Amulet means an object worn in belief that it bestows protection from evil and harm. The practise of wearing amulets was already present since the beginning of civilisation in every races, cultures and religions.
Buddhist means a person following the teachings and goal of Buddhism, the religion founded by Sakyamuni Buddha more than twenty-five centuries back, in the area now known as India. The goal of Buddhism is to achieve Nibbana, the state of final release from the cycle of birth and death, the state of liberation; it constitutes the highest and ultimate goal of all Buddhist aspirations. The word Buddhist can also refer to other things closely related to Buddhism or of Buddhist origins.
Thai refers to a race of Asians, there are two theories about the origin of Thais. The first being that about 4,500 years back, the Thais originated in northwestern Szechuan in China and later migrated down to Thailand along the southern part of China (Funan). The second theory being that the Thais might have originated here in Thailand and later scattered to various parts of Asia, including China. Whatever the truth is, by the 13th century, the Thais had already settled down within Southeast Asia. The word Thai can also refer to other things of Thai origin.
Thai Buddhist amulets are therefore objects originated from Thai related to Buddhism, worn and/or used in belief that they bestows protection from evil and harm. Although they are related to Thai Buddhism, the Buddha had discouraged the practise of magic, rituals and astrology.
ORIGIN OF THAI BUDDHIST AMULETS
The motif images of Thai Buddhist amulets were usually the Buddha, it was until the past century when images of Arahants (disciples of Buddha whom had achieved Nibbana), famous monks and Devas gained much more popularity. In fact, the Buddha had forbidded the worship of his images in attempt to achieve enlightenment, but rather achieve enlightenment through practising the Dhamma. The worship of Buddha’s images may also lead to the wrong practise of worshipping idols instead of practising and understanding the Dhamma. No images of the Buddha were made during the life of the Buddha, and after the Buddha’s passing away, Buddhist paid respect to the Buddha’s relics, Stupas and to his footprints. Five centuries later after Buddha’s Parinibbana, the army of Emperor Alexander of Macedonia/Greece were sent to conquer the area of present-day northern India. Sculptors and other craftsmen were sent along with those troops and these sculptors subsequently became Buddhist followers, the first images of the Buddha were then created. Images of the Buddha are then made in accordance to the thirty-two marks of a Buddha, symbolising the thirty-two qualities of a Buddha. And since then till now, images of the Buddha are used by Buddhist to pay respects, take refuge, and reminding oneself of the Buddha and his teachings.
Thai Buddhist amulets can be divided into two categories, the first being ancient votive images of the Buddha, these were cached images in form of small tablet images and statue images of varied sizes, usually stored in ancient Stupas (a Buddhist architectural), temples, and caves. These ancient votive images were made from terracotta (Nur Din) or metal alloy (Nur Chin).
There are eight original Buddhist Stupas. After Sakyamuni Buddha’s Parinibbana, his relic was subsequently divided to eight parts, to be brought to eight different parts of the land to spread the Buddhist religion. There are two main reasons for the building of Stupas; to enshrine Sakyamuni Buddha’s relics after he passed away; and to commemorate eight great deeds accomplished during Sakyamuni Buddha’s life. They are; Birth, Enlightenment, Turning of the Wheel, Miracles, Descent from Tushita, Reconciliation, Complete Victory and Parinibbana. The Stupas were built respectively at the sites; Lumbini, Magadha, Sarnath (Varanasi), Samkashya, Rajagriha, Vaishali & Kushinagara.
As centuries pass by and Buddhist spread north and south, the Buddhist practise of building Stupas also spread to other parts of the world and sacred objects such as scrolls of scriptures, images of Buddha, and relics of holy monks were also enshrined in Stupas built in later centuries. These Stupas spread to many Asian countries, including Thailand, the first Stupa built in Thailand is the Phra Pathom Chedhi in Nakhonpathom, it is also the tallest Buddhist structure in the world. (Chedhi is the Thai word for Stupa)
The most probable purposes of these ancient votive images are that they were probably created as votive offering to the Triple Gems (Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha). Spreading the Buddhist Dhamma (teachings), creating images of Buddha, building temples and Stupas and rebuilding them are considered great merits by Buddhist. Images of the Buddha are used by Buddhist for remindance of the fact that Nibbana is achievable by all beings and these images also served as sacred objects used to spread the Buddhist religion. In Thailand, these images were made and stored into Stupas, originating from various different periods of Thai history and it is also a practise that 84,000 pieces of these images are stored into a Stupa, to signify the 84,000 teachings of the Buddha. Some of these images traced back to approximately 1,000 years of history, back to the time of the Khymers.
When temples and Stupas were destroyed either from age, natural disasters or during times of war, these small votive images together with the stored Dhamma scriptures were subsequently discovered and unearthed gradually from past centuries to recent decades in Thailand. Buddhist held these historical religious artefacts holy and sacred, and the Thai people started wearing and keeping them as amulets. It might also be possible that the first people whom found and worn these amulets may be the soldiers and the people in times of difficulties such as natural disasters. In Thailand, these votive images were discovered at historical ancient sites of Kamphangphet, Lampoon, Phisanulok, Lopburi, Sukhothai, Ayuthaya, Suphanburi, Chiengmai, Chiengrai and Chainatch.
