Monday, September 6, 2010

Spirit Houses September 6th, 2010

Spirit Houses

Something that is everywhere. Spirit Houses.

I’m looking at one right now. It’s hard not to since there is one outside every house and shop and sometimes at strategic points within a property. They look like red and gold Buddhist Temples on a pillar.

Inside the one near me right now are ten un-burnt candles lying on a saucer, with dried petals laid over them. Just outside the Temple area is a pot with sand in it holding a few used incense sticks and a glass of water.

There are other variations of the theme. Just down the street from the Lycée Hoffet is a little restaurant and in their Spirit House are tiny ceramic statues of an old couple. Cookies have been placed in front of them and a fine line of hungry ants makes its way from the ground up the pillar and onto the cookies. Even idols aren’t stupid enough to put those in their mouths!

I am curious to know what emotional charge these Spirit Houses hold for the Lao. I can seize their importance intellectually and I imagine that the old couple represents ancestors or that spirits are believed to inhabit certain places and need to be fed or placated or something.

But I would really like to know what stabs through a Lao heart when they see a Spirit House. Is it as charged as when you take the Torah out of the Arch? Is it as important as when a Catholic priest lifts up the wafer?

Or is feeding the spirits something automatic, like kissing a mezuzah? Or more ritualistic, like putting on tephilin? Do they require the capital letters I am giving them?

There are two other variations of these Spirit Houses. One is the rows of large sets of them inside temple walls. They usually carry photographs of people on them so I suspect that human ashes are encased in them, making them really Spirit Houses.

My favourite Spirit House so far is in our new garden. With great help from Tony, at ( we were able to visit about 10 houses and finally settled on one. More on the house later.

But at the back of it there is a bamboo grove and in the middle of it is a very simple Spirit House. It is just a large sheet of rusted metal folded in half. This is sitting on an old pillar. Tony explained that the Lao believe that spirits live in groves.

The house itself has not been lived in for quite a while and would soon turn into a Spirit House itself if some foreigners like us hadn’t come along and seen its potential. The landlords have undertaken massive improvements to the house before we move in, but I have asked them not to touch that Spirit House and to let it sit there in the shade of the grove under the rustling paper-thin leaves of the bamboo.

Sleep tight, little Spirits. We are on our way.

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