Life in plastic, it’s fantastic
Superstition has been given a very modern makeover in the 'child angel' doll craze taking the country by storm.
‘Rise and shine my girl, it’s time to wake up,” Prince whispers to her daughter, as they lay next to each other on the bed. After taking a shower, Prince cleans Nong Reaksap’s face, brushes her hair into ponytails and gives her a bottle of milk and a piece of bread to eat.
This has been the daily routine for Jirunya “Prince” Supaorus since she bought her tukkata luk thep, or child angel doll, four months ago. The 27-year-old small business owner has integrated the doll into every aspect of life, and treats her like her very own child. She takes Nong Reaksap on family holidays, out for dinner, to the salon and even for massages.
“People look at me and think I am crazy,” Prince said. “I really don’t care what they think. They don’t know what I’ve been through and how much the doll has helped me,” she said.
Prince’s first business venture failed, but since Nong Reaksap came into her life, she has earned triple what she ever did before. Now everything is coming together nicely, she knows that she must simply keep the doll happy, and wealth will follow.
Manasikarn Hengsuwan, a lecturer from Chulalongkorn University’s education faculty and an expert on spiritual issues, believes luk thep dolls have become popular because they address the problem of insecurity in modern life. She explains how people are searching for safety and security — basic needs as set out by psychologist Abraham Maslow in his “hierarchy of needs” theory.
“Generally, Thai people’s lives revolve around spiritual stuff. When people feel bad or insecure about something, they go to pray for what they want, and offer bribes in return for it,” Ms Manasikarn said.
When people feel insecure, belief in the supernatural can conveniently fill that gap and give them a confidence boost.
“Belief in the dolls is basically no different from having your car blessed for safety or having your house blessed by monks to bring you eternal happiness,” Ms Manasikarn said.
Pipad Krajaejun, a lecturer from Thammasat University’s history department, says these kind of practices have their root in animism. Though these are ancient beliefs, worshipping objects possessed by spirits is still widely acceptable in Thai society.
The luk thep dolls are now seen as a must-have item for middle class people with unstable incomes, from actors to cosmetics salespeople.
“They are looking for something to hold on to in order to feel more secure about themselves,” Mr Pipad said.
“Also the political situation since the coup has stoked anxiety. People feel financially and economically unstable. That’s where the dolls come in — they help ease that fear.”
Mr Piped adds that modern society is becoming more individualistic than ever before, meaning people interact with one another less than before. The dolls can also address the loneliness that people feel, he said.
BLESSED FOR ETERNITY
In a traditional wooden house in a little-known part of Nakhon Pathom, there are rumours that hundreds of souls are locked away in secret, hidden from civilisation. The wind blows across a desolate rice field outside. Even from the porch of the house, you can clearly see the dolls through the window. When you step inside, the floorboards creak, adding to the creepy ambience.
Hundreds of dolls sit on shelves, greeting visitors. They also line the floor and sit on a sofa. There’s even one the same size as an eight-year-old girl, standing next to the man who claims he can bring these toys to life.
Master Ohm Mahamontra is listed as one of Thailand’s 10 best fortune tellers. The holy man performs mystical ceremonies and blesses various mystery objects for his 350,000 followers, who are mostly of Chinese descent but come from all over the world.
On the day of Spectrum’s visit to the house, known as Mahamontra Palace, three local police officers are in attendance. Master Ohm says everything he does is legal and transparent, so the police are welcome to observe him, since he has nothing to hide.
There are hundreds of dolls in his house, but he says none of them are luk thep. “We call them Kuman Mahamontra,” Master Ohm said.
To turn these lifeless toys into holy dolls, Master Ohm invites good angel spirits to possess them. He then locks in the spirit of the angel with a special prayer to ensure the dolls remain blessed for eternity, even after his death.
Master Ohm later recites further incantations to attract good energy. To complete the process he place the dolls alongside holy rocks and plants and blesses them under the moonlight.
“My Kuman Mahamontra attracts money, success, luck and love for those who own them,” Master Ohm said. “All you have to do is follow the five precepts. Otherwise the spirit will leave the doll and come back to me.”
THE DARK SIDE
They look like adorable children of the age everyone loves. With a cute smile, and small enough to carry, they’re easy to take wherever you go. But not everybody understands what’s really beneath the cloth and rubber.
