BANGKOK (Reuters) - A craze for plasticine amulets that promise to make their owners “Super Rich” or “Rich without Reason” is sweeping across Thailand to the dismay of traditionalists in the predominantly Buddhist nation.
Some monks have come out swinging against the so-called Jatukam Ramathep frenzy, saying it has turned the Buddhist priesthood into an “amulet-blessing industry” despite the religion’s shunning of earthly possessions and materialism.
Temples across the country are churning out thousands of the disc-shaped amulets, which are about the size of a coffee-cup lid and stamped with anything from images of Hindu deities to former Thai kings to Buddha.
To gain maximum “power”, the amulet and its ingredients have to be prayed over by monks for days. A top-of-the-range gold-leaf edition from a well-respected temple costs 10,000 baht (148 pounds) or more — more than a month’s wages for many Thais.
The nation of 65 million people, most of whom remain deeply superstitious despite the rapid modernisation of places such as Bangkok, has spent more than 20 billion baht on the amulets this year, newspapers say.
The scale of the phenomenon is now so large the Revenue Department is looking into ways of taxing amulet sales despite a convention that donations or money going to Buddhist temples are exempt from tax.
The craze stems from a highly respected policeman called Phantarak Rajadej, who died aged 103 last year in the southern seaside town of Nakhon Si Thammarat. Phantarak, who many Thais believe had magic powers, was said to have made the first amulet.
After his death, the number of amulets exploded, with hundreds of different “product lines” emerging with names such as “Super Rich”, “Super Millionaire” and “Rich without Reason”.
In the early stages of the craze, a woman was crushed to death in a crowd trying to place amulet orders at a Nakhon Si Thammarat temple.
Rather than wearing their talisman discreetly under their shirts, as Thais have done since time immemorial, Jatukam owners display it proudly on the outside, suspended on a thick gold chain that would be more at home on the neck of a U.S. rap star.
“My life has got better since I bought my first Jatukam,” said 45-year-old Somchai Vichitbanjong, who now owns nearly 500 different varieties.
“I usually have a Jatukam with me all the time. Whenever I go out, if I’m not wearing one I have to go back home and get it.”
Besides Thais’ long-standing belief in luck, some believe the craze is a reflection of the political uncertainty that has gripped the country since last year’s military coup against Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
“Jatukam supports people and makes them feel strong, as well as giving them clarity of thought,” Phra Taweesak, abbot of Bangkok’s Wat Srinuan, said after a blessing ceremony for a consignment of several thousand amulets.
Others disagree, saying it is a blatant scam by unscrupulous monks playing upon the superstitions of ordinary people to raise money.
“When some temples want a new building, they just use Jatukam to raise funds,” said Phra Payom Kalayano, a high-profile abbot who has launched a range of edible, chocolate-flavoured “Jatukam cookies” to encourage Thais to spend money on essentials such as food rather than trinkets.
The craze is also undermining a religion already under threat from Bangkok’s transition into a throbbing international metropolis over the last few decades, he says.
“Recently, materialism and the amulets have diverted people from the core of Buddha’s teaching,” he told Reuters at his leafy monastic compound on the outskirts of the teeming capital.
“This makes Buddha’s teaching fade away.”