Five eyes, four ears: Thai deity Sihuhata

A flower-child Sihuhata with bird decorations and what appears to be a cabbage-leaf face veil. 75 Anniversary and Flag Park, Chiang Rai.
The flower-child Sihuhata that captured my attention in 75 Anniversary and Flag Park, Chiang Rai. Note the cabbage-leaf face veil, trimmed with pink to match the flowered bonnet.

When I first saw the brightly-colored statue of a flower child with five eyes and four ears, little did I know that my curiosity about this figure would lead to a monster who eats red-hot coals and poops gold nuggets, a poor boy who marries a princess and a king whose dying desire is to see his seven wives’ genitalia – all in service of teaching Buddhist dharma.

I began searching and reading around on the internet, and soon discovered that the five-eyed, four-eared figure is Sihuhata, a northern Thai deity worshipped for his ability to bring wealth. Sihuhata translates to “four ears five eyes,” with “sii hoo” meaning “four ears” in Thai, and “ha dtaa” meaning “five eyes.” I’ve also seen the name in reverse – “Ha Ta See Hoo” – in my online wanderings.

Traditionally, Sihuhata is a stumpy, bear-like creature, not nearly as cute and whimsical as the pastel-colored character I first spotted in 75 Anniversary and Flag Park.

Equally cute is the sweet, oddly outer-space Sihuhata I found around the corner in the same park. This second Sihuhata is surrounded by statues of flower fairies – I presume they’re flower fairies, judging by their petalled dresses – engaged in various athletic activities.

Learning about Sihuhata deepened my understanding of a statue I saw at the White Temple a few weeks ago, a statue I imagined was a self-portrait of Chalermchai Kositpipat, the artist who designed and oversees the ongoing building of the White Temple. I realized Chalermchai Kositpipat had appropriated the form of Sihuhata to represent himself, a choice that fits perfectly with the artist’s Buddhist and folkloric themes.

Statue at the White Temple, Chiang Rai, Thailand, showing an artist version of Sihuhata.
Sihuhata in his artist incarnation. White Temple, Chiang Rai.

Traditional representations of Sihuhata are not nearly as adorable as these modern sculptures. He is, as I said, bear-like, with long claws and a dangerous-looking expression. This looks like a creature who lives on hot coals.

Sihuhata statue at a temple. Photo courtesy of ThailandAmulet.net: https://www.thailandamulet.net/pra-kata-mantras-for-chanting/kata-bucha-taep-see-hoo-ha-dtaa/
Sihuhata statue at a temple. Photo courtesy of ThailandAmulet.net: https://www.thailandamulet.net/pra-kata-mantras-for-chanting/kata-bucha-taep-see-hoo-ha-dtaa/

The modern cartoon-like versions of Sihuhata, nutty as they may seem, have a palpable effect on me. I get a strong sense of vibration when I look at the being’s face. The repeated eyes seem to enter my head at my own third eye, and the feeling of vibration continues as long as I gaze, continuing for a few moments even after I move my eyes from Sihuhata’s face.

Symbolic meaning of Sihuhata

Sihuhata’s four ears represent the four Buddhist dharma practices of metta (loving kindness), karuna (compassion and generosity), mudita (empathetic joy for others’ success and good fortune) and upekha (equanimity). The meaning is pretty clear: If we listen to others with these perspectives, our communication with them will be peaceful. Our minds will be capable of greater empathy and understanding.

Sihuhata’s five eyes represent the five precepts of Buddhist dharma: to refrain from killing, stealing and lying; from indulgence in adultery and other sexual behavior that harms others; and from alcohol or other intoxicants. Again, the meaning is clear: Following the precepts helps us develop greater insight and wisdom, and to treat others with compassion.

Another interesting characteristic of Sihuhata you’ll see in the stories below: He eats red-hot coals, and his excrement comes out as nuggets of solid gold. The symbolism here is not difficult to understand: You can produce something of great value only by accepting enormous difficulties and doing seemingly impossible things.

Story No. 1: Compassion brings its own reward

In this legend, the god Indra looks down on earth and sees a poor farmer who works extremely hard, yet never accumulates any wealth. He also takes good care of his old mother. Indra feels great compassion for this farmer, and descends to earth to see – and test – his virtue.

Disguised as Sihuhata, a monster with four ears and five eyes, Indra destroys the farmer’s entire harvest. Of course, the poor farmer is extremely angry, and he ties Sihuhata to a post. He goes back to his house to feed and care for his old mother, then returns to the monster. Feeling compassion for the creature, he offers it food and builds a fire to keep it warm. He goes off to do something and when he returns, is stunned to find the monster eating red-hot burning charcoal. He’s even more stunned when the monster begins to defecate gold nuggets.

