Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Naga - The Guardians

A Naga Guards the Entrance to Wat Si Bunruang 

Isaan is a very special place here in Thailand.  Readers of this blog have some idea about the people, beliefs, festivals, and places that make this area so interesting and special.

We are in the midst of Vassa (Buddhist Lent, Buddhist Rain Retreat).  The 90 day period of Vassa will end on Wan Awk Phansa (Wan Ok Phansa, Wan Awk Phansa), 19 October.  The end of Vassa is a time for merit making and celebration throughout Isaan.

It is also time for a very special and unique cultural event - Bang Fai Phaya Nak just north of us in Nong Khai Province along the banks of the mighty Mekong River.  In this area of Thailand the Mekong River separates Thailand from the Lao People's Democratic Republic as well as the ethnic Lao Loum people.

This year the Bang Fai Phaya Nak Festival will be 18 - 19 October.  The festival celebrates a local phenomenon of glowing balls of light that rise from the depths of the water into the night sky before disappearing.  This phenomenon are most reported during the full moon of Wan Ok Phansa, the last day of the Buddhist Rain Retreat.

A Lighted Ship Floats Down The Mekong River During Bang Fai Phaya Nak

The celebration occurs on both sides of the Mekong River, Northeast Thailand and Laos sharing a common heritage and culture.

The legend that explains the fireballs is that the they are caused by a large serpent, Naga (Phaya Naga) that lives in the river.

Naga is a mythological deity that takes the form a a very great snake.  Nagas are found in the traditions and legends of Hinduism as well as in Buddhism.  I have written before about the amalgamation of Animist, Hindu and Buddhist beliefs and traditions here in Isaan.  The area was once Animist before Hindu and then Buddhist believers arrived.  Today in Isaan traditions and beliefs from all three remain a very strong part of not only the culture but of individual daily life.

Back in May, I wrote a blog about the Bun Bang Fai Festival - the festival in which rockets are fired into the air at the start of the monsoonal rain season here in Isaan and neighboring Lao.

The tradition of firing the rockets is rooted in the Buddhist mythology in which Nagas play a large roll.

A Long time ago, during one of Buddha's many reincarnations, this time as a toad, the rain god (King of the Sky), Phaya Tan  (Taen) was angry with the people and animals. Buddha ( Phaya Khang Khok)'s, sermons were drawing people and creatures from earth and sky away from the King of the Sky.  He decided to punish them by withholding the necessary life giving and sustaining rains.  After seven years, seven months, and seven days of drought, the surviving people along with the animals got together and consulted with Buddha.  After much deliberations, they decided that Phaya Nak (Naga), the giant snake, would lead them in war against the rain god, Phaya Tan.  Phaya Tan defeated the giant snake and his troops.  After eventually overcoming Phaya Tan, Buddha rewarded  Phaya Nak (Naga) for his loyalty as well as service with the honor of being guardians.

Naga At Entrance to Sala Pha Bang, Royal Palace Luang Prabang LPDR

There is also another Buddhist legend involving nagas or snakes.  Today, young man who are participating in the ritual of becoming a novice Monk, after renouncing their worldly goods, are considered to be a "naga".

When Buddha was walking around preaching and teaching his disciples, Naga The Serpent King (Phaya Nak) took on human form, asked to become a Monk, and followed Buddha around listening to the sermons.

One day the naga fell asleep and reverted back to his snake form. Buddha told him that he could not be a Monk because he was not of this world - only humans could be a Monk. The naga agreed to leave the Sanga (religious community of Monks) but requested a favor. He asked Buddha that all young men who are about to be ordained as Monks be called "nagas". Buddha agreed.

To prevent a recurrence of this incident, all young men as part of their ordination are asked if they are human. Phaya Nak, despite leaving the monkhood, continued his devotion to Buddha and is often depicted in art as the seven headed cobra shielding Buddha from the rain.

Later on Buddha was traveling to perform a sermon during Vassa in the second heaven for Buddha mothers and the angels.  When Vassa ended and Buddha was returning to Earth, Phaya Nak and his followers made offerings and issued fireballs to welcome his return.  Since that time, at the end of Vassa fireballs rise from the Mekong although I did not see any when we attended Bang Fai Phaya Nak in 2009. The fact that I did not see them does not mean that they did not exist.  There have been times when others standing next to me, have seen "Phii" (ghosts, spirits) that I did not see
 and my camera did not capture - all more the reason that we hope to attend this year's festival.

Seven Headed Naga Guards Entrance to Sala Pha Bang, Royal Palace Luang Prabang LPDR

The Royal Barge "Anantanagaraj" - Seven Headed Naga Bow
Seven Headed Naga Guarding the Entrance to Wat Phra That Choeng Chum
Sakon Nakhon, Thailand
In our travels along the roads of this area, we became aware of a very interesting Wat in the village of Ban Kho Noi.  I have intended to photograph the Wat's grounds but it was not until two days ago that I had my camera and the weather was good.

Main Entrance to Wat Si Bunruang
I find Wat Si Bunruang very interesting because of the statues located at the entrance gate, entrance road and along the the front perimeter wall of the facility.  Two large and very colorful Nagas flank the ornate gateway to the Wat, their heads rising up at the entrance and their thick blue boodies undulating along the top of the wall to their up raised tails some eight meters away.  Along the front perimeter wall and alongside the driveway into the Wat are several thepanom (thep phanom), Thai angels.

Inside of the platform that supported each thepanom was a internal space for the storage of bones.  Many of the platforms had the opening to the reliquary was sealed with a plaque which included a photograph as well as information about the deceased person.

The encounters with the Naga of Wat Si Bunruang and researching this blog, has piqued my curiousity to attend Bun Bang Fai Phaya Nak next month.  I have check with Duang and, as usual, she is prepared to go on anther of my forays into the culture of Isaan.  Perhaps this year we will actually get to see the fireballs.

I have also got her to buy into attending this year's Sakon Nakhon Wax Castle Festival which we attended last year.  Same same but different?  I think so.

1 comment:

  1. Oh, I am so happy to find this blog about Thailand and especially about Udon Thani. Thank you for publishing your travels.