The Erawan Shrine beckoned me. Following its siren song, I hopped on the Sky Train, which whisked me to Chitlom station in a matter of minutes. I stepped to the edge of the elevated walkway and gazed down on the first site I had ever visited in Bangkok. On this, my fifth trip to Thailand, I seem to be meandering down memory lane and with so much change evident in Bangkok I was gratified to see that worshipers still flock to this historic site to petition the gods for fame, fortune, and success.
As Hindu holy places go, the Erawan Shrine is no more spectacular than hosts of others around Asia, but the back story is fascinating. The shrine, which has as its centerpiece a statue of Phra Phrom, the Thai representation of the Hindu creation god Brahma, was built in 1956 during construction of the government-owned Erawan Hotel. The project was plagued by cost overruns, injuries, and the loss of a shipload of Italian marble intended for use in the construction, thought to be the result of laying the foundations on an inauspicious date. An astrologer advised building the shrine to eliminate this bad karma; once it was in place, hotel construction proceeded without further difficulty, earning it the reputation as a place to pray for good fortune. When the original hotel was demolished in 1987 to make way for the Grand Hyatt Erawan, the Hyatt carefully incorporated the shrine into the design of the new facility.
The best view of the Erawan Shrine is from the elevated Sky Train walkway but nothing compares to joining the crush of supplicants at ground level. Weaving through flower vendors clogging the narrow sidewalks, I passed through the iron gates of the shrine and squeezed through to the front of the seething crowd. Worshipers placed burning incense sticks in sand trays and prostrated three times before Brahma. Others placed flowers, food, and a variety of mementos on the altar, hoping to win favor from the gods. One man, obviously in dire need of celestial help, hefted two giant trash bags through the gates and fought his way through the jostling horde to the altar. From the first bag he extracted an opulent pair of golden sequined headdresses, which an attendant prominently placed on either side of Brahma. The four large wooden elephant carvings he pulled from the second bag were given places of honor on the four sides of the shrine, and as a final offering he handed two bottles of water to the attendant to be placed on the altar, just in case Bramha was thirsty.
Other visitors douse themselves with holy water from one of the burnished bronze urns at the outer corners of the courtyard or hire traditional Thai dancers at the rear of the courtyard to intercede with the gods on their behalf. Year after year, the crazy display continues, with maintenance workers removing half-burned incense sticks and mounds of flowers almost as fast as worshipers can place them. In a rapidly changing Bangkok, it is reassuring that traditions at the Erawan Shrine have endured unchanged. The shrine is open each day from 6:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. and admission is free.