Nearly two centuries ago, when Chulalongkorn was king, a man spotted something stuck in the whirling waters of a Bang Rak canal, back before it was paved over to become Charoen Krung Road.
There it was trapped in surging waters for three days and nights before he recognized it was the statue of a goddess. He later gave it to his brother, Chu Thang, who owned a chicken farm nearby in Saphan Luang, an area now known for street food stalls and low-slung buildings along Rama IV Road.
In the 1880s – the exact year has been forgotten – the family built a shrine on the farm and put the statue inside it. There, the fertility goddess Tubtim became well-respected among generations of Thai-Chinese for granting wishes – especially babies – and delivering warnings in their dreams.
There it remains today along with the latest in a line of caretakers stretching all the way back to Chu Thang, despite the repeated efforts to demolish the shrine and evict its keepers stretching back over half a century.
On a recent afternoon, Penprapa “Nok” Sowsum sat on an ottoman in front of the statue’s smoldering censers as she recalled history handed down through generations of caretakers, now preserved on sheets of computer-printed paper.
Penprapa has cared for the shrine since her husband Pathompong Ploysrisuay, its third-generation caretaker, died two years ago.
Now living there with her mother and three children, that means sweeping its front yard, giving the statue offerings and lighting incense and candles anew every morning.
The Last Caretaker?
They remain there now despite a final eviction date handed down earlier this month on June 15 by Chulalongkorn University, which owns that and much more land in the surrounding area. The university is eager to get started on stalled plans to redevelop the plot into luxury condominiums.
As the university founded by King Chulalongkorn ratchets up pressure for them to go, Penprapa says she’s willing to do so, despite the fact the shrine predates the university by decades. But she insists it must treat them honorably, help them through the transition and provide a safe living environment at the shrine’s new location.
“You should come and talk to us properly. You have a lot of lands, you could give us a room or build your condominium behind our shrine or even move your condo project to somewhere else,” she said, adding that she never got proper documentation of the eviction nor the opportunity for a serious sit-down with the school’s property management executives.
The university says it has generously offered to pay for six months of accommodation until a new shrine is finished in December by a nearby park.