Make your own free website on

Menu SideLook

The phi ruan (͹).
            The phi ruan is a spirit of the house. In other words, it is synonymous with the ancestral spirit which 'in Central Thailand, is called "phi pu yu ta yai" (ջҵ). This is a particularized word composed of "pu ya", meaning paternal grand and grandmother respectively, and "ta yai" meaning the maternal grandparents. It is very interesting to note that in the North this "phi pu ya ta yai" is called "phi pu ya", indicating that only the paternal grandparents are recognized as ancestral spirits. In the Northeast the ancestral spirit is called "phi pu ta". Taking the word as it is "pu ta" means grandfathers only,, both paternal and maternal, leaving out the grandmothers, unless "pu ta" can tie construed as meaning paternal grandfather only. In the South the ancestral spirit is Called "Phi ta yai" which means the phi of maternal grandparents only. Why such differences? Have they something to do with patriarchy and matriarchy? I think they do. But there is a complication for the word "ta yai" which means maternal grandfather and grandmother in the Thai language is coincidentally identical in sound with the word "ta yai" in the Cambodian which means grandfather and' grandmother, both paternal and maternal. However, the question of kinship will have to remain unsolved until more data is obtained.
The phi ruan is supposed to have its residence in the house. It is a paradox that phi and man should live together. When a person is dead lie lives physically no more with the living, but love, fear and other sentiments will make him live still in the house as a reality though invisibly. He is now a phi ruan and is supposed to look after the welfare of the family as hitherto. Perhaps a place in the house is assigned to him by the family, where he is worshipped daily with flowers and perhaps with food when the sentiment is still strong. This place becomes sacred and tabooed; and no person unless lie is a member of the family is allowed to enter the place without consent and permission. The families when doing any important things on special occasions do not fail to worship the phi ruan to ask his permission and blessing for a successful outcome, or to inform him of any significant problem of the family. On New Year's Day and perhaps on Mid. Year Day also, the phi ruan will not fail to receive his due share of a feast. In short, he is treated in the same manner as lie was when alive as the head of the family.
            The above description is only an inference from certain practices, which have survived in custom and literature and also from the cult of ancestor-worship as observed, though feebly, in certain regions, especially in the North and Northeast In the North, I am told, there is a shelf perched high above the in the sleeping room. The shelf is laid with a' red morning or evening fresh flowers are laid on the shelf are offerings by the household to the, phi ruan which is supposed to be there. On New Year's Day and on special occasions the phi ruan is feasted. When a young man of the family is marrying he will take a number of dried flowers lying on the shelf with him to be placed later on the spirit shelf of his bride's family' as a sign of now being co-joined by kinship, The taking away of a certain portion of dried flowers from one family to another is called "baeng -phi" (觼), that is to share out a phi. Note that the phi here is meant as a good spirit. Why do we not change the word phi which later degenerates into the meaning of bad phi, into a devada? I venture to think that the ancestral spirits of kings are called devada, and implicitly the -word devada has become tabooed. The ancestral spirits of commoners cannot reverently aspire to that name.
            In Bangkok a rite for the propitiation of ancestral spirits is to be seen occasionally as part, of a wedding ceremony among orthodox people. Such a rite is called "wai phi" (Ǽ) or worshiping the phi. In the Northeast any contravention of tradition and custom is called "phit phi" (Դ) that is, wrong done to the phi. "Phit phi" has served as a code of law to the people, whose outlook is still primitive, by regulating their general conduct.
            On New Year's Day, apart from other observances a "bang sukun" (ѧʡ), a kind of memorial service to the dead is performed by the family before, the bones of the departed ones. I have elsewhere described the above ceremony of "bang sukun". This is, undoubtedly a development of the feast of the dead fathers on New Year's Day as practiced in the' past. The change is due to the adoption of ' Buddhism by the people, It is the, practice of some of the people. to keep a certain portion of, the charred bones of their dead in -the house" after their bodies have been burnt. The bones are kept in a gold or silver urn and Sometimes a jewelled one, according to the wealth of the owner. This is placed in a low position near an altar of a Buddha image in the house. Every time there is a "tham bun" (Ӻح) or merit making in connection with the dead, the people do not fail to have a memorial service or "bang sukun" performed on the occasion.
            You will wonder perhaps as to the disposal of the remains of the calcinated bones and ashes of the dead, which have not been taken from the funeral pyre. There is a custom among the poor of gathering and placing these in a receptacle, usually a small earthen pot, and burying it at the root of a "ton pho" (⾸) or sacred fig tree in a monastery, or they are wrapped in a bundle with white cloth and placed near the pedestal of a Buddha image or under a pulpit and whatever things are deemed sacred in a monastery. There is an old. law, dated 1805 A.D. prohibiting the practice of placing bones and ashes in such places as did Dot befit the decency of the monastery; but the people in outlying districts are still doing it. The well-to-do build a "pra chedi" (਴) or stupa and have the bones and ashes placed in it. A pra chedi was originally a funeral mound from which it has evolved. If possible, the bones are placed in a vault within a large pra chedi of the monastery or inserted in its niche or under the altar and sealed. The people are desirous of having the bones of their dead kept in such places because they want to have their dear ones, though dead, Dear the Buddha and his religion; in the same spirit, I think, as a cross is placed at the burial ground in a Chris cemetery.
            The practice of keeping a portion of the bones of the departed in the house is a new thing and contrary -to former practice. In fact, it is not more than 170 years old, (Pee my Siamese Customs in Connection with the Dead) Again, a Buddha image - was a hundred years or more ago, a sacred thing mot to (be installed Within a human habitation. The proper place for Buddha images was in the temple of a monastery. Later on, devout people in towns and cities, desiring to worship the, Lord Buddha as a daily devotion found it inconvenient to go every day to the temple which, unlike ,that of the village was not 'located nearby. They therefore built an Out-house for installation of a Buddha image where they could worship Him as many times as they wished. King Nang Klao, the predecessor of King Mongkut, who wag a very devout Buddhist, raised the question with the prelates of the realm as to whether It was proper for a devout Buddhist to have the image of Buddha installed in the house for purposes of worship. The prelates' answer was in the affirmative. Hence the practice has developed of having a Buddha image installed within the house itself, although inconsistent with the old belief that sacred or supernatural beings, including the phi of course, should not be under the same roof with human beings. Here I may add that even masks representing gods and giants in theatrical performances are superstitiously deemed improper to be kept in a house with the living, for they will afflict the inmates with "something hot to the heart and mind", i.e. troubles. Foreigners and some progressive Thai who have Buddha images in their houses as decorations or curiosities are frowned upon by the people as offending their feelings.
            The phi ruan or spirit of the house is gradually dying out' especially with the city and town people. No vestige of phi ruan is now to be found in their houses except, perhaps, a vague idea that the phi ruan is somewhere in the house. If they want to ask their ancestral spirit to give help in their difficulties, they light one or two joss sticks and place them somewhere in a convenient place where they worship while asking for help. To the younger generation the phi ruan is a nonentity except in name. The change is due first to Buddhism and second to the encroachment of a newer culture. Nevertheless the old -belief of animism is still there disguising and adapting itself to meet its present need with the progress of time.