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Amulet Origins

In this topic we will deal with votive tablets (Amulets) since ancient times on its origin, styles and uses. We have seen many devoted Buddhists all around the Kingdom of Thailand to as far as the entire South East wearing or using Amulets on the neck to bring protection, good luck, and good fortune to the wearer. But we often do not know the origin of votive tablets, its purpose and historical background. This article is specially prepared by SimplyBuy based on several publication source of other knowledgeable authors. With the hope of good will from these sources, we now bring you the interesting contents for each individual's own personal consumption. I will like to offer my apology first should the content provided here is not accurate either on my part or other sources.

The practice of stamping amulets originated from India, the birthplace of Buddhism. The act of making amulets is part of meditation practice, religious exercise, merit-making was the main purpose for their production. They are worn practically by most Thai person and many Thais are avid collectors of amulets with dozens of publications mainly devoted to amulet interests in modern Thailand today.

Early votive tablets are recovered mainly in the holiest of places such as in the temple compounds and stupa. To those who have no prior knowledge about amulets they will mostly likely treat the objects as a piece of art. But to those who knows, amulets were considered highly sacred objects by their makers whom are usually monks or holy beings. Take for example the cremated remains of venerated teachers and prominent monks were sometimes mixed with the clay before stamping which is a frequent practice by makers of the Mahayana and Tantric traditions of peninsular Thailand during the 7th-11th centuries generally depicting Buddhas, bodhisattva and divinities.

Unbaked clay votive tablet showing a seated Buddha flanked by a pair of bodhisattva and to topped by eleven seated Buddhas, Pattalung Province. Srivijaya period 9th century. Photography courtesy of National Museum Bangkok.
Height: 9.2cm

Votive tablets became very popular during the Gupta (4th-7th centuries) and the Pala periods (8th-11th centuries) displaying figures of the Lord Buddha, Bodhisattva or Tantric divinities. Votive tablets have been recovered in great numbers at two Buddhist holy sites in the North Eastern part of India; Nalanda and Bodh Gaya. Under the patronage of the Pali kingdoms, the last dynasty that supported Buddhism in India, the site of Buddha's Enlightenment at Bodh Gaya became the most important pilgrimage centre. The most popular representation of votive tablets image was the form of Lord Buddha seated under the Bodhi tree with his hands forming the bhumisparsamudra (the earth-touching-gesture with the right hand turned palm downward on the right knee). His legs are fully crossed in vajrasana with the soles turned upward. This pre-Enlightenment image have been recovered in large quantities dating back to the 10th and 11th centures. Pali tablets strongly influenced Burmese tablets made during the Pagan era from the 12th-14th centuries during the late Mon period in Thailand in the 10th-11th centuries.

Terracota votive tablet of the First Sermon scene. Mon period, 7th century. Height 13cm.

Unbaked clay votive tablet showing four-armed Avalokitesvara Boddhisattva from Tham Khao Khao, Trang Province. Srivijaya period 10th century. Height: 7.5cm

Unbaked clay votive tablet showing twelve-armed Avalokitesvara Bodhisatva from Tham Kaho Khao, Trang Province. Srivijaya period between 9th and 10th century.

Ancient objects from India such as Buddha's images or amulets have been found in many other countries in Asia. In Thailand, large numbers of Buddhist sacred objects from India have been found because the old Thailand was what used to be a commercial and trading centre between India and China especially in the rich Peninsula Thailand. The Peninsula covers Hua-Hin district in Prachup Kirikhun Province continuing to the Sungai Golok at the Malaysia border. During the 8th century tablets found in the Peninsula are heavily influeced by Indian arts and by the end of the century local Thai elements are added to the designs (or phims). In the early centuries, the moulds used to make votive tablets are small and easy to carry by travelling monks.

In Thailand, the earliest known tablets were found in Krabi Province with large numbers of unbaked and baked clay votive tablets and stupa. Through the popularity of amulets, the votive tablets cults from the old days or rather centuries old, continues to be practised in Thailand although it died out in other countries of SEA and in India.

In the early development of the amulet cult, the most desirable tablets were those of Haripunjaya from Lamphun and Phra provinces, Khmer tablets from Lopburi (refer picture below) and Sukhothai tablets from Sukhothai and Kamphangphet.

Terracota votive tablet showing 3 seated Buddhas. 12th century Khmer period.

However, Phra Rod at it is till this day was the most popular probably because of the meaning of its name: "Success in Escaping from Misfortunes".

inside Benjapakee Yellow Cover Book

Haripunjaya and Sukhothai tablets are still popular among amulet collectors and their prices are very high although newly made Haripunjaya and Sukhothai style tablets are also popular. However, Mon votive tablets of the 10th-11th century from the Central Plain (comprises the lower basin and delta area of the Chao Phraya River, Utaradit in the north and Petchaburin to the south) have never been popular because it seems that amulet collectors are not in favor by the thought that many such tablets contain ashes or ground bones of deceased monks and teachers.

