Thais find new spiritual anchor in amulets

Monday, August 13, 2007

BANGKOK, Thailand -- They can cost a small fortune, resemble '80s disco jewelry, and are arguably un-Buddhist, but many Thais seeking psychic insurance in troubled times are snapping up so-called Jatukam Ramathep amulets, coin-shaped talismans with supposed magical powers.

The Jatukam amulets, coveted by millions of people in Thailand -- and available on eBay for those living elsewhere -- have become big business, as believers, collectors and speculators drive a thriving market. Rare ones reportedly command prices of more than $30,000.

The amulet craze has also led to robberies and at least one death, when a crowd stampeded for the opportunity to get a limited edition.

As Thailand muddles through political insecurity and nervousness about the economy, people are more openly grasping at supernatural aids. The fad vividly illustrates how belief in astrology, the occult and animism remain a major part of a modern, industrialized Thailand.

The amulets are typically the size of a silver dollar, and come in a variety of materials, including bronze, silver and clay.

Prices depend on the materials used, the circumstances under which they were anointed -- some were recently taken aloft on a jetliner to be blessed by monks -- and how rare the model is.

Most amulet owners are fairly discreet, wearing them under shirts and blouses. Serious believers carry more than one and as many as a dozen, though such ostentatiousness is usually associated with policemen and criminals -- who understandably seek all the protection they can get.

But Jatukam amulets are everywhere; affluent businessmen, political protesters, teachers in the insurgency-wrecked south, curbside food vendors, all wear them proudly with the shared hope that they will ward off danger and attract good fortune.

"People turn to superstition when they feel that religion and other social as well as judicial systems are no longer providing them the security and justice they need," said respected archaeologist Srisak Vallibhotama. "It's a reflection of the kind of society we live in."

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