In Part I of this short series I paid a visit to the Erawan Museum in Samat Prakan, a few miles south of Bangkok. This time we’re in the very heart of the city, at the Erawan Shrine. It’s important not to confuse the two. They couldn’t be more different!
The Erawan Shrine, located alongside the Skytrain track between Siam and Chit Lom, is a popular destination for people who wish to pray for health, wealth and happiness. It had curious beginnings.
The Two Hotels
Construction of a hotel on the site in 1956 was delayed by a series of accidents, so the authorities took the advice of an astrologer and ordered the construction of a shrine. They wanted it to exorcise the presence of bad spirits, the area having been used, many years previously, to display and shame criminals in public.
The decision proved to be very wise, because, from then on, construction progressed without incident. However, the Erawan Hotel was later pulled down and rebuilt as the Grand Hyatt Erawan Hotel in 1987. This time the shrine was expanded to make more room for the increasing number of devotees and it’s now one of the busiest places in Bangkok.
A Great Place for Street Photography
Wherever crowds gather, there you’ll find a great place for street photography. The Erawan Shrine is particularly good because people are concentrating on their religious devotions. I’m always discreet and respectful on these occasions — and now and then I’m rewarded by a shot that pleases me.
There are several ways of approaching the subject: by entering the shrine and mingling with the devotees (great for close-ups — see featured photo at the top); by lingering just outside the railings in the neutral territory of the street (photo immediately above); or by going up to the walkway that connects the various malls (image below). I’ve tried all these strategies and found the second one works best for my style of photo. It allows me to include a group of people and to see what they’re doing and how they’re interacting.
Alas, the recent history of the Erawan Shrine has shown that the bad spirits are fighting back, despite all the supplications. In 2006 a man with a hammer destroyed the sacred statue of Brahma. The incident took place in the early hours of the morning and was witnessed by two street cleaners who promptly beat the man to death.
Again in 2015 the shrine was struck by tragedy when a terrorist detonated a bomb next to the railings (those you see in the bottom left of the photo above). Three kilograms of TNT killed 20 people and injured 125 others. Suspects were eventually arrested but the court case, at the time of writing, is still in progress several years after the incident.
I took some pictures in 2016, not long after the site had been restored. There was still a sombre mood, but it was already getting back to normal (above).
Today, the life of the Erawan Shrine continues much as before, with people attending for private reasons: praying for family, friends and self. They light incense sticks (above and below), cleanse themselves with holy water, and make offerings at the shrine.
Tourists visit the Erawan Shrine from all over the world and it continues to be one of Bangkok’s most popular destinations. Moreover, it’s attended by people of different religions. Even atheists can acknowledge its beauty, or admire the demonstrations of traditional dancing which often take place there.
The many faces of the devotees are a gift to the street photographer, as are the dappled sunlight and incense smoke which add to the atmosphere of the venue (below).
A Decade of Images
I’ve taken pictures at the Erawan Shrine on many occasions over the past decade. Those at the top of the article and the one below were made in 2011, four years before the bomb.
I wonder, has awareness of the event changed my photographs? I don’t really think so, but it does make me see the earlier pictures in a different way.
There’s no escaping the fact that life is sometimes cut brutally short, whether through ignorance or evil intent. Yet it always regenerates and over time that in itself becomes a cause for reflective celebration.