One thing first-time visitors to Thailand find intriguing is the spirit house, ubiquitously found in the yard of almost every Thai home or building. In Bangkok, the biggest and most popular spirit house is that located in front of the Grand Hyatt Erawan Hotel at the corner of Rajadamri and Ploenchit Roads. Built in 1956, long before the current hotel came to be, this spirit house has over the years emerged into a major Bangkok shrine, drawing busloads of devotees not only from Thailand but also from people across Asia – Hong Kong, Taiwan, China, Singapore, even Malaysia.
Hundreds of Westerners also visit the place daily, not so much to pay their respect to the Brahma god that it houses, but because the Erawan Shrine, as it is known today, is also one of the city’s major tourist attractions.
The Erawan Shrine has an interesting story behind it, which has made it a sensation among superstitious Thais. In the mid-1950’s, according to published accounts, Thailand was chosen to host an international conference. During that time, Bangkok never had a world-class hotel to house the delegates from various countries. So the government asked the private to build one, to be known as the Erawan Hotel. But Thailand then wasn’t even a dot on the tourist map and local investors simply couldn’t figure out how they would fill the posh hotel rooms after the conference delegates had gone home. Since there were no takers, the government was left with no other choice but to build the hotel itself.
Shortly after the start of construction, the project was beset with problems that threatened to delay its completion. Accidents happened on the work site and the upcountry workers started to sense something uncanny about the whole thing. Some people learned that the place was in fact a spiritual minefield, as it used to be a site where criminals were put on public display. One incident broke the camel’s back, so to speak. A marble shipment from Italy, a major component in the construction, sank at sea.
This further confirmed the highly superstitious worker’s suspicion that the gods had somethingagainst the hotel project. Fearing a disaster could also happen to them, they put their tools down and refused to work until something was done. To appease the spirits, a shrine was built dedicated to the highest ranking Brahma God, the four-faced Than Tao Mahaprom. From then on, the project went smoothly.
As a god of kindness, mercy, sympathy and impartiality, Than Tao Mahaprom became the object of veneration among the many Thai people. In time, the shrine became a place of pilgrimage. A story often retold is about a woman who pleaded for a husband, with a promise that if her wish were granted she would come back to dance naked.
She got what she wanted, and true to her promise, she indeed came back to dance in her birthday suit. It became the talk of the town, prompting the government to discourage such vows to avoid scandalising the religious shrine. A foreign visitor need not belive the shrine’s power to grant favours, but still it is a great place to visit.