Where the magic hapens: Master Ohm’s home, where ‘hundreds of souls’ are kept.
Master Ohm explains there are many different kinds of angel dolls. The luk thep dolls now in fashion are ordinary plastic dolls, blessed with holy prayers from monks or holy men. They have no life or spirit. “It is basically the object that has been blessed,” he said.
“Those who own a luk thep must treat them like a person. When they eat, sleep, or make merit, they must do the same with the doll. They must go everywhere together,” he added.
A kuman thep on the other hand is a version of the well-known kuman thong, or “baby amulet”, long held as a lucky charm in Thai culture. The popularity of kuman thong can be traced to the Ayutthaya period, and legends say they were once made from the body parts of dead infants.
The concept of the kuman thep is that the spirit of an unborn child is locked within a doll made from wood, clay or plastic. Only a spirit medium versed in black magic can perform the ritual to place the baby spirit within.
Those who own a kuman thep must worship them as holy objects. They must offer the kuman thep food, drinks and toys, if they want something in return.
Last but not least is the kuman prai, an even darker version. Master Ohm said such dolls are packed with ashes of a person killed in a sudden and tragic incident. Kuman prai can also contain the hair of a woman who died while giving birth, plus soil from seven different cemeteries.
The spirit inside this doll is bad, so the owners must make many offerings to keep it happy. If they appease it, the doll will give them what they want.
GHOSTS OF THE PAST
Sinchai Chaojaroenrat, an academic who teaches religion and philosophy at several universities, told Spectrum many people fail to realise their belief in luk thep is linked to animism, the first religion in the region. The term religion itself simply refers to belief in the supernatural, he added.
“Worshipping ghosts through figures made from clay or wood was very popular back in the old days. Now the materials have changed to metal, aluminium and rubber. But no matter what form it takes, the belief is still the same,” Mr Sinchai explained.
As well as kuman thong, there were also ruk krok and rak yom dolls in the past — all man-made models, believed to hold the spirits of unborn children.
“The old forms no longer appeal to modern people, so the idea has morphed into the luk thep we see today,” Mr Sinchai said. “The old forms were too scary and old-fashioned, so the objects have been modernised and urbanised to keep up with society.”
All religious rituals and ceremonies are adjusted to keep pace with modern life, he said, so that beliefs can be passed from generation to generation in a way that people are happy to accept.
When her friend gave her a kuman thong at the age of 14, Suparath Bunyawatthana was a sceptic. She took it to be gracious, but didn’t really believe in its power. She placed the figurine above her bed and offered it a glass of red soda water. As she was falling asleep, she felt a drip of soda water on her forehead. She tried to ignore it and go back to sleep, but it happened again. She moved the doll to a higher shelf, and the dripping stopped. After that, she began praying to the kuman thong, and many good things came into her life. She then started adopting more dolls, and believes each one has special powers to help with her business.
From one to two, and two to five, Ms Suparath’s family grew as time went on. After nine years, she had collected 23 dolls. Among them are five kuman prai. From time to time, she hears the sound of children running around, and feels her dolls are trying to play with her.
“I’m not afraid of them. They are my children,” Ms Suparath said. “All I have to do is be a good person and treat them right. I work hard to earn a living and all of my children are part of my success.”
Danita Phosachai, meanwhile, gave up her old kuman thong doll as soon as she caught onto the luk thep craze. The 37-year-old beauty salon owner said her business and family life have been transformed since her luk thep come along.
“I always argued with my husband and had business problems when I owned the kuman thong. But as soon as I got Nong Money from a temple in Bangkok, she improved everything that was going wrong in my life,” Ms Danita said.
She has four children of her own, but they are more than happy to include the doll as part of the family. She told Spectrum the doll came into her dreams one night and called her “mama”. At that point she believed in its power without a doubt.
Among all of the places in the spotlight over the luk thep trend, Buakwan temple is the most famous. Phra Winai Thitabhanyo is now a familiar face in the media and openly admits to performing special rituals to bless luk thep dolls.
When Spectrum arrived to visit, Phra Winai, who is one of the most revered monks at the temple, was midway through performing one of his blessings, anointing the doll with gold paint on its forehead, eyes, lips, heart and back.
As he finished the ritual, a couple offered him flowers and an envelope filled with money, placed on a gold tray. He beckoned the parents of the doll closer, then gave them instructions on successful living and how to get rich.
