November 18, 1998
THE OCCULT: When a monk in Saraburi was
arrested three years ago for stealing the corpse of a child and roasting it, the concept
of 'kuman thong' came under the spotlight. The monk's ghoulish attempt to conjure up the
protective child spirit was an extreme expression of a widespread Thai belief inspired by
Do Thais believe in the occult? Ask someone in the market, where the average level of education is likely to be low, if he believes in the supernatural and the answer is almost certain to be yes. Thais who studied to a more advanced level will probably answer that the believe in some occult phenomena and not in others.
A politician will most likely deny holding any superstitious beliefs. But should he be appointed to head a ministry, observe that he will still be very careful to pay respect the appropriate spirit house before assuming his new post.
The occult Thai tradition of the kuman thong, or golden boy, is interesting in that it has its origins in a work of literature - the 19th-century poet Sunthon Phu's long novel in verse, Khun Chang, Khun Phaen. The character of Khun Phaen, central to the story, is a high-ranking soldier of the Ayutthaya period. It is he who creates the child-ghost called Kuman Thong.
The plot elements of Khun Chang, Khun Phaen are derived largely from the oral literary tradition of the Ayutthaya period, from old regional folk tales, and from certain historical events. Many aspects of the narrative indicate that its setting is the Ayutthaya of King Ramathibodi II's reign (1491-1529 A.D.).
Khun Phaen (more likely a title indicating position than a personal name), is a soldier close to the king whose unusual duties set him apart from other soldiers. He is what might be called the army's soldier-magician, a post which was considered extremely important. In those days, soldiers fought hand to hand with edged weapons, so courage and confidence had to be kept at a high pitch, and the use of supernatural forces played an essential part.
Capable as Khun Phaen was, he knew that he couldn't afford to make a mistake, and recognised the need for a protective spirit that would watch over him and alert him to important events coming his way. He also realised that there was no one who was more honest with him than his own little son, but that since a son in human form couldn't guard his own father in the way that was needed, it would be necessary to transform him into a ghost.
Khun Phaen had become a father as a result of a journey he had made from Ayutthaya to another city whose ruler had a deep knowledge of the occult. At first this magician took a great liking to Khun Phaen - so much, in fact, that he presented the newcomer with his daughter, whom he married. Khun Phaen remained in the city until his wife became pregnant with a child that he knew would be a boy.
But his relationship with his father-in-law deteriorated, until it reached the point where the older man wanted him killed. He commanded his daughter to poison Khun Phaen's food. Khun Phaen learned of this plan, and avoided being murdered. Instead, he took his revenge by stabbing his wife to death while she slept. After she was dead, he cut her stomach open and removed the infant, which he took to a temple to undergo an occult rite.
He closed the door so no one could see what he was doing, then built a fire and placed a grate over it. He wrapped the infant's torso in pieces of sacred cloth written over with prayers, and roasted him over the fire until his body had shrunk to a tiny size and was completely dried out, with only the skin stretched over the skeleton remaining.
Throughout this process Khun Phaen chanted prayers. When it was complete, the child had become a ghost with whom he could speak and communicate. He named the ghost-child Kuman Thong, from that point on the newly-created supernatural being plays an important part in the Khun Chang, Khun Phaen story.
This episode of Sunthon Phu's classic is the origin of a now widespread belief in kuman thong, the protective child-spirit. Although this type of supernatural being is only a literary invention, many people believe in such infant ghosts and their ability to warn those who nurture them of danger threatening the household. If a stranger approaches the house intent to cause harm, they maintain, the kuman thong will hurt him or frighten him away.
Evidently, belief in the power of the kuman thong is extremely common in Thailand, and includes most people who give any credence to supernatural phenomena. The shops at Tha Phra Chan and behind Wat Rachanadda that sell occult objects usually display images of him in the form of a statue of a child with a topknot, sitting with his hands held in a wai gesture and dressed in traditional Thai costume, and they are hot sellers.
In mid-1995 the press reported that the police in Saraburi province had arrested a monk at a local wat who had performed Khun Phaen's ceremony on the body of a dead child. During questioning at the police station, the monk stated that his name was Haan, and that he had been in the monkhood for 35 years. He was known in the area as "Nain Ae", a nickname he retained even though he had long since become a monk and left his nain, or apprentice, status behind him.
He explained that he had always been very strongly drawn to the occult, and possessed great powers of black magic. To create his kuman thong, he had stolen the corpse of a child that had been left at the temple by its parents. Mr Haan was forced to leave the monkhood, and was put in jail for stealing and harming the corpse.
This incident actually took place, although it isn't clear whether Mr Haan's actions were the result of the influence of literature or of a deranged mind.
For those who believe in the powers of the kuman thong but don't want to resort to the extreme measures employed by Khun Phaen or Mr Haan, there are other ways to conjure up the protective child spirit. Sit Prasertsak, who lives in the community located within the walls of Wat Saket, or the "Golden Mountain", is well informed on the subject.
