When 443 Thai troops deployed on humanitarian duty to Iraq in 2003 they were heavily protected; not just by armour, but by over 6,000 Thai Buddhist amulets. In an ancient rite, army commander General Sarayud gave each recruit clay Buddha images wrapped in sacred cloth depicting cabalistic yantra diagrams and inscriptions in archaic Khmer. Many of the soldiers already bore magic tattoos, Thai Buddhist amulets or a hem from their mother's skirt, which is believed to disable weapons.
Among the 46 Thai Buddhist amulets Staff Sgt Phetchai Srikhem carried to Iraq is one of only eight golden Garuda images issued by King Rama IX. It's the centrepiece of eleven Thai Buddhist amulets slung around his neck. He's not unusual. Thai Buddhist amulet collection is a hobby and also an industry in Thailand worth ten billion baht ($250 million) a year.
Pre-Buddhist inhabitants carried animistic charms to ward off harm — or to win riches, luck or ladies. But the business in Thai Buddhist amulets, particularly in mass-produced Buddhist tablets, boomed only in the past 50 years. They're traded from approximately 10,000 stalls and shops across Thailand, some fetching huge prices.
According to Phya Anuman Rajadhon, Thai Buddhist amulets come in four classes. The first are natural oddities: cat's eye stones; peculiar seeds; antlers; teeth or tusks found lodged in trees; transformed metals like quicksilver; and khot stones found in animals or plants. Class 2 are images of the Buddha or Buddhist monks; Class 3 need a spell to be activated and encompass trade talismans, folded palm leaf charms, phallic images and yantra diagrams on cloth, jackets or tattoos. Another, takrud, is an embossed or engraved metal foil that's rolled onto a chord or, in a miniscule form called salika, inserted under the skin. Class 4 are waan yaa, plant roots used in shamanic medicine, black magic and the making of Thai Buddhist amulets.
The Thai Buddhist amulet may come in cast bronze, carved wood, stone or tiger tooth, or most commonly as phra phim, clay votive tablets in rectangular, pointed, oval or bell shape. "Originally it was not meant for protection of the wearer, but for perpetuating Buddhism," says the Buddhist scholar Vithi Phanichphant of the unfired votive tablets moulded by early Mahayana Buddhists. Those were uncertain times of constant warfare and forced migration, when the Buddhist message might conceivably be lost. "They buried these Thai Buddhist amulets of the Buddha and inscriptions of his preachings in Thai temple pagodas so that Buddhism would survive for eternity." Now excavated and widely distributed in a time of materialism, these Buddhist time capsules to some degree fulfill their intended purpose to preserve faith.
Phra phi are made of more than clay. These amulets may contain gold, pollen, insects, dried garlands, gem dust, powdered waan herbs, or ashes of palm leaf scriptures, bound together with banana paste or betel chewed by a respected monk. Primaeval cave tablets were moulded from the ashes of ancestors and shamans, though tablets today can veer towards novelty. Some are encrusted with gems. Thai newspapers have reported amulets pressed from methamphetamine as a blasphemous means to smuggle the drug. "The latest substances are fossilised dinosaur bone or mammoth tusk. So it's the oldest Buddhist image in the world," Vithi chuckles. "Older than the Buddha!"
Ingredients influence the price of the amulets, along with aesthetics, age, condition, number of pressings, purported powers, and the stature of the sponsoring Buddhist monk. All classes gain potency from ritual blessing. Thai Buddhist amulets made by the Thai king, such as those King Rama IX crafted from sacred substances including his own hair, need no further blessing. No living Buddhist monk dispenses more charms than the venerable Luang Phor (Respected Father) Khoon of Wat Raan Rai, Nakhon Ratchasima. Aside from blessing politicians to use his image, words, taped sermons and Thai Buddhist amulets for electioneering, this Buddhist monk issues millions of clay self-portraits in lucky series titled goo hai mums (I give to you), goo rak mueng (1 love you) and goo hai mueng may (I hope you get rich). "The abbot does not give special favour to particular candidates. Locals just assume the Buddhist monk likes that candidate so they give him support,"
At the most popular Thai Buddhist temples a thousand or more visitors per day buy Thai Buddhist amulets like plastic hod hi leaves and faux banknotes bearing the Abbot's likeness. The proceeds have funded 400 million baht worth of social projects in Thailand as well as his temples costing millions of baht.
