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The Spirit of a Heroine: Ya Mo—Spirit Reverence, Patriotism and Thai Buddhism

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  10 February 2011

Centre for Theology and Religious Studies, Lund University, Lund, Sweden Email:


The story of Ya Mo is that of a great Thai heroine honoured with a grand monument (the Suranari memorial) in the centre of Khorat, a city in the north-east of Thailand. The monument is a sacred shrine embedding Ya Mo's guardian spirit which protects the people of the city. She is a grantor of protection, auspiciousness and good luck, and can fulfil wishes, needs and requests. Her spirit can be benevolent as well as ferocious and revengeful. She is a warrior and a guardian, but also a grandmother and a symbol of patriotism, kinship and loving kindness. Ya Mo and her shrine must be perceived in relation to Thai religion and the position of deities, spirits, ghosts and otherworldly beings in Theravāda Buddhism. Ya Mo represents a wide range of meanings and functions, but when viewed exclusively as a historical figure, most of these do not surface. In order to understand the Ya Mo phenomenon, the field between religion and magic in Thai Theravāda Buddhism must therefore be explored, as well as how people create and uphold distinctions between religion and magic, and how they communicate and negotiate between these two spheres or dimensions. This paper attempts to analyse how non-Buddhist monuments and shrines, in this case a historical memorial to Ya Mo, erected as part of Thai nation-building, represent a vivid part of Thai religious and spiritual life, deeply rooted in a Buddhist worldview.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2011

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1 The names Nakhon Ratchasima and Khorat are used interchangeably, both as the name of the north-eastern province and its capital city. Up until the mid-Ayuthaya era there were actually two towns, Sima and Khorakpura. The city of Khorat was once the capital of Lao Klang, a Thai monthon that covered present-day Khorat, Chaiyaphum and Buriram provinces, until the monthon (‘maṇḍala’) system was changed to the jangwàt (province) system in 1933.

2 This story, found on a plaque near the Ya Mo monument, is from a detailed record in the Bangkok Chronicle written by Chao Phraya Thipakorawong. Some versions of this story give 1826 as the year of the Jao Anuwong war. Charles Keyes and Saipin Kaew-ngamprasert, whom I will refer to later in this paper, used 1827. This sequence is based on Keyes’ translation: Keyes, Charles F., ‘National Heroine or Local Spirit? The Struggle over Memory in the Case of Thao Suranari of Nakhon Ratchasima’, In Keyes, C. F. and Tanabe, S. (eds.), Cultural Crisis and Social Memory: Modernity and Identity in Thailand and Laos (Routledge Curzon, London, 2002), p. 117Google Scholar.

3 ‘Yâ’ is Thai for paternal grandmother and most commonly used, as Thao Suranari is regarded as the grandmother of all the people of Khorat.

4 The north-eastern part of Thailand is named Isaan after the Hindu god Īśāna; Davies, Ben, Isaan: Forgotten Provinces of Thailand (LUNA Publications, Bangkok, 1996), p. 9Google Scholar; Īśāna is a well known Śiva title, but is also found amongst the numerous names for Viṣṇu (Klostermaier, Klaus K., A Survey of Hinduism (State University of New York Press, New York, 1994, p. 266Google Scholar) and bears the meaning of owning, possessing, wealthy, reigning, ruler or master. Additionally, Īśāna is an old name for Śiva-Rudra; the sun as a form of Śiva and was also the Sanskrit name of a Mon-Khmer kingdom which flourished in that area before the Angkor era. This kingdom was also a precursor to the Funan Empire from the first to the sixth centuries. In the seventh century, the city Īśānapura, the capital named after the Khmer ruler Īśānavarman, was situated north of Thonle Sap in what today is Coedès, Cambodia; G., The Indianized States of Southeast Asia (East-West Center, Honolulu, HI, 1968), p. 69Google Scholar.

5 Nartsupha, Chatthip, The Thai Village Economy in the Past (Silkworm Books, Chiang Mai, Thailand, 1999), p. 67Google Scholar.

6 Puñña, merit.

7 The Thai greeting by lifting the hands, palms together, towards the forehead.

8 A silver coin of Ya Mo, or Thao Suranari, was valued to 1000 bàth in the amulet magazine Dadchaneephra, no. 236 (2004), p. 15.

