The Regionalization of Local Buddhist Saints: Amulets, Crime and Violence in Post-World War II Thai Society

Article excerpt

The organiser of an auction of amulets said yesterday that the person who bought an amulet for Bt 24 million [USD 600,000] on Sunday was looking at it as an investment ... The Nation, Bangkok, 3 December 2002

Amulets: The Industry

The 24-million-baht amulet auctioned in Bangkok in December 2002 was the phra somdet wat rakhang, an image of the Buddha made during the mid-nineteenth century of powdered substances mixed and pressed into a carved mould and sun-baked. Its size is about 2.2 x 3.5 x 0.4 cm (Matichon sutsapda 2002, p. 88). This amulet and others of the same series were handmade by Somdet Phra Phuthachan (To), the abbot of Wat Rakhang--a royal monastery on the western bank of the Chao Phraya River, opposite the Grand Palace in Bangkok. Somdet Phra Phuthachan (1788-1872) is probably the best known and by general acknowledgement the most sacred Thai Buddhist saint, a figure whose life story and amulets have been featured in hundreds of books, magazines and other forms of print and electronic media (McDaniel 2011, pp. 23-71). (1) His amulets have also attained a privileged place among the five Thai amulets accorded most prestige and importance, the Benchaphakhi or League of Five. (2)

Though the reported price of 24 million baht that this amulet fetched in 2002 raised some doubt as to whether there was a genuine transaction, not least since the name of the buyer was withheld for reasons of personal safety, most observers agreed that that sum was at the very least a fair price for such a highly treasured amulet. An amulet expert even ventured to say that "[in an economically much better time] certain amulets from the same series used to fetch 40 million to 50 million baht" (cited in The Nation 2002). Indeed, a rumour circulated for some time that another phra somdet wat rakhang, said to be the best of the series, had a price tag of 70 million baht! (3)

A price of a million baht or more for a small image made of bronze, other metal alloys, or a sun- or fire-baked compound is not uncommon. A weekly column on amulets in a popular Thai daily, as well as other outlets, regularly reports such transactions. For example, a phra pit ta luang pho kaew from Wat Khrueawan of Chonburi was sold for 7 million baht in January 2003 (Sika Ang 2003a). In August 2003, a phra somdet wat rakhang, the one nicknamed "Kuan-U", was offered for a price of 40 million baht (Sika Ang 2003c), and two phra pit ta luang pho kaew from Wat Khrueawan for 10 million baht each (Sika Ang 2003d). In June 2004, an amulet made by Luang Pu Iam of Wat Nang in Bangkhunthian, an old district of Bangkok, was priced at 6 million baht (Sika Ang 2004b), and a phra kamphaeng sumko from Kamphaengphet was sold for 18 million baht in September 2004 (Sika Ang 2004c). Most of these amulets, though not the last one, were made during the nineteenth century or the first half of the twentieth. The phra kamphaeng sumko (or phra kamphaeng thungsetthi) dates from the much earlier Ayutthaya period.

Thailand must rank alone, in this era of globalization and high technology, as a country in which the cult of the amulet is so popular that it has become an industry in its own right. The amulet industry has its own dedicated markets, not unlike the food market or the green grocery market, which function as outlets for new products; exchanges for displaying, selling and buying old or rare amulets; and as clubs for aficionados. Markets serving the amulet industry, talat phra or talat phrakhrueang, can be found in most major provincial towns throughout the country, including those in the southern Malay-Muslim-majority provinces (Tambiah 1984, pp. 196-97). The size and location of the markets vary, of course. A more conventional market is located near or within the compound of a wat (monastery) with prestige in the amulet trade. Traders at such a market sell mostly "new" amulets produced by that monastery, but old and new amulets from other sources are also available. …