BY FELICIA KATZ-HARRIS
Almost universally, yet through varied means and belief systems, people have found ways to connect with divine beings to harness protection and attain blessings and good fortune for themselves, their loved ones, and their communities.
Be they God, deities, nature spirits, or ancestors, these beings reside in the sacred realm and can bring great fortune and great harm to people in the physical world. They are approached with immense respect for the powers they hold.
Sacred Realm: Blessings & Good Fortune Across Asia, a new exhibition at the Museum of International Folk Art, highlights the museum’s own collection of Asian art, which is as varied as the cultures represented. The thread that ties the collection together is folk art with transcendent power, that is, power related to the sacred realm beyond the mundane world. If you were to visit MOIFA’s collection-storage rooms, you would see hundreds of amulets and objects with talismanic properties. Thousands of deity figures and dozens of ritual paintings, religious texts, shamanic and magical implements, and ceremonial dance masks fill the Asian storage rooms. These objects of divine power bring good health and longevity, love and fertility, prosperity and luck, peace and safety to those who believe in them — essentially, blessings and good fortune.
Asia is a wonderfully diverse region, rich in spiritual ideas and sacred traditions, and the birthplace of all the “world religions”— Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam. It is also home to thousands of local, less known religions and more than 2,200 languages. It is comprised of more than forty-five countries and spans over seventeen million square miles. Indeed, there is no one Asian culture; it is a land of many places and many cultures. Yet across this vast continent, from the Mediterranean Sea to the Pacific Ocean, almost everyone engages with the sacred realm in distinct cultural ways. While practices of belief are indeed wide-ranging, people create special objects and follow special traditions that help them achieve these blessings and find balance and harmony in the physical and otherworldly realms. Connecting with the divine, people petition for good things to come and, by spiritual means, seek that which brings joy, comfort, and balance or endeavor to divert ill will and harm.
Sacred Realm identifies three main categories of how people pursue protection and blessings: the use of amulets and talismans, the ritual performance of music and dance, and the practice of communication with the divine, or prayer. While these are subjectively ascribed rather than fixed categories, this organization allows for the exploration and contemplation of cross-cultural influences, and of differences and commonalities in religious traditions and ritual art across Asia.
Amulets and talismans are created and used for magical protection, to ward off evil, and to bring good luck. Sometimes they have specific functions, such as to prevent sore throat, deflect bullets, enhance sexual prowess, or increase shop sales. The exhibit includes pendants and charms with magical properties, which are found across cultures; magical tattoos from Southeast Asia; architectural elements such as a Batak corbel from Sumatra that protects the home; a Hmong spirit-lock necklace that locks a child’s spirit to her body, keeping her in good health; a Jewish mezuzah that serves as a reminder of God and blesses the home; and a Bedouin necklace from Palestine with cloves, alum, and special beads that protects a bride from jealousy and the evil eye.
Sometimes people perform dances to “make merit” or bless a community. Sometimes ritual performances frighten away harmful spirits or bring balance between the cosmic and physical worlds. On display are a dramatic example of a Kenyah Dayak Hudoq mask, used in a dance that protects rice fields from pests and threatening spirits (Kalimantan, Indonesia); Mahakala masks, worn by monks who dance to confer blessings upon their communities (Bhutan); and sacred masks used in the Calonarang dance (Bali), which brings balance to the world.
People also connect with the sacred realm through divine communication, or prayer. Prayer may be verbal or physical; it may be based on scripture, a declaration of faith or gratitude to God, or recitation of the word of God. Prayer may take the form of divine reciprocation, whereby people make offerings of gifts to please or appease deities, spirits, or ancestors, who will in turn provide protection and blessings. While offerings of flowers, light (candles), incense, and food and water are common, offerings may be specific to certain deities or spirits.
For example, some take toys and sweets; others prefer whiskey and cigarettes. People may also literally interact with the sacred realm as practitioners, or shamans, asking a divine entity for its participation and presence in special rituals for healing, guidance, or protection. Objects used for divine communication in the exhibit include a Torah from Iraq, on view for the first time; a Qur’an from Lebanon; and Catholic santos from the Philippines. Also in this section are Buddha images from across Asia, a selection of Hindu deities and prayer items, a full set of Red Dao (Yao) shamanic deity paintings from southern China, and Thai spirit houses.
