Saturday, April 13, 2013

Busy Times Here In Isaan - Tamboon Roi Wan (Bone Party)

This week has been very busy for us with a combination of personal, religious, family, and cultural activities.

Wednesday was the second day of "Tamboon Roi Wan" and "Tamboon Jaak Khao" for three of Duang's relatives.

In early January of this year, we attended the funeral of PooPaw Veeboonkul.  The funeral was documented in my blog entry, "Yet Another Lao Loum Funeral" Feb 1, 2013  It is now 100 days from the funeral and in the Lao Loum culture time for a unique ritual called "Tamboon Roi Wan" sometimes referred to as "Bone Party".

"Tamboon Roi Wan" is the funeral anniversary party that has been written about many times in "Allen's World".  Tamboon Roi Wan is a merit making ritual that is held 100 days after the cremation of the body.  If for some reason, typically financial, that the ritual can not be held 100 days after the cremation, the ritual can be held at a later date and is called "Tamboon Jaak Khao". Whether 100 days or many years after the cremation, the ritual is identical and the merit is the same.

Villagers Gambling As Part of Tamboon Roi Wan
The two day ritual is a time for family, friends, and neighbors to eat, drink, socialize, gamble, and participate in religious ritual.  It is a grand party.

The first day of Tamboon Roi Wan or Tamboon Jaak Khao is spent eating and drinking.  The host family has the responsibility of feeding and supplying drink to all the guests.  Pavilions are set up in the front yard or if there is insufficient room in the yard, pavilions are set up in the street in front of the home.  Round tables covered with fabric and rented plastic chairs are set up underneath the pavilions. Bottles of beer, Lao whiskey, drinking water, and soft drinks along with a small metal bucket of ice are placed on each table.  As the drinks are consumed, they are quickly replaced.  Trays of food such as laab moo (a shredded pork dish), Chinese cabbage and assorted greens, raw beef paste with chili, fried chicken, fried pork skin, pauk pauk (spicy papaya salad), som tom palaa (soup with fermented fish sauce), mushroom soup with red ant eggs, along with small packets of sticky rice.

Spirit Houses (Ban Phii) for the Dead 
Taking advantage of the Songkran holiday and the coinciding 100 day anniversary of PooPaw's cremation, the family also conducted "Tamboon Jaak Khao" for PooPaw's mother and father.  Combining rituals and celebrations is typical here in Isaan for it lowers the overall costs - for the family as well as the guests.  For these celebrations there is a great deal of peer pressure for all family members to attend.  Guests also make donations and offerings as part of the rituals.  Since many family members had traveled to be in Tahsang Village for Songkran, the timing was good to have the "bone party".  By combining three rituals into one, the family reduced its costs significantly.

The first day of the ritual in addition to eating, drinking and gambling was spent in decorating the main pavilion as well as constructing Ban Phii (spirit houses) for each of the deceased people.  In the main pavilion where the ritual would take place, raised bamboo platforms were placed.  The Ban Phii were placed on the platforms.  In front of each Ban Phii a large photo of the deceased person was placed.  Food offerings and glasses of drink were also placed in front of the photographs.  Stalks of bananas were hung from the pavilion framing.  Offerings to be made to the Monks at the conclusion of the ritual were displayed around the Ban Phii.  The offerings included nesting metal food containers, toiletries for the Monks, towels, electric fans, religious decorations, blankets, small square pillows (mons), woven reed mats (sahts).

During the course of the two day ritual, the stack of mons grew larger and larger.  Each person who made an offering gave it with a mon.  Duang and I made an offering of money.  The offering of cash can not just be handed over as bare cash.  The cash is placed inside the envelope that contained our invitation to attend the ritual.  The envelope is then placed upon one of our many mons and given to the people who manned a table at the entrance to the main pavilion.  The mon was placed upon the growing pile of pillows to the side of the Ban Phii.  The envelope was opened and the amount of the offering and our names were logged into a notebook that would be given to the Monks.  People who could not afford cash offerings, donated rice.  Those donations were also logged into the notebook and the rice added to a large sack along with previous donations.

On the first day, some men were occupied making some fancy paper decorations that were to hang from the main pavilion framework.  The decorations were fancy cut outs of green, yellow and red papers. I am constantly amazed at the artistic and handicraft abilities of the Lao Loum people.

Around 10:30 A.M. two plastic chairs were brought together facing each other.

Family Sprinkles Water On Bones Contained In Brass Chedi
A pressed metal decorative bowl filled with drinking water was placed on one of the chairs. A metal tray was placed upon the other chair.  Three small brass chedi each containing bone fragments from each of the deceased people were on the metal tray along with a metal cup containing dainty white flowers call "Daug Mai Kao".  Duag Mai Kao flowers and leaves are used as offerings in Buddhist rituals.  The metal tray also had a fourth brass chedi with its top removed.  Bone fragments from all three deceased people had been placed inside of the opened chedi.  The metal serving tray also had some Daug Mai Kao leaves on it.

