Monday, January 11, 2010

Isaan Silk


Sunday, January 10th, we drove approximately 150 miles south east to Baan Chat Yai Village in Maha Sarakham Province. The primary reason that we went to the village was to participate in the Anniversary Death Celebration for the mother of one of Duang's friends. The woman had died while we were in Vietnam so Duang could not attend the funeral.

As I had written in two previous blog entries, after a person has died, there is a big merit making event, essentially a party, to assist the deceased to earn a better status when they are reincarnated. For many Isaan families the celebration is held one to three years after the death when the family has saved up enough money for the event.

Duang's friend was staging a three day event, we were there for the second day. Since the deceased woman had social ties and perhaps family ties to Tahsang Village, we stopped in Tahsang Village to pick up 11 relatives to take to the celebration. We ended up driving along the roads looking like a typical Isaan vehicle - 4 people in the back seat and 7 in the pickup bed along with bags of rice, sahts, and mohns. Rice, sahts (hand made woven reed mats), and mohns (colorful intricately decorated covered rectangular pillows)are offered along with money to earn merit for the deceased as well as the donors.

We got up at 5:00 A. M. to get to Tahsang Village by 6:00 A.M.. We actually arrived at 6:15 A.M. but in Isaan that is considered to be early. We arrived in Baan Chat Yai at 9:30 A.M. Upon arrival we made the rounds of other guests and were introduced to everyone. It was a happy reunion for all the people. We were immediately seated at three of the many tables and served beer and soft drinks. As is customary when guests arrive in Isaan, we were fed sticky rice, and several plates of ethnic food. Many women were in the backyard under tarps cooking the food over several charcoal and propane gas fires. Several women were busy washing pots, pans, and bowls. Young women were busy serving the guests. Everyone seemed to know their duties and responsibilities. The whole process was very well organized.

In the middle of the street in front of the house, a very long pavilion had been erected. The pavilion was the site where the Monks would be fed and the formal merit making ceremony would be conducted. Fourteen Monks were served a meal. Four of the Monks were grandsons and nephews. Just as when she died, some male relatives, shaved their heads, shaved their eyebrows, and became Monks for the three day event. I was lead to believe that the number of Monks had to not be divisible by two but Duang assures me that 14 was not a problem.


Prior to the start of the ceremony at 11:00 P.M., Duang's friend gave me two beautiful "par mai". I had been given two pakamas (phaa khao maa)by Duang's family when we were married. The pakama were made out of cotton and are part of the Lao Loum identity. On Sunday I was given two "par mai" that had been hand woven in Baan Chat Yai, one of the many villages in Isaan where the tradition of silk hand weaving is maintained. "Par mai" are silk pakamas. The par mai that were tied around my waist were about two meters long by 3/4 meter wide. They had a red stripe motif on each end with the remainder of the fabric being a series of richly colored plaids. Many of the men at the ceremony had similar garments. This was not the end of our welcome and acceptance into this village.

Duang's friend then led us to the main pavilion where many people had assembled and were sitting on sahts awaiting the start of the formal ceremony. The people, mostly women, wanted to wish Duang and me "Good Luck" and "Good Fortune" and "Happiness". Duang and I went from group to group of the people and knelt before them. I extended my right hand to them. In a sort of baii sii ceremony, the people tied a piece white butcher's string around my wrist while chanting. As part of the string tying ritual, a knot was tied in the middle of the string and rolled along the inner wrist. Duang extended her left hand and the process was repeated for her. At the conclusion of our visits, we each had 48 strings around our wrist. The origins of this ritual go back to Animist beliefs that there are 32 necessary good spirits that dwell inside of us. These spirits are necessary to maintain our physical, as well as spiritual well being. The purpose of tying the strings around the wrist is to bind the spirits inside of us to prevent their escape. The ritual is also a manifestation of a community's acceptance and goodwill for a person.

