By Gerrit Phil Baumann
Taan Tha Prachan has been an amulet master (เซียนพระ) for more than 20 years and regularly writes columns for Khaosod newspaper's amulet section. Gerrit Phil Baumann sat down with him the other day to learn more about the different types of amulets, how to spot a fake one, and the purpose of these holy artifacts from a Buddhist perspective.
You can see a slideshow of Baumann's tour through Bangkok's amulet markets here.
Gerrit Phil Baumann: When did you first become interested in amulets?
Taan Tha Prachan: I have been interested in amulets since I was a child, when I used to follow my father to the amulet markets. I also noticed that almost every household in Thailand had them, so I wanted to know more. Then I started collecting amulets and studying them myself.
In the beginning, I relied on the kindness of elder amulet masters who knew about the art, history, and origin of each amulet. They also showed me some of the "authentic" old amulets. I asked a lot of questions and learned more about amulets from them.
I am specifically interested in the hundred-year-old amulets stored in the pagodas of ancient temples. I also like to collect the amulets that were commissioned by monks who impressed me with their good sermons.
Wat Rakhang's Somdeth To, named after Thailand's patron saint, is one of the most popular amulets in Thailand associated with protective powers.
T: Amulets can be divided into many categories. Some are images of Lord Buddha. Others are images of the Arhat (monks who attained the highest rank in Buddhism), and of famous monks who preached in the past, like Luang Por Ngoen, for example. We revere these individuals. They are long gone, and their disciples made images of them so that we can worship them and remind ourselves of their teachings.
For me, amulets are the [physical representatives] of these holy men. Therefore, we should keep them in high places, such as in Buddha shrines, or in a cabinet. We should not place the amulets in low places because we may step over them by accident. It's like portrait of His Majesty the King. We wouldn't place the portraits of the king on the floor. It's not because we believe in the miracle of these objects, it is because we love the people these objects represent.
Apart from that, there are not many customs associated with amulets. If you have time, you can pray to the amulets. It can be a long or a short prayer. You can also simply wai to them or just think about these holy men in your heart. That's enough worship.
There is no need for the grand worship of amulets. Monks and amulets are just representatives of religion. When we think of them, we think of their religious teachings, and we feel conscious of our actions and refrain from doing bad things.
That is why older people encourage young men to wear amulets. It's a way to help youngsters think about religious teachings. It makes them think: Am I doing good things? Am I going to bad places? Every time the amulets touch our chests as we walk, we are reminded to think about these things. Not of all of us can be good all the time. Some of us need the amulets to remind ourselves to be good, but some don't. Yet some people misunderstand the amulets; they think amulets are miraculous things.
Jatukam Ramathep is one of the the most famous "Commercial Buddhism" amulets, as it is believed to carry supernatural powers. At the peak of its popularity in 2007, a rare
Jatukam Ramathep amulet could be worth one million baht.
G: Is it correct to wear Buddhist amulets with Hindu or other charms? Many Thai people do that.
T: Older people will separate Buddhist amulets from other types of charms in a different necklace. They won't wear them together in one necklace. But in my opinion it's not wrong, because all religions teach people to be good. Buddhism does not forbid you from listening to other religions. Buddhism teaches you to use your wisdom and judge those teachings for yourself.
T: Are there different types of amulet markets?
G: Certainly. There are bad amulet markets like the one at Saphan Kwai. There, they just lay the amulets on the footpath, which is very inappropriate. The vendors don't have any knowledge about amulets or the religion. They are also sort of con men, because they sell copies of amulets that purport to be real, antique things. That's a scam. They may say they are Buddhists, but I don't think they are really Buddhist at heart.
Another bad amulet market is at Wat Ratchanadda Temple. They manufacture loads of amulets and sell them to amulet vendors. They are a factory of commercial amulets. It’s different than the one near the Giant Swing, which only makes amulets for temples and religious reasons.
Amulets produced in bulk at the Wat Ratchanadda Temple market.
Meanwhile, the famous amulet market in Tha Prachan is divided into two sections. The outer part is similar to the markets in Saphan Kwai and Wat Ratchanadda, but the inner section is home to shops run by amulet masters. They sell the authentic amulets to people who want to collect them.
G: We saw enchanted jackets being sold in Tha Prachan, too. What is the significance of those jackets?
T: Enchanted jackets are a kind of charm. In the past, like in Ayutthaya era, the jackets were produced to raise morale among soldiers, because wars were frequent in those times and soldiers needed moral support. The authorities usually asked temples to make these jackets and distribute them to soldiers.
In fact, most of the jackets did not bear enchantments or charms. The text on the jackets was actually Buddhist teachings, but very few people could read them because they were written in Khmer alphabet or Pali script. It's like the Arabic Koran. Not every Muslim can read Arabic. Not every Buddhist can read Pali or Khmer, only the learned can and realise that it's just teachings written on the jackets.
