In many ways, religious beliefs and subscriptions of faith in Thailand are enigmatic and inexplicable. This is a "Buddhist" country, and yet many people's beliefs are closely associated with the elements of folklore, from spirits to ghosts and other brands of superstition. Hindu gods, Chinese goddesses, Brahmin rites and pagan shrines are interweaved spiritually _ sometimes commercially _ with sacred amulets and guru monks (how else could the scandalous Luang Pu Nen Kham manage to do what he did?). Lord Buddha's teachings of self-reliance are held high, but there is always room for supplementary faiths to help Thais get through each difficult day.
The 24m-long reclining Ganesh statue at Saman Rattanaram temple in Chachoengsao province. The temple claims the statue is the biggest of its kind in the world. Photos by Pornprom Satrabhaya
Among them, the Hindu, elephant-headed Ganesh is one of the most worshipped deities in Thailand _ once only in the art and entertainment circles, now it's ubiquitous. In recent years Ganesh has become even more popular and this surge of interest merits an investigation. Besides small statues of the deity in many homes and offices, there's a gigantic 24m-long, reclining bright-pink Ganesh statue at Saman Rattanaram temple in Chachoengsao province. Only 10 minutes drive away, there's another bronze Ganesh statue looming at a whopping 39m high. It is currently being given the finishing touches. In Chiang Mai, a wood-carved Ganesh standing 6m tall has recently been put up. In the same province, a museum dedicated entirely to Ganesh statues and relics have drawn crowds of devotees and curious visitors.
All these are recent additions to Ganesh-related sacred places the country already has, whether they are statues commonly found in places such as the front of CentralWorld or at Ratchada-Huai Khwang intersection, or the Ganesh Park in Nakhon Nayok, featuring a 9m-tall statue and a museum housing smaller Ganesh amulets in 108 poses. This park is run by a Buddhist temple.
Varin Sachdev, a Hindu who organises the celebration of the deity's birthday _ or Ganesh Chaturthi _ every year in Thailand, says that he has nothing against this rise of Ganesh's popularity and that it's even a good thing because this will help spread its eminence.
"But I think choosing to respect this deity for this year and that for next year is Thais' way of thinking," he says. "We as Hindus respect Ganesh every day and every year. There's no day off." Independent scholar on archaeology Siripoj Laomanacharoen says that no religion in the world is ever as straightforward as defined in theology.
"When entering a country, each religion goes through a process of localisation," he explains. "We have had Hinduism for a long time and it has been adapted and mixed into our set of knowledge. Since the Ayutthaya era, Hinduism has been very much associated with the monarchy, but recently it seems to be associating more with the people in general."
Lecturer at Silpakorn University's Department of Philosophy Komkrit Uitekkeng says that Thai people's idea of Ganesh as the patron deity of artists is a misconception.
"Ganesh is actually the lord of beginnings and remover of obstacles. The common misunderstanding began during the reign of King Rama VI when he started using Ganesh as a symbol of the royal literary club and later it became the symbol of the Fine Arts Department and Silpakorn University. Such perception has been emphasised more and more because people in the art and entertainment circles respect Ganesh as a teacher." As to why in these recent years Ganesh has become even more widely known and respected in Thailand than ever before, Komkrit believes that it has a lot to do with a societal factor.
To make a wish to Ganesh, some people believe they must whisper into the ear of the Hindu god’s mount, a rat. A donation box is often placed next to the rodent sculpture.
"Our society has the nature of glorifying sacred objects to create a trend for the sake of religion-related businesses," says the lecturer. "After the Jatukam Ramathep phenomenon [a hugely popular medal amulet] faded away, I understand the amulet industry needs something new that has marketability, so they are trying to elevate Ganesh up to a special position, using the popularity Ganesh already has in media and entertainment industries."
Siripoj believes it's also partly the deity's eccentric appearance that contributes to his aura of sanctity.
