, 1956, a date carefully chosen this time around. Once it was in place, hotel construction proceeded without further difficulty, the shrine earned a reputation as a place to pray for good fortune, and for more than thirty years Thais and foreigners, particularly tourists from SE Asia, Taiwan, and Hong Kong flocked to the shrine to seek the blessings of Brahma.
By the 1990s, the once regal hotel could no longer compete with its newer 5 star neighbors and was rebuilt by the Hyatt hotel corporation, who wisely retained the famous shrine and kept its common name as part of the new hotel. That hotel too prospered and thousands of the faithful and the hopeful continued to pay homage at Erawan until the spring of 2006 when 27-year-old Thanakorn Pakdeepol, a Thai man believed to be mentally ill, took a hammer to the statue of Brahma early one morning, smashing the god to bits, leaving only part of the lap and base of the statue intact.
Though Than Tao Mahaprom is a Brahma god, full of kindness, mercy, and sympathy, his virtues were ignored by two street sweepers working nearby who witnessed the act of vandalism and promptly beat Thanakorn to death.
The shrine was closed to the public for two days before reopening with a white cloth draping the remains of the statue; photographs were put on display so that worshippers could continue to pay their respects. A new statue was cast, replacing the original one made of plaster and plated in gold with one made of metal, and two months later (undoubtedly on an auspicious date) the new four-faced Brahma was installed in a lavish ceremony that was televised live and which drew devotees from all over SE Asia including a special charter flight from Hong Kong.
Located at the Ratchaprasong intersection of Rachadamri and Ploenchit Roads, and at the foot of the Chit Lom BTS station, the Erawan Shrine continues to be one of the most heavily visited places of worship in Bangkok. It is a place to make wishes, and whether you are a Buddhist praying at a Hindu shrine, or a visitor, your best bet to have the gods look favorably on your plea is to first bribe them show them proper respect through an offering. Most do so at Erawan by purchasing incense sticks to burn and flower garlands to drape on the shrine. Others bring their own offerings, some quite elaborate and pricey. There are also caged birds to free, and many hire the traditional Thai dance troupe who work the shrine to perform while they say their prayers.
The dancers work eight hour shifts every other day and earn 19 baht per performance, which averages a take-home pay of about 1,000 baht per day. Worshipers can hire the dancers in clusters of two, four, six or eight to perform and sing a prayer with price ranges running from 260 to 710 baht. Visitors can watch the performances for free, and the haunting xylophone music backed by the beating of a double-sided drum provide a captivating soundtrack to the shrine’s activities.
One of the most easily accessible spots in Bangkok to take in some local religious culture, the Erawan Shrine is open daily from 6:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. and admission is free. Cash contributions are managed by a foundation who distributes funds to various charitable organizations and purchases equipment for needy hospitals in the country’s rural areas. Visitors from the U.S. who don’t make the time to for a quick pilgrimage to Erawan can instead visit the reproduction installed at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas where like the Buddhists of Thailand, Christians too stop to say a quick prayer to a Hindu god in the hopes of enticing some good fortune their way.
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