Family members approached the plastic chairs and reverently sprinkled water using the daug mai kao flowers on the bone fragments while chanting words along the lines of "Good Luck to you, I miss you, Buddha take care of you. I wait for you to be born again, You not worry, Family is OK"  Each person chants their own special incantation to the spirits.  At the end of Songkran the brass chedis will be interned in a larger family chedi at the local Wat.

"Rocketman" Chanting While Holding Saisin
At the conclusion of this portion of the ritual, a typical merit making ritual of offering food to the Monks was conducted.  Once again I had the pleasure of seeing "Rocketman" and the other Monks from the "inside" Wat along with the Monks from the "outside" Wat of Tahsang Village.

After finishing eating the Monks, all but three, returned to their respective Wats.  The three Monks who remained were special "singing" Monks from a third Wat.  The Monks set up their sound system and sat in very ornately carved wood golden chairs to perform the special four hour allegorical merit making performance of grieving and Buddhist tenants.  Although I have read that Buddhist Monks are not supposed to sing this was the at least third example that I had witnessed Monks singing - things are not always the way that they are supposed to be.  perhaps the is a dispensation because it is traditional Lao religious "singing" rather than modern pop songs or hip hop.

I ended up sitting next to the large gong at the base of one of the Monk's chairs.  I ended up having to hit the gong throughout the four hour ceremony.  At first the Monk that I was sitting next to gave me the sign to bang the gong.  Later people in the audience gave me the sign to bang the gong three times - once for Buddha, once for the teachings of Buddha, and once for the Buddhist religious community (Sanga).  After awhile I believed that I had figured out for myself when to "bang the gong".  To me it seemed that it was time to bang the gong whenever one of the Monks was singing particularly well - long drawn out warbling drawn out wide tonal range - in other words whenever they had the feeling or I had the "feeling".  I think it was somewhat like a fundamental Christian tent revival meeting when someone shouts out "Amen!" or "Hallelujah!"  People told my wife that I did a good job and that I understood how to bang the gong even when our four year old grandson was sleeping on my lap.

Women Participating In Special "Singing" Merit Making While Betel Nut Chewing
The last 30 to 40 minutes of the special merit making with the singing Monks involved feeding the spirits and making offerings to the spirits.  This portion of the ritual started with trays of food and glasses of drink being placed before each of the photographs of the deceased people.

Food To Feed the Spirits of the Deceased Is Placed Before their Photographs
Candles are lit and placed upon the trays of food and drink while family members hold burning Joss sticks to offer the food to the spirits.

After the food and drink had been offered to the spirits, the Monk who was the female voice of the singing ritual commenced to sing a mournful traditional Lao lament of death. - very similar to this song but without the musical accompaniment. (Vin yan Mae) "The Mother's Spirit.

As the Monk sang, family members paid their respects to the deceased while holding burning Joss sticks.

Unlike at the cremation ritual, it is during this portion of the Tamboon Roi Wan and/or Tamboon Jaak Kho that there is an outpouring of emotion and grief.  Men and women alike cry as they listen to the mournful laments and think of the deceased.  It is a very moving and touching.  Our grandson sat and attentively observed the ritual - some how instinctively knowing that seriousness and significance of what was transpiring before him.

The merit making ritual ended around 3:30 P.M. when the people returned to socializing, gambling, and drinking.  The children returned to the roadsides to toss water on passing vehicles and people.

At 9:00 P.M. the next element of the "Bone Party" commenced.  Duang's brother had been hired to put on one of his "Molam Lao" shows.  The village street had been blocked off and a large stage erected in the middle of the street.  The show was scheduled to run until around 4:00 P.M. but as so often happens here in Isaan, the police shut down the how before its scheduled completion because of the number of fights.

Lead Female Performer Backstage
The propensity for violence at these shows is widely known.  We asked our 4 year old grandson if he wanted to go to the show.  He said "No, I want to go home and sleep.  There are too many fights!"  There were several policemen at the show as well as one of the large paddy wagons to detain and transport offenders.  The problems during this show started after I had left.  Tahsang Villagers and their rivals from another local village kept getting into fights and ignored the police.  There has been bad blood between the villages since the murder of one villager by a member of the other village.  When people refused to cooperate with the police, the police shut the show down.

A Dancer Backstage

Performing A Song With Khene
It had been quite a party - a Bone Party or Party Phii (Spirit Party).  It was a party that involved the entire community as well as the large extended family of the deceased.  Just as Thai food is a melange of various colors, textures and flavors ranging from sour to sweet, spicy to bland, the party encompassed a wide range of emotions and activities.  There was the solemn respect for the deceased, the sense of community, the reminders of life is suffering, the open displays of grief, the homage to Buddha and spirits, and finally in the end the joy and energy as well as enthusiasm of the Lao Loum culture.  People of all ages participated in all aspects of the day.  Death is not kept hidden from children.  From an early age children are aware of the inevitability of death.

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