“There is nothing more to what I do than teaching them the principles of Buddhism,” Phra Winai explained as the luk thep owners left the room. “How else I can I teach the dharma to people on daily basis like this? I am just seizing the opportunity.”
Phra Winai told Spectrum he doesn’t believe the doll will make anybody rich without that person working hard themselves. “The most important thing for everyone is to work hard, love your family, and be a good person. Then you will attract all good things with or without the doll,” he said.
Phra Catcha Nanmuni, the abbot of Buakwan temple, told the media that Phra Winai has done nothing wrong. However, he has asked Phra Winai to stop performing the rituals, since it may harm the reputation of the temple.
Regardless of how modern Thai society might look on the outside, superstitious beliefs are still a major part of life for many. People often call on their deceased ancestors to help them with challenges, believing ghosts will favour their own flesh and blood.
Then there is the belief in Hindu gods, such as Ganesh or Brahma. Despite being Buddhist, many Thais make offerings to these deities, believing they can offer protection or bring prosperity in day-to-day life. Many people also believe in ghosts and demons, and show them respect out of fear.
What links belief in all of the above is that people think these invisible powers can help them achieve their goals in life. People want to control the spirits and believe the easiest ghost to control is that of an unborn child, which you can raise as your own personal helper.
“It’s the same concept as having a pet,” Mr Sinchai said. “People want to be able to control the thing they bring up, and get benefits from using it. Since the spirit is younger than its owner, they feel they can have a total control over it, unlike ancestor spirits or gods.”
Assistant Professor Kakanang Maneesri, dean of the psychology faculty at Chulalongkorn University, agrees that control is a major factor in the popularity of the dolls.
“The reason luk thep has become a sensation is that humans always like to feel as though they are in control,” she explained. “They can’t get that from the image of Buddha or a god, but they can find that in a baby doll like a kuman thong or luk thep.”
When people get what they want in life after owning such a doll, they draw an association between their beliefs and reality, coming to the conclusion the item they are worshipping is holy.
“It’s called the law of effect. When people do good things, they are more likely to get good results in return. When people work hard, they are more likely to be successful in business and earn more money. This is why a lot of people with luk thep dolls feel like their situation is under control,” Ms Kakanang explained.
She believes the trend will die down when people realise they can’t always get what they ask for from the dolls.
“Just like the Jatukam Ramathep craze, the luk thep will eventually disappear and be replaced with something else instead. There will always be insecurity in life to create different kinds of holy items based on the same concept.”
EASY COME, EASY GO
Ten years before the arrival of luk thep, Thailand was temporarily obsessed with the Jatukam Ramathep, a wildly popular amulet that fetched anything up to one million baht at the height of its favour.
The talisman was a must-have item for almost a year, but its popularity died down, and no one wants it any more.
Nuarpear Lekfuangfu, a lecturer from Chulalongkorn University’s economics faculty, told Spectrum the luk thep dolls could be a good way to stimulate the country’s faltering economy. The have become so popular that owners are now wanting to buy clothes and accessories for their dolls.
“We call this a low-probability event, which means it doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it has a strong impact to the economy,” said Ms Nuarpear.
The more companies market the dolls, the more comfortable people will feel about purchasing them, she said, “although they will disappear soon, just like all popular trends”.
Ms Manasikarn sees the craze as fashion, pure and simple, and says it will be gone as easy as it came. “The luk thep dolls have been popular for less than a year. They will be no different from Furbies or Blythe dolls, which used to be in demand but are no longer so popular.”
Mr Sinchai also believes the luk thep dolls will be gone soon. But though the specific type of doll will be gone, he’s sure the belief in objects that hold spirits will stay with Thai society forever.
In the dollhouse: Above, Master Ohm performs rituals for rubber dolls at his home in Nakhon Pathom, where he also keeps several life-sized dolls. Below, a collection of baby amulets and luk thep dolls. Various forms of ‘possessed’ dolls have been part of Thai superstitious belief for centuries.
Never a doll moment: Suparath Bunyawatthana, left, was initially sceptical about the spiritual power of dolls, but was is now an ardent believer.
Motherly love: Danita Phosachai has four children, but considers her doll part of the family.
RITE OF PASSAGE: Phra Winai Thitabhanyo openly admits to performing special rituals to bless luk thep dolls. But he has since been asked to stop, for risk of damaging his temple’s reputation.