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A Corrupting A Cosmic Crutch Emerges In Thailand

A Corrupting A Cosmic Crutch Emerges In Thailand


by Richard S. Ehrlich


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An inexpensive Jatukam Ramathep amulet, given to a Buddhist at a temple in Bangkok after the devotee offered a small donation. - Photo copyright by Richard S. Ehrlich

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Buddhists have become obsessed with a magic amulet which resembles a rap star's bling-sized medallion, despite warnings that the circular icon is a cosmic crutch, corrupting religion and society.

When a fresh batch of Jatukam Ramathep amulets went on sale in April, buyers stampeded, trampling a woman to death.

Thieves have infiltrated shops, homes and temples to steal the lucrative charm.

Jatukam amulet sales may have reached 500 million U.S. dollars during the past two years, according to economists, though estimates vary because many transactions are in cash, without receipts.

"Jatukam is the most popular deity in Thailand today," reported The Nation newspaper, but experts disagree over who the amulet represents.

Some insist Jatukam Ramathep are the names of two princely brothers who lived in this region hundreds of years ago.

Others believe Jatukam Ramathep is one person, perhaps King Chandrabhanu, who ruled much of Southeast Asia during the ancient Srivijaya kingdom.

Others insist the person on the amulet is a potential Buddha, or perhaps a Hindu deity.

In the center of the cookie-sized amulet, a man in traditional regalia sits in a meditative pose, left hand on his knee, and right hand held shoulder-high, palm outward.

Variations can include one or two dragons behind him, or a multi- headed serpent, or a surrounding ring of Hindu deities.

Medallions come in red, white, black, silver or gold.



A published advertisement displaying a Jatukam Ramathep amulet for sale. Photo copyright by Richard S. Ehrlich

The reverse side may show a man standing, or instead display a sun or moon emitting rays, or 12 cosmological signs.

Frenzy over the amulets, and concern over the purity of Thailand's Buddhism, coincide with an ongoing public debate about how Buddhists should behave, and how much financial and political power the elderly, conservative, male, saffron-robed clergy should wield.

"Many high-ranking [Buddhist] monks in Bangkok are astrologers, masters of the occult arts, or entrepreneurs in the amulet industry, making Thailand one of the world's largest amulet producers," wrote Mettanando Bhikku, a Thai Buddhist monk who criticizes contradictions within the religion.

The amulet market is controlled by the Buddhists' Ecclesiastical Council in Thailand, and allows temples to gain millions of dollars, tax-free, he said.

"Essentially, this is a worship of spirits," lamented The Bangkok Post's assistant editor Sanitsuda Ekachai.

"The Jatukam Ramathep phenomenon does not only reflect public insecurity from political uncertainties and terrorism threats, it also shows that we are basically animists.

"If we really need a national religion, animism should be the one. At least it can help us stop fooling ourselves that we are still Buddhists, and see who we really are," she wrote.


A Buddhist monk examines various other amulets at a popular street market for Buddhist religions items in Bangkok. Photo copyright by Richard S. Ehrlich

Thailand's Supreme Patriarch, who heads this country's Buddhist clergy, announced on April 22 he will stop providing materials from his temple to make Jatukam amulets, but declined to specify why.

His temple earlier provided sacred ash from burnt incense, colored powder from bricks used in temple construction, and other Buddhist-related material to make thousands of Jatukam amulets.

The Supreme Patriarch's announcement came after thieves reportedly broke into a nearby Buddhist temple on April 22 and stole 30 Jatukam amulets, valued at about 430 U.S. dollars.

Earlier, robbers in the southern region broke through an amulet stall's ceiling and escaped with Jatukam amulets priced at 5,700 U.S. dollars.

Most Jatukam amulets have been made with the blessing of Wat Phra Mahathat Woramahawiharn, the Supreme Patriarch's temple in southern Thailand's Nakhon Si Thammarat city.

When the amulets' price recently soared, dealers throughout Thailand rushed to set up stalls next to the temple, hoping to get the newest versions.

Crowds crushed a woman to death, and injured about 100 others, on April 9 when thousands of people ran toward a school in Nakhon Si Thammarat to buy the amulets.

In the same town, during March, an amulet-collecting woman used her husband's 9-mm pistol to kill a man allegedly breaking into her home along with three other criminals, who fled into the night.

Another amulet collector shot dead a suspected thief in the same southern town on March 26, police said.

More than 90 percent of this nation's 65 million population believe in Buddhism, a religion which emphasizes freedom from superstition, gods, and other illusions.

Many Thai Buddhists, however, collect and wear various amulets which also depict famous monks, kings and other people, living or dead.

"I am a Buddhist and I like the Jatukam amulets because I want more luck," said businessman Somsak Sacjew in an interview on April 25.

Mr. Somsak, 35, was buying six of the amulets, for about 5.70 U.S. dollars each, in a Bangkok shopping mall.

"I am going to give them to my son and daughter, 20 years from now. I think I have more than 50 Jatukam amulets now. I don't resell them," Mr. Somsak said.

"Most people request the Jatukam amulets because it is good for business, good for your family, and good for your life," said Hua Pongsak, an amulet shopkeeper offering a selection priced at 20 U.S. dollars to 72 U.S. dollars each.

Kanita Shi, 35, said she recently bought a Jatukam amulet for 20 U.S. dollars from Mr. Hua's shop, because she wants good luck -- even though she believes Buddha protects her and already gives her lots of luck.

"It is like if you already have two million dollars. It is enough, but won't you then want four million dollars?" Ms. Kanita said in an interview at the shop.

"I observed my life before I bought this amulet, and compared what happened after I bought it, and I saw my business became better and my family life became better," she said.

Sculptors, who create a unique mold to cast the amulet in a clay- like material, can make hundreds of U.S. dollars by designing new versions.

Printers are churning out color brochures, vinyl-covered posters, and other displays to advertise the amulets.

Web sites, including Uamulet.com, offer the amulets online.

Clothing vendors print Jatukam's portrait on T-shirts, while metalworkers produce the amulet as a thin bronze coin.

Other profiteers include producers of raw materials to make the amulets, organizers of blessing rituals, and distributors.

Jatukam also appears on "incantation cloth" -- which is usually a rectangle of inexpensive cotton, illustrated with a wood-block printed image.

Temples, raking in cash by manufacturing the amulets, pump the money into the local economy by hiring construction crews to build Buddhist shrines, stupas and schools.

The first Jatukam amulet was reportedly made in Nakhon Si Thammarat in 1987, to raise funds for the city's shrine.

Originally selling for about one or two U.S. dollars, those early medallions now list for 2,000 to 28,000 U.S. dollars.

More than 100 versions of the Jatukam amulet now appear in shops throughout Thailand, and competition among sellers is fierce.

Some versions include tempting names, such as the expensive "Arch- Millionaire" and "Money Pouring In" series.

*************

Copyright by Richard S. Ehrlich, who has reported news from Asia for the past 28 years, and is co-author of the non-fiction book of investigative journalism, "HELLO MY BIG BIG HONEY!" Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews. His web page is http://www.geocities.com/asia_correspondent

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