Written and researched by Chris Jones
The Palad Khik is widely used by the Thai People today for protection, enhancement of business, harmonious relationships, and most importantly, for warding off evil spirits or ghosts, but it has not always been so, and these attributes are simply the latest in a long history of evolution that can be traced back many thousands of years, in fact to remote antiquity.
Unfortunately not a lot is written about the Palad Khik, and one can only assume that this in part has been due to the conservative Thai nature and what previously was seen as somewhat of an embarrassment to the country, when in fact it should be embraced as a very unique part of Thai culture and tradition very much in the same way that almost identical folklore is celebrated.
There is a large Lingam in the royal palace in Bangkok, always decorated with colourful cloths and heaped with flowers. The cult of the phallus is alive and however prudish the Thai middle class may be, no-one would want to be without it.
In contrast to Thailand many overseas countries have recognized the significance of this unique part of Thai culture and tradition for example The Quasi museum in Paris houses a permanent exhibition of Palad Khik. Although having said that Thai Attitudes have changed considerably in recent years, and in particular as this subject has been brought to the attention of the public for discussion by some interesting, albeit controversial public display.
One event in particular that made headlines was when a Thai maverick artist who had a studio on Soi Thonglor decided to create all his furniture from phalluses, including handles for doors which soon after became quite popular. The most famous of course was the beauty queen who admitted to secreting a miniature Palad Khik in her hair, to which she attributed her success
It is a well-known fact that phallus cults and fertility ceremonies belong to the repertoire of animist religions. The fact that most of them have their roots in a dark, distant past is vouched for by archaeological discoveries worldwide. But the fact that there are younger cults that are in no way limited to sectarian minorities is known even by tourists who get their hair cut in Thailand.
It is often mistaken either as an obscene object or a form of phallus worship, a misrepresentation propagated by early Christian missionaries when essentially it is a vestige of an earlier association with Hindu / Brahmin religious belief and the reverence of Lord Shiva as represented by the Lingam. This original representation of divinity has undoubtedly been of major significance in determining its continued transformation within Thai culture over the centuries. Indeed the evolution of this iconography can be said to mirror that of the entire history of the Thai nation as it has progressed towards the 21st century.
The hybridization and adaptation of religious belief into Thai folklore or folk religion has been heavily influenced by rice, the very essence of life and has been since recorded history. It is not just staple food and economic crop of the nation, it has also shaped history, tradition and culture. Rice is in music, particularly folk songs. It is in various forms of the arts from poems to paintings to sculptures. It is in tradition, folklore, ritual and even language.
There are traditional and ritual practices at every step of rice cultivation. Generally known as fertility rites, these are magico-religious ceremonies to insure an abundance of food and the birth of children.
The Bung Ban Fai Rocket festival dates back to pre-Buddhist times and is one of the biggest of the fertility festivals celebrated across the ethnic Laos area in the North East of Thailand. In Roi Et this festival is celebrated in Pnom Phai. Every village makes huge rockets to fire into the sky, and these rockets are judged for flight and height etc. The festival takes place in June, before the monsoon arrives. It is intended to call for the life giving rains to come.
Popular in Thailand’s northeastern Isan province the event continues to maintain a rich cultural significance. Testament to this is a 3,000-word poem based around the event being translated into the English language and designated as supplementary secondary school reading by the Thai Ministry of Education.
In all of these festivals there is a bawdy element, phallic symbols are paraded through the street, men wear huge fake penises and this device is carried by many of the revelers. The above images showing a traditional toy used in this festival is not thought shocking, even the children enjoy it. It shows totally different social attitudes.
In most rice-growing countries of Asia, the spirit of rice resides in the Rice Mother or the Rice Goddess. In Indonesia for example Dewi Sri is the rice mother and goddess of life and fertility. She is the best loved and most worshipped Hindu deity.
Thais play respect to ‘Phra Mae Pho Sop’, the Mother of Rice or the Rice Goddess who protects and blesses rice fertility. The birth and life of Mae Posop appear in the legend and folklore of all regions of the country. There is evidence indicating that the image of Mae Posop originated at least 700-800 years ago, and has essentially remained unchanged until today
The present iconographic figure of Mae Nang Kwak evolved from Mae Po Sop and in recent times the only difference is that she is not wearing the harvested rice sheaf on her right shoulder. The iconography of these goddesses is based in the Hindu goddess Sri Lakshmi.. Nang Kwak is often represented in the form of a phallus or Thai Palad Khik with her body conforming to the shaft of the male organ and wearing a hat.
To our ancestors the inherent fertility of nature represented an awesome mystery. The recurrent cycle of the seasons of blossoming, fruiting, decay and miraculous rebirth, as seemingly dead branches burst back to life each spring, was seen as a reflection of the regenerative powers of the cosmos itself. Elaborate rituals and ceremonies were held not only to ensure the continued fertility of the land but also to partake spiritually in the cosmic process of regeneration.
In today’s modernized world where society has become increasingly more affluent, the attachment to rice and cultural heritage is fast disappearing. As people have become more sophisticated over the years, they tend to shed those ancient beliefs that no longer have a place in their lives. Occasionally, when an ancient custom is remembered, it is treated as a superstition or it becomes part of an accepted ritual.
Shinto fertility festivals held annually in Japan are penis-venerating celebrations that involve phallic processions and penis parades.
Much of the significance has been lost but like anywhere else in the world the Thai people employ a variety of culturally specific strategies to ensure their health, manage uncertainty and risk.
Many early examples of Lingam have been found throughout Thailand and are clear evidence of the important association and influence of the Indian Sub continent. This particular example below recovered from Petchabun province is thought to date from the Mon-Dvaravati period (7th-8th century)
Monumental lingas of this period are found throughout Thailand. Kings would establish lingas as a religious act and as a means of legitimizing their claims to power over newly conquered territories. Ideas of perfect geometry help relate the octagonal base to the cardinal and intermediate directions, while the circular pillar is implicitly the cosmic axis. Here, the face of Shiva provides a focus for veneration; he is recognizable by the crescent in his hair and by his vertical third eye.
In general the modern popular belief in Palad Khik is engrained into the very fabric of Thai society and mentality. To best understand the reasons why you would need to investigate the history of religious practice and magic in every day life.
The Modern Palad Khik
Over the centuries the Thai Linga has evolved from being a representation of God to a symbolic icon of fertility and the relevance that healthy harvests and progeny played in the continued success and survival of an ancient people.
That evolution has itself has been further transformed in recent history and continues to do so. Today the Palad Khik would be fairly accurately defined or described as a symbolic image of a faith in those that have created and sacralised them
Exactly when the first modern day Palad Khik first appeared is known for sure although it is said to have been as early as the 15th century when Thai monks began to hang phallic symbols on the belts of the smallest and weakest among them. In doing so a thoroughly logical conclusion was drawn. The boy, whose childish penis is still entirely covered by the foreskin, represents the unprotected one. The grown man, on the other hand, whose bell-end constitutes the tip of the erect member, symbolizes fortification and strength. It was therefore in monasteries that they began to give boys phallic amulets in order to offer them some protection. The idea seemed to appeal to other social classes, and the practice soon became established. What once discreetly acted as a protective tool in the isolation of monasteries appeals to wide sections of society.