Ghost stories and spirit worship

Earlier this week I had to go downtown for a meeting and I ended up taking a new route into the city. Along the way I saw a Buddhist temple that is the site of a popular shrine I’ve heard about but never visited. I had some extra time so I jumped off the songtaew and spent some time exploring.

One of the most popular Thai ghost stories is about “Mae Nak” a woman in the mid-1800’s who died during childbirth while her husband was away fighting in a war.  Her ghost remained in their house – unwilling to leave because of her strong love for her husband – and the villagers were terrified of her. When her husband came back he couldn’t tell that his wife was a ghost and he refused to believe his neighbors when they tried to tell him. Her ghost began killing the villagers who were opposed to her and eventually the husband caught on (when he saw his wife stretch her arm down from the deck of their stilt house to pick up a lime that had fallen to the ground – apparently that’s a common ghostly ability). He tries to sneak away from her, she hunts him down, there’s more terrorizing of the villagers, and finally a monk is able to capture the ghost and convince her to leave for the afterlife. This story has been adapted into numerous movies and TV shows and is used as an ideal of love and devotion. (You can read more in this Wikipedia article and watch a trailer for the most recent movie adaptation, a comedy that was a huge hit here.)

The temple I visited has a shrine to the spirit of Mae Nak. Because she was such a powerful ghost, many Thai people believe that making offerings at her shrine will produce results (especially mothers asking for an easy childbirth and men asking to get out of military conscription). Prayers for winning lottery numbers are also common – a sign outside the shrine listed the hours of operation but noted that on the days before the lottery draw the shrine is open all night.

Here are a few pictures and videos…

The outside of the shrine.

The outside of the shrine.

The statues of Mae Nak and her baby. People were putting money in her hands and applying gold leaf to the statues. The dresses hanging in the background are gifts for the spirit and some people leave toys for the baby.

The statues of Mae Nak and her baby. People were putting money in her hands and applying gold leaf to the statues. The dresses hanging in the background are gifts for the spirit and some people leave toys for the baby.

In another part of the shrine was this tree (a tree like this figures into the ghost story somehow). The trunk had smooth indentations worn into it from people rubbing it with oil. I watched for a while and then asked a man who was rubbing the tree what the significance was. He explained that, according to Thai belief, the local spirit can reveal lottery numbers through this tree. You pick a spot and rub until you see a number appear. He chuckled and said that he often comes to do this but he’s hardly ever seen anything.

The temple is next to a canal and many people were buying animals to release as a way of making merit and bringing improvement to their lives.

This chart lists all the kinds of creatures for sale and explains what benefits releasing them will bring. Things like "Get rid of your bad karma for things that you did intentionally or unintentionally." "Your family and love life will have only happiness." "Your life will be free of enemies. Your competitors will be defeated."

This chart lists all the kinds of creatures for sale and explains what benefits releasing them will bring. Things like “Get rid of your bad karma for things that you did intentionally or unintentionally.” “Your family and love life will have only happiness.” “Your life will be free of enemies. Your competitors will be defeated.”

People who bought fish, frogs, and turtles would pray before releasing them into the canal.

People who bought fish, frogs, and turtles would pray before releasing them into the canal.

And of course the kids were just having fun feeding the fish and pigeons.

And of course the kids were just having fun feeding the fish and pigeons.

I was glad that I happened to find this shrine…it was another good reminder of how strongly most people here believe in the supernatural world. And it made me think again about the need for much prayer and dependence on God as we continue following Jesus and inviting others to join us.

-Tom

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