With the gradual discovery of these ancient votive images, and with the continuous erecting of new temples and Stupas in different periods of Thai history, these small votive images may also had been continuously created by monks and artisans over the various past centuries for storage in temple caches and Stupas. They may have also been distributed to the people from time to time.
NEW PERIOD OF THAI BUDDHIST AMULETS
The second category of Thai Buddhist amulets are made by monks from since the last century. As mentioned earlier, the majority Thai Buddhist amulets depicts the image of the Buddha, however images of Arahants, popular monks and Devas had also gained popularity in recent decades, especially the images of popular holy monks. These images often bear words from Buddhist scriptures written or inscribed in old Khymer language scripts and contemporary Thai language scripts. The name of the particular monk and temple making and commissioning the amulet are oftenly also included on the amulet, along with the date it was made and issued. Yantra scripts and other Buddhist symbols such as images of Stupas, Bodhi leave, etc, are also oftenly included on the amulet.
Like ancient votive images, they are also made from terracotta (Nur Din) and metal alloy (Nur Chin), however other materials such as wood from auspicious trees, ivory and horns had also been used to make these amulets, the list of materials is endless. And a majority of these new period amulets are made from a mixture of powder-based (Nur Phong) materials. They may consist of materials such as burned palm leaves of scriptures, food grains, herbs, crushed stones from temple buildings, filed metal from ancient Buddha statues, powder from previous famous amulets, lime powder, etc, and again the list is endless. Amulet in form of medals (Rians) also gain popularity in these recent decades, they resembles coins, two dimensioned and in various shapes and sizes oftenly depicting images of a particular popular monk whom usually is the monk whom consecrated and commissioned these particular amulet. Three dimensioned miniature statues (Loop Meun) were also popularly created, they are usually made of metal alloys, and in some cases from terracotta and mixed powder base. These are the three most common types of new period Thai Buddhist amulets made from since the last century; Nur Phong/mixed-powder based amulets, Rian/medals, Loop Meun/Miniature statues.
New period of Thai Buddhist images are made for a few purposes other than for Stupa storage, some common purposes are; to rise funds for the purposes of temple building or repair, fund rising for building hospitals, orphanages, commemorating an event, etc. When a devotee supports such acts of good deeds whether with physical participation or monetary donations, these amulets would be given to the devotee as tokens of good wishes.
THE HOBBY OF COLLECTING THAI BUDDHIST AMULETS
Since the olden days, these amulets were believed to bestow great protection from harm, and some particular pieces are highly sought for, usually after incidents where people had miraculously survived accidents, mishaps or assaults and escaped death unscathed while wearing a particular amulet. Some particular amulets made by certain monks or temples are believed to bring the wearer Kong Gapan (invulnerability from weapons and firearms), and Keow Klab (avoiding and survival from accidents and mishaps), these had resulted in the Thai people collecting and valuing these famous pieces. Usually a practise more by Thai men than women, because during old times, men folk at times traveled from places to places, trading at foreign villages and into mountainous routes flocked with dangers and bandits, and during times of war, men have to become soldiers.
Thus, the practise of collecting Thai Buddhist amulets manifested into a hobby in recent decades, whereby people had started hoarding, selling and trading them, creating an market demand in them and became dealers and collectors. Just like anything else which are collected, their original purpose are not for collection, it is when a group of people whom shares a same liking to a particular type of thing and caused a market demand, and thus the hobby of collecting Thai Buddhist amulets evolved.
Similar with collecting other items such as coins and currency, stamps and antiques, popular pieces, rare pieces, and old pieces in general resulted in higher prices, and therefore resulted in imitations being made. Identifying authentic piece from imitated piece makes these hobbies more interesting, and experts from various fields and hobbies emerged over time. Similar again with collecting other items such as coins and currency, stamps and antiques, their original price may not be expensive in the past, but when collectors created the demand for them years later, the difference in price are often astonishing.
Thai Buddhist amulets, associated with Thailand’s main religion; Theravada Buddhism, and the Thai culture of wearing amulets, makes the hobby of collecting Thai Buddhist amulets extremely popular in Thailand, and spreading it’s influences to other parts of Southeast Asia. Thai Buddhism amulets are not exactly an intergral part of Theravada Buddhism, but it certainly is in Thai life and culture.
There is a common misconception by new collectors that only old amulets or amulets made by popular monks are good, this is not true. All amulets are generally good, the monks put in efforts into creating and consecrating them. Even if an amulet is not consecrated, if it bears the image of Buddha, you must respect it.
There thousands of types of amulets, popular amulets numbers to a approximately few hundred types. A glance through competition catalogue books will reveal what are the popular amulets and pieces. Top of the range items are often not easy to collect nor advisable to collect them without adequate experience, the reason is pretty apparent.
I do have some amulets of my own pesonal collection and some old amulets which I had forgotten which master made. I’m letting go and hope someone could bring back for good blessing.