Most people know that Hindus do not worship the god known as Brahma even though he is created the world. The story goes (one of the less controversial ones though) that he lied about finding the tip of an endless fire pillar. The pillar represented the infinite power of Shiva. Enraged, Shiva cursed Brahma that there would be no place for him in any temple. Brahma begged for mercy and so was allowed to reside in one temple near lake Pushkar in Rajasthan. One might find small shrines of Brahma housed within the great southern temple complexes dedicated to Vishnu. But generally, Brahma is not a very popular god within the Hindu pantheon.
So imagine my surprise when I found a very revered and popular temple of Brahma in Bangkok, Thailand. It was a resplendent roadside shrine in an area called Erawan not far from the World Trade Center within the compound of the Grand Hyatt hotel. The golden idol had four heads and four hands, holding a staff, spoons, a rosary, and a book, with a pot on his lap, like a priest ready to perform a yagna. The priest’s thread could be clearly seen falling across the chest. The shrine was open so one could see the four heads from all sides. There were four piles of flowers, one before each head. Dozens of locals — some looked Thai, some Chinese — could be seen praying reverentially before each of the heads before moving on to the next. After four prayers for four heads, they washed their hands and heads with holy water kept in a large silver tub. Around the shrine burnt hundreds of lamps and incense sticks. Flowers and incense sticks were sold around the shrine. On one side, under a pavilion, sat beautiful dancers. When paid money, these girls would sing and dance to traditional music. Dancing girls make Hindu gods happy as well as the four-headed ‘Buddha’ according to the local guide.
In the mid-1950’s Thailand had been selected to host a grand international conference. The government of the day were concerned that there was not a hotel of a standard to host the delegates. It therefore put out to tender the contract to build The Erawan Hotel, but there were no takers. The government was left with little choice than to build it for themselves. Unfortunately, every stage of the construction was delayed and it seemed as if everything was going wrong. The final straw was the loss of a shipload of Italian Marble that simply never arrived in the Port of Bangkok. The construction workers from up country had an uncanny knack for sensing when something was wrong; they refused to work until something was done to appease the guardian spirits of the plot. The Board of Directors of Thai United Hotel and Tour Co Ltd, the company attempting to build the hotel gave Police Major General M.L. Jare Suthat the task of sorting the problem out. He sought the advice of an eminent astrologer Real Admiral Luang Suwicharnpat as to what could possibly be done to correct the situation. After detailed studying of his chart and making various calculations he discovered that the foundation stone for the hotel was not laid at an auspicious time. All was not lost, the Real Admiral had found a solution. It would be necessary to construct a shrine to the land spirit. It was built in honor of the highest ranking Brahma God — the four faced Than Tao Mahaprom (Great God) as it was the most auspicious and would counter the oversight with the foundation stone. The image was designed by Jitr Pimkowit, a handicraft technician at the Fine Arts Department. It was cast in plaster of Paris and gilded with finest quality gold. It was put in it’s home on the corner of Rajdamri and Ploenchit Roads on 9th November 1956 — the date that is regarded as the anniversary of the shrine and when thousands of faithful believers return to seek help and advice. With the shrine in place the rest of the construction of the hotel was completed without a hitch. The magic worked.
Than Tao Mahaprom is believed to be a Brahma god full of kindness, mercy, sympathy and impartiality. Each virtue is represented in the four faces of the image, radiating serene grace. His name for most foreign visitors was too hard to remember let alone pronounce. So with time he became known as the Erawan Shrine, named after his personal vehicle, the three headed Erawan Elephant. This symbol of to be adopted as the logo for the hotel and today is the sub-symbol for Grand Hyatt Erawan Bangkok. People quickly came to realize the power of the Erawan Shrine and it soon became a custom to come to the shrine to ask for something in either your personal or business life that you desperately needed. There is not enough space to accommodate the flow of offerings and every couple of hours attendants have to clear what has been given to make space for that which will be delivered. From time to time upcountry hospitals and hotels will seek permission to have one of the large wooden elephants to grace their lobby. This is willingly granted as it known that an elephant that has come from the Erawan Shrine will be treated with great respect and have a garland of golden marigolds placed daily around its neck. Once the wish had been granted believers would return and hire two, four, six or eight dancers who will sing in praise of the shrine — a very appreciative thank you.
Daily busload of tourists from Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong visit the shrine as part of their tour of the capital to ask for good luck in their business. Believers pray for something they need rather than want. They will ask the spirits to show them how to improve their business or to have a new idea to solve a nagging problem. Beware that the request is not motivated by greed, asking for something that you want rather than need. There is a tale of one lady that needed some help with an important aspect of her personal life. She promised if her wish was granted, she would return and dance naked in the moonlight. She got what she wanted and duly returned. A screen was put up around the shrine and under the cover of darkness, she performed the dance, dressed as just as she had been born. Sooner after, tongues wagged. While understanding the lady’s wish to repay her debt of honor, it was felt to be lacking in respect for the God to expose oneself to him The practice was immediately discouraged.
What excited me as a mythologist about this shrine and the culture that has evolved around it is that this was a classical case of mythopoesis — transformation of customs and beliefs over history and geography.
Hinduism or rather Brahmanism (the religion of Brahma, according to Thais), like Buddhism, reached Thailand over a thousand years ago when Indian merchants and artisans frequented South East Asia under the patronage of kings who ruled the Coromandel Coast such as the Cholas and the Gangas. This was before an embargo was placed on sea travel in medieval times (travel across the sea led to loss of caste) and the sea trade was handed over to Arabs, and eventually Europeans. Hindu gods reached Thai shores as Indian merchants and artisans settled in the golden lands (Suvarna Bhumi) across the sea. Vishnu became, and still is, the god most favored by royal families while Brahma became the favorite of the priestly class. There was Shiva too; his phallic symbol was worshipped by women seeking children.
Over the centuries Hinduism in Thailand evolved autonomously. Some ideas which lost favor in India — as temple dancers – continued in Thailand. Gods mingled and merged. As a result, Brahma of Bangkok looked to me more like Indra of the Puranas who loved dancing girls, rode elephants, brought rain and good fortune. The two gods who are no longer part of popular Hindu lore in India thrived in the personality of Than Tao Mahaprom. Brahma in Bangkok no longer rode swans (though I did see images of Brahma on his swan in some shrines). He rode an multi-headed elephant called Erawan (from Airavat).
Many scholars debate whether the Hinduism of Thailand is Hinduism at all, or merely a local corrupt version. This stems from the assumption that there is an ‘original’ Hinduism. What is this ‘original’ Hinduism? Vedism — the religion of the Vedas? Brahmanism — the religion that acknowledges caste? Puranism — the religion which worships Puranic gods? Bhakti — which appeals to the heart in the language of the common man? Is it the ‘idolatrous’ Hinduism practiced today in Tirupati and Vaishno-devi or is it the ‘formless’ Hinduism that led to the establishment of Brahmo Samaj, Arya Samaj and Prarthana Samaj in the 19th century? The fact is religions, like everything, change. They respond to history and geography. They also change for and with people. Whatever the belief and custom, it is valid for those who practice it, when they practice it and where they practice it. One has to ponder this in times when politicians equate Islam with bomb carrying terrorists, Hinduism with saffron clad renegades, and Christianity with bible smug missionaries.