Monday, April 26, 2010

Tahsang Village Wedding

I started this blog last night but a powerful thunderstorm took out our power very briefly but wiped out our Internet access until this morning. On our way out to the Ban That International Rocket Festival this morning, we saw numerous large trees felled by the high winds as well as many billboards destroyed. Northeast of Udonthani, many rice fields were covered with water. The rains have arrived.

Yesterday, Sunday 25 April, we attended a wedding in Tahsang Village. The daughter of one of Duang's 93 cousins got married at her home. This was about the sixth or seventh wedding that I have attended here in Isaan. Just as in the case of funerals here in Isaan, weddings are "same same but different". There are many common elements in all weddings but there are some large differences mainly attributable to the social and economic status of the bride.

In Isaan, there is a custom and accepted practise of "Sin Sod". Sin Sod is essentially a dowry provided by the Groom and/or his family to the Bride's family. The payment is a complex and multifaceted act by the Groom. First of all it demonstrates his ability to support his wife to be - sort of ironic in that many Grooms have to borrow in order to accumulate the required funds for the Sin Sod. Secondly, payment of the Sin Sod is a display of commitment and respect of the Groom for the Bride as well as for her family. Lastly the Sin Sod is a form of financial support for the Bride's family. A large Sin Sod is also a sign of prestige for the parties involved - sort of bragging rights for both families. In Thailand as well as other Asian cultures, "face" is very important. A large Sin Sod buys a great deal of "face"

In Lao Loum society, children and grandchildren are obligated to care for their parents and grandparents. They do not rely upon any government social or economic safety nets which is good since there are not any. Families take care of families. Neighbors take care of neighbors. Within this social context, the actual burden of caring for parents falls to the youngest daughter. Youngest daughters in turn are rewarded for their care of their parents by inheriting their family's home and land.

When a man and woman decide to get married, the man will have a close relative or trusted friend approach the woman's parents to determine the amount of the "Sin Sod" as well as the "Tong Mun". Tong Mun" is "gold engagement". In Thailand, baht besides being the name of the national currency, is also a measure for buying and selling gold. A "baht" of gold here, 15.244 grams currently sells for approximately 17,300 Baht ($534 USD). Since gold in Thailand is 96.5% pure, approximately 23.2 Karat, a baht contains 15.16 grams of pure gold (0.528 ounces). The "Tong Mun" is given directly to the Bride and remains her personal property. Here in Isaan there is a thriving business in selling as well as buying gold. Many women will sell their gold back for a short period of time to bridge over difficult financial times. The Gold Shops act as Pawn Shops to help people out financially - of course for a fee. I suspect that the gold business is rather lucrative. Shops are located in the malls, in the western style "superstores", and as small shops in the towns. Kumphawapi is a small town with approximately 26,000 people with at least 5 gold shops that I am aware of. Gold is mainly sold in the form of rings, necklaces, and bracelets. Necklaces run basically in whole numbers of bahts - 1, 2, 3, baht necklaces. The buyer pays for the gold content with a small premium for craftsmanship related to the ornate work of the piece. The Tong Mun provides security to the woman. Security, for the Bride and her family, is a very important aspect of Lao Loum marriages.

Sunday's wedding was a different experience for us in that it involved rather well off families. Most of the weddings that we have attended here with the exception of a foreigner to a Lao Loum woman, have involved poor families. The Bride is the only daughter of a local politician and bureaucrat. Her family owns three homes in Udonthani province so they are relatively economically well off. The bride's father was associated with deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawarta's government and party. Today, he is involved in what goes for Social Security here in Isaan - 500 Baht ($15 a month) for seniors. I also believe that he is involved with UDD ("Red Shirts")

Besides being the only daughter of an influential family, the Bride is a university graduate, has no children, and has not been previously married - all very desirable traits, all circumstances that warrant a higher Sin Sod and Tong Mun. The Sin Sod was 500,000 Baht ($15,151 USD). The Tong Mun was 10 baht ($5,242 USD - 5-1/4 ounces of gold). How do I know? Isn't it a secret? If you follow my blogs, you realize that there are no secrets here in Isaan. Actually in regards to weddings, the amount of the Sin Sod and Tong Mun is blatantly flaunted as part of the wedding ritual - more about that later in this blog.

