Authorities are still seeking answers for the deadly bombings that occurred Monday at the Erawan Shrine in a tourist-heavy area of Bangkok. Duke’s Ara Wilson was in Bangkok conducting research when the blast occurred.
“The bombers picked their target with efficiency,” Wilson said. “While some foreigners have cut their trips short, and the elite shopping district experienced a few quiet days, visitors have come to the shrine, leaving offerings for the dead and injured.”
The Erawan Shrine plays an important role in Thailand, even though it is not terribly old, said Wilson, an associate professor of anthropology and women’s studies who focuses on urban Southeast Asia.
“The Erawan Shrine is the best known of the shrines placed at major commercial buildings in Bangkok,” Wilson said. “It is not ancient, dating only to the 1950s. An astrologer-shaman advised the owners of the new Erawan Hotel to shrine to Brahma to remedy an inauspicious start.
The shrine is religiously significant and also important to the Thai tourist economy, Wilson said.
“The Erawan shrine is to the Hindu god Brahma, who has been incorporated into a pantheon of figures in everyday Thai spiritual life. It became one of the most spiritually significant sites of the city. And with the photogenic mix of incense, gold leaf and classical dancers hired as offerings, it also became a main tourist attraction,” she said.
“As the area erupted into a major upscale shopping district, the Erawan shrine also became popular with Taiwanese visitors and later mainland Chinese as well. No other commercial shrine has its power.”
And that mix of spiritual potency, commerce and tourists has made the area around the shrine a political target.
“In 2006 a disturbed man attacked the image and was immediately killed by bystanders,” Wilson said. “In 2010 and 2014, political protests, some with violence, erupted at this major intersection, which in turn gave justification for the 2014 military coup that remains in power in the country.”
“Anthropologists see a link between the spiritual and the political in the new geography of this globalizing city,” Wilson said. “Spiritual practices that fall outside established Buddhist orthodoxy – like the Erawan shrine -- have only grown in popularity in the past few decades. At the same time, the landmarks for political expression have also shifted from major state monuments to commercial sites."
Wilson has watched Bangkok residents try to return to normal.
“On Wednesday, the shrine was opened with chanting from Buddhist monks,” Wilson said. “Among those paying respects were family of the bombing victims.”