For advertisers in predominately Buddhist Thailand, the most expensive site to advertise their products is on the side of the country's tallest skyscraper, the Baiyoke Tower in Bangkok.But back in September 2007 it wasn’t the usual image of shampoo or mobile phones nor the Buddha that adorned the building but statuesque head of a mythical Hindu deity, Jatukam Ramathep – who is a combination of two ancient gods who represent the guardians of some of Thailand's holiest Buddhist relics and it was being displayed on a Bangkok skyscraper in order to sell itself.
Buddhist Thais have always been keen on religious amulets - usually bearing the image of the Buddha or other icons, and they are mostly worn around the neck thought to bring good fortune. The most popular amulet ever though is the Jatukam Ramathep.
The Thai Royalist connection
For 23 years these amulets have been made and were initially championed with little success by Police Major-General Phantarak Rajadej, a police chief in Nakhon Si Thammarat, the town where the relics are thought to be located. The head monk at Nakhon's temple is in high demand and it was Phantarak Rajadej's death last year that changed everything. The head monk was larger-than-life character who was reputed to possess magical powers and his funeral was attended by tens of thousands of people, including Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, Thailand’s equivalent of Prince Charles.
Replicas of the amulet were distributed at the funeral – but many of them were not authentic and belief in their mystical powers began to spread, increasing dramatically the price of older versions.The main Buddhist temple in Nakhon Si Thammarat, Wat Mahathat, is one of Thailand's most revered Buddhist temples and every Sunday large crowds gather at the temple. The Buddhist devotees queue patiently to enter a room filled to overflowing with an array of statues depicting giants and mythical animals, all covered with fresh flowers. Here they pray kneeling, holding burning joss sticks, before the gilded statues representing the two gods, Jatukam and Ramathep.
Buddhist monks are supposed to renounce money however the teachings of the Buddha have been compromised by the rampant religion of consumerism. At the Buddhist temple almost everyone is wearing one of these amulets, some small, some much larger often and usually accompanies by Buddha amulets as well. To be endowed with real power, an amulet must be blessed by a senior Buddhist monk at the temple.
The Buddhist temple has an old stamping machine and uses clay for the tablets which usually includes sacred material like ash from burnt temple incense. The head Buddhist monk uses the ancient machine to make the first few, and then splashes holy water on a completed batch. The price for these amulets is thought to be between £1000 to £2000, with the money going to refurbish this important Buddhist temple – what this means in reality however is that the amulet business has taken over the town.
This Thai town is swamped with hoardings posters and gaudy billboards and it is a staggeringly lucrative business, estimated by to be worth 22bn baht (US$650m, £320m) to the Thai economy in 2007.Nakhon Si Thammarat's small airport now sees four times as many flights coming in every day as it did in the past. Believers come from all over Asia. All around this Buddhist temple are stalls selling a bewildering variety of amulets, some simple clay tablets imprinted with a likeness of the deity, others dyed in rainbow colours or glittering with gold along with of course since it is a Buddhist temple images of the Buddha. It is thought that the amulet craze is partly to do with the straightened times, and partly the nature of Buddhist belief in Thailand. With the political situation unstable post coup Thai people feel the need for re-assurance.
Buddhism has always been based on faith in many things not just one god. Buddhists believe in reincarnation, in karma, in the accumulation of merit, and it is all too easy to believe in the power of other supernatural beings. However as with financial markets in the West as earlier versions have rocketed in value, people have been buying up later editions in the hope of selling them on for a profit.
Many Buddhist scholars though are dismayed by what they see as a perversion of the teachings of the Buddha as Buddhist monks are supposed to renounce money –and that was unequivocally the teachings of the Buddha. However one thing is for certain whatever the price and markets Thais will always love their amulets and that is one thing that will always ring true!
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