Incense burned slowly as the room filled with fragrant laced smoke. Dear slowly closed her eyes and controlled her breathing as the ceremony began in the afternoon light. She was minutes away from being possessed by another being.
Dressed in flowing garments with layers of ornate jewelry, she placed a bindi on her forehead to represent the spiritual third eye. The sound of drumming began to vibrate the space as she moved her feet to dance.
“My relationship with the Mother inhabits a mother-daughter bond,” said Dear, a nickname she gave out of fear of stigmatization for her work. The 46-year-old woman is a spiritual medium from Bangkok.
“She connects with me only if I become open to good deeds.”
Dear has been working to heal people’s illnesses for the last eight years in Bangkok.
“We help people who have been struggling with their illness and life to improve.”
The term “medium” or “Rang Song”, refers to people who channel the spirits of the dead and allows them to speak with the living. It is believed that spirits, ranging from ancestors to gods, possess mediums to teach people morality, cure their illnesses and bring peace to their lives. As a result, mediums may become respected fortune-tellers, healers, and community leaders.
A need for understanding
Dear’s work is not some dark mystery. She is blunt about what she does. She explains that she can make contact between the world of spirits and living human beings. For her, becoming a medium was about finding meaning, hope, and spiritual connection. And discovering such a fundamental sense of purpose is why so many people still follow this belief.
“I can connect with the Mother through my senses and wills,” Dear said. “If my behavior starts to change, she will remind me of why I should continue to commit to positive actions.”
Many hold that the practice, rooted in Animism, Hinduism, and Buddhism is bound to disappear. But in truth, the practice continues to flourish mostly in northern Thailand, including Chiang Mai, Lamphun, and Lampang.
Edoardo Siani, an anthropologist who has been working with the mediums in Thailand for almost twenty years told Thai Enquirer that since urbanization in the 1970s, mediumship has also boomed in cities, including Bangkok.
He explained that fear of stigmatization is the reason why mediumship has not been seen in everyday life.
“Many people in Thai society stigmatize and accuse them of superstition, profiteering and being unmodern,” Siani said. “Many practitioners tend to perform possession only for family members, close friends and restricted groups of followers.”
Traditionally, the mediums are usually female, but over time, people of non-normative genders have also been drawn to this practice.
“Ritual participants may have problems they do not feel comfortable sharing with other kinds of religious teachers,” Siani added. “To them, the mediums offer a shelter, a place where they feel fully understood and cared for”.
Religion and inclusivity
While spirit-medium worship depends on individuals’ personal beliefs, any person can become a medium regardless of their sex, gender, or social class. In this respect, mediumship can be seen as a democratic.
“Mediumship is a horizontal phenomenon in the hierarchic structure of religion in Thailand,” Siani added. “Unlike the monkhood which is often closed to women and to men of non-normative genders, mediumship is extremely inclusive.”
However, a practitioner must act in a way that others deem to be moral, and find the strength to take on a series of abstinence vows where they must refrain from consuming certain foods, smoking, drinking and sexual practices.
“Becoming a medium is not a shortcut for success,” Siani said. “Becoming a spiritual leader is not easy.”
Becoming a medium
Many mainstream horror films feature mediums as bizarre or dangerous. In the latest film about the practice, titled The Medium, the story follows a young woman who is possessed by an evil spirit, depicting her as a psychotic killer who wants to strive to make people suffer.
But the truth is a lot less dramatic. Dear lives a typical life similar to the rest of us. She enjoys leisure activities including traveling and watching films and enjoys friends and being part of a community.
During rituals of possession, the mediums often dance to folk music, shaking slightly as a sign that the spirits are with them. Each dance is unique. And each spirit brings their own physical expression.
Followers of the practice sometimes offer money, flowers, and incense to the mediums requesting their protection or healing. But often mediums don’t accept money, instead they provide help for free.
Keng, a 31-year-old man who preferred to use only his nickname to avoid discrimination, told Thai Enquirer that he feels relieved someone can help him process his grief.
“The mediums I worship are very good people,” Keng says. “They have been helping a lot of people who suffer from having no place in society,” he says. “I began to contribute to merit-making and quit drinking alcohol.”
Keng, an openly gay man, feels comfortable sharing painful stories with the mediums he encounters. He says his relationship with the mediums offers a safe space to express difficult memories or emotions that he hasn’t unpacked with anyone else. It’s a widely shared perspective that the practitioners won’t criticize their followers, but instead they provide practical advice.
“My friends would say I am unwise to believe in such things,” Keng said. “ But I feel welcome [by the mediums]. And I feel like it’s the only place where I can go without being judged.”
Back at Dear’s ritual, an hour had passed. Dear and other participants slowly began to return to themselves as the drums slowly came to a stop. They were falling into a trance. A statue of Lord Ganesha’s elephant head was then placed on a table in the center of the ritual to symbolize wisdom.
The Mother had entered Dear’s body entirely as the practice came to an end. All participants approached her slowly, offering flowers as she sat quietly on a large wooden chair. Dear kept whispering words of blessings to her followers.
“I understand if people don’t believe in mediumship,” Dear said. “But I am only trying to help my followers to become better people. If they do good deeds, then they will know that what we have been telling to people is true.”