We arrived in Tahsang Village around 9:00 A.M. to pick up our grandson to attend his first wedding. We left the truck at Duang's parent's home, and walked through the village to the Bride's home. Four canopies were set up around the home with decorated tables and chairs placed underneath them. Part of the home has a permanent covered terrace. For the wedding, the terrace was set up for the ceremony. There was a heart shaped gate way surrounded by balloons leading to the terrace. An elevated stage was set up on the left side of the covered terrace. The elevated stage had a computer monitor and a sound mixing board set up to support singing and dancing. Just outside of the terrace, four young women were busy putting on traditional costumes and make-up prior to their performance.

There was a desk where guests handed in their wedding invitation with their gift for the couple. In Isaan there is no danger of having two or three waffle irons as wedding gifts. In Isaan, guests provide gifts of money for the couple. This actually seems like a very practical custom. There is also a custom that takes some getting used to, a great deal of getting used to - the men at the desk open each envelop and announce the name of the donor as well as the amount of the gift over the loudspeaker for all in attendance as well as others living in the vicinity to hear. The announcement is not a matter of fact accounting of the gift but is very animated as if he were announcing the winner of a Muay Thai boxing match. I do have to admit though that he announced a 100 Baht donation with the same amount of enthusiasm and fervor as a 1,000 baht gift.

We sat at a table were were fed typical celebration food - raw chopped beef with chilies, sticky rice, cooked pork, raw liver, laab, raw cabbage, cucumbers, boiled pork internals, boiled beef internals, fried vegetable rolls - all very tasty and delicious.

In the center of the terrace, several sahts had been placed on the concrete floor. In the middle of the sahts was an ornate centerpiece called "Pahn Sii Khwan". "Pahn Sii Khwan" are made out of banana leaves and tiny flowers usually Jasmine Blossoms. Creating Pahn Sii Khwan is a handicraft emblematic of the Lao Loum culture here in Isaan as well as in Laos. The Pahn Sii Khwan serves as a sort of altar for Bai Sii ceremonies. There is no Buddhist marriage ritual in Isaan. The marriage ritual in Isaan has its origins in the Animist and Hindu rituals of pre-Buddhist times. In Isaan the marriage ritual is comprised of many separate rites.

The first rite is the arrival of the Groom and his family at the Bride's home. The Groom and his family and close friends walk to the Bride's home. Typically there is loud Mahlam Lao and Mahlam Sing music blasting from a sound truck following the Groom procession. On Sunday there was no music accompanying the Groom. However the people walking with him were singing and shouting. It was obvious that they were in good spirits - literally and figuratively. Weddings are a very joyous occasion in Isaan. One woman, the Groom's Aunt, in the procession carried a silver pressed metal bowl often used in Buddhist merit making rituals, upon which the Sin Sod (stacks of Thai currency)was prominently displayed. Another elderly woman, another Aunt, carried a gold pressed metal bowl upon which the gold Tong Mun was just as prominently displayed.

At the property line of the Brides home, two security men blocked the procession's entrance on to the land with a barrier made by holding a rolled up Pakama (cotton male clothing article) between them. This is typical. Usually younger sisters or female relatives will block the Grooms path with a "gate". They will tease him about why he is there and ask if is capable of taking care of a wife. When he pays the gate keepers some money, 500 baht ($15 USD), the barrier is removed. The groom then encountered a second gate - a string of gold chains. The married female relatives of the Bride offer their gold necklaces for use in creating the barrier. Duang had loaned her necklace for the cause on Sunday. The Groom was then questioned about being able to take care of a wife AND HER FAMILY. Still undeterred and not intimidated, the Groom paid another 500 baht and proceeded to the third gate.

After some more joking and a final 500 baht, the Groom had arrived at the heart shaped entrance to the covered terrace. At this point the Bride's cousin had him stand on banana leaves, remove his socks and shoes in order that she could wash his feet. This service cost him another 300 baht. This may cost him more in the future. traditionally as was the case for my wedding, the Bride greets her Groom and washes his feet as a demonstration of her respect for as well as her loyalty to her husband to be. On Sunday the Bride was not in sight at this point.

