Hindu gods in Bangkok’s malls

Thai devotees at Laxmi temple. All photos: MOONTAE JEONG

At the corner of Ratchaprasong intersection in Bangkok’s noisy and traffic-clogged commercial centre, the Erawan Shrine offers a peaceful refuge for busy city dwellers.

It houses a statue of Phra Phrom, the Thai representation of Brahma, the Hindu god of creation. The shrine is a reminder of the enduring influence of Hinduism in Thailand, a country that is now predominantly Buddhist, and where the two religions form a syncretic blend.

Formally named the Thao Maha Phrom Shrine, for more than 60 years the Erawan Shrine always has a throng of locals and tourists praying for good luck at the feet of the golden figure of Brahma with its all-seeing four faces.

This was the site of the still-unsolved bomb attack in 2015 that killed 20 people and injured more than 120. No one claimed responsibility, and it is not known why this particular shrine was targetted.

Despite the tragedy, the shrine soon regained its former popularity, proving that that the site continues to be a symbolic place of Hinduism in the lives of Thailand’s predominantly Buddhist people.

The number of visitors has declined recently because of the global pandemic. But, prayers, chants, and the Ram Kae Bon dance, heavily influenced by a style still practiced in India, is performed all day long to thank Brahma.

The pandemic has severely impacted Thailand’s tourism-dependent economy and many of the devotees here are burning incense and praying for a better year ahead.

“People have different reasons for praying here. Some wish for good luck, others for health or a job. I am here to purify my mind and think about the direction of my life,” says Natcha Chalayonravin, a flight attendant.

She says it does not matter that the shrine is dedicated to the Hindu god Brahma: “We Thais believe that Buddhism and Hinduism are the same, including the rituals, so as a Buddhist I come here to pray without hesitation.”

Part I: The Hindu gods of Thailand, Moontae Jeong

Brahma at the Erawan Shrine, dedicated to the Hindu god Brahma, the creator. If people are in deep anguish, Erawan Shrine is where they can pray for their wishes to be granted.

The Erawan Shrine has an interesting history that is linked to a government-owned project started in 1956 to construct the Erawan Hotel. Before completion, the project met with a slew of misfortunes. Several workers died in the initial construction stages and labourers became reluctant to work on the site as they came to believe an evil spirit was casting a shadow over the area.

Most ominous of all, a ship transporting marble from Italy for the hotel’s construction sank at sea, delaying the construction and the budget overshot badly. The mishap further strengthened the belief that the site was inauspicious.

An astrologer then advised project managers to construct a shrine to counter negative influences. Although Erawan, which had already been chosen as the hotel’s name, is the elephant who carries the god Indra, the astrologer proposed constructing a shrine to Brahma, to whom this animal is also considered to be very dear.

Hence a site at the corner of the Erawan Hotel was selected and an image of the deity was placed facing north, and consecrated. The four-faced Brahma figure was then designed and built by the Department of Fine Arts and finally enshrined on 9 November 1956. Thereafter, the hotel's construction went ahead unimpeded without further incidents.

The hotel itself survived until 1987, when it was demolished to make way for the Grand Hyatt Erawan Bangkok hotel that stands there today, but the shrine has remained and its fame continued to grow as a remover of obstacles. The shrine today is a meeting point of religion, astrology and history.

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One recent morning, dental nurse Siwiwan Nuchikaew offered marigold flowers to Brahma, and spoke of her deep reverence and connection to the shrine.

“Just before I entered nursing school six years ago, my father developed heart disease and my mother disappeared,” recalled Siwiwan, who was then working at a 7Eleven store to take care of her two younger sisters and her father the best she could. But she sank into depression, and started having suicidal thoughts.

One day, while wandering aimlessly through the streets, she stopped by chance in front of the shrine and saw many people praying. Without really knowing who Brahma was at the time, she joined them to pray for her father to recover and for help to become a nurse.

