Monday, May 28, 2007

Jatukam!

Nakhon Si Thammarat lies at roughly the same latitude as Phuket, except that it is on the Gulf of Thailand side of the Malay Peninsula, instead of the Andaman Sea. It is an ancient city, tracing its present incarnation back to the 13th Century. One can easily discern the outlines of the old city in the current layout of streets and in the remnants of the city wall.

Lately, this city has become a tourist destination, possibly the biggest tourist destination in Thailand. Four flights a day from Bangkok disgorge visitors. They stream off buses and trains. The city estimates that 1.6 million people visited in 2006, straining the city’s modest accommodations.

None of the visitors are foreign tourists, of course, no sun-seeking Europeans, no back- packers no beachcombers. During the weekend I spent there, I encountered only one other farang, a Dane who was attending his brother-in-law’s wedding, and he seemed happy enough to get back to Chiang Mai.

The visitors, more accurately pilgrims, are all Thai. They don’t come because of the city’s rich history, the Makhalon archeological site to the north or the Phrom Lok Waterfall or any of the other attractions touted by the Tourism Association of Thailand, Southern Region. No, they come for just one reason:

Jatukam!

All of Thailand is in the grip of Jatukam fever, but nowhere else is it so all-consuming as in this southern Thai city, where it all began. Here it seems like every other citizen is wearing one of the amulets.

They are easy to spot, since they look like Olympic bronze medals suspended by a chain around the neck. Sometimes more than one. (Thai joke: A man goes to the doctor complaining of neck and shoulder pain. The doctor points to the five Jatukam medallions strung around his neck and suggests he lighten the load.)

It is impossible to ignore the phenomenon here. Bill boards plastered on the side of buildings display the latest models. Sound trucks that in any other Thai city might be advertising boxing matches or the candidates in local elections, blast information on new medals.

Along Ratchadamoen Road, the town’s main street, whole shops are given over to display cases stocked with the medallions in their little plastic cases, generally priced from 2,000 to 5,000 baht. Even stores that sell ordinary household items still have a few cases displaying the latest amulets.

The Jatukam craze has become a huge bonanza for Nakhon Si Thammarat and the Buddhist temples that give the medals their blessing. Of the city’s 560 temples, 200 produce the amulets, and more are planning to do so. The sales and visitors have brought in more than 10 billion baht.

Jatukam fever is bringing in so much money that the Thai Revenue Department is considering whether to tax them, helping to offset loss of tax revenue from the general downturn in the economy. “There’s a tremendous amount of money floating around in the amulet market,” said department director general Sanit Rangnoi.

What is Jatukam?

It is actually two people, Jatukam Rammathep, and their origin is obscure and difficult to understand for someone not steeped in Hindu-Buddhist mythology. By some accounts, they were princes in the Srivijay Kingdom of which Nahkon Si Thammarat was the center.

Another theory is that the names are a corruption of Khuttugama and Ramadeva two Hindu guardians, that can be seen alongside the stairway leading into the inner sanctum of the Great Stupa of the Wat Pra Mahathat, which is said to be the most important and historic Buddhist temple in southern Thailand.

The first Jatukam amulets were stuck and sold in 1987 (they now fetch prices in excess of a million baht). But only a few of the amulets were sold for many years. The craze only took off last year.

Most Jatukam enthusiasts associate the amulets with a much more contemporary figure, Police Major General Phantarak Rajadej, the provincial police chief who died only last September at age 103. He was said to have magical powers and instrumental in building the holy site called the City Pillar, now a center of the trade.

His cremation ceremony here in February drew tens of thousands of people, some hoping to obtain one of the talismans distributed to mourners. His Royal Highness, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn presided.

On a rainy Saturday in late April I found my way to the City Pillar to observe the consecration of a new Jatukam amulet. The pillar is a golden stele, with a four faces of Buddha at the top enclosed in an alabaster white structure.

In the late morning the courtyard was already crowed with people. A huge offering table displayed a feast of symbolic offerings: heaps of grapes, bananas, crabs, durians, even two hogs heads. A loudspeaker blared out constant announcements or prayers. Every now and then one heard the crackling of fire works.

At 1:30 p.m. ten saffron-clad monks took their seats on a long bench on one side of the pillar and began a steady, droning prayer chant that lasted for 40 minutes as people paid their respects by listening respectfully, their hands folded in prayer.

On the far side of the pillar complex several men were kneading clay that would be pressed into amulets. The chanting came to a close, and a senior monk took his place on front of a press, having the privilege of striking off the first amulet.

Then he stood up cupping the newly minted medallion in the palm of his hand for all to see. People crowded around to look and take pictures as if it were some kind of an exotic and fabulously expensive rare jewel. Another little Buddha was born.

There plenty of theories to explain the enormous popularity of the Jatukam amulets in Thailand at this time in its history. And there are plenty of people happy to testify about motorbike accidents survived, of diseases cured by the miraculous power of the amulet.

Some argue that the phenomenon is symptomatic of the “confused state of Thai Buddhism” – to quote The Nation newspaper - where temples and monks are willing to debase their calling for the enormous profits that can had from amulet sales, sales that dwarf the traditional temple trinkets by a huge margin.

Some argue that Thais are feeling insecure given the country’s political turmoil and the aging of their beloved King and thus put their faith in objects they think can bring them good fortune.

One should not discount their sheer collectability. New amulets are issued almost every day. Glossy, four-color catalogues display the latest models complete with the numbers of each edition and their prices.

And there is also the simple excitement of one young woman at the City Pillar as she struggled to convey in her limited English to this unenlightened farang why she was so happy to be present at the consecration of a new Jatukam amulet. “It gives you everything.”

2 Comments:

Blogger Vanee said...

Great descriptive article!
Farang may not appreciate this Jatukam phenomenon.
Nor did I when I was first told about Jatukam after I have been working in Sydney for 12 years.

Jatukam has lift spirit of Nakorn Sritammarat people and Thai people while Thai politics and economy
have been cracked up. Nothing is new here, Jatukam is just like the other famous recpected monks.
We, Thai people, normally wear lockets of their images to remind us to do good deed.
Regardless of the controversy about confusing religion or unknown history,
they, with Jatukam, have been told to act good to receive good consequence or none otherwise.
Isn't this the whole point?

What challenge are we trying to find?
I for sure go for the correctness of life rather than that in history text books.


By the way, have you got one yourself?

June 14, 2007 at 12:52 AM  
Blogger Khun Tina said...

Very interesting article, thanks.

I agree with Vanee. I wear Thai Buddhist amulets, not so much for worship, but to remind me to be my best at all times. I wear amulets such as Luang Por Tuad, Luang Por Sorthon, Jatukam and a string bracelet from a monk (not all at once). I own a great deal of pieces given to me by monks.

My partner and I have both noticed a very noticeable difference in our lives and our luck since embracing these things, particularly the Jatukam, even though we hadn't expected to. I now believe they have inherent powers.

June 20, 2007 at 12:31 AM  

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