Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Songkran - Bone Washing

Showing Respect to and Elder Relative in Isaan
Songkran is a very special holiday here In Southeast Asia.  Most people outside of the region may know about it being the "Water Festival", a time when massive crowds gather in metropolitan areas and wage all out water wars.  International television networks every year broadcast clips typically of Bangkok or Chiang Mai of water drenched people, many of them tourists and many of them drunk. dancing about in a hedonistic frenzy.  I know much of what I have just written, for I was one of them, just once, in Pattaya seven years ago.

Just as Christmas has been hijacked with little regard for its origin and original intention, so to a large extent has Songkran, especially so in the metropolitan regions.

I am fortunate now in that I have a Thai family, a very large and extended family that lives in small villages amongst the rice paddies of Isaan.  I have the opportunity and take advantage of the opportunity to experience the more traditional Songkran in a rural and more intimate atmosphere.  There have actually been some instances this year where Songkran has come to Duang and me.

A Three Year Old Visitor Presents Me With A Pumalai Offering
Twice in the past week family members have come to our home for their young children to pay their respects to Duang and me.  The children ranging in age from 1-1/2 to 4 years old kneel before each of us, bow and present us with floral arrangements called pumalai.to show their respect.  Duang wishes them good luck and good fortune.  Since I don't speak their language, I say "Thank You" in Thai and give them hugs and kisses.   They seem to understand. Growing old is inevitable and can not be avoided, however it sure can be pleasurable with traditions such as this.

Getting Old Has Its Advantages
I have long believed that situations do not develop or events occur unto themselves or in a vacuum.  There are precursors to all situations and events that if we are aware are readily apparent.  If we are not fully aware at the time, we can go back later and connect the dots that lead up to either the event or situation that we are now experiencing.  This year's Songkran experience for me is no exception.

Songkran besides being a time for huge water fights in the cities is a time for people to clean their homes.  Tahsang Village was no exception.  The clutter and debris of front and most back yards in the village was gone.  The local government had arranged for trucks to haul away the items that had been thrown out but never removed over the past year.  Songkran is a time for cleaning; cleaning many things.

Songkran is also a time to demonstrate respect for elderly people, especially family members.  Family member from far and near unite in the villages to pay respect to elderly people by kneeling before them, presenting them offerings of jasmine flowers, pumalai, and cash.  The younger people then pour cool scented water over the out stretched hands of the elderly while wishing them good luck and good fortune.  The elderly accept and reciprocate by thanking the younger people, wishing them good luck as well as fortune , and often rub their wet cooler hands on the face, neck or head of the younger people.

Songkran is also the time when Buddhists in Southeast Asia make merit by pouring water over statues of Buddha to cool and cleanse them.  Smaller statues of Buddha are set up on highly decorated tables of flowers for the people of all ages to walk by and reverently pour water over each statue.

This Songkran I also experienced a combination of Tamboon Roi Wan and Tamboon Jaak Khao, "Bone Party" special merit making ritual for the spirits of family members who had been cremated. One aspect of the Bone Party was merit making ritual involving bone fragments placed inside of small metal chedis,  After the ritual concluded the chedis are kept in the family home.  The bone relics are kept in the home for one Songkran and upon the second Songkran a special ritual takes place when the bones are washed prior to internment in a large family chedi on the Wat grounds.

Yesterday there was a "Bone Washing" ritual for members of Duang's family at the Wat inside of Tahsang Village.  I was fortunate to be able to attend and experience the ritual - another dot that connected the progression of life in this world with the spirit world.  In this case it is a dot that is associated with Songkran - another connection to family, cleaning as well as respect for the elderly (deceased).

"Rocketman" Pouring Water Into Metal Chedis Containing Bone Fragments
The "Bone Washing" ritual commenced with the head Monk of the Wat pouring water into each of the three chedi which contained bone fragments.  The tray, a common metal tray used for serving food, upon which the chedis were placed was then removed from in front of the Monks by a male family member and placed on the floor of the Sala.  The tray was placed in front of the family members and behind the offerings of drinking water and toiletries that would be presented as later part of the ritual.

Family members, one by one, poured water into each of the chedis that contained the bone fragments.  Soon the chedis were overflowing with the water.  The water flowed gently over the chedis and was contained by the metal tray.  Bone fragments floated to the top of each chedi but did not spill out of the metal containers because of the care and diligence of the people pouring the water.

After the family members had completed pouring water over the bone fragments, the excess water contained by the metal tray was carefully transferred into a plastic insulated cooler that you often see in fields and homes throughout Isaan - for drinking water.

The tray was now placed to the right of the assembled offerings to the Monks and in front of the family members.  The three metal chedis were placed upon the metal serving tray once again and the bone washing ritual appeared to transition into a typical merit making ritual - a ritual performed every day throughout Thailand.

Offerings Being Made to the Monks

Pouring Water Allows Merit to be Transferred to the Spirits, Trays of Food and Drink Nourish the Spirits

Cotton String (Siesein) Connects the Spirit World to Our Present World
A cotton string, called a siesein, was unrolled and placed over the laps of the Monks, across the Sala floor, and laid across the offerings as well as all of the metal serving trays.  The string remained in place until chanting by the Monks was completed at which time the string was rewound on to it bobbin and returned to its storage location on the special area where Monks sit

At the conclusion of the merit making ritual with the Monks, the family members gathered the plastic cooler along with the tray of the chedi and climbed down the stairs of the Sala to the ground level.  A few steps brought the group to the perimeter wall of the Wat complex.  There were several large Chedi placed upon various concrete tiled bases.  Each chedi was for a different family and contained interned bones of their ancestors.  Poorer families, or rather families who can not yet afford a proper sized chedi, have smaller chedis or in some Wats the bones are stored inside of sealed niches in the wall.

The family chedi had the upper access port had been removed in anticipation of storing the bone fragments that had just been washed.  This was apparently in error.  Lacking a hammer a young man picked up a rock and used it to remove the cement seal around a lower access port.  Apparently the upper chamber of the chedi is reserved for the most senior members of the family.  These bones were of younger people so they had to be interned at the lower level.

Breaking the Seal of the Lower Chamber

Interning the Bones In Family Chedi
After the bones had been placed inside of the chedi, the port was placed back into position.  A senior aunt of the family washed the chedi with the bone washing water that had been placed in the blue plastic insulated container.  Out of concern for the future use of the container I asked Duang about what would happen to the container.  She assured me that it would not be used for drinking water but the Monks would use it for water in the rituals.

As I prepared to walk back to Duang's parents home in the village, Duang pointed out a gathering of Monks and people at a different location along the Wat perimeter wall.  In front of two identical chedi another family was participating in a bone washing ritual.

Duang informed me that there had been many more bone washing rituals the previous day.

Like many events and situations in life, Songkran is much more complex and different from what it may initially appear to be.  It often takes time and and patience to better understand what is happening.  Often it requires an open mind to get beyond the blatant demonstration of hedonism so prevalent today to commence to better understand the significance and beauty of the world about us.

With better understanding and a true appreciation of the events and situations, we are able to see how they really are all connected.

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