The Spirit of a Heroine: Ya Mo—Spirit Reverence, Patriotism and Thai Buddhism
Published online by Cambridge University Press: 10 February 2011
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
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.
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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 Thailand’ Journal 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. 34–36Google Scholar; Tambiah, S. J., Buddhism and the Spirit Cults in North-East Thailand (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1970), p. 57Google Scholar.
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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.
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’.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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.
80 Keyes, ‘National Heroine or Local Spirit?’, p. 117.