How to - Projects

Guardians of the garden

Stephanie Smith
Photography by
Roger Yip

Thai spirit houses make beautiful additions to a Canadian garden.

In Thailand, every house, hotel, hospital and disco has a spirit house. These structures, which are usually the size of a birdhouse, are where spirits of the land, or phra phum, live. They are either custom-made by expert spirithouse artisans or mass-produced.

A multitude of spirits are worshipped in Thailand, nine of which are spirits of the land. These include a specific guardian for animals, fields, waterways and even military installations. The tradition is rooted in Animism, which predates Buddhism. While some Buddhist temples display spirit houses, others forbid them.

The guardian of the house and the guardian of the garden are the most commonly worshipped land spirits. The guardian of the garden watches over and protects a family's yard, flowers and trees. Because of their popularity, they are the only two spirits that require a permanent home that can be visited by worshippers daily (though a temporary home is built for the other spirits when needed for a special occasion or ritual).

Spirit houses most often look like small Thai temples. Although they are usually very ornately carved and decorated with coloured glass, mirrors and mosaics, they can also be less decorative, such as simply carved wood. The houses must be improved or enlarged to keep pace with any changes made to the building they are associated with. Hotels, for example, may have spirit houses that are 100 square metres in size or more. A very large spirit house, large enough for an adult to stand in, is located at the World Trade Centre in Bangkok.

The site of the spirit house for the garden of a residence is given careful consideration. It must have a prominent location and is usually placed at eye level on a post on the lawn near the home, in an area of the garden that never falls under the shadow of the house. The spirit house is installed with proper ceremony by a priest who “invites” the spirit to live inside the spirit house; offerings of rice, fruit and even a pig's head are commonly made.

Once installed, gifts continue with daily offerings of flowers, food and incense. The nature of the spirit house is such that it can't simply be tossed aside if it's damaged or no longer required. Instead, it's placed at the base of a tree believed to be sacred, or in a temple where other kind spirits will take care of it. Spirits are told when a member of the household will be away for an extended period of time so they are aware of any changes to their domain. When a family moves, a ceremony is held to also help the spirit move from its old home to its new one.

Even when used as a decorative element in the garden, a spirit house can symbolize our respect for nature and our love for our gardens. And these days, they need all the protection they can get.

Chada Import Gallery Ltd.,
25 Baldwin St., Toronto, ON
M5T 1L1; 416/596-8135.

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