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A House within a House – A Shelter for the Spirits in Southeast Asia

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Before the arrival of Buddhism, animism played a central role in the lives of many of mainland Southeast Asia’s citizens. So much so that the spirit belief is now incorporated into the lives of the people today, even with Buddhism being the bona fide religion of many in the region. You can see this perfect harmony in lots of the people’s houses and office establishments. It is also a house, albeit much smaller in size but as important as the residence itself. This is the spirit house.

Before placing a spirit house, the owner of the home/business will usually consult a Brahmin priest about all the necessary details, including when to build, of what material, where to place it, etc. But why have a spirit house? Again this stems from early animist beliefs. Everything has a spirit. They are neither good or bad, but are usually mischievous more than anything else. They also demand utmost respect from humans otherwise have us face the consequences of their actions. For example, if a person wishes to start a business or expand on his/her current one, the spirit can cause the business to be unsuccessful if the person does not inform or ask their permission.

Once a site has been determined, the home/business owner will choose between nine types of ‘lucky woods’ to use as a foundation for the shrine.  Each of these woods symbolizes different aspects the owner may yearn from and spirit such as wealth, protection, luck or happiness. The placing of these woods and the spirit house is of course a festival in itself, with priests, home owners, relatives, friends and neighbors joining in.

And yes, spirit houses come in different shapes, sizes and forms. This all depends on certain things, such as the wealth of the owner, how much more wealth they wish to incur and based on the owner’s judgment, how big or elaborate the shrine needs to be in order to satisfy the spirits. Some are simple in design while others literally look like miniature palaces. Surrounding the spirit house is a balcony where people can place incense stick, candles, flowers, food or drinks as offerings to the spirits.

So, next time you come over here, make sure to appease the spirits a little bit. It doesn’t hurt to do so, does it? And if you ever think about moving here or establishing shop in Southeast Asia, you know what to do.

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