The Spirit House

One of the first sights that captivated my mind as I arrived at Phnom Penh, Capital of Cambodia on 3rd July 2006, was a beautiful miniature house placed on a pedestal in the garden of every house. I soon learnt that it was called the ‘Spirit House’ and was traditionally placed in every premises be it commercial, official, government or residential. The ornate gold decoration on a white, red or green background made it so beautiful I began to look for it in every building we passed. Sure enough each premises had a spirit house with incense and flowers to show that it was a living tradition, not only in Cambodia but in most of the South east Asian countries, my mom clarified.

I was accompanying my parents (Drs Krishnaswamy of Krishnaswamy Associates), assisting them in the filming of a serial INDIAN IMPRINTS (scheduled for telecast by mid 2007) for Doordarshan on the cultural and historic influence of India on the South East Asian Countries. I was quick to question our local guide the significance of the Spirit House. He clarified that it was a place where Cambodians believed the Spirits of their ancestors resided. Every family provided for such a place in their homes and work place as a mark of respect to their ancestors – every soul ever to tread here.

I was reminded of an incident back home when my daughter was four. I had purchased a birdhouse and provided several different bird feed to attract the parrots and minahs I had seen frequent our neighbouring park. But all was in vain. After two weeks of waiting, I had given up having any visitors to my bird house and birdbath when Meenakshi hurried to the kitchen to whisper to me – ‘Ma there is a bird in our bird house’. Thrilled, I silently rushed and found to my utter disappointment a crow merrily eating the fruit I had placed. ‘O Meenu! That’s a crow!’ I said disappointed. The little one looked into my eyes and unhesitatingly replied ‘Ma ! Isn’t the crow too a bird!’ Instantly I was reminded of the tradition long lost when fresh rice is first offered to the crows before letting even children eat. I remembered my dad explaining in my childhood that the crow was a symbol of all our dead ancestors. By giving food to the crow, we were just ensuring that every morning meal began with a reminder and gratitude to our ancestors. Meenakshi revived the custom in our house. She would place a bowl of rice to the crows before her own meal every morning before leaving for school. 

The ‘Spirit House’ was in a way very similar to the ‘birdhouse’ I had at home. The expression may be different but the purpose was the same. Closer examination of the Spirit house revealed that it was made of cement and could easily weigh 500 to 700 kg. Our shooting equipment and personal clothing to last one month in foreign lands already weighed three times the baggage allowed in any airline sector. But Mom and I had fallen in love with the ‘Spirit house’. We chidingly kept asking my dad if he could talk to the Indian Embassy to somehow ship it to us to India – not one but two!

My first sight of Angkor Wat deepened my experience of understanding the faith of the people of this land. The only man-made structure to be visible from outer space (according to NASA’s Satellite images), Angkor Wat stands testimony to the divinity of the human conscience. How many million people must have worked to built this magnificent temple (the world’s largest ever place of worship) – a remarkable evidence of expertise, faith and perseverance; how many million people since the 12th century when it was built, must have worshipped here the spirit of the divine; and how many millennia of evolution must have passed to enable me, a spec of dust from a country called India, to stand and behold this miracle of creative excellence. Angkor Wat to me symbolizes that evolving consciousness. I shed tears of gratitude to every atom that had passed over every moment of time to have gifted me that precious moment – beholding Angkor Wat. The significance of the Spirit house had become deeper.

We visited the Kulon mountains, traditionally called by the locals as ‘Mahendra Parvata’. Here, thousands of Shiva Linga are carved in the river bed sanctifying the water that flows down these hills. Listening to M.S.Subbulakshmi’s Nagendra Haraya in my ipod as I watched the perpetual abishekam of these Lingams from several centuries ago, I was engulfed by the aura of piety of the peoples of that era that remains living even today in these expressions of devotion. Some people are dead even when they live. King Suryavarman and his lineage remain alive long after they are mortally dead in these shrines.

When we got the first opportunity after hectic days of filming, Mom and I rushed in the hot afternoon sun searching for a wooden ‘Spirit house’ we could take back home. To our disappointment, they were nothing like the traditional spirit house and though beautifully carved, the wooden ones were in effect a shelf to be hung indoors. Seeing our attraction to the Spirit house, Dad offered to take home a picture and get local India talent to re-make it. Though I never for a minute doubt the precious talent of our artisans, somehow I was not convinced that it would feel the same. I soon found that Laos too followed the Spirit house tradition. Arriving at Champasak, a much smaller town (more a village) I found that while the glamour and gold were missing equally beautifully carved Spirit houses stood in every premises. Even Vientiane, Capital of Laos, had Spirit houses in every modern building. The other commonality between these two countries (Cambodia and Lao) that I could not miss was the food. The very concept of vegetarian is alien to them. After a detailed instruction to the hotel staff that our food should not contain meat, fish, egg, pork, chicken – no bird or animal, he politely asked if Oyster sauce was ok! Nevertheless the entire 20 days had been very smooth. We managed to find Indian restaurants in most places. No hiccups, no hitches and not even a minor set back. Hey! We never even had a difference of opinion!

It was time to pack my bags and head home. My parents were continuing to Vietnam for another 10 days of filming. I was scheduled to return via Bangkok to Chennai. I missed my husband and daughter very much. Yet there was something very warming to go back to being the ‘daughter’ than the ‘mother’. It somehow made me feel pampered and special as I have always felt amidst my parents. Eleven years of maturity through marriage could not diminish the girlish spirit of being a pampered child. As I waved bye to my parents at the Vientiane airport, they were full of well meaning advice on how to have a safe journey back home. I was looking forward to the 24 hours alone in Bangkok in transit. Though everybody was not keen on my leaving the airport transit lounge, I managed to convince them, get a visa on arrival and booked into a city tour to see the sights.

As the car taxied, the thrill of seeing a new place lost its charm. I wished my husband and daughter were beside me to share the exploration. I wished my parents were around to once again show me the sights. In fact I wished at least the television had a channel in a language I knew! Not too enthusiastic any more, we stopped at the Buddhist temple Wat Pho. The exterior was beautiful and my local guide was leading me to a shop within the temple with gift articles. There was no way I could buy anything. My suitcases, bulging to the brim had been checked in direct to Chennai from Vientiane. My hand baggage was a monstrous 13 kg bag containing all our exposed tapes and a beautiful Buddha I had purchased at Siem Reap, Cambodia. If at all anything could be bought, I would need to wear it on my person! I looked around half-heartedly and waved to the guide that I was ready to leave. As I turned, Lo! There on the last shelf, almost hidden stood a row of wooden sprit houses – most beautifully carved in the traditional style yet light in weight. I didn’t stop to ask the price. ‘I need two of these” I pointed out. Right from the beginning my mom and I were in this together. I had to take two. My arms still ached from lugging 13 kilos down the airport ramps. But the spirit house was silently telling me, this is why I had to spend a day in transit in Bangkok. The shopkeeper packed two tiny Buddhas and surprised herself by gifting them to me. ‘One for each spirit house’ she said. ‘I normally charge but for you I give free!’

Still dazed, I walked in to see the reclining Buddha – a magnificent 15 meter tall and 46 meter long golden Buddha peacefully sleeping. Once again I was engulfed by the presence of those million, million life forms that have evolved to create this wonder called me. Where is the miracle if not in existence? Where is the experience if not in Time? Where is the beauty if not in the beholder’s eye? Where is divinity if not within and without?


The Spirit House now resides in my house balcony, inviting every body and spirit, saluting the evolving consciousness.

Written by Gita Krishna Raj  |  Printed in EVES TOUCH in May 2007


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