Monday, March 31, 2014

Wat Kham Chanot

Standing Buddha: Left arm is in the Abhaya Mudra position while the left hand is in the Vitarka Mudra (thumb and forefinger brought together) - Buddha is appealing to reason - an appeal for peace

Earlier this month as part of our journey ith our grandson to observe salt production in the Ban Dung area, we made a return visit to a special Buddhist temple, Wat Kham Chanot.

We had first visited Wat Kham Chanot four years ago in May 2009 to watch Duang's brother Mahlam Lao show that was part of a large festival being held at the Wat.  That first visit was subject of the following blog entry:

Wat Kham Chanot is considered a very special place to the ethnic Lao, Lao Loum, a people that Duang is a member of.  Wat Kham Chanot, which is not too far from the Mekong River, is considered to be the gate to the water underworld which is ruled by the King of the Nagas.  Nagas are 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.

It is believed that a Naga lives in the area around Wat Kham Chanot and that an entrance to the under waterworld where the nagas reign is on the property of the Wat.  Many people go to the Wat to make offerings, and to pay homage to the Nagas.

One of two Nagas guarding the entrance to the causeway at Wat Kham Chanot

Wat Kham Chanot is a very developed temple.  Many changes and "improvements" have been completed since our visit there four years ago.  There is now a formal organized rural market set up on the edge of the property as well as a well established paved parking area on the other side of the property.  There is no need to worry about going hungry or even thirsty when visiting the Wat.

There are actually two parts of the Wat.  The first part they I have alluded to above is situated along the main road.  The second part of the facility is situated on a small island out in a floodplain. The island is heavily covered with vegetation and many large palm and coconut trees.  The origins of the first Wat are on the island. A well constructed causeway connects the island to the main complex.

Shrine located on the island at Wat Kham Chanot
There are several shrines located along the paved walkway on the island where devotees can pay homage to the Naga deity. The causeway is considered sacred ground so people remove their shoes and flip flops before crossing the bridge to the island.

Devotee cleanses her face with sacred water from the Naga well
There is also a pool of sacred water on the island from the under water world where devotees can splash on their face, pour on their head and fill containers to bring back to their homes.  Some people toss water, to make merit, from the pool on the large Naga rising above one end of the pool.

Making an offering of water to the Naga
Besides a heavy concentration of Chanot trees on the island as well as other native vegetation on the island there are many birds along with squirrel's scampering through the vegetation.

Children climb amongst the roots of a Chanot tree

Little boy has spotted a squirrel
I noticed that the trees, especially the roots were very smooth and had a sort of whitish sheen to them.  It was not long before I saw the reason why - people were rubbing baby powder on them.  Why?  Protection from insects?  Animist worship?  Nope - the people rub the powder on the bark to hopefully reveal numbers that they will use for the upcoming lotteries!

Offerings to Naga

The island received a constant flow of visitors during our visit.  Besides making offerings at the several shrines to the Nagas, and receiving blessings at the Naga well, people also make merit, or try to make merit. at several gongs.  People try to make the gongs hum loudly by rubbing their hands over or inside of protrusions on the gong.  I would estimate that about 1/3 of the people were able to make them hum.  Everywhere that we go, Duang is able to make the gongs hum very loudly.  Her ability impresses the other people and she often spends time teaching the others how to do it - to no avail.  I am not able to do it ... perhaps because I do not know what prayer to say before doing it, I am not a Buddhist or perhaps more telling I may not have a "good heart" (good, kind, generous).  I ended up telling the people that Duang was "Pii mer mai"- old lady witch.

Duang making a gong hum loudly
Devotees arrive to worship

At one of the shrines on the island, people made offerings and paid homage to the Nagas.  They also make requests for good luck, good fortune and happiness. However at Wat Kham Chanot there is a different part of the ritual than offering some flowers, candles, and incense along with the prayers.  As I have seen at only two or three other Wats, the devotee can get an indication as to how effective their requests were.  By attempting to lift a sacred relic above their head, a devotee can determine the likelihood that their wishes will be granted.  At the shrine there were two heavy stones which appeared to me to be relics of a stone column perhaps Khmer in origin.  Two by two the devotees knelt before the Naga shrine and attempted to lift a stone relic twice above their head.  Duang was successful.  I asked her about it and she told me that "if you could do it twice it was very good, if you could only do it once that was good, if you can not lift it - it's OK you may still be granted your wishes."

Duang lifts a sacred relic
Naga Shrine
Our recent visit to Wat Kham Chanot was just as interesting as our first visit four years previously.  Like is the circumstances of all return visits to a location, we were better able to understand as well as to appreciate the details of the place.

Worker collects offerings from shrines, making room for more offerings
Quite often people do not visit or appreciate the special places that are close to their home; often planning on visiting them some other day; a day that often does not come.  Wherever you may live there is something unique in your area perhaps something that people from far away may travel to experience and see.  Often an adventure or enlightening experience is not half a world away but merely a few kilometers or miles from your home.

We are fortunate that Wat Kham Chanot is one of those places a few kilometers from our home.

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