Spirit houses (as they are commonly referred to), ubiquitous in Thailand, are an example of the ways in which people make offerings to spirits in exchange for blessings of prosperity, good health, happiness, and protection from harm. If you have traveled through this country, you have seen these houses while walking or tuk tuk–ing about. The propitiation of spirits predates Buddhism in Thailand (around the sixth century CE). While more orthodox Buddhist doctrine does not accept spirit worship, the complex dynamics of popular religious practice and hints of Hindu practice allow for the coexistence of spirit houses and Thai Buddhism today. The belief that a vast array of spirits (phii) inhabits the land, water, forests, and mountains is prevalent throughout Thailand; spirits exist everywhere. There are numerous categories of spirits, including the spirit or soul of a deceased person. The phii of interest here are nature spirits, which hold positions of varying importance in a spiritual hierarchy.
One of the most prominent of these nature spirits is the Guardian Spirit of the Land, Phra (The Venerable) Phoom Jao Ti, or Phra Phoom (the latter is a more general reference to the spirit, whose original name is Phra Chaimonkon, and he is of royal descent). While Phra Phoom Jao Ti is a spirit, he has a deity status; he is sometimes referred to as the Lord of the Land or the Deity of the Land. He is characterized as a standing figure, usually gold or gold-toned, holding a sword in one hand (to fight dangerous spirits) and, in the other, a money bag. These items symbolize protection and prosperity.
The Guardian Ancestor Spirits of the Land (Ta Yai, or Pu Ya) are represented by the figures of two older adults, a male and female; they are also known as the Grandparent Spirits of the Land. Ta Yai are not ancestors of the landowners but of the physical land. They honor those who have lived on the land for hundreds of generations in the past, and supplication to them helps the current residents make peace with these ancestor spirits. Tai Yai also carry money bags—the Grandfather holds a bag of gold, and the Grandmother holds a bag of silver. Depending on who and in which region of Thailand you ask, some will say that Ta Yai are manifestations of Phra Phoom Jao Ti; others say that these are unique sets of spirits, not different manifestations of one. Either way, these are high-level guardians who protect the land and the household.
When a house, shop, bank, hotel, bar, hospital, or any other building is built, the structure displaces these spirits. They must be kept happy, and to stay happy they need offerings. For one thing, they must be provided with alternative housing. Small (and sometimes not-so-small) houses are built for them. Phra Phoom Jao Ti, as the Deity of the Land, is provided with a spirit house modeled on a Thai temple. Ta Yai, as Grandparent Spirits of the Land, are given a spirit house modeled on a Thai house. Most commonly, you see spirit houses fashioned after traditional Thai structures, although contemporary spirit housing (slick marble houses) is gaining popularity for buildings in a more contemporary style.
Guardian spirits offer protection, so people want them to stay on their land, but they are not necessarily welcome to dwell in the main house or building. This is one reason that spirit houses are elaborately built, lavishly decorated, and given an abundance of offerings. If their spirit house is attractive enough, the spirits will happily stay there. Spirit houses are always placed in a ritually designated spot, outside. If treated right, venerated, and given appropriate gifts, guardian spirits will identify dangerous spirits that are lurking about and thwart them from entering the main house. More than that, they return the favor of praise and bring prosperity to the family or whoever owns, rents, or visits the land on which the main house or building stands.
However, if neglected or unsatisfied, the guardians of the land will look the other way when the main house is threatened by negative forces and let misfortune befall the residents. A ritual specialist, usually a Brahmin (spiritual master), may be required to determine the problem. Residents may just need to reaffirm their gratitude to the spirits, but it may also be that the spirits require a new house (for example, if their old house is damaged). If new housing is required, the old house may not be discarded casually but is placed under a sacred tree (such as a Bodhi tree, the kind Buddha sat under when he gained enlightenment). It is left to disintegrate over time or, if made of concrete, to crumble.
