Monday, March 26, 2012

Poi Sang Long - 2012

Poi Sang Long

Poi Sang Long Procession In Mae Hong Son
 Another year has passed and the cycle of festivals in Thailand continues.  Soon, one of our favorite festivals will be held in the Mae Hong Song area.  From April 1st to April 15th, the people of the area will be celebrating Poi Sang Long.

My wife and I attended the festival in 2009 and plan on returning someday, hopefully some day soon.
Poi Sang Long is a Buddhist ritual celebrated by the Shan people.  The Shan people, also known as the Thai Yai, originated in Myanmar which was once known as Burma.

Each year young Shan boys are ordained as Buddhist Monks, actually Novices, in an elaborate ritual that commemorates Buddha's son becoming a Monk.

The air around the Wats during Poi Sang Long, is filled with the sound of clanging cymbals and drum beats. The cymbals are banged in a staccato three beat grouping, the number three is very important in Buddhism in that it identifies the The Buddha, The Teachings of Buddha, and the Buddhist Religious Community (The Sanga). The drumming is not in any noticeable rhythm that I can detect but then on a good day I can only distinguish 3 of the 5 ways to pronounce the Thai word "kohn".

Each Wat conducts the ritual for the young boys at different times during the prescribed period for the festival.  In 2009, we attended the festival in Mae Hong Son for Wat Jongkum Jong Klang (actually two different Wats that are adjacent to each other in the center of Mae Hong Son on the lake).

A stage had been built in front of the Wat on the temple grounds. Some people were occupied placing colored bunting on the stage. A canopy had been set up underneath one of the large trees on the temple grounds. Underneath the canopy, several young Monks, around 16 years old, were busy banging gongs and clanging cymbals. These young Monks would later take part in the hair cutting and head shaving ritual of the young Shan boys who would be ordained as Novice Monks. They are following Buddha's son, Prince Rahula's path in becoming Monks at an early age. Removal of their hair symbolizes renouncing worldly possessions and goods - in olden days long hair was symbolic of royalty.

Around 16:30 of what I call the first day of the festival, the head shaving ceremony gets started. There are pamphlets that are available with a schedule of events but they are not necessarily complete or even accurate.  It is best to check, double check, and then check once again to determine what is happening and when it will be happening.  Hotels are a source of information, the Monks at the Wat are helpful and of course families of the young boys are very good sources of information - even m ore so if you speak Thai or are with someone who does speak Thai.  I would also recommend that you arrive early just to be sure that you don't miss out on anything.  A young boy is seated in each of the plastic chairs - 40 boys in all when we attended in 2009. Each boy is surrounded by his family. After a little speech from the Abbott and a blessing, the ceremony started. The first part of the ceremony is cutting the boy's hair.

The boys wear their colorful super hero or cartoon tee shirts and short pants and sit rigidly in their chair. These boys were about to take a very important step in their religious and temporal life. They are now the center of attention and the representatives of their family. Although these boys are seven to fourteen years old, it is obvious that they were trying their best to bring honor to their family. It is also entertaining to see some moments when the boys were busy being boys such as sharing their hair clippings with their friend, or grimacing at the irritation from their shorn locks.

The boys sit with a large lotus leaf in their lap. Using regular scissors, relatives take turns snipping off locks of hair and placing them into the lotus leave. It is considered an honor to cut the hair and the relative order in which a person cuts the hair is indicative of the respect as well as esteem that is held by the family for the participant.

The Abbot patiently makes his rounds ensuring that he cut some hair from each of the young boys. Many people were mingled amongst the family members photographing or filming the ritual.

After family and friends have had their opportunity to cut some hair, it is time to shave the boy's head. Prior to shaving the boy's head, family members usually a mother of grandmother pours water on to the boy's head. Some waters are scented with flowers or perfume. There is no shaving creme, gel, or foam in sight. Some boys may have some soap rubbed into their hair. It is during the head shaving portion of the ritual that the demeanor of the boys changes. It can be seen in their face - a look of seriousness and in some cases trepidation. These feelings are visibly mitigated by the close and tender attention given to the boys by their family and the Monks. It is a special ceremony that reinforces family, religious, and community ties.

The shaving of the heads is a time consuming effort shared by men, women, and Monks. Just as in the case of the hair cutting, the Abbot makes his way along the lined up chairs to shave a little of each of the forty young heads. The other Monks of the Wats join in to help shave the heads. The Monks shave about one-half of each head with the remainder done by family members.

After their head had been completely shaved, inspected and accepted the boys are washed off with buckets and bowls of scented and unscented water. Many boys have a pomade of powder and water applied to their newly bald heads. The boys retire to the inner areas of the temple complex to spend the night and await the next step in their ordination the following morning. Snippets of hair and shavings are gathered up and removed by some younger Monks.

