My research pays off
Just last June, I posted an entry called More Spirit Houses. In that entry I mentioned a Spirit House I had seen that was protected by a zeal or dazzle of zebras. (Photos 5,7 & 8 in that slide deck) Since then, I’ve seen many Spirit Houses with zebras as part of the cast of characters. I’ve also seen zebras at many other locations around Bangkok, sometimes even in places that are kind of random.
So I got to thinking. Why zebras? Zebras don’t live in Thailand. Zebras have never lived in Thailand, so why are there so many miniature zebra Spirit protectors, almost everywhere. I did some research, but not a lot of research.
I’ve asked many of the Thai’s I know why there are zebras at shrines. No one I asked had a really good story to tell me. One theory put forward by a Thai academic is that the zebra represents safety. According to Associate Professor Srisak Vanliphodom, the zebra represents safety because the animal is associated with the pedestrian crossings on roads. In Thailand these crossings are painted black and white and known as ‘tang ma lai‘ (literally ‘striped horse’). Given that many of the zebras seen in Thailand are at shrines located close to busy roads, this theory seems to make some sense. It’s possible that people who place zebras at shrines are wishing for safe travel and protection on the road. However, whether a zebra crossing in Thailand is actually a safe place to cross the road is another matter! Most Thai drivers won’t slow down if they see somebody trying to cross at zebra crossings, so while the professor’s theory is a good one, in practice the zebras are not helping a lot..
Another theory for the presence of zebras involves the flower garlands that are laid at shrines and Spirit Houses. In Thai these are known as ‘puang maa lai‘ which is often simplified to ‘maa lai‘. With the Thai word for zebra being ‘ma lai‘ the play on words could explain why zebras have become a popular offering at some shrines. Combined with the belief that some Spirits are also supposed to be fond of exotic animals, zebras might logically be seen as a good offering to keep the Spirits happy. They are versions of our pets, like ponies and cats, except for Spirits. I’m sure zebra make lovely pets.
The final word comes from a famous Thai monk, Phra Kittisak. He asked the question: Why did the zebra cross the road? (Thai monks do have excellent senses of humour.) The obvious answer, at least for the monk: To get to the Spirit House of course!
Here is the essence of the monk’s argument:
Point 1: It’s very common to find large and colourful ceramic animals surrounding Spirit Houses; roosters, elephants, horses and tigers seem to be the most popular. All of these animals are in the Thai-Chinese zodiac and they live in Thailand, so it’s not difficult to find cultural meaning associated with their symbolism. Zebras on the other hand, are not Thai. Although Thai mythology is filled with fabulous combinations of magical beasts and anthropomorphic species, none have looked like zebras. They are truly exotic.
Point 2: Spirit Houses are homes for the land guardian spirits, but they are also offered on the side of dangerous roads to comfort lost souls who have died in car accidents. According to Phra Kittisak, one such lost soul belonged to a child who died crossing the road because there was no cross walk and a Spirit House was placed there to honour this poor little spirit, surrounded by zebras statues.
His Conclusion and Equation: Notice the striking similarity between a cross walk and a zebra. As mentioned, the word for zebra in Thai, ‘ma lai’, means striped horse. White stripes on the black asphalt look like zebra stripes (see the last slide) and also bring safety for those crossing the road. The monk has devised the following equation to come up with the answer as to why there are so many zebras all over Bangkok and Thailand:
black & white stripes + horse + safety + child that got hit by a car = zebra
That’s his argument all wrapped up in an elegant formula. Who would have thought that a monk could be so pragmatic and mathematically adept. Anyway, it seems like we might have an answer and it has to do with pedestrian safety. I think this settles it, at least for me. I will be ordering a container load of little ceramic zebras to place at Toronto street corners. These little guys could help reduce the incidence of cars hitting people. I’m hopeful.