Paying for good works is the justification that Buddhist monks cite for selling Thai Buddhist amulets. Luang Phor Khoon's innovative Thai Buddhist amulets typify changes in how people want their luck. "In days past, charms usually boasted only one particular magical power. Today's Buddha talismans must offer a hodgepodge of magic. like the 7-Eleven one-stop-shop," writes Sanitsuda Ekachai of a mammoth tusk coin devised by a jewellery importer. "Responding to clients' varied needs, the anti-harm symbol offers safety while the mammoth ivory gives a sense of sanctity and uniqueness.
The image of the most revered Thai King Chulalongkorn, apart from promising business success, helps the holder to feel closer to the centre of prestige and status. Of these the most prized 'emperor of Thai Buddhist amulets; the Mira Somdet Wat Rakhang, was created in the late 19th century ago by Luang Phor Toh, the occult master who reputedly exorcised the ghost Nang Nak. At the first ever auction of Thai Buddhist amulets in 2002, one reaped a record 86.3 million baht. The Thai Buddhist amulet market was then recovering from the 1997 economic crash which devastated the Thai economy and briefly halved its volume, value and vending outlets. Content was also debased, with cheaper tablets being produced using less gold. Livelihoods depend on telling an original from a reprint or those stolen, copied or faked.
Mass market Thai newspapers, especially Khao Sod, devote pages to the trade, though the government threatens a clamp-down on far-fetched claims. Vendors, however, bristle at accusations of 'trading' in religious artefacts. They claim to 'rent' Thai Buddhist amulets, much as Buddhist monks shouldn't 'handle money' but graciously 'accept donations' for Thai Buddhist amulets they don't, technically, 'sell'. The Buddhist monks latest term of art is 'worship fee'. No qualms, though, about the case and chain being cash-convertible. Long a means of portable wealth and face-gaining display, yellowish high-carat gold is the container of choice, though silver or gilt-effect plastic does the job. Neck chains, however, are an import from barely a century ago. Thais wore sacred threads on the crown, wrist, ankle, bleep or waist, or from right shoulder to left hip like the Brahmin sash. "Wearing it round the neck is very Western.
Along with every enthusiasm, though, come addicts. Necks sag with a lucky nine Thai Buddhist amulets on heavy chains; hips bristle with an auspiciously knotted chord; tablets almost hide the dials of a car. While it seems you can't have too much luck, you can show too much face. Thais mock such show offs as a "too thong klueanthee" (portable gold cabinet), and may regard those brandishing excessive Thai Buddhist amulets as hoodlums in activities requiring extra protection. Other collectors may revel in the aesthetics, the piety or the profits. At some point these protective charms themselves need protecting.
Choochart Marksamphan acquired so many outstanding pieces that he turned his home at Phutthamonthon into the Lord Buddha Images Museum. "These Thai Buddhist amulets do not belong to me alone but to all Thais," he says. "I am but the custodian for posterity." As to whether they work, deaths of a wearer would often be put down to the spell having been negated. Not observing the Buddhist monk's moral instructions could undo it, as would ducking under a clothesline that held women's underwear. Or they left on their Thai Buddhist amulet while draining bodily fluids, whether in the toilet or during sex. In any case, karma works in mysterious ways. In February 2004, Thai Rath newspaper luridly reported a soldier non-fatally shot by a southern separatist as being saved by his Luang Phor Thuad Buddha amulet. The Bangkok Post simply reported the officer's terrible injuries. So was he lucky or unlucky? Either way, his tale enters the folklore that keeps Thai Buddhist amulets at the heart of this rich oriental culture.