The point of the story is that the farmer becomes wealthy due to his compassion for the creature who took his entire livelihood. And apparently, people make prayers to Sihuhata to increase their own wealth.

For the details of this story, I’ve relied on AmuletForums.com: https://amuletforums.com/threads/sihuhata-4ears-5-eyes.4544/

Legend No. 2: Aay Tugatta: The good son is rewarded

An illustration from one of the Andrew Lang fairy tale books -- a prince kissing a princess.This legend reminds me of a common fairy-tale character and theme: The poor but honest and worthy young man who completes impossible tasks or demonstrates great loyalty and virtue, thereby winning the hand of the king’s daughter in marriage over the bids of more privileged (but less deserving) suitors.

In this version, the poor man who encounters and feeds Sihuhata, (Meng Ha Taa See Hoo in this story) is called Aay Tuggatta. Aay Tuggata grew up about 1000 years ago in a city called Nakorn Pantumid, ruled by Pra Jao Pantumid Racha, in what is now Chiang Rai province.

When Aay Tugatta was just four years old, his mother died. The child had to go out begging, and while some people were compassionate and fed him, others turned him away. At 12, his father sent him to work for the village chieftain as a cowherd. But soon after, Aay Tugatta’s father fell ill, and eager to teach his son moral precepts before his death, he summoned the boy. The father also gave his son instructions for what to do after he died. Aay Tugatta was to bury his father in the forest, and then, when his skull fell off the body, to take it and place it on the home alter, and revere it. Then at the age of 17, his father instructed, Aay Tugatta should take his father’s skull up onto the mountain southwest of his home (Doi Khao Kwai). Wherever the skull got “caught up” (not sure what this means – falls out of Aay Tugatta’s hands and lands?), Aay Tugatta should bury the skull and set a trap. If an animal got caught in this trap, the boy should bring it home and take care of it.

Sure enough, after delivering his instructions, the father died, and Aay Tugatta did as his father asked. When he finally carried his father’s skull up onto the mountain, it got stuck (how, the story doesn’t explain) in front of a cave, so that’s where Aay Tugatta set the animal trap. Returning after a few days, he found an animal he had never seen before – a strange, squat, bear-like creature, all green, with four ears and five eyes. Aay Tugatta named the animal “Meng See Hoo Ha Dtaa,” or “Meng Ha Dtaa See Hoo,” depending on which version of the story you’re reading.

Naturally, the young man assumed that the animal was his father, reborn. He took Meng Ha Dtaa See Hoo home, built a shelter for the creature, and gave it food and water. But Meng Ha Dtaa See Hoo wouldn’t eat a thing. Aay Tugatta worried about the animal, since he had to go to work every day herding cows; he was afraid it would die if he couldn’t persuade it to eat.

At least he could keep the creature warm. Aay Tugatta built a fire to make coals that would keep the animal warm for hours. Meng Sihuhata became instantly alert, and when a coal sprang out of the fire, he leapt forward and devoured it. Aay Tugatta was shocked, but also curious. The animal didn’t burst into flames or die in agony; he was eager for more. So the young man allowed the creature to approach the fire, where he rapidly devoured all the coals. At last, he was contented.

But that was just the start. The next day, as you already know from the prior legend, Meng Sihuhata began to excrete solid gold nuggets. Aay Tugatta took away the nuggets and buried them, and from then on, he fed the creature hot coals every night and collected more gold every morning.

If you read many fairy tales in your childhood, you know what comes next. The ruler of the city, Pra Jao Pantumid Racha, had a daughter. The princess, Pra Nang Sima, was so beautiful that many people wanted to marry her. The story I read in ThailandAmulet.net says that “lords and ladies and nobles in the hundreds” began flocking to the city to compete for the princess’s affections, which makes me raise my eyebrows a bit. Yes, Thailand today is tolerant of “ladyboys” and women who prefer to dress and behave like men – but was it so very permissive here a thousand years ago? Or were the noble ladies “courting” the princess on behalf of their sons? The story doesn’t say.

Anyway, like king-fathers in other fairy tales, Pra Jao Pantumid Racha set a task for the suitors: to build a well of solid gold and bring it to the palace. I don’t know what this “well” was supposed to look like, but I’m thinking of a kind of ewer, or one of the water-offering bowls you see on altars in Thai temples.

