Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Theravada Buddhist Bone Washing Ritual

We are now in the final days of this year's Songkran Festival.  As I am sitting here at my computer I have just heard two ambulances, or what often goes for ambulances here in Thailand, speeding down the main road with their sirens blaring "Bee Paw... Bee Paw ... Bee Paw"outside of our development.

Songkran is a time of greating rejoicing and happiness.  The festival is traditional Thai New Years marked by the passing of the sun into Aires.  In Thailand the astrological calculations are no longer used to determine the start of Songkran. The official Songkran Holiday here in Thailand is April 13 to 15. If any of the official days are a weekend, the day or days are added on to the end of the official period.  That is what is supposed to be but there is the way that things are.  Many places celebrate the holiday for 6 or 7 days no matter what.  Just to add to the confusion some places celebrate at slightly different times - such as Pattaya concluding their celebration 1, 2, or 3 days after Bangkok.

There is some method to what may appear to be madness either figuratively or literally.  Staggering the local celebration dates allows people, especially those from Isaan and work in the Bangkok or Phuket areas, to celebrate with friends that they work with and still be able to return to their homes to celebrate with family.  Besides it allows a great party to continue even longer.

Tahsang Village, not ever to be mistaken for Bangkok, Chiang Mai or Pattaya, is celebrating Songkran from April 12 until April 18th.  It can become rather confusing and not just for foreigners either.  The other morning when we drove out to the village, we were admonished by our five year old grandson, Peelawat.  He wanted to know why we had not gone out to the village to see him for Songkran.  Duang explained to him that we were visiting him that day for the start of Songkran,  He was not buying into that and told her that they had already thrown water on cars, people, trucks and motorbikes and were done.  That is true - Peelawat and his friends had started throwing water on April 8th.

Songkran is a time when people are expected to return to their villages to pay respect to their elders.  It is a time of family reunions, family parties, celebrations with friends, and religious merit making to go along with merriment in general.  Songkran here in Thailand is like the combining of Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years, and the Super Bowl into one grand celebration in America.

I have written of previous Songkran Festivals in previous blogs:

The joy and festivities of Songkran often leads to tragedy.  Newspapers keep a tally of what is labelled Songkrans 7 "Dangerous Days".  Thailand's roads are the second most dangerous in the world and even more so during Songkran.  For the first 4 days, 204 people have died, 2,142 have injured in 2,027 accidents.  On 14 April 43 people died, 43% of the deaths were due to drunk driving with 78% of the accidents involving motorcycles. "Dangerous" to say the least!

Songkran also has a more somber and sober side.  It is during Songkran that Theravada Buddhist families will wash the bones of their ansectors.  For our family this was compounded by the interring the bones of Duang's father who died in November of last year into a family Tat at the "outside" Wat.

During Songkran, Thai people demonstrate care, concern and respect for elders by pouring cool water and placing scented powder on elderly people.  Mid-April is the hottest time of the year and the end of the dry season here in Thailand.  Traditionally the people poured cool water on elderly people to help them deal with the heat.  The tradition is still practised by the rowdy street parties and roving water wars of public thoroughfare's get the most attention nowadays.

Every Songkran people pour water over Buddha statues in homes and in Wats to clean, cool, as well as to show respect. The grounds of the temples are also cleaned up as well as residential property.  At many Wats there are festivals to raise funds for the maintenance of the temple and related property.  During the Songkran Festival families will remove the bones of ansectors to wash them and then return them to their resting places inside of the family Tat.

People Participating In Bone Washing For Duang's Father

There had been many preparations leading up to the bone washing ritual for Duang's father.  The first step was preparing a portion of the land along the inside perimeter wall of the "outside" Wat.  After the land had been cleared, an excavation was made for the foundation of the new family Tat. A large stepped concrete and brick foundation was then constructed.  Duang asked for my opinion and after giving her my opinion, the contractor reworked the foundation to be "acceptable" - to her, my standards are higher or perhaps I don't mind being confrontational over quality.

A concrete slab was poured around the pedestal foundation.  After the foundation and slab were sufficiently cured, colorful ceramic tile was installed.  Shrubs and flowers were planted at the corners of the concrete slab surrounding the foundation.

Everywhere where you drive about Isaan you will see places with colorful and sometimes gaudy concrete structures can be purchased.  Many of them are "Spirit Houses" but many are Tats.  Tats are elaborate structures on temple grounds in which bones are stored.

Duang's Son Hangs Jasmine Garlands On Family Tat

As family members die, they are cremated, and some of their bone fragments are retrieved by the Monks.  The Monks store the fragments and bury the remaining fragments and ashes on the Wat grounds.  After the family has constructed a Tat, the retained fragments are interned in a special ritual is performed to place them in the Tat.