Amazingly, she said, a few months later her father started to feel better, her mother returned, and she was admitted to nursing school. The place where she had prayed was the Erawan Shrine, and since then Siwiwan has visited every month to give thanks.

There are always circumstances and events beyond human will, and many people ultimately turn to God for help. For Thais, and perhaps even for many of the foreign tourists who come here, the Erawan shrine is the place to tell their story to Brahma in the hope that their wishes will be fulfilled.

And as Thailand reinstated restrictions on movement after new cases of Covid-19 were detected this week, the prayers will be for the country and the world to come out of this crisis quickly.

Buddhist relics in western Nepal, Sewa Bhattarai

Thai Buddhists praying at a Hindu temples in Bangkok.

How Hinduism came to Thailand, and has left such a lasting legacy on its socio-cultural life, is shrouded in mystery.

Some say it arrived overland across Burma, others trace it back to the Chola dynasty of southern India 1,000 years ago. Still others say it was influenced by the Sri Vijaya Empire in Java, which itself was influenced by Hinduism from the Subcontinent.

It could be that Thailand’s multi-layered Hindu influences came from all three sources. What is important is that Hindu culture and religion is a substrate of the predominantly Buddhist country to this day.

King Vajiralongkorn is also known as Rama X, after the Hindu god. His coronation four years ago was presided over by Hindu Brahmin priests. The Thai Ramayana รามเกียรติ์ (Ramakien) is based on the Hindu epic. Hindu gods and goddesses like Shiva, Laxmi, Ganesh, Indra and Vishnu, are all worshipped in Thailand.

Besides the older temples dedicated to Hindu gods and goddesses, there are five more recently consecrated shrines in Bangkok’s commercial centre which are a testimony to the enduring power and popularity of Hindu deities. Interestingly, all of them are located in the vicinity of the Erawan Shrine, which was built only 65 years ago.

Phra Laksami (Laxmi), Phra Trimurati (Trimurti), Phra Khanet (Ganesha), Phra In (Indra), and Phra Narai Song Suban (Narayana on his Garuda) are all deeply embedded in the hearts of Thai people.

U Thant, Kenzō Tange and the Buddha’s birthplace, Kunda Dixit


Laxmi, also known as Sri, is one of the principal deities in Hinduism. She is the goddess of wealth, fortune, love, beauty, joy and prosperity. One of the most compelling stories in Hindu mythology is that of the Churning of the Milky Ocean, it is the story of the gods versus the demons and their fight to gain immortality through an elixir in the seas. It also tells of the rebirth of Laxmi.

The Lakshmi Shrine is located in Gaysorn Village, a five-star shopping mall just opposite the Erawan Shrine at the Rachaprasong intersection at the heart of Bangkok.

However, it is not easy to find Laxmi in Gaysorn Village. People have to ascend the mall floor after floor, passing the array of exclusive designer luxury brands on display there, until they arrive at the office area located on the 4th floor.

A Laxmi shrine has been placed at this level, on the right corner of Gayson Village overlook-ing the Erawan Shrine and Rachaprasong intersection. Unusually, however, this is not a public area.

People believe the Laxmi shrine here sits in harmony with another site dedicated to Vishnu at a corner of the nearby Intercontinental Hotel, along with shrines to Trimurti and Ganesh at the Central World shopping mall.

Masked devotees at the Laxmi Shrine in Bangkok.

This area is not only the commercial heart of Bangkok, but also where its most luxurious shopping malls and hotels are located. And it seems perfectly appropriate and natural that people who wish for wealth and business success come to the Laxmi shrine.

“I do not pray to win the lottery, as so many of my friends do, but I do express my wishes that my mobile phone accessory business will go well,” says Sunny, a transgender, who often visits the shrine. “And I pray that all my family will live well without financial difficulties.”

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Vishnu in front of the Intercontitental Bangkok.


Vishnu is one of the principle deities of Hinduism, and is regarded as the preserver or the protector of creation. He is the supreme being within Vaishnavism, a major tradition within contemporary Hinduism.

