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  • Mirna Wabi-Sabi

Thai Water Magic and Prosperity Religion

Thailand is a unique and proud country. Its languages and spirituality stem from a particular intersection between Pali, the sacred language of Theravada Buddhism, and Sanskrit, the sacred language of Hinduism. The Thai monarchy is prominent, and a focus on wealth emanates from not just the culture as a whole, but specifically from people’s spiritual devotion. Any tourist in Thailand is prone to get “templed-out”; there are so many temples, of all sizes and in every corner, that, even in short trips, a foreigner may feel like they’ve had enough and have lost track of which ones they’ve visited. These temples, which are often newly built and thoroughly maintained with white paint and gold leaf, are by no means made for the foreign gaze. In fact, non-practitioners should be made to feel like intruders, surrounded by locals worshipping passionately. This Thai paradigm thoroughly deconstructs the dominant perception in the West that spiritual and material riches are at odds with each other, that all wealth (or a desire for it) is a reflection of soul-less capitalism.


Water feature in Thailand

It seems to me that the expat community in Thailand is largely composed of white men who married Thai women. The issue of sex tourism, in combination with a newly instated lift on weed criminalization, gives some spots of Bangkok a vivid red-light Amsterdam vibe. And even though there is widespread religious conservatism perceiving these expressions of drug-use and sex-entertainment as taboo, the vision of wealth and material prosperity somehow trumps other aspects of religious morality. Perhaps wealth and prosperity are significant parts of Thai devotion, and are not necessarily at odds with other spiritual practices and beliefs.

Temples have safes, there is no shortage of gold, and both money and gold leaf are ritualized. This, in itself, is far from unusual to anyone who grew up witnessing Catholic devotion, and the ornate set-up of cathedrals. But what stood out to me, due to my fascination with mini ponds, is the amount of expensive water features in public spaces. “Water plays an important role in many religions” (page 5), and the idea of holy water is familiar enough to Christians. But in Thailand, water features seem to go beyond the realm of temple; they have a personal function, and are implemented at every opportunity.



Ceramic potted ponds with gorgeous (and pricey) water lilies, water pumps for fountains, reflecting pools etc, are everywhere. Not to mention city-wide festivals, which are all about throwing water at everyone and everything on the streets. Thai tradition clearly observes water in a particular way.

When inquiring about why so many entrances of establishments have small but lavish water features, people explain it in different ways. Expats will say it’s just pretty, or it comes from Feng Shui. Some locals will say that, traditionally, it was common to have water available for people to drink during drought season, or for people to wash their feet before entering the house. And some will say frankly – it is something that attracts wealth.

A 2022 paper from Naresuan University, named “Water” in the Regime of Thai Traditions and Rituals, describes this observance of water as stemming from “great” and “little” traditions – “great” as in from Buddhist and Hindu scriptures, and “little” as in from farming and ancestry.


Rice field in Northern Thailand
Rice field in Northern Thailand.

Obviously, farming requires water, but rice farming, in particular, requires flooding. Rice doesn’t need flooded land to thrive, but it does thrive in it while other plants don’t. So, historically, this staple of the Thai diet has informed Thai culture and how it approaches the ebbs and flows of drought and rain seasons; the comings and goings of water as a practical approach to prosperity and abundance. The Isan people of northern Thailand, for instance, are said to consecrate water in a ritual for rice growing (page 116).

Water, in Thai tradition, as it observes Buddhist and Hindu scriptures, symbolizes “the medium to connect this worldly to the sacred world”. Water is a Goddess named Phra Mae Thorani, who is portrayed in the logos of water distribution companies all over Thailand and of the country’s oldest political party.



Water is also where Nagas live (page 30), mythical beings which protect treasures, among other things. According to ancient Thai legend, snakes, as the animist representation of these deities, are not to be feared but to be admired. Though they may represent danger when angered, they may also grant wishes of wealth and prosperity. This is perhaps the most apt representation of a bifurcation in wealth seeking – prosperous agency, or exploitative greed. Nagas can bring you rain, and it will either water your crops or flood your home; a reminder to always nurture a righteous heart when seeing riches.

Alongside water and its fauna, flora seems to hold tremendous spiritual significance in Thai folklore. Aquatic flowers such as the lotus (Nelumbo nucifera) and the water lily (Nymphaea) are also symbolic in both Buddhism and Hinduism, and they are named the same in Thai (ดอกบัว). Water lilies, in particular, can be widely seen in ceramic potted ponds surrounding temples, shrines, royal buildings, and even store fronts in Thailand’s major cities, usually accompanied by small beta fish, which are native to the country. None of these water features, with or without fish, seem to have mosquito larvae; they sometimes have tadpoles, snails or backswimmers (when they are not chemically treated or are mechanical fountains).


Nymphaea

A pink cultivar of the Nymphaea, native to Thailand, is named after Nang Kwak, the goddess of fortune. This “Beckoning Lady has long been used by low-level merchants and vendors, and is the one charm whose initial meaning lay with the market” (page 365 of the article The Sacred Geography of Bangkok's Markets). In this research, the author describes ‘mercantile spirituality’ as nothing new, though its popularity has increased in recent decades. A modern ‘prosperity religion’ shows that, in light of a rapidly expanding capitalist landscape, spirituality, folklore and tradition are not at odds with modernity.

Thai culture shows how animism and polytheism are contemporary spiritual practices by definition. In the West, where monotheistic religions have brutally instated themselves as the norm, paganism is so often framed as of the past, and its practitioners reduced as historical reenactors. But framing Buddhism as a replacement of paganism, for instance, is completely irrelevant and inadequate when observing the civic religion of Thailand. The amalgamation of Thai folklore, Buddhism and Hinduism is anything but waned in the face of rampant metropolization. There is nothing inherently contradictory about bringing these spiritual traditions and beliefs into the realm of contemporary capitalist societies, in fact, they may be a lifeline in the soullessness of major cities.

Mirna Wabi-Sabi

Mirna Wabi-Sabi

Mirna is a Brazilian writer, site editor at Gods and Radicals and founder of Plataforma9. She is the author of the book Anarcho-transcreation and producer of several other titles under the P9 press.



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