I was going to keep this one for mother’s day but I realised I’d forget all about it by next year so I thought it best to post it now.
It’s one I took when I was doing some work with the Elephant Help Clinic in Phuket many years ago. The baby elephant is wearing a lei because she’d just been blessed by the monks from the nearby temple.
This week Tina has suggested we choose something for ourselves. This is more difficult that it sounds as too many choices put themselves forward, places and people, themes and tunes, and some just beautiful images.
I’ve chosen to look at a time in my childhood which seemed magical, life was good, the world – and the fields- were full of flowers, and the future was something we didn’t think about. And now I think, Where have all the flowers gone?
That’s me on the right with my four cousins picking dog-daisies on our Sunday walk, way back when. We used to walk across the small mountain area called The Bernish in Co. Down, now a famous look-out point and tourist attraction. I’ve just looked it up and it’s totally unrecognisable now. As for wild flowers ….
Wild broom growing in the Languedoc area, France.
Wild poppies and grasses growing on the lava that had poured down from Etna in Sicily.
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I love a mystery, don’t you? Why was this young couple undergoing such an intense cleansing? Had they done something terribly wrong? Was it a type of Merit-making? On the other hand, maybe they were being cleansed before undertaking a journey, a project, or even a marriage? This was the third bowl of ‘crystal water’ I’d seen poured over them and it seemed as though there was more to come. I wish we’d been able to wait to ask some questions but time didn’t allow for this.
No, no, no. Find a policeman if you want directions. These children in Caracas may seem to know exactly where the Change Bureau is but they will probably send you to the nearest Emerald seller as every other person there seems to have a contact in the business, working from a street corner or a shop doorway. Emeralds and Cambio, the two things tourists are looking for in Bolivar Plaza (don’t mention cocaine).
It was the year 2000, and we did ask a policeman in the crowded square where we could exchange some money. He recommended his ‘cousin’ in a nearby bank as the best person with whom to do a deal, and he took us there and waited for his ‘cut’ from the bank clerk, at the end of the transaction. Cultural expectations overturned at every corner in a fascinating city.
(I thought I had done a Post about this subject but I can’t find it although I had the word part in my folder, so here it is, and I hope it’s not the second time).
It’s rush hour in Bangkok and the noise from the klaxons of the grid-locked traffic is deafening. Under the impassive gaze of the police, vendors erect their stalls for the illegal evening street market, laying out the fake Rolexes, the Versace tee shirts and the Calvin Klein jeans. On the narrow pavements all is hustle and bustle as tourists browse and stall-holders finger their calculators in readiness for the haggling.
There are pockets of quiet though. On islands in the middle of the road, on forecourts of the hotels, banks and shops that line the streets, people are quietly praying, their heads bowed and hands joined before what appear to be pagoda-roofed miniature dolls’ houses perched on top of posts. But these are not dolls’ houses, these are spirit houses, shrines to the spirits of the land on which they are built, and the people really are praying in the midst of the mayhem that is often found in cities and towns in Thailand.
One of that country’s most endearing symbols, these shrines fascinate and baffle the first-time visitor to the Kingdom who has read that 98% of Thais are Buddhists. The gentle tolerance that typifies the Thais however, allows for compatibility of many beliefs, and a belief in the spirits finds easy acceptance among virtually all Thais.
Every dwelling, whether private or public, has its spirit house, situated where the shadow of the main house doesn’t fall upon it. The spot will have been chosen in consultation with an astrologer and in design it will resemble a miniature temple, sometimes painted red and gold, sometimes in plain wood and sometimes plain, dazzling white – public buildings seem to favour white alabaster or marble – and it will be high above the ground to show respect to the spirits who reside in it, but low enough for offerings to be made to them.
When the shrine is first erected, a house-warming party is held for the spirits, who are invited to move in, the host spending as much money on the party as he can afford in order to do honour to the spirits. If any misfortune should subsequently befall the house – a robbery, a fire, or a spouse running away, it would be a sure sign that the owner had skimped on the house-warming!