Terracota votive tablet of the Miracle of Sravasti scene from Nadun District, Mahasarakam Province. Mon period 9th or 10th century. Height: 7cm

After antique tablets became difficult to find new new types of amulets were beginning to surface. Some were imitations of antique tablets while other designs were new. Eventually amulets of important people such as kings and monks became among the most popular of amulets. Perhaps the most sought after are those made by revered forest-dwelling monks e.g. Luang Pu Waen or monks who are thought to possess special powers e.g. Pra Luang Pu Tuad or Somdej Pra Puttajarn Toh of Wat Rakang.

Because an amulet is believed to possess a specific quality such as reinforcing good virtue, avoiding catastrophe, bringing general prosperity, or providing supernatural powers, Thais will typically wear many amulets often in odd numbers (3,5,7 or 9) to ensure complete protection and good fortune. In choosing a piece, it is important to amulet collectors that it is made and blessed by a revered teacher or monk. A valuable amulet must come from a person who is thought to have special power. Unsacralized amulets are some how considered to be incomplete. Since an amulet is chosen by its protective or good fortune qualities, the more stories of efficacy that can be attributed to a particular amulet, the more it will attract potential buyers and collectors. During the olden days, villagers from one Thai province whom visit another relative or friends of another province will usually bring along votive tablets as a form of souvenir. In these modern days, this practice of giving amulets as souvenirs by lay persons is no longer upheld. For most people nowadays, the most common exchange of souvenir is momentos in the form of fridge magnets or other travel paraphenalias. At times I find it interesting to think back when I visit my Thai friend in Bangkok, I will actually present him Thai amulets that I have collected from Thai monks. My friend actually enjoyed it as he can never be able to meet all the revered Thai monks especially from other parts of Thailand other than Bangkok areas.

The question mark why the cult of wearing amulets have been so popular inThailand is never really investigated by most non-Thai amulet collectors. The best explanation we have come across so far is from a book written by ML Pattaratorn Chirapravati in her book Votive Tablets in Thailand published in 1997. It was noted that "as Thailand experienced rapid change from an argricultural to an industrial society, people often lack a sense of security. Buddhism is one refuge of continuity. Wherever it has been adopted, Buddhism has absorbed native pre-Buddhist cultural traditions. In the case of Thai Buddhism, it amalgamated with animish, belief in the supernatural, and some aspects of Hinduisim. This in effect permits belief in magic powers and in the cult of amulets with the contxt of Buddhism. Buddhism requires no concept of god, yet a typical Thai will pray before a Buddha image in the hope of fulfilling a wish or gaining a favour. His strategy will be to try to increase his storehouse of merit. This involves various practices from the donation of money to temples to the wearing of amulets; the aim is to be rewarded with a better life and good fortune. This has given rise to merchants of Buddhism who sell various amulets and fetishes not only in temple compounds but also in markets and shopping centres. Amulet books and magazines have proliferated and collectors meet to trade pieces among themselves or at specialized markets such as Bangkok's Wat A-nong. In recent years the cult has spread to other countries, including Malaysia, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore. Devotees come to Thailand to pay respect to specific Buddha images and the King Chulalongkorn statue, and to obtain amulets or replicas of images. Thus the cult endures whereas the practice of stamping votive tablets entered Thailand fromIndia where it has long disappeared, now centuries later it continues to proliferate in a much changed form as a passion for amulets".

The votive tablet picture above showing reclining Buddha (Parinibbana). Ayuthaya period, late 17th century Terracota with gold leaf. National Museum, Bangkok. Photography courtesy of National Museum, Bangkok adapted from ML Pattaratorn Chirapravati, Votive Tablets in Thailand, 1997.

Comparing votive tablet of the late 17th century with this new reclining Buddha amulet B.E.2549 (2006) made by Wat Intharaviharn, Bangkok. The style of this new amulet follows popular ancient art form showing Parinibbana image print. Photography by SimplyBuy. 

In the earliest days of Buddhism, after Lord Buddha's passing away during circa 485 BC, amulets became common. Symbols such as conch shells, the footprints of the Buddha, and other object symbols were commonly seen. After about the second century BC, Greeks began carving actual images of the Buddha. These were hungrily acquired by native Buddhists in India, and the tradition spread.

In Thailand, sacred objects were originally produced in tiny sizes as facsimiles to remind the followers of Lord Buddha and his teachings.  Amulets later included objects representing deities and Bodhisattva (a name given to anyone who, motivated by great compassion, has generated a wish to attain complete enlightenment). Made of stone, pottery or metal, the objects were used by Buddhist temples to commemorate deceased monks and living ones.

Accoridng to research sources, the oldest amulets are traceable to the Devaravati period (around 1100-1600 B.E.) and Srivichai period (1200-1800 B.E.) were produced as commemorative tokens to the worshippers.

Amulets in Thailand gained momentum when King Rama V imported machinery from Europe to make coins or known as "Rian", and eventually coins featuring portraits of revered monks began to appear.

With this article we sincerely hope all votive tablet hobbyist and collectors have benefited and gained tremendous knowledge on the origins of amulets.  We recommend further reading on this subject the method of collecting and principles of authenticating amulets.

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