Making Offrings From Banana Leaves and Jasmine Buds

The day before the scheduled bone washing ritual on April 12th, several of Duang's aunts gathered at the Wat to make special offerings for the next day.  The offerings are made from banana leaves and jasmine buds. The intricate floral arrangements, like all floral arrangements used in Buddhist rituals, are reminders of the impermanance of this life.  The creation of these offerings is a folk handicraft that for me is quintessencial Isaan.

Completed Floral Offerings

We arrived at the wat on the morning of the 12th around 8:00 A.M..  The bone washing ritual was scheduled to be performed before the daily ritual of offering food to the Monks.  Bone washing rituals can be performed outside in front of the Tat or inside the Wat's ubosot.  Duang's family to opted to have the ritual in front of the family Tat.

Sahts were placed on the ground in front of the Tat.  An additional saht was placed upon the tiled slab of the Tat where the four Monks would be seated for the ritual.  Two containers of specially prepared water to be used in the ritual.  Duang's Aunt prepared the water by filling the containers with water and the adding flowers and scented powder to the water.

A decorative porcelan urn, ghoat, containing the bone fragments was placed on an ordinary metal serving tray along with a metal drinking cup, and a bunch of sprigs from a daugkuhn shrub from the grounds of the wat.  Another decorative metal serving tray was prepared with small portions of food offerings, two yellow birthday type wax candles, two sprigs of jasmine buds for the spirit of Duang's father.  Interning the bone fragments in the Tat was very important - since his cremation, Duang's father's spirit has been resident to Tahsang Village.  Upon internment of his bone fragments in the Tat, his spirit is released to continue on its journey to reincarnation.

The Brahman who took over duties when Duang's Uncle was no longer able to lead the laypeople in rituals supervised and lead the family in the ritual.  Water was drawn out of the large container with the metal drinking cup.  The sprigs of daugkuhn shrub were then dipped into the metal cup and withdrawn to sprinkle the scented water over the bone fragments contained in the ghoat.

Water Sprinkled Over Bones Using Sprigs of Daugkuhn

After the Monks had sprinkled the bones, the tray was placed in front of the immediate family.  Each family member repeated the water sprinkling.  When they had completed. other family members and others came up to the tray and sprinkled water.  The ritual was not limited to adults.  A toddler, daughter of Duang's cousin from Bangkok, was very interested in the ritual.  Children here in Isaan are taught manners and religion at a very young age.  This little girl was no exception.  She was lead by her grandmother's hand and sprinkled the bones with water.

Learning At An Early Age

After everyone, who wanted to, had sprinkled or poured water on the bone fragments, Duang's Aunt placed her hand over the open top of the ghot and shook it several times to agitate the fragments and water.  She then allowed the water to slowly drain into the metal serving tray.  She then repeated the process.  After the second time she removed the bone fragments and held them in one hand while she drained the water from the ghoat into the tray. After inspecting each fragment and brushing off any sand like particles into the metal tray, she returned the fragments to the ghoat.  The top was placed on the ghoat.

The focus of the ritual then became the offering of food to the spirit of Duang's father.

Food Offerings For the Spirit of Duang's Father

As the ritual continued, a sii sein was unfurled to connect the food offerings, the Monks and the bone fragments together. The sii sein, a cotton string or sometimes several cotton strings are used in Buddhist as well as Animist rituals.  The strings are tied on the wrists of people in the Bai Sii Ritual, several strings are wrapped around the steering columns of motor vehicles for good luck, and in a funeral procession a thick sii sein connects the Monks who are leading the procession back to the coffin with family members and friends in between holding on to the sii sein as they walk.  At the Wat during the most part of the ritual, the coffin is connected by a sii sein from the crematorium across to the sala where  much of the ritual is being conducted.

The food offerings for the spirit are brought to the two senior Monks who pour water over the offering to symbolize the transfer of merit to the spirit from the family.

Offerings are then made to the Monks in the name of the departed person.  Special bundles had been prepared the day before the Monks.  Items such as tooth paste, tooth brush, hand soap, laundry detergent, toilet paper, and other toiletries had been placed in three of the bundles each contained in plastic shopping bags.  One bundle, the fourth one for the Abbott, was wrapped in a special plain white cotton cloth with sii sein binding at the top.  This bundle contained new items such as pants, eye-glasses, watch, belt, socks, shoes, wallet, underwear, and shirt for the spirit of Duang's father.  After the ritual, the Monk will give the offered personal items to local people in need.

Upon completion of the ritual, Duang's son took the ghoat and placed it in the upper chamber of the Tat.  This week a ceramic plaque with Duang's father's picture, his birth date and date of death will be installed on the opposite side of the tat from the small door where the ghoat was placed.  Duang had ordered it from a vendor in near by Kumphawapi.  The vendor told her that it would take four days.  She protested not knowing the process involved to produce the plaque.  The vendor informed her that the plaque was not like foreign food - you did not put it in the microwave, push a button, and have it done in 2 minutes.

This was not the end of bone washing this Songkran, but that will be the subject of another blog.

Next Songkran, the bone fragments of Duang's father will be removed from the Tat, washed, and returned.


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