Servants will be represented by tiny terracotta or wooden figures placed inside the shrine as well as carved wooden elephants to transport the spirits should they wish to go visiting. Family spirits are usually housed indoors, but spirits of the land and the highly respected spirits of rice, water, trees and wind always live outside, working within an inviolable division of labour.
Most spirits are benevolent, but some are mischievous and some can be downright dangerous: they are always unpredictable. Some are restless and troublesome – the spirits of those who have died violently (the Phi Tai Hong) or those who have died in childbirth and who spend their time searching for another body to inhabit (the Phi Tai Tong Klom), and there are some so dangerous that they must be bribed to stay out of the house. Fortunately, they respond to bribery.
This can take the form of offering extra special food, walking a number of times round the shrine, or in some cases, if the owners of the property on which the shrine stands fears a personal attack from the spirits, they may wear their clothes inside out for a week or two and change their name in order to confuse them.
Offerings are chosen to suit individual spirits. In the South of Thailand where Islam moved steadily down the coast from Malaysia, the spirits that inhabit the land may be Muslim and the dietary rules that forbid the offering of pork and alcohol must be strictly adhered to. Others are known to be partial to the odd glass of beer or whiskey and there is a famous roadside shrine just outside the village of Cha’am in Petchaburi province where, it is rumoured, a daily offering of marijuana is left for the spirits.
At festivals it is usual to offer elaborate meals consisting of whole chickens, coconuts, honeycombs and other delicacies, as a thank you for past favours received, or to secure a favour, a win on the lottery, a new job, recovery from illness, a new wife or husband or even a partner for the night. There is no limit to the kind of request that can be made. Bribes are frequently offered and being a pragmatic race the Thais, as often as not, withhold part of the bribe until the request is fulfilled.
The offerings are placed on the small ledge in front of the shrine, like a mini altar. The food may be eaten by the birds or it may blow away, but if say, a chicken or duck were offered, then this is sometimes removed and given to needy people in the area. The merit lies in the giving.
Some shrines are credited with miraculous powers, like the famous Erawan complex of spirit houses next to the hotel of the same name in the heart of downtown Bangkok (see header picture). Stalls selling candles, joss-sticks, carved elephants and lotus flowers ring the central shrine, and a professional group of dancers and musicians in the sparkling costumes of old Siam can be hired to sing and dance for the spirits.
There are no hard and fast rules, but when making offerings there are three essentials – water, rice, and joss sticks – and there are a couple of basic things to remember. Do not offer food left over from a meal, or a piece of chocolate hastily broken off as a token. Everything must be specifically for the spirits: don’t even smell the flowers if you’ve bought them as offerings.
The Thais are not possessive of their spirits. Before travelling onwards, you will often find yourself invited to join them in making offerings for your safe journey. Whichever method of travel you choose, at the point of departure you will find spirit houses and at Bangkok’s International Airport, where the noses of all planes in Thai Airways fleet have been blessed by the Supreme Patriarch, you can calm yourself before take-off by visiting the spirit house by the runway.
Just follow the Thai pilots, they never fly without first visiting a spirit house.
Header Image of People Praying at the Erawan Shrine in Bangkok is copyright of Chingwit https/creativecommons.org/licences/by-sa/4.0
I’m going with the very obvious here, orange is for oranges:
Moving on to Thailand and the orange-robed monks from that country. I have many Thai Buddhist friends and, when I’m there, they usually include me in any ceremonies that they are attending so I was highly honoured when I was allowed to serve the monks at one special occasion.
While in Vietnam we visited a school where children disabled by landmines were being taught skills they could use in later life. Some were being taught ceramics, some embroidery and tapestry, some carpentry and carving, some silverwork and other traditional skills. To my eyes they were all experts at what they were doing.
Here the young people are being taught the skills of applying gold leaf. I tried it myself and made a total hash of it, much to the amusement of the students. It requires a good eye and a steady hand, not to mention extreme patience.