"It's probably because Ganesh's visual appearance is different than other deities, with his elephant head. It's understandable that 10 years ago a lot of people were very into art because the artsy type looks cool, so they were very into Ganesh as well. Maybe it's just a matter of trend."
The pink Ganesh statue at Saman Rattanaram temple has become quite a landmark in Chachoengsao province. The temple claims it is the biggest reclining Ganesh statue in the world, and that it has drawn tourists from almost 20 countries. There's hardly any need for a map to direct you to the temple as there are massive billboards guiding you all the way.
Montian Phueng-rattana, a member of the temple's sacred object committee, says that very few people came to make merit at the temple before the pink Ganesh statue.
''The current abbot prayed and asked if there was any deity who would make people come to the temple more and he had a vision of Ganesh in the same lying position as the statue you see now. There are a lot of people here because there are people whose wishes were granted, so they come back again. Building small things wouldn't attract the people here,'' explains. It's hard to explain faith, and harder to distinguish when faith is being used as virtuous guidance or as something less noble. While many adhere to the former, Siripoj, the independent scholar, believes that building big religious monuments has something to do with commercial reasons.
''I have no idea why and I don't understand how size can relate to sacredness. The tradition for building massive statues may result from the tradition of Buddhists of the Mahayana school who worship the cosmic Buddha, which they tend to build in massive sizes, believing that the cosmic is the one who created everything in the world. Maybe Thais have taken on this tradition and it works commercially as well,'' he says.
Ganesh is often depicted with a rat, which is his vehicle, and some people believe that when making a wish to Ganesh, one should also whisper into the ear of the rat as well so that it will remind Ganesh of that wish.
What's rather odd about the rat sculptures around a pink Ganesh statue at Saman Rattanaram temple is not their looks but how each of them is carrying a money box labelled: ''Give bribe to the all-seeing-eye rat, every wish will be granted.'' This may be just a variation of the way many religious houses around the country solicit donations, but the use of the word ''bribe'' could prick many ears and conscience. Siripoj says that in Ganesh mythology, there's no such a thing as bribing the rat.
''It's obvious that this is an invented tradition, to make it sound old, believable and sacred so that people will come to the temple more,'' he says.
''In India,'' explains Varin, the Hindu Ganesh worshipper, ''it's just a donation, depending on each person's faith, but this is a Thai adaptation, a gimmick. It should be a donation, not a bribe, and it's crossing the line when this kind of thing becomes too commercial. It's faith marketing.''
In the same way, Komkrit from Silpa-korn University believes that this is a marketing plan.
''Building big things in temples is nothing new, and all this is surely to attract people. What's interesting is how Buddhists do this marketing by bringing a Hindu deity into play. The problem with some Thai Buddhists is how they are always looking for someone special to be their hero, to help them solve the problems, even though Buddhism teaches them to rely on themselves,'' he says. Though admitting that there has been criticism regarding whether the Saman Rattanaram temple built the statue especially for commercial gain, Montian argues people come to the temple with the intention to make merit.
''The money this temple gets is for building something for the public good, like a centre for practicing dhamma, a school, and now we are building a hospital. Those temples involved in the scandals [in the news] don't build anything, and the money just keeps piling up.'' Regarding the bribery of the rat, he says there are two sides in this kind of issue.
''We are not holding a knife and forcing you to put in 20 or 100 baht,'' he says. ''It's making merit. You can whisper your wish into the rat's ear without giving any money. We are not forcing you. It depends on each person's belief.''
But to many people coming to pay respect to the pink Ganesh statue, whether the temple uses it as a commercial tool is not important.
Wanantaya Phatthanapirom, 22, says that she doesn't care whether this is commercial or not.
''I have never thought about it, I am just here at the temple to make merit, that is all.''
Nicha Sangkharom, 41, says that she believes in Ganesh and tries to whisper her wish into the rat's ear to see if it will come true.
''I put in my money and it's making merit to support the temple. There may be a commercial element to it, but I'm here with a pure intention to make merit. Once I have done that, I really don't care where the money goes.''
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- Writer: Kaona Pongpipat