The way in which the spirits are given offerings and the styles of their spirit houses have changed over time, and even in just the past few decades. The ritual use of spirit houses is rooted in traditions of southern Chinese tribal groups who migrated to the northern mountains of mainland Southeast Asia several hundred years ago. Over time regional and cultural characteristics and beliefs around spirit houses developed and spread to Thailand, Burma, Laos, and Cambodia. The original spirit houses, much like those found today in smaller, more remote villages (particularly in the northern mountains), were quite simple. In these smaller villages, a spirit house may be situated on the fringe of the village to protect the whole community. In larger villages and in cities, and in more contemporary times, it is more common to see spirit houses dedicated to individual homes and businesses.
Spirit houses are attended to daily and given many offerings. The spirits are personified by consecrated figures. Phra Phoom Jao Ti is placed in the inner sanctum of the “temple,” and Ta Yai are in the center of the “house.” The spirit temple and the spirit house are commonly situated side by side, especially in central Thailand. Certain rules determine the placement of spirit houses. For example, they cannot be in the shadow of the main building: the guardian spirits will not stoop to living in anyone’s shadow. To keep the guardian spirits happy, they are supplied with servants (kneeling men and women), dancers, and vehicles (usually a horse and an elephant). They are given flowers to beautify their home, incense for fragrance, and candles for clarity and spiritual light. Royal regalia in the form of two miniature umbrellas — one in silver and the other in gold, for prosperity (they also represent the sun and the moon) — are also provided. Rice, sweets, fruit, and other foods are offered, as well as water, soda, alcohol, cigarettes, and betel.
The consecration of spirit houses is an involved ceremony that might last for three hours. Houses are set on a concrete platform or other foundation. On the spot where the spirit houses are placed, the Brahmin places a group of specially prepared yan (yantras, or magical formulas) in a hole in the foundation, along with wood stakes that are planted in the ground. Each stake contains magical formulas. The Brahmin recites special mantras and invites the spirits to reside in the new spirit houses. Requests are made to the spirits to protect the household and bring its residents prosperity and other blessings. Rhythmic drumming and conch blowing by ritual assistants sometimes accompanies the ceremony. In front of the houses, an impressive assortment of foods, drinks, coins, and flowers is offered to the spirits. In addition to daily offerings, you might find whole cooked chickens and ducks, eggs, a cooked pig’s head, fish, crabs, and rosewater. Members of the household and in some cases the whole community participate in the ritual by providing particular offerings when the Brahmin calls for it.
These intricate and formulaic traditions around sophisticated beliefs and ideas of protection are just one example of how people seek and attain blessings and good fortune through divine communication. Every day, people in Thailand communicate with these spirits and provide offerings to them, in exchange for protection and good favor. While we can’t be certain of the status of all exhibition objects, we have asked local practitioners and devotees for directives and blessings regarding the display of sacred material. In addition, we consulted with a local feng shui expert to incorporate ideas of harmony and balance into the exhibition design.
It is important to note that because it would be inauspicious to acquire a discarded spirit house, the spirit houses featured in Sacred Realm were purchased new from a family-owned spirit house workshop in Bangkok that has been in business for sixty years. In this way, the museum was able to avoid the possibility of disturbing spirits or bringing them into the permanent collection.
Felicia Katz-Harris is the senior curator and the curator of Asian folk art at the Museum of International Folk Art and curator of Sacred Realm: Blessings & Good Fortune Across Asia. Her past exhibits include Tako Kichi: Kite Crazy in Japan and Dancing Shadows, Epic Tales: Wayang Kulit of Indonesia, which won an award for “Overall Excellence in Museum Exhibitions” from the American Alliance of Museums.
Sacred Realm runs through March 19, 2017, at MOIFA. It will offer visitors hands-on activities in the gallery, such as amulet making and a photo booth for taking and sharing photos of empowering tattoos. There will also be an area to make flower offerings, which can be left in offering bowls at certain displays, including those of Thai spirit houses. Watch for articles on Yao shamanism and magical tattoos of Asia in upcoming issues of El Palacio.