Sunday, October 5, 2014

Sarapan Competition

Young Woman Singing In Sarapan Competition

The end of Vassa is coming soon.  Vassa, also known as "Buddhist Rain Retreat" and "Buddhist Lent" is a three lunar month period during the rainy season when monks are supposed to stay in their monasteries and temple grounds.  This practice predates Christianity by over five hundred years.  The intent of the retreat was to prevent Monks from trampling crops, injuring themselves, or perhaps harming creatures beneath the flooded fields.

The last day of Vassa this year, Wan Ok Phansa, is 8 October.  Wan Ok Phansa is a day of great celebration.  Great celebration includes fireworks.  Yesterday at one of the markets that we shop at there was quite a run on fireworks.  The roped off section inside the building near the cash registers was filled with adults and just as many children of all ages scurrying about selecting fireworks.  There were sparklers, and pre-packaged ordnance of all sizes.  In three separate wire boxes there were round fireworks of three different sizes - the largest being the size of a medium coconut.

During the past two weeks, as the end of Vassa approached, twice we have attended a special religious observance - a sort of singing competition called Sarapan. Sarapan is the singing of the three gems of Buddhism - Buddha, the  Dhamma (teachings of Buddha), and the Sanga (Buddhist religious community)

Duang told me it was "salapon" or what sounded like "s-a-l-a-p-on" to me.  I searched on Google for salapon, salapan, salaporn, sarapon, saraporn, and not until I tried "sarapan" did I get some information - little as it was.  The lesson that was reinforced upon today was - don't always trust your ears - try and try again when researching a word from one language to another language.

The information from the Internet confirmed what Duang had told me and provided a little, very little, more background.

Sarapan Ensemble Performing In Ban Dum Nam Muang
My first encounter with Sarapan singing was on 20 September during our visit to Ban Dum Nam with Luang Por Pohm Likit to the home of a beautiful young victim of a senseless shooting.-

Upon entering the small village, we saw some type of event in progress at the local Wat.  Several pavilions had been set up on the Wat grounds along with a stage.  Many women were dressed in matching traditional Isaan clothing.

After taking my photos at the injured woman's home, Duang was fully engaged with the other visitors and occupants of the home. I knew that the visit was going to last a while and that I would understand very little of what was being or would be said.  I made my farewell to the residents and  I told Duang that I was going to check out what was going on down at the Wat as I took off.

As I entered the grounds with my camera and camera bag, I was immediately met by a security man.  No, he did not want to check my backpack.  No, he did not want to see any identification - photo ID included.  He wanted to bring me to where he thought that