The Groom and his family removed their shoes as they positioned themselves on the sahts in front of the Pahn Si Khwan. A Brahman, a village elder who is familiar with spiritual matters and rituals, kneels facing the families. Duang's Uncle who normally handles these rituals is dying and was not in attendance. The Sin Sod and Tong Mun were given to the Bride's Mother. With a couple elderly women, I suspect that they were sisters, she went off to the side of the assembled families to count the offerings. Counting the Sin Sod and Tong Mun is more of a spectacle than a ritual. A cloth is placed on the saht and the stacks of money are placed on the cloth. The stacks are spread on the cloth and slid around sort of reminiscent of the Shell and Pea games that I witnessed once as a child in NYC's Times Square. Each of the women seems to have to handle each of the stacks of currency several times. The currency is then counted several times to ensure accuracy and to enhance the prestige of the ritual. The amount is then announced for everyone to hear. All the people smile in a demonstration of their acceptance and respect. The Bride's Mother then bundles up the Sin Sod in the cloth, places the bundle over her shoulder, and leaves the area to place the money in the home.

After the financial arrangements were verified, the Bride appeared and knelt before the Pahn Sii Khwan at the left hand side of her husband. At this point on Sunday, in a break from traditional ritual but most likely in deference to the prestige of the Bride's family, traditional Thai classical dances were performed in the Bride and Groom's honor by the women we saw earlier in the morning applying their makeup. I later found out that the dance performance had been a gift from the UDD (Red Shirts) political action group.

The Groom and Bride lit candles on each side of the Pahn Sii Khwan that remained burning for the duration of the ritual. To the left of the Pahn Sii Khwan several plates and bottles were placed on the sahts. There were offerings of green leaves, small yellow candles similar to birthday cake candles, bottles of Lao Kao (moonshine whiskey, "White Lightening"). These are offerings to the spirits. There were also boiled eggs, sticky rice, small bananas, and a sweet concoction of sticky rice with banana wrapped in banana leaves. These were offerings used by the Bride and Groom. There was a bowl of water that the Brahman would later use to sprinkle on the families using a green leaf in order to transfer the merit making of the ritual to the witnesses.

The Brahman lead the ritual which lasted about one hour. Female relatives placed the various pieces of gold jewelry from the Tong Mun on the Bride at the start of the Baii Sii Kwan ritual. A cotton string was held by the Bride and Groom which connected them to Pahm Sii Khwan. The string binds the spirits together to ensure good luck and prosperity for the couple. In another part of the ritual the Bride's Father and one of the Groom's Aunts, placed a floral garland on the head of the Groom and the head of the Bride further strengthening the binding symbolics.

At the end of the ceremony, all the people tied cotton strings around the wrist of the Bride and Groom to bind the 32 spirits inside of their bodies to ensure good luck and prosperity for a long as well as happy marriage. As the strings were tied around the wrist, each guest gave their blessing, best wishes, and encouragement to the young people.

It was now around 12:30 P.M. on a very hot day, so Duang and I returned to our home to rest and cool off before returning to the formal reception at a hotel in Kumphawapi starting at 6:00 P.M.

We arrived at the hotel for 6:00 P.M. and discovered that we were the first guests to arrive. This is Thailand and not America. I am constantly reminded of this by my wife but I still often forget especially when it comes to being punctual for scheduled events. No problem - we had spent a month at the hotel when we had left Vietnam two years ago so we wandered around renewing acquaintances with the staff.

Whereas the morning's celebration had been a Lao Loum event for family members, the evening celebration was more of a typical Western style reception with even a videographer. The Bride had changed from her Thai style gown into a traditional Western wedding dress. We had a wonderful evening - wonderful food, as well as plenty of whiskey. The guests were many of the local politicians, policemen, and government officials. I was the only foreigner but it doesn't bother me at all. The Lao Loum people are very friendly and sociable so I am never ill at ease.

One of the guests at our table remarked that the Groom was not smiling to which I quipped that he was thinking too much about the Sin Sod and Tong Mun that he had paid for. We all had a good laugh with the policeman at our table pouring me another drink. I was concerned about drinking and then driving back to Udonthani. Duang reassured me by saying that I did not have to worry - "Policeman not care. Night time Policeman go home not stop car. You drive fast or slow - up to you." I still made sure not to drink too much. We arrived home safely with many memories and photos of a fine day.

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