9 A thevada, a deva or devatā in Pāli is a manifest form of reappearance in heaven, a god.

10 In everyday speech, phĩi means ‘ghost’. Here, however, phĩi includes a wide range of spirits with human-like features, including ghosts. Pattana Kitiarsa describes phĩi both as benevolent spirits (phĩi dii) like ancestral and guardian spirits, and bad spirits (phĩi rai) like ghosts; Kitiarsa, Pattana, ‘Beyond Syncretism: Hybridization of Popular Religion in Contemporary ThailandJournal of Southeast Asian Studies 36, no. 3 (October 2005), p. 476CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

11 There are Tai peoples, not only in Thailand, but also in India, Myanmar, south-west China, Laos and Northern Vietnam. Apart from belonging to the Tai-Kadai lingual family, Tai peoples also believe in phĩi, and in khwãn, a life essence or soul-like phenomenon; Nathalang, Siraporn, ‘Conflict and Compromise between the Indigenous Beliefs and Buddhism as Reflected in Thai Rice Myths’, In Nathalang, Siraporn (ed.), Thai Folklore: Insight into Thai Culture (Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, 2000), p. 101Google Scholar. However, similar indigenous concepts are also found among neighbouring peoples in South-east Asia. As an example, khwãn corresponds to the Malayan sumangat, the Burmese leikpya, the Cambodian prelang and the Mon püng khaman; Heinze, Ruth-Inge, Tham Khwan: How to Contain the Essence of Life (Singapore University Press, Singapore, 1982), pp. 3436Google Scholar; Tambiah, S. J., Buddhism and the Spirit Cults in North-East Thailand (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1970), p. 57Google Scholar.

12 Gombrich, Richard F., Theravada Buddhism: A Social History from Ancient Benares to Modern Colombo (Routledge, London, New York, 2001), p. 24Google Scholar.

13 Ibid., p. 26.

14 Spiro also operates with a fourth Buddhist ideology, ‘esoteric’ Buddhism; Spiro, Melford E., Buddhism and Society: A Great Tradition and Its Burmese Vicissitudes (Harper & Row Publishers, New York, 1970), p. 162Google Scholar. However, esoteric Buddhism will not be discussed here, as it is not relevant to this discussion.

15 Weber, Max, The Religion of India: The Sociology of Hinduism and Buddhism (The Free Press, New York, 1958), p. 206Google Scholar.

16 Spiro, Buddhism and Society, p. 66; Weber, Max, The Sociology of Religion (Beacon Press, Boston, 1993 [first published by Mohr, J. C. B., 1922]), p. 268Google Scholar.

17 Spiro, Buddhism and Society, p. 66.

18 Ibid., p. 140.

19 Weber, The Sociology of Religion, p. 145.

20 I would like to stress here that Spiro's categories should not be seen as different levels of Buddhism or different ways to interpret religion. Rather, they are used here as analytical tools for discovering certain dynamic patterns of how Thai Buddhism is perceived.

21 Spiro, Buddhism and Society, p. 140.

22 Mulder, Neils, Inside Thai Society: Interpretations of Everyday Life (Pepin, Amsterdam, 1996), p. 42Google Scholar.

23 Sàksìt is a compound word of the two Sanskrit/Pāli loanwords śākti and siddhi. The noun Śākti means power, strength or energy, and siddhi, which is also a noun, means accomplishment, fulfilment or success. In Thai, sàksìt and khlãng are more or less synonymous and can both be translated into English as ‘sacred’ or ‘holy’.

24 Mulder, Inside Thai Society, p. 41.

25 A sacred cotton thread used in the sacralization of Buddha images, spirit houses and amulets, often worn around the wrist for protection and good luck. A sãi sĩn is also tied around the wrist during tham khwãn ceremonies.

26 Tambiah, S. J., The Buddhist Saints of the Forest and the Cult of Amulets (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1984), p. 199CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

27 Mulder, Inside Thai Society, p. 47.

28 A shrine for the guardian spirit, the spirit of the land.

29 Literally ‘a shrine at eye level’.

30 Literally ‘spirit who died wrongly’.

31 Terwiel, B. J., Monks and Magic: An Analysis of Religious Ceremonies in Central Thailand (White Lotus, Bangkok, 1994), p. 47Google Scholar.

32 Wong, K. F., ‘Nang Naak: The Cult and Myth of a Popular Ghost in Thailand’, in Nathalang, Siraporn (ed.), Thai Folklore: Insight into Thai Culture (Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, 2000), p. 124Google Scholar.

33 Ibid., p. 127.

34 Ibid., p. 128.

35 Ibid., p. 131.

36 Mulder, Inside Thai Society, p. 41.

37 Tambiah, The Buddhist Saints of the Forest and the Cult of Amulets, p. 199.

38 Confidence or a strengthened and encouraged heart or mind.

39 Tambiah, The Buddhist Saints of the Forest and the Cult of Amulets, p. 199.

40 Keyes, ‘National Heroine or Local Spirit?’, p. 128.

41 Gombrich, Richard F. and Obeyesekere, Gananath, Buddhism Transformed: Religious Change in Sri Lanka (Princeton University Press, Princetown, NJ, 1988), p. 100Google Scholar.