The Vishnu Shrine is located in front of the Intercontinental Hotel about 200m from the one dedicated to Brahma at Erawan. The shrine portrays Vishnu standing on the shoulders of his steed Garuda, a mythical bird-like creature with divine attributes in Hinduism.

The very first sight this black Garuda, in its half-human and half-form, spreads an aura of great power. The Garuda is also the emblem of the royal institution of the Kingdom of Thailand, and is a symbol of endurance in Indonesia, where the national airline is named after the godlike bird.


Indra is an ancient Vedic deity in Hinduism, and is regarded as a guardian in Buddhism. He is also the king of Saudharmakalpa, the highest heaven in Jainism, another one of India’s ancient religions.

Indra’s mythological power shares striking similarities with classical European deities such as the Greek/Roman Jupiter/Zeus and the Slavic Perun.

Indra is also regarded as the god of thunder and lightning, and sits in front of Amarin Plaza, located just 100m from the Erawan Shrine and opposite the Intercontinental Hotel. This protector of the sky, the earth and the sea appears in his majesty with a dark green form made of jade.

He has four hands, enabling him to hold a sword, a javelin, a bow and a conch shell. The Thai people believe that the weapons of Indra allow this ancient Hindu protector of heaven and earth to create thunder and lightning, to split the oceans and mountains, and to restore the earth.

Indra Shrine in Bangkok is next to a Buddhist temple.

Trimurti Shrine at Central World Bangkok.


Trimurti is a triple deity of supreme divinity in Hinduism, combining the cosmic roles of Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver and Shiva the destroyer, with individual Hindu denominations interpreting this trinity in different ways.

The Trimurti Shrine is located at the Rachaprasong Intercontinental on the corner of Central World Plaza, diagonally opposite the Erawan Shrine. The Trimurti is less popular than the Erawan Shrine, but it displays its solemn appearance in its own way.

Built in 1989, like other shrines in Bangkok, the Trimurti was consecrated to answer prayers for success, prosperity and happiness. However, it has gained a particular reputation for granting romantic happiness to the younger generation and has hence become known as the Shrine of Love. On Christmas Eve, many young people flocked here to offer flowers and wishes.

“We postponed our marriage plan this year because of the virus pandemic, but we definitely want to get married next year,” said Noppadon and Pannida, a young couple who are colleagues at a bank. “We prayed for the unchanging power of love at this shrine.”


Ganesh, the Elephant God, is worshipped as a remover of obstacles and the god of accomplishment and wisdom. He has also been known as the patron of intellectuals, scribes, bankers and authors.

Physically distanced devotees at the Ganesh Shrine at Central World Bangkok.

The Ganesh Shrine stands just next to the Trimurti like its twin at the corner of Central World Plaza. This golden Ganesh, with his elephant head and four hands, and a serpent wrapped around his chest to represent energy, wields a dagger in his first right hand to defeat evil, a tusk in his second right hand to overpower distress, a noose in his first left hand to suppress immorality, and a pot in his other left hand to offer wealth.

In front of the Ganesh statue are several rats, which are not only his holy vehicle, but also symbolise the ability to overcome anything in order to achieve what one wants. Elephant figures have also been enshrined.

Like the Erawan Shrine and Trimurti Shrine, this veneration of Ganesh is a symbol of the fusion of Hindu deities with Thai customs and rituals from centuries ago.

The Ramakien

The Ramakien, the most famous national epic of Thailand, derived from the Hindu epic Ramayana, has had a profound influence on culture and arts.

The plot of the story is Rama's life of 14 years in exile after being expelled by his stepmother. While he lives with his consort Sita and his brother Lakshmana there, Sita is kidnapped by the demon king Ravana (Tosatkan) and taken to Lanka. Then Rama and Lakshmana rescue her with help of the monkey warriors.