But in the present time, some temples insert incantations into the jackets and tout them as charms. That is wrong. Buddhist prayers and chants are not charms. They are teachings meant for listeners to take to heart and do good.
A yantra shirt that supposedly increases the wearers "horse powers" for intimate situations at Tha Prachan market.
G: What is the value of the amulet trade in Thailand? And what determines the high prices of some amulets?
T: I cannot come up with any figure at all, because much of the amulet trade is not officially accounted for. For example, some people have their own private factories for the production of amulets.
Amulets have different origins. First, there are the ancient amulets that were stored in temple pagodas hundreds of years ago. They were made in the hope that in the far future when Buddhist religion fades away, people will find the amulets and know that once in history there existed a Buddhist faith. These amulets are highly sought after because they are like antiques.
Then there are amulets that were commissioned by prominent monarchs in the past. Since we adore these kings, we try to find the amulets that were made under their reign. So there's low supply, but high demand. Only several hundreds of these amulets were made, but thousands of people want to have them. And the price keeps getting higher as they change hands.
Thirdly, there are amulets that were made by famous monks, like Somdet To in Rama IV reign. These monks have many followers who are impressed by their teaching, so they try to find the amulets.
However, in the recent times, the world has nothing to hold on to, in terms of spirituality. So people make up claims that certain amulets can make you rich, or make you invincible. How can it be possible? Even the monks that made these amulets died!
This is the sign of a lack of spiritual guidance. These people don't practice Buddhism in its essential teaching. They are like shipwreck survivors in the sea. They will grab anything in their path, even straws.
G: How were amulets used differently in the past compared to the present?
T: In the past, amulets were like a "thank you" gift from temples to temple-goers, because construction projects organised by temples relied on the workforce of the local community, and the abbots had no money to reward locals for their efforts. So they made amulets or medals to commemorate the project. One example is the "Pool Digging Amulet" from King Kaew Temple [Samut Prakan province]. The temple is built on a flood plain, and there's a flood every year. So the abbot, Luang Pu Puek, mobilised the local community to dig pools for a reservoir and move the main buildings to higher ground. Then he made amulets to thank the locals.
But in the present era, many temples make amulets to sell, not to compensate the local Buddhists for their works. It's a phenomenon that some called "Commercial Buddhism" (พุทธพาณิชย์). This trend started in 1980s.
Dozens of amulet magazines and catologues cover the latest developments in the amulet market.
G: So how many types of amulets are there?
T: There are many, many types of amulets. No one can remember all of them. That's why we divide them in different categories. We have the pagoda amulets, famous monk amulets, "modern" amulets. They can also be separated by materials, like earth, metal, dust, etc. Lastly there's the "new monks amulets," or what you can call Commercial Buddhism. These amulets were made by famous monks who claim to have spiritual powers.
I want to stress that there are new types and new batches of amulets being made each day. We cannot estimate how many amulets there are, or their value. Imagine this: even natives of a certain provinces can't memorise how many temples there are in their province. The same goes with amulets.
G: How do you spot fake amulets now that there is technology to replicate them in precise detail?
T: Amulet forgery has been around for a long time, but in the present day, the forgery is really advanced. Sometimes they can be 98% or 99% close to the real antiques, especially with the help of printing and scanning technology. All the defects can be scanned and reproduced. Even a cat hair left on an amulet can be scanned.
However, there is no current technology that can forge amulets with 100% accuracy. This is because the material of amulets and the way they are manufactured gives them unique traits.
Collecters inspect amulets at Tha Prachan market.
Let me use the example of medallion amulets. Since they are made of metal, there is a trace left on the side of the medallions when they were pressed by the pressing machine. We have to memorise the nature of the pressing of each medallion type, and the era these objects were made, because pressing technologies differ across the eras. For 2440-2485 BE, the mold is shallow and there is a block-like shape at the presser, while the pressers used in 2485-2500 BE would leave a small curve on the side of the medallions.
Also, you can tell which amulets are genuine by the number of pressings the objects went through. These details are very small and subtle, and no one can forge them.
Another way is to test the percentage of copper used in the medallion. Since copper is expensive these days, the forgers may use less copper in the production.
Lastly, you can determine if certain amulets are genuinely old by looking at how the material has aged. Different material shows different signs of decay. It's like splitting nails into three groups. You keep the first in a drawer, bury the second under the earth, and place the last in the sun. They will show different decay. You can study the history of certain amulets and find out if the decay marks found on the materials correspond to their history.
There are many other ways to spot a fake. To sum it up, to be an amulet enthusiast, you have to have knowledge in many fields, like history, art, culture, and even some chemistry, too.