No trip to Bangkok is complete without a visit to the Erawan shrine

  • Vir Sanghvi, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Aug 29, 2015 18:46 IST

When you are a frequent visitor to a city, you develop your own favourite places – hotels, restaurants, bars, parks, shops, etc. I’ve been travelling to Bangkok regularly since the late 1980s, so I have my haunts and hangouts. But Bangkok is the only city in the world (outside of India, that is) where I always visit a particular place of worship, each time I’m there.

A regular affair: Every time I visit the Erawan shrine, I place some flowers and agarbattis near the Brahma murti that is at the centre of the temple. No trip to Bangkok is complete unless I go to the Erawan shrine, light a candle and place some flowers and agarbattis on the railing near the Brahma murti that is at the centre of the temple. It has become such a ritual with me that I’ve gone there late at night when I’m taking an early morning flight after a transit halt in Bangkok because I can’t conceive of visiting Bangkok without praying at the Erawan temple.

I’m not, on the whole, a going-to-temples kind of guy. Like most people who grew up in Bombay, I feel a special connection with the Siddhivinayak temple and I have warm memories of Pushkar from studying in Ajmer. But that’s about it. I have very little time for organised religion and my faith remains a personal matter.

So, why this ritual of always visiting the Erawan shrine?

Frankly, I don’t know. It could be because the shrine is dedicated to Brahma, a Hindu god. We don’t have too many Brahma temples in India. (Though, oddly enough, the one I went to as a child in Pushkar, was a rare Brahma shrine.) But this is a Thai version of Brahma, called Phra Phrom by the locals, and I’m not up on the mythology of Erawan, said to be the three-headed elephant that Brahma rode.

Nor is this a particularly ancient or significant temple. One of the things, I like about it is the story of its origins. In 1956, when Thailand was not the economic powerhouse it is today, the government built a grand hotel called the Erawan near a central intersection known as Ratchaprasong. It was to be to Bangkok what The Ashok was to Delhi.

But the construction was plagued by accidents, and the Thais, who are even more superstitious than Indians (if such a thing is possible), consulted astrologers. They were told that they had begun the construction without taking a mahurat. The accidents would continue, the astrologers said, unless the spirits were placated.

And how were they to be placated? Well, said the astrologers, the hotel needed to house a shrine to Lord Brahma (Thao Meh Brahma).

Why Brahma? Well, because though the Thais are largely Buddhist, there are strong Hindu influences in the country. The ancient capital was called Ayutthaya and the kings all take the title Rama. (Their version of the Ramayan is different from ours, though, and Indians are always outraged to discover that the Thais regard Hanuman as a comic character.) The court still has Brahmin priests and many of the royal rituals can only be performed by Brahmins, all of whom are of Indian origin.

So Brahma was not such an odd choice. The creator of the universe may have few temples dedicated to him in India – for which there are sound religious reasons apparently – but in the Thai version of Hindu tradition, there is no problem with building a Brahma temple.

I guess it could only happen in Thailand. Once the astrologers had recommended the construction of a temple the government decided to act on the suggestion. The Department of Fine Arts was asked to design a suitable murti, and after some consultation, one design was approved. It was commissioned – from public funds – and then constructed from plaster which was covered with gold leaf.

In November 1956, the murti was installed with great fanfare, the shrine was declared open and – lo and behold! – all the problems that had bedevilled the construction of the hotel suddenly vanished. The Erawan became the best hotel in central Bangkok in the Sixties, commanding the sort of position The Oriental was to hold in the 1980s, and became, like the Ashok in Delhi, the place where state guests were put up and government functions were held.

But the shrine took on a life of its own, quite independent of the hotel. It was a small open square at the intersection of two of Bangkok’s primary arteries so it was impossible to miss. It was easy to drop in if you were going to work or were out shopping.

And then, the myths began: go to the shrine, make a wish and it will nearly always be granted. School kids would come and pray before their exams. Mothers would pray for their children. Salarymen would beseech Brahma for help with their careers.

By the ’70s, Thailand’s economic miracle had begun and fancy new hotels such as the Dusit Thani and the Siam Intercontinental opened. The Erawan, like most public-sector operations, began to seem tatty and old-fashioned. It was pulled down and in the mid-Eighties, a brand new Grand Hyatt came up in its place. The Hyatt still uses the Erawan name and there is a very fancy shopping plaza next to it which is also called Erawan because it opens out to the shrine.

And as the Thais have got richer, the area around the shrine has become more and more upmarket. On the other side of the road there is the Central World Plaza complex, Bangkok’s largest mall; right opposite is Gaysorn Plaza with its Louis Vuitton and Prada stores. And a stone’s throw away are the big hotels: the InterContinental, the St Regis and the Anantara (the old Four Seasons).

All that shrines: The Erawan shrine is surrounded by upmarket malls and tourist attractions. Central World Plaza is one of them.

I was in Bangkok over the Independence Day weekend a fortnight ago and on the Monday before I left, had a late lunch at the wonderful Erawan Tea Room. As I walked back to my hotel, the Siam Kempinski, I wondered if I had time to stop in and light a candle. But I was late for a meeting so I stopped outside the shrine and simply prayed. I would come back later that evening, I decided, light the candles and agarbattis and do the full Erawan ritual.

Three hours later, my meetings over, I was about to head out to the temple when the news flashed on Twitter: "Major explosion in Bangkok". I turned on the TV. There was nothing on BBC or CNN so I switched to the Thai channels. I couldn’t understand a word they were saying. But I did not need to. The pictures told the story.

A bomb had gone off inside the shrine. The streets were covered with blood, debris and dead bodies. Some channels even had footage of the actual moment of the blast when the sky seemed to be on fire.

You probably know the rest of the story: around 20 dead and over a hundred injured. Many of those who were killed were visitors: Chinese, Malaysians, and others. The bomb was probably contained in a backpack and designed to kill as many visitors/devotees as possible.

I dug out the photos I had taken when I had stopped to pray just three hours before. In the middle of busy Bangkok’s most bustling area, the shrine seemed calm and peaceful. As cars whizzed past, people lit their agarbattis and prayed while classical dancers performed. (You can pay to have them dance as an offering to the deity.)

A thai tribute: At the Erawan temple, people can pay Thai classical dancers to perform in honour of the deity.

And now, it was full of bloody body parts and smoking, fiery debris.

Perhaps by the time you read this they will have found out who was responsible. I find it inconceivable that any Thai would spill blood in the Erawan temple. But, to be fair, there have been incidents there before. In 2006, when a man smashed the idol, some suggested that he was an Islamic fanatic but he turned out to be just a mentally disturbed individual.

The Thais were shocked but not unduly perturbed. As the original murti had been made by a government department anyway, they simply made another one, exactly like the original and put it there. The shrine re-opened and I suspect many of those who visit from abroad have no idea that this is a new murti.

I guess that is what they will do this time. They will clear the blood and clean up the shrine and re-open it.

I’m going back to Bangkok at the end of September. I hope the shrine will be open again by then. If not, I’ll go back whenever they do re-open it. To do anything else would be to let the murderers and terrorists win.

From HT Brunch, August 30

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