Smearing clay mixed with the dust of cremated bodies onto the base of a figurine, a Thai Buddhist monk chants incantations to invite lucky spirits into a relic dubbed the “Golden Son”.
Thailand is overwhelmingly Buddhist but beliefs are entwined with strains of animism and superstition, especially among older generations who venerate the supposed protective powers of the dolls.
Sculpted into a prayer position, the wide-eyed figurines were traditionally completely shaped by a concoction of clay and ashes.
Nowadays the bodies are made from metal moulds, and a wedge of clay and ashes are smoothed into the base of the figure.
At Sam Ngam temple in Nakhon Pathom province, just north of Bangkok, Saneh Sumetho and his fellow monks scrawl Sanskrit on each doll’s base, drip sacred oil on the child-like golden face, and “cast a spell on it” before sending it off to its new family.
Believers say the dolls contain the spirit of a real child and must be treated with reverence.
Newer figurines start at around 500 to 2,000 baht ($15-$62) but the oldest relics can cost tens of thousands of dollars.
Eccentric collector Wanchai Pongsompetch credits her more than 10,000-strong hoard of dolls for a lifetime of good fortune.
“Since I started worshipping the Golden Son dolls, good things have happened in my life,” the popular TV entertainer tells AFP.
“The reason I have everything today is because of them.”
Her spacious two-storey home in Nonthaburi province north of Bangkok is filled with an astonishing array of dolls of varying sizes, colours and expressions.
Fizzy sodas, giant lollipops, and toy planes and cars are placed as offerings to the dolls, and Wanchai — wearing a face shield — prays solemnly to them.
Wanchai believes her Golden Sons have been especially helpful during the coronavirus pandemic.
“The dolls would tell me not to go outside,” she says.
“I believe they keep me and my family safe