Hearing of this task, Aay Tugatta hired an artisan to make a water well from the gold he’d been collecting from Meng Sihuhata. Once completed, he had the gold well carried to Pra Jao Pantumid Racha’s palace. As soon as the ruler caught sight of it, he inquired where it had come from, and learning it came from Aay Tugatta, ordered that a road be built from his palace to the young man’s house. As soon as the road was completed, the king ordered that Aay Tugatta and his daughter should be married.

Once the marriage had taken place, Pra Jao Pantumid Racha asked his new son-in-law where he’d gotten the gold to make the well. Aay Tugatta told him about Meng Sihuhata, and the king ordered that the rest of the gold the creature had made should be dug out of the garden and given to him. It took a week to recover it all.

Now the king asked for Meng Sihuhata himself. Aay Tugatta brought the creature to his father-in-law, but Meng Sihuhata was afraid, and ran away from the king. Pra Jao Patumid Racha ordered his servants to chase and capture the animal. After three attempts, they finally caught and caged the creature.

One day, the king wanted to stroke his new pet, but as soon as he opened the cage, Meng Sihuhata shot out and escaped again. The king immediately took off after him. He lost sight of the creature, but arriving at the mouth of a cave, assumed this was where Meng Sihuhata was hiding. The king entered the cave, and immediately, there was a rockslide, trapping him inside.

The king’s servants had followed him as he chased Meng Sihuhata, but they could find neither their king nor the animal. They couldn’t hear him calling out for help, as the cave was sealed. Finally, the rocks slid again, leaving a small opening. Now the servants could hear their king calling out to them.

Pra Jao Pantumid Racha was sure his greed had caused him to be trapped in the cave, and that he was going to die there. He ordered his servants to bring his seven wives to the cave. They assumed, of course, that he was going to say goodbye to these ladies, but instead, when they arrived, the king told his wives to part their skirts and let him have a last look at their private parts. Of course, the wives were terribly embarrassed, but they did as he asked.

Suddenly, the sound of laughter emerged from the depths of the cave, and the rocks blocking the entrance fell away, allowing the much-relieved king to escape from certain death. He told his wives he would love each of them more than his No. 1 wife, the queen. (None of the versions of this story that I’ve seen explain who was laughing. Was it Sihuhata, viewing with his five eyes the seven royal vulvas exposed to his view?)

Returning to the city of Nakorn Pantumid, Pra Jao Pantumid Racha continued to rule until it was time to turn over his throne to his son-in-law. Aay Tugatta was renamed as Prayaa Tammika Racha, and became the new ruler of the city.

The celebrations went on for a week, with monks coming to give Buddhist teachings. They brought with them a relic: the Buddha’s left little-finger bone, called the Borma Saree Rikadhatu. They offered this to the new ruler, and Prayaa Tammika Racha had a temple built to house the relic. This temple is today’s Wat Doi Khao Kway Gaew, built on the mountain where Meng Sihuhata was first found in his cave. The Buddha relic is said to be housed in the temple’s chedi (stupa).

I’m hoping to visit this temple sometime in the next couple of weeks. If we make it there, and there’s anything interesting to write about, I’ll post here on the blog. Otherwise, I’ll just put some photos on Instagram.

UPDATE 5 October: Here’s the post about visiting the Sihuhata temple: https://rambulatory.com/2019/10/05/visiting-sihuhata-at-wat-phra-that-doi-khao-kwai-chiang-rai/

I took most of the details of this second Sihuhata story from the Thai Amulet website: https://www.thailandamulet.net/pra-kata-mantras-for-chanting/kata-bucha-taep-see-hoo-ha-dtaa/

Sihuhata presides over a gymnastics show on TV at a local restaurant. Chiang Rai, Thailand.
Sihuhata presides over a gymnastics show on TV at a local restaurant.

4 thoughts on “Five eyes, four ears: Thai deity Sihuhata

  1. TheConstantTraveller December 8, 2019 / 12:37 pm

    Very interesting! I hadn’t looked into this particular deity – pretty rare in the temples of Chiang Mai: Wat Chetlin and another as a monkey I recall, but can’t remember which temple that was.

    Like

    • Aliza December 8, 2019 / 2:04 pm

      I have become very fond of Sihuhata. He is a great reminder to develop the four forms of loving-kindness, and to follow the five precepts at all times. Plus he’s furry and kind of cute, and very strange. A great combination! If you remember where you saw Sihuhata as a monkey, do post it please!

      Liked by 1 person

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