He creates kuman thong to order for those who desire them, carving them from pieces of wood.
The wood he uses is old, and was once part of the ubosot or vihaan of a demolished Buddhist temple, he explained. He believes that every part of the temple building is sacred, since monks sit within them and chant prayers every day, those prayers themselves contain sacredness within them.
He stressed that, while sitting and carving the kuman thong images, one must achieve total concentration, and recite prayers. Then, the person who receives the image must feed and care for it properly. It must be placed on a shelf, but not on one as high as the one used for Buddha images. To feed it, the image must be offered cups of milk and sweet beverages.
If the kuman thong is cared for properly, it will remain with the household for a long time. Nowadays, people believe not only that the child spirit protects its owner's home, but that it brings good luck as well, although this may well have originated as part of a sales pitch.
Should someone no longer be able to care for a kuman thong properly, perhaps because they are moving house, or because the image deteriorates physically, they will take it to a wat. There it will be abandoned among components of old spirit houses and headless or otherwise damaged Buddha images.
Mr Sit said that everyone knows that the tradition of the kuman thong originated in Khun Chang, Khun Phaen, but that nobody would imitate Khun Phaen's technique for creating one. Nain Ae's attempt to do it just showed that he was crazy, he said.
Kraison Suksomsabai, an antique dealer, said that a kuman thong is not always a ghost. Some of them are angels, or child-angels. He explained that belief in them is not limited to Thailand, and that there is also a Chinese version of this supernatural being.
"At shrines to Mae Thapthim, the sea deity, kuman thong can be found in both male and female forms," he said. "The males are called kimthang and the girls ngeknueng. Both are capable of highly enhanced kinds of perception. They can see for a distance of 10,000 lee (one lee is equal to two kilometres) and can hear sounds coming from the same distance."
Mr Kraison added that these kuman thong can also be found at shrines to the Chinese goddess Kuan-yin.
"According to traditional belief, these kuman thong are the children of angels," he explained. "Anyone who wants to create an image of one must know khaathaa, a sacred form of language, and must determine an auspicious time to so do using old texts on the subject. Speaking in khaathaa, the person creating the kuman thong will request the child-spirit to enter the image and remain there. The image itself can be made of cement, bronze, or carved wood.
"Once you have acquired a kuman thong, you have to place it in an appropriate place. This should be a shelf that is placed lower on the wall than the hing phra, or shelf where Buddha images are kept. It should be offered portions of the food you eat, placed in small cups, as well as sweet drinks. When the offering is made, the spirit should be invited to eat it.
"Caring for a kuman thong is a way of helping to safeguard the safety of the household. For example, if there is a short circuit in the electrical wiring of the house while everyone is asleep and it starts a fire, the kuman thong will awaken the owner of the house. If a thief breaks in, the spirit will both alert the household and chase away the intruder.
"But these kuman thong also have a tendency to be naughty. Sometimes they tease small children, and the owner has to punish them by striking them with a wooden rod. But it's important to speak to the spirit in khaathaa while punishing it."
According to Mr Kraison, there used to be many genuine kuman thong, but many of them have disappeared.
"This may be because the original owners have died, or perhaps because the moved in with others who weren't able to care for them properly. Or maybe they didn't want to look after them and took them to a wat, where they were left them there under a tree. Today there are a lot of fake ones being sold, images that were made without performing the necessary ceremony. These kuman thong don't have the ability to protect anything, and their ineffectiveness has caused many people to stop believing in the existence of real kuman thong.
Another man who knows a great deal about antiques is a jewellery dealer named Virat who wants to remain anonymous. He said that over 10 years ago he came into possession of a kuman thong that had belonged to a man with a profound knowledge of the occult.
"At first I didn't believe in its power, and I stored it away upstairs in a part of the house where no one lived," he recalled. "Then, when I was in bed downstairs, I hear the sound of a child running around on the upper floor. This went on for two or three nights, and I realised that the kuman thong was playing up there.
"After that, I always took proper care of it. I started by lighting five sticks of incense and offering it a sweet drink and some milk. I said to it, 'Kuman, since we are living together now, please watch over this house.' I did that because I believe that the spirit can help protect my house. There are many workers there, and some of them might try to steal things without my realising it.
"I also learned that the kuman thong can help a business to do well. Customers have come into my shop to buy things who had actually intended to take their business somewhere else. When I asked them why they had come to my stop, they said they didn't know, it had been as if someone had led them there.
"And another thing: after some neighbours of mine moved out of their house, people saw a child with his hair done in a topknot walking around in it. On some nights I heard a knock at the door, and when I opened it there was no one there. After this had happened several times, I realised that a kuman thong must have been responsible, and asked my neighbours either to care for the spirit or, if they didn't want to, to leave it at a temple. They did, and after that the knocking stopped."
After listening to stories like that one, you are left with a choice of believing in kuman thong or rejecting it. Or perhaps there's an easy way out - say you don't believe in the spirit, but be careful to make sure that no one in the family brings one home.
If you have comment or found any error, please report HERE