42 Pattana, ‘Beyond Syncretism: Hybridization of Popular Religion in Contemporary Thailand’, p. 483.

43 Keyes, ‘National Heroine or Local Spirit?’, p. 119; Heidhues, Mary S., Southeast Asia: A Concise History (Thames & Hudson, London, 2001), p. 108Google Scholar.

44 Keyes, ‘National Heroine or Local Spirit?’, p. 119.

45 ‘Thai-ness’, or khwam pen Thai, is usually characterized by the three pillars of Thai unity, continuity and identity expressed as ‘Nation, Religion and King’—‘chât, sãsanã, phrá mahã kasàt’. It was Rama VI, King Wachirawut (1910–1925), who first formulated these three pillars, but the notion of Thai-ness and these pillars has ever since been re-emphasized and reinterpreted, and they have been highly important throughout modern Thai history.

46 Kaew-ngamprasert, Saipin, Kanmuang nai Anusawari Thao Suranari [The Politics of the Thao Suranari Monument] (Matichon, Bangkok, 1995)Google Scholar.

47 Keyes, ‘National Heroine or Local Spirit?’, p. 120.

48 Anderson, Benedict, Imagined Communities: Reflections of the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (Verso, London, 1994), p. 99Google Scholar.

49 Mulder, Inside Thai Society, p. 21.

50 Anderson, Imagined Communities, p. 100.

51 Sattayanurak, Saichol, ‘The Establishment of Mainstream Thought on “Thai Nation” and “Thainess” by Luang Wichit WathakanTai Culture: International Review of Tai Studies VII, no. 2 (2002), p. 7Google Scholar.

52 Keyes, ‘National Heroine or Local Spirit?’, p. 120.

53 The Bangkok Post on 5 March 1996 operated with these numbers. The Thai newspaper Naeona [The Front Line] on 6 March 1996 estimated the number to be 50,000 protesters.

54 Keyes, ‘National Heroine or Local Spirit?’, p. 117.

55 Ibid., p. 113.

56 Ibid., p. 31.

57 An Isaan province north-east of Khorat.

58 Keyes, ‘National Heroine or Local Spirit?’, p. 133.

59 Another good example of this Isaan regionalism is found in a different sàksìt being from Khorat. The famous monk Luang Pho Khun has also become a cherished symbol of Isaan. When looking at this phenomenon in other regions, a clear parallel to Luang Pho Khun can be found in Luang Pu Thuat in Pattani province. The legend of this ancient monk has become not only an important symbol of the four southernmost provinces of Thailand, but also of the entire southern region.

60 Làk mueang, or the city pillar, is a pole recognized as the central authority of a town or a city and is a common landmark for Thai-speaking peoples also outside of Thailand; Terwiel, Monks and Magic, p. 17; The city pillar of Khorat, situated in Wat Phra Narai Maharat, originates from the Angkor period and represents a Śiva lingam.

61 Keyes, ‘National Heroine or Local Spirit?’, p. 125.

62 Another province in Isaan north of Khorat.

63 The spirit of a city or the spirit who inhabits a city pillar is the phĩi mueang; Mulder, Inside Thai Society, p. 43.

64 Terwiel, Monks and Magic, p. 152.

65 Heinze, Tham Khwan, p. 30.

66 Terwiel, Monks and Magic, p. 152.

67 Note also that Pattana uses Chao to indicate Chinese deities connected to the Sino-Thai population; Pattana, Beyond Syncretism, p. 476.

68 Terwiel, Monks and Magic, p. 48.

69 Boisselier, Jean, The Wisdom of the Buddha (Thames and Hudson, London, 1994), p. 157Google Scholar.

70 Rhys Davids, T. W., The Questions of King Milinda – Part I (Dover Publications, New York, 1963 [first published by Oxford University, 1890]), p. 117Google Scholar.

71 Many of the people I interviewed underlined how jâo thîi is like a grandfather in the house. As Thao Suranari or Lady Mo also is nicknamed grandmother Mo, Ya Mo, this is a good illustration of her position as a jâo thîi in Khorat.

72 Heinze, Tham Khwan, p. 30

73 Klausner, William J., Reflections on Thai Culture (Siam Society, Bangkok, 2000), p. 213Google Scholar.

74 When Kòp talks about the Buddha here, he refers to Buddha amulets as an example of how people in Thailand relate to spirits and magical elements of their religion.

75 Mulder, Inside Thai Society, p. 44.

76 Brekke, Torkel, ‘Contradiction and the Merit of Giving in Indian ReligionsNumen: International Review for the History of Religions 45, no. 3 (1998), p. 312CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

77 The Thai name for the popular Chinese goddess of compassion, or karunā, Kuan Yin—a female manifestation of the Mahāyāna Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara.

78 Mulder, Inside Thai Society, p. 56.

79 Ibid., p. 90.

80 Keyes, ‘National Heroine or Local Spirit?’, p. 117.