Thursday, September 19, 2013

Wan Kao Saht - Feeding the Spirits

Tahsang Villagers Offering Food to the Spirits

Today was a special day in Isaan.  Today, 19 September 2013, 2556 BE, is Wan Kao Saht.  It is the Mid-Autumn Festival or Moon Festival.  For Westerners it is the "Harvest Moon".

I have been calling it "Wan Kao Sa" but this afternoon after consultation and closer listening to my wife, I have confirmed it to be "Wan Kao Saht".  On this special merit making is performed in offering food to the Phii (ghosts).  People also earn merit through offering "Kao Tawtek) to their local Monks.  It is also traditional for older people to give gifts of Kao Tawtek and money to children.  I was hoping to photograph the giving of the Kao Tawtek and money today, but it was apparently occurred yesterday.

Like many things here in Thailand, Kao Saht seems to be adapted and amalgamated from other cultures. The Chinese celebrate a Hungry Ghost Festival but that was 7 August to 4 September of this year with "Ghost Day" on 20 August.  In Vietnam, today is the second biggest holiday with an emphasis and focus on children.

We drove out to Tahsang Village, my wife's home village, early this morning to be able to participate in the daily merit making ritual of offering food to the Monks.  After picking up our young grandson we drove through the bright green rice paddies, "high as an elephant's eye" sugar cane fields, and muddy fields lying in fallow, we arrived at the "Outside" Wat.

Today in addition to earning personal merit, the participants are earning merit for the spirit of their dead relatives.  In the Lao Loum culture, as well as other Southeast Asia cultures, the people have to take care of the spirits of their family as well as other ghosts.  Spirits need merit in death as well in life to assist them in their journey to enlightenment.  Merit is the basis for determining what form and status a person will be reincarnated as.

We had brought offerings of bottled water, food, and toiletries for the two Monks of the Wat.  We were not alone.  About one-half of the Tahsang Villagers were at this Wat.  I assume that the other half of the village were at the "Inside" Wat where "Rocketman" is the senior Monk.

Baskets of Food for the Spirits Connected by Si Sein to Monks
The villagers, in addition to the normal offerings of food for the Monks, had brought baskets of special foods wrapped in banana leaves.  The baskets were carefully placed on the floor of the incomplete Sala next to a concrete column.  A si sein (cotton string) was placed across the tops of the baskets.  The si sein ran up the column, across the sala and ran down a second column near where the Monks would sit slightly above the villagers.  The si sein terminated in a ball placed on a plate at the side of the Wat's senior Monk.

Many of the women were dressed in white uniforms like the attire that Duang wears just about every night during Vassa when she conducts her ritual upstairs in our home where my roll top desk has been converted into a shrine.  The women, including Duang's mother, are participating in a women's retreat at the Wat tonight.  They will spend the remainder of the day and most of the night reading and studying the scriptures and receiving lectures from the Monks.

The offering of food to the Monks was a typical daily ritual with one exception, while the Monks ate their one meal of the day, the women along with a couple of Brahmans chanted in Pali.

At the end of the ritual, the villagers gathered up their baskets and went outside.  The villagers scattered throughout the Wat grounds selecting specific trees to stop at.  My mother-in-law selected a large bohdi tree (Ficus religiosa).  She squatted down next to the exposed roots of the sacred tree.  It is considered sacred because it is said that Buddha sat under bohdi trees while meditating.  Yai Puh, Grandmother Puh, laid out food for the spirits of deceased family members.  The food was placed upon banana leaves an consisted of peeled fruits, sticky rice, chili sauces, dried fish, and other typical Isaan foods.  Off to the side was a banana leaf with betel-nut chewing items.  After the foods were laid out, water was poured over them as the family members said things along the lines of "You come down now to eat.  Good for you.  I miss you.  You look after family.  Good luck for you.  You go back up to Buddha. Santa Claus take care of you"  Santa Claus?

Feeding the Family Spirits
I think that Duang is trying to help me to understand the ritual in terms that I can better relate to.  I sincerely doubt that any of the villagers there this morning know about "Santa Claus" let alone in the context that Duang refers to him.

Five years ago we were in Bangkok for Christmas.  I woke before Duang on Christmas morning.  I took one of her socks, placed some money in it and since the hotel did not have a fireplace in our room, hung her sock from the large flat screen television.  When she woke I explained to her the story of Jesus's birth, the three Kings and Santa Claus.  What is the saying about throwing things up against the wall to see what sticks? The "Santa Claus" part of my explanation of Christianity is what Duang has retained.  To her, Santa Claus, is Christianity's supreme being or spirit, - the guy that makes all things happen, the entity that you pray to for favors.

So in that context, I believe that she was helping me to understand that the people were beseeching the supreme power to look after the departed spirits.

Offerings to the Hungry Ghosts At the Base
of Bodhi Tree (Ficus religiosa)
The offerings to the spirits also included two lit yellow candles and two sprigs of "dogkhut" - I suspect Thai jasmine buds.  When offerings are made to Buddha, three of each item are offered - one for Buddha, one for the teachings of Buddha (Dhamma), and one for the Buddhist religious community (Sanga).  For spirits the offerings are in pairs.

Food Offering to the Hungry Spirits
After the family spirits had been offered food and drink, the people hung filled thin banana leaf packets in the trees throughout the grounds.  The banana packets contained food offerings to the other spirits.

After a while, perhaps ten minutes, one of the men rang the Wat large bell three times signifying that the spirits had completed eating.  The small banana leaf packets were removed from the trees and returned to the family baskets.  The packets will later be placed in the sugar cane fields, rice paddies, and other lands to feed the spirits (ghosts)  that inhabit them.  In return for feeding the hungry ghosts, the people ask that the spirits watch over the land and its crops bringing success as well as good luck to the owners.

The villagers returned to the sala to have a community meal with the food leftover from the offerings to the Monks.  There is always too much food offered to the Monks and since they are allowed to take only what they can eat that morning for their one meal of the day.  The food, that the Monks have not taken, is eaten by the laypeople in a community meal in the sala after the Monks have left.

Young Villager Enjoying the Community Meal
We returned to our home for a relaxing afternoon.  In the late afternoon, Duang offered food and drink outside to the spirits of our land.  After dinner she put on her religious attire and performed her nightly Vassa ritual which lasts about one hour.

Duang's Nightly Vassa Ritual
Life goes on here in Isaan measured in part by the seasons of the crops and the cycle of religious events.  Whether it is the seasons of the crops, the cycle of religious events, or personal life milestones, life here always is interesting and is often "enlightening".

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