The Monks were fed and went back to their Wat in the village except for three senior Monks. These Monks were seated in intricately carved, guilded and jeweled thrones. Each Monk had a microphone and took turns in speaking or chanting. This was the start of a 5 hour ritual. The Monks spoke about virtues, life, and death. They reminded young people of their duty and responsibility to care for their Mother and Father.

After one hour, I was getting sore legs so Duang and I got up for a walk around the village. Another of Duang's friends from the village invited us to her home. As we all walked towards her home, we came upon a lot filled with many bare spindly trees or more like bushes. There were a couple dried up leaves remaining on one bush. I thought that I recognized them as mulberry bushes which are used in silk production. Duang confirmed my suspicion.

Her friend's home was more of a family compound. Several family members live on the grounds with out buildings for storing rice, sheltering animals, working on equipment and weaving silk cloth. This was a teat that I had not anticipated.

We stopped at a covered work area where there was a raised platform with sahts on top of it - typical throughout Isaan for having one's outside meals on, a place to socialize with family or neighbors, a place to nap, and a place to care for children up and above the chickens and dogs. To the side of the platform was a large rustic loom for weaving silk. The loom was very rustic. It was constructed of heavy rough hewn lumber, a piece of PVC pipe, ordinary hemp rope, bamboo and sticks. The only piece of the loom that appeared to be manufactured was the blue plastic shuttle atop the piece of completed fabric on the loom. Two pedals for weaving the fabric had been fashioned out of two sticks attached to the loom with fabric. Long skeins of silk thread were draped over the top of the loom.

Silk thread had been set up on the loom to form the foundation for weaving a piece of fabric about three meters long - I have no idea how much thread had been used for that purpose but I am certain that it is an impressive length. I was told that all the silk had been grown and processed in the village. The small plot that we passed on the way to the compound was only one of several plots were mulberry bushes are cultivated as food for the silk worms.


At the family one of the sisters came out to show us how the silk thread is woven to create fabric. When she realized that I was going to photograph the demonstration, she excused herself. She returned wearing a very pretty silk blouse that had been made for her. She wanted to look her best for the photo. On the loom was a section of completed fabric. Many villages in Isaan have their own distinctive patterns for the fabrics that they weave. The patterns are kept inside of the weaver's head. There are no cards, computer sheets, or specification sheets documenting the sequence or steps to produce the desired design. It is beyond my ability to contemplate the process - threads lifted, threads run across, threads dropped, different colored threads at different times - I am glad that I was an engineer and not a home weaver!

The weaver sat on a simple bench with the obligatory radio next to her. Most of the time Lao Loum people have Mahlam Morlam music or Lao music blaring as they toil away. I have witnessed a young man spreading fertilizer by hand on newly planted sugar cane with a large and loud portable radio slung over his shoulder with a piece of rope. I witnessed farmers gathering sheaves of harvested rice listening to Isaan music until they backed the farm wagon over the radio.


After the weaving demonstration, my attention was diverted to another piece of handmade equipment. This device was a sort of spinning wheel. Rather than the pieces of art that were made out of fine woods such as maple back in New England which are now collector's items, this device was made out of rough lumber and a bicycle wheel. I continue to be amazed at the Lao Loum penchant to utilize whatever is available and to recycle. The other part of the spinning wheel assembly was a sort of drying rack constructed of bamboo strips and string. A skein of multi colored silk thread was placed over the rack creating large loops that seemed like leopard skin patterned fabric.


The bicycle wheel was turned by a hand crank to take the large loops of colored silk and spin them into thread on a bobbin to be used on the loom. Each woman, including Duang, had their turn at the device so that their picture could be taken. It was a fun time. One of the family dogs remained oblivious to his surroundings and continued his afternoon lounging.

The leopard skin pattern on the silk threads had been created by tie dying the silk in a process called "Mudmee". In mudmee process the silk strands are alternately tied and dyed to create the pattern that becomes apparent once the fabric is woven on the loom. It is quite ingenious and much sought after by collectors. I hope to see the mudmee process on a future visit to an Isaan weaving village. There are some villages near Udonthani so perhaps we can avoid another three hour drive to the south.

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