Still from Mae Nak by Pimpaka Towira, dir., Mae Nak, VHS, 1997

Images of devotion form the nexus of Thai religions and social life. As shown by Justin McDaniel’s ethnography on the shrines of Mae Nak, a well-known Thai female ghost based on a mother who dies in childbirth during the reign of King Rama IV (1804-1868). In his article, “The Agency Between Images,” McDaniel recounts his visits to the shrine of Nak in Wat Mahabut which was relocated in 1997 in Suan Luang District of modern Bangkok. McDaniel’s account of the shrine’s objects of devotion and their devotees helps us reconsider the nature of Southeast Asian spirituality and how it bleeds into modern life. He also problematizes the status of Mae Nak’s gold leaf festooned image as an artwork, refuting the divisions between sacred and profane in standard accounts of such religious objects. He employs the notion of Walter Benjamin’s “aura” which emerges because of the reproduction of an original image, but also through the “multiplicity it generates”.[1] The argument is buttressed by Michael Taussig’s notion of “tactile appropriation,”[2] where devotees are able to contribute to the object rather than observe them in “ocularcentric” religion.[3] Both theories point to the unique status of the image itself and worthiness of devotion. The original develops the “appearance of something timeless” but are not as important singularly as opposed to how they are able to relate and “give off energies” to other objects of devotion in the monastery.

            I find it ironic that a ghost becomes a central figure in a tactile-centric cult where her earthly, invented, image “drives performance, invokes emotion, and demands touch and interaction”.[4] Part of this tactile interaction is the offering of bootleg images of Nak which forms the inner core of the “forest of images”[5] that populate Wat Mahabut. Because of the itinerant pilgrimages of people from within and outside Bangkok, the place catered to other visitors and their attendant wares, which Taussig would call “distractions”. Gathered in this intimate space, where most western notions of sanctity are inverted are astrologers, fortune tellers, lottery ticket vendors who sit among monks and tourists. McDaniel describes the place like a small casino of trippy neon lights and spinning buddhas. The concept of power and charisma should be discussed here. I recall Benedict Anderson’s article “Frameworks of Comparison”[6] where he said that the notion of power in Java is not abstract and strictly confined to the interaction between human beings, hence the belief that power manifests in magical objects or persons such as talismans or albinos. Certainly, ghosts belong in this category of magic, and it was easy to understand how Thais would be magnetized by her dualism as a figure of both undying love and destruction. The ghosts’s ability to “win” against human limitations has been stretched ad infinitum to encompass encountering a future wife or husband or winning a lucky streak. The magic behind the corpse of the baby Ae who has his own shrine in the temple is anchored on the fact that his coffin floated and survived a flood.

            Ghosts and corpses constantly stir the imagination, resulting in twenty-two film versions of the ghost of Nang Nak. What does this mean about Thai cinema and culture? Perhaps like what McDaniel is trying to tell us, there is power in generating multiplicities and in being multiplied, and part of that power is enshrining but not necessarily preserving the original. Like the image of devotion of Mae Nak which has been deformed by the layers of gold leaf, each version only thickens the mystery or the aura, even as it deforms the original.

[1] Justin Thomas McDaniel (2011) The agency between images: the relationships

among ghosts, corpses, monks, and deities at a buddhist monastery in thailand, Material Religion,

7:2, DOI: 10.2752/175183411X13070210372706. p 250.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., p.251.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Benedict Anderson, “Frameworks of Comparison: Benedict Anderson reflects on his intellectual formation,” London Review of Books, ​​Vol. 38 No. 2, 21 January 2016.

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