Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Night Before Songpoo

It was the night before Songpoo and call kinds of creatures were stirring throughout Tahsang Village ...

Monday night, 29 March, was the night before Songpoo Day here in Isaan. There was a full moon (duangchan) on 30 March so there was close to a full moon on Monday night. It was determined that because of the imminent start of Songpoo Day as well as the state of the moon, that a special, once a year, religious ritual would be conducted at the Buddhist Wat that is located outside of Tahsang Village.

Tahsang Village is a small Lao Loum village here in Isaan which has two Wats, (Buddhist Temples) for the benefit of the villagers. One temple is located inside of the village limits and the second temple is located outside of the village on the edge of flood plain/swamp that is accessed by a narrow rough dirt road through the village sugar cane fields and rice paddies.

We have attended rituals and celebrations at both of the temples over the past three years, but Duang favors the Monks at the "outside" Wat. Her preference has something to do with religious practices and behaviors. I don't get involved in those types of issues but if I had to choose it would be the "outside" Wat. My choice has nothing do with religious practices. I would prefer the "outside" Wat because it is the temple where "Rocketman" resides. "Rocketman" is a Monk that supervises the construction and launching of Tahsang Village's gunpowder rockets. For me he appears to be a larger than life character and I always enjoy my visits with him.

Duang and I arrived in Tahsang Village with a load of water, soft drinks, and snacks for the Monks as well as the villagers for the evening ritual and for Songpoo the next day. We stopped at Duang's parent's home to pick up our 13 month old grandson, Peelawat and Duang's mother for the drive out to the Wat.

The Wat was filled with people of all ages, chickens, and some dogs scurrying about. Many of the Wat's Buddha statues had been relocated to a temporary low wood shelf surrounding the ruins, seem to be ancient to me, of a previous Wat on the site. I have seen previous ruins in Chiang Rai area and they were listed as being from the 1400's. The purpose of placing the statues outside was to prepare for Songpoo Day. On Songpoo Day, villagers as part of their merit making ritual pour water over the statues to wash and cool them.

On Monday night many people were occupied setting up booths and stalls for the next day's celebration. Most of the booths were to be used to distribute donated soft drinks and food during the Songpoo Day celebration. One booth was already in operation - a sort of "game of chance" booth very similar to booths that we had seen during the past few months. People pay a small sum of money and get a short piece of drinking straw with a piece of rolled up paper inside of it. Once the paper is unrolled, a number is revealed. The number corresponds to a number assigned to many prizes. You win the prize that corresponds to the number on your piece of paper. The profits from the booth are used to support the upkeep of the Wat.

This Wat needs a great deal of support. The Wat's Bot, main worship hall, was a very old rustic cinder block building in need of a great deal of repair. It needed so much repair, that it has been demolished. A new Bot is being constructed. The site of the old Bot has been raised about a meter which is a good idea due to its close proximity to the water. New concrete foundation beams have been installed and the recycled concrete columns from the previous Bot have been set. The project is being performed by donated labor so it is a very slow process.

For the evening ritual, a temporary Bot was constructed. Several canopies, like those used for wedding and funeral celebrations were erected to provide shelter from the sun and remote possibility of rain. The first canopy was dedicated to the Monks and Buddhist statues. The back side of this canopy was sheathed with bright orange fabric to create a wall behind the raised wood platform upon which the Monks would sit. Very fine nylon nets, the type used to capture rice kernels that fall off the sheaves in preparation for threshing, were placed upon the ground beneath all of the canopies. Woven sahts some of them 30 feet (10 meters) long were placed on top of nylon net to create a floor for the worshippers. Just as in permanent Bot structures, people remove their shoes or more likely flip flops upon entering. In the corner of the raised wood platform reserved for the Monks, there were two richly lacquered etagere upon which Bhudda statues were placed. The etageries are often placed in richer people's homes to create a worship area in their home. In front of the statues there were other objects associated with worship and ritual such as candles, vases, flowers, incense holders, and a large pressed metal elaborate bowl.

Upon entering the area, I immediately noticed something new and very different. There was a grid suspended above the area where the worshippers would be seated. The square grid was created using cotton string - cotton string that used to used by meat cutters in older days and refereed to as "butcher's string" At the intersection of the crossing strings, long pieces of vertical drops of cotton string were tied to the elevated grid. The elevated grid was connected to the statues on the etagere with the same type of cotton string. Another cotton string ran from the statues to a ball of string placed on the platform where the Monks would be seated. I had witnessed the string from the statues to the Monks many times before but this was the first time that I had seen a grid of string above the worshippers and the statues. I believe that the use of the cotton strings has more to do with the vestiges of Animist beliefs than Buddhism. Cotton strings are used, sometimes in Bai Sii rituals, to bind the 32 spirits within people to ensure health, wealth, and good luck.

I got to take care of Peelawat during what ended up to be a two hour ritual. That was fine with me. Peelawat is a very good boy who is satisfied to just sit in my lap which still leaves my hands free to take photographs. I show him some of the photos in the screen on the back of the camera which keeps him entertained while he sucks his thumb. We sat up front next to off to the side of the Monk's platform. This was a good place to take photographs and a great location for both Peelawat and me to observe what was going on. I do have to say though that he stares much more than I do.

About one hour into the ritual the worshippers unravelled the vertical strings from the suspended grid and looped the free end of the string around their head. Relatives took care of putting the string around the head of children. As is typical at Lao Loum ceremonies, most of the men sat separate from the women and children. The other aspects of the evening's ritual were familiar to me. Just as when we had our house blessing ritual, Duang's uncle, the Abbot, allowed burning candles to drop wax into a large pressed metal ornate bowl. The shape of the wax that solidifies in the cool water is interpreted by the Monk to determine the future. Since the ritual was rather long, Peelawat got tired, perhaps from the hypnotic chanting in Pali by the Monks and villagers, and without crying decided to take a nap.

I placed him upon the saht in front of me with one of his blankets. He slept very peacefully until Rocketman walked around sprinkling people including me and Peelawat with the water from the large bowl - very similar to sprinkling of Holy Water in Catholic ritual. When the water blessing hit Peelawat he became startled and woke up. I calmed him and reset him upon the saht where he promptly returned to sleep. When Rocketman returned on his second pass to bless everyone, he had a big grin and seemed like he was going to get Peelawat and me once again. I said "No, the baby is sleeping" He laughed along with everyone else because he was only joking - apparently Peelwat and I only needed the one blessing!

At the end of the two hour ritual, people cut the vertical cotton strings and brought them up to the platform to have either the Abbot or Rocketman tie the string around their wrist. Duang and I were doubly blessed - the Abbot and Rocketman each tied a string around our wrist.

Apparently the ritual with the string around the head is a special ritual and only observed once a year. It was very interesting and with taking care of Peelawat very enjoyable.

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