The most interesting – and yet most disturbing – thing about the latest Thai craze for Kuman Thong, or “Angel Dolls”, is not the phenomenon itself. After all, it is not a novelty of the past month, the past year, the past decade, or even the past century. Rather, it is the harsh criticism the craze has sparked, including among people who condemn the challenges to democracy that, while not new to Thailand either, have perhaps most overtly re-emerged during the past 10 years.
The most recent fad of “Luk Thep” sees individuals purchasing life-like dolls for up to Bt21,600 (US$595) and which are meant to bring prosperity. It is associated to the long-time Thai tradition of Kuman Thong, sometimes associated with “black magic.”
Criticism of Kuman Thong is predominantly framed in terms of a “superstition” that is mistakenly incorporated into Buddhism. Condemnation of religious practices that allegedly do not belong to what is believed to be “true Buddhism” is also not new to Thailand. However, this criticism has originated – historically – in politics and does nothing but promote a political agenda that counters Thai society’s continued struggle for greater political participation.
Kuman Thong is found throughout Southeast Asia, as well as in Taiwan and, possibly, in mainland China. The first record of the practice in Siam is found in the tale of Khun Chang Khun Phaen, which likely originated in the form of oral literature in the 17th century. Originally, the practice involved mummifying aborted foetuses, stillborn infants, or the corpses of children who had died young.
A religious authority like a monk, a shaman (mho phi), a spirit medium, or a non-royal Brahmin rendered these mummies sacred by roasting them, wrapping them in golden leaf, drawing yantra on them, chanting magical formulas, and so on. The ritual’s end result was the creation of a Kuman Thong – in Thai, “Golden Boy”, from the color of the leaf. A Kuman Thong is therefore the reification of the spirit of a deceased child, deemed capable of helping humans thanks to the powers that derive from its status as a liminal figure between this world and the Overworld.
The practice has never really disappeared from Thailand, although, in contemporary urban settings, parents who who wish to retain a lost child by means of a Kuman Thong are more likely to use a statuette instead of the child’s corpse.
Because of the divine powers of a Kuman Thong, owning one has also become common practice for Thais who have not lost their children. Statuettes representing a child spirit are an ordinary presence on the home altars of many, part of an inclusive and every-growing pantheon of deities that draws from Indic, Southeast Asian, as well as Chinese cosmologies.
Kuman Thong also features prominently in the tradition of Thai spirit mediumship, the playful and often irreverent nature of the spirit resulting in rituals of possession that are filled with humor and jokes. There are additionally, of course, numerous Kuman Thong amulets on the market. More recently, dolls of various makes and prices have become a more fashionable, and, at least until criticism became mainstream, a more socially-acceptable –alternative to statuettes, amulets and rituals of possession.
The categories of superstition and religion have long been employed as tools for legitimization, which seal monopoly of the highest truth in the hands of a precise, elite-appointed authority. The political relevance of this cannot be overestimated. Religious cosmologies establish a terrestrial social order while at the same time discouraging upheaval, often in exchange for the promise of a reversal in the afterlife – call this Heaven or next life.