Ramakien, the Thai Ramayana wall painting at Wat Phra Keo in Bangkok. Photos: MOONTAE JEONG

While the main narrative is similar to that of the Ramayana, there are many fundamental differences within the Ramakien. Particularly, making the peculiar Thai Buddhist version, Rama turned into Phra Ram, a reincarnation of Buddha instead of being incarnated from the Hindu god Vishnu.

In Ramakien, name, customs, clothes and topography all related to the Thai context. For instance, Phra Ram is the ruler of Ayutthaya, the ancient capital of Thai and no longer prince of Ayodhya as in the Ramayana.

Thai epic Ramkien, which is based on the Ramayana, has inspired Thai art and literature.

The Ramakien characterise how an honorable person should behave himself, as the same in the Ramayana. It seems no coincidence that 10 kings of Thailand have taken the name Rama since 1973.

A painted representation of the Ramakien is displayed at Bangkok's Wat PhraKaew, and many of the statues there depict characters from it.


Khon, a dance drama of Thailand, has been performed since the Ayutthaya Kingdom (1350–1767). It is traditionally performed solely in the royal court by men in masks accompanied by narrators and a traditional Piphat, a kind of ensemble in the classical music of Thailand, which features wind and percussion instruments.

Kon is based on the tales of the Ramakien, as Thai literature and drama draws great inspiration from Ramayana.

Khon dancing

The Royal Ploughing Ceremony

This is an ancient royal rite held at the beginning of the rainy season, usually in the month of May, to mark the auspicious beginning of the rice-growing season. It is an annual ceremony presided over by their Majesties the King and the Queen, and takes place at Sanam Luang (or the Royal Grounds) near the Grand Palace in Bangkok.

The date of the event varies from year to year, as the auspicious date and time are determined by the royal Brahmin astrologers, the ceremony being rooted in Brahmin belief and performed since the Sukhothai Kingdom (1238~1438).

The Royal Ploughing ceremony in Bangkok.

During the ceremony, the amount of rainfall in the coming rainy season is forecast by the royal astrologers, and done through a traditional method. Then the two oxen are offered plates of food, including rice, corn, green beans, sesame, freshly cut grass, water and rice whisky. Depending on what the oxen eat and drink, a prediction can be made as to whether the coming season’s harvest will be bountiful or not.

In 1966, the Ploughing Ceremony Day has been declared a national holiday and observed as Farmer’s Day as well. Farmers are encouraged to take part in this Ploughing Ceremony.


The national emblem of Thailand is called the Phra Khrut Pha, Garuda as the vehicle of Vishnu. The mythical half-man half-bird was officially adopted as the national emblem by King Vajiravudh (RamaVI) in 1911. However, the creature had been used as a symbol of royalty in Thailand for centuries. The Garuda is depicted on seals, which are used by the King and the Government of Thailand to authenticate official documents and as its primary emblem.

The Garuda is a mythological beast of the Hindu and Buddhist tradition. The ancient kings of Thailand believed in divine kingship, and considered themselves the incarnation of the god Narayana (Vishnu). Thus, the Garuda came to symbolise the divine power and authority of the king.

The Garuda symbol of Bangkok Bank headquarter in Bangkok.

The Garuda was also adopted by the Royal Thai Government as its official emblem, and it  appears on the letterhead of Thai government documents. The figure of the Garuda is also used as symbol of state property, and as such is displayed on government buildings, title deeds, boundary markers and in the uniforms of the Royal Thai Police and Royal Thai Armed Forces.

Private entities such as businesses may be granted permission to use and display the Garuda emblem. Deserving firms, such those of good standing, could apply for a Royal warrant of appointment from the king through the Bureau of the Royal Household or the Prime Minister. Receiving a Royal warrant is considered a great honour and a mark of distinction for any Thai company.

Lost village of Nepalis in Thailand, Ramesh Khadka

This is the second and concluding part of series on Hindu influences in Buddhist Thailand.