The forty boys, soon to be Monks, have completed the first step in demonstrating their renunciation of their worldly possessions by having their heads shaved. They have started their individual journey in following Prince Rahula's footsteps.

The next morning around 5:00 A. M. there is continued acrimonious clanging, banging and beat of the previous day's music. As long as this music is going on, something is happening. The Bot is filled with family members attending to their young boy. This morning the "Sang Long" (jewelled sons) will be dressed up in fine silks, brocades, jewelery, and complicated millinery. Their mothers, sisters, and aunts apply makeup to the boy's face that would be the envy of any Bangkok or Pattaya Kathoey (Lady Boy). In fact I suspect that many American women would love to be made up and look as elegant as these young boys do. Each family sets up their spot on the floor in the Bot. Outsiders are very welcomed by the families and the atmosphere is free and relaxed.

The boys are made up to resemble Princes. When the dressing and makeup have been completed the boys look like they are little Maharajahs out of some Rudyard Kipling story. This is not a Halloween masquerade type skit but a financially taxing attempt to emulate royalty. Some of the clothing cost upwards to 10,000 baht ($300 USD). The clothing is colorful, intricate, and very fancy. Dressing up your son for his ordination is very analogous to the tradition and social pressures in the USA for having your daughter get married. To suitably impress the relatives, neighbors, and friends, families take on a large financial burden. Almost $300 for a child's outfit even in the Western World is not a trifle amount. Here in Thailand the average farm worker makes 100 baht ($3.00) a day. To stage this family celebration many families pool resources and many end up borrowing money to finance the spectacle. Peer pressure is very strong for every family to somehow and someway to come up with the money to participate in the tradition.

The fathers focus their efforts on dressing their son in all the various articles of clothing. The proud fathers also give their sons words of comfort and guidance. Other male members of the family sit next to the young boy. In many places, hired men also sit next to the jewelled princes. Once the boy has had his head shaved, his feet no longer touch the ground. The jewelled prince is carried upon the shoulders of his father, grandfather, uncles, and older brothers. To supplement the contingent of male relatives, some families hire men to carry their son on top of their shoulders during the rituals and parades. In many cases the porters for a particular boy are smartly dressed in pastel tailored traditional Shan outfits. Several men are required to carry the boy along the parade route. As a man becomes tired, the boy is transferred to a fresh man for his turn to carry the jewelled prince. Some of the porters with a great deal of energy from the clanging and banging music or perhaps the whiskey that you can smell on their breadth, danced enthusiastically with the boy on their shoulders. A couple of the porters may have a de facto contest as to which one of them can get their prince lowest and most parallel to the ground without dropping him.  The mothers complete the outfitting of their princes by placing their gold chains around their necks and placing gold rings on their fingers. It is interesting to watch combinations of tape and yarn being utilized to ensure that the family jewels stayed on the boys small fingers.

After all 40 boys had been prepared, they eat a small breakfast of fried rice and plain water. They are carried outside to be organized into parade formation. Outside family members congregate awaiting the start of the early dawn parade. A small Asian breed of horse waits outside to lead the parade. The horse is immaculately groomed - to the extent that its mane is cropped where a large garland of flowers is carefully placed around its neck. Two men wearing traditional Shan clothing tend and lead the horse. Another man who appears to be some type of shaman leads the parade along side of the horse. He is dressed in white pants and tunic with his head covered in a white turban. He carries a ceremonial offering bowl.

The boys are carried on the shoulder of a man and are surrounded by men in waiting - waiting to have their turn at carrying the boy on their shoulders. Each boy is also shielded by a large ornate golden umbrella attached at the end of a long wood pole carried by a man walking to the side of the elevated boy. The umbrellas are very ornate and decorated with flowers, garlands, and intricate decorations. The umbrellas are also heavy and unwieldy, so just as in the case of the boy, men take their turns in carrying the umbrella and ensuring that it shelters the specific boy.

Some families also hire "professional" musicians to bang gongs, clang cymbals, and play the unusual drum in the same style as can be heard since arriving in Maehongson for the festival. Some of the "bands" may have long mechanical racks that played several cymbals at the same time. Two men carry the rack and a third man "plays" the cymbals by moving a lever back and forth. The din of the amateur musicians along with the professionals creates quite an atmosphere.

The parade leaves the Wat complex at sunrise and heads through downtown Maehongson. The entourage stops at a local temple in the center of town. The purpose of the stop is for the boys to let the spirits know that they were becoming Monks and to ensure that the boys had been forgiven for any previous unacceptable actions, thoughts, or words. The parade then moves through the airport on the edge of town to visit a Buddhist temple. At this location the boys request forgiveness from the Abbott. The procession eventually returns to the Wat and the spectators leave only to return the next morning for another predawn procession.

If we were back in Thailand we would be attending this year's festival.  Thankfully we have our memories and photographs from a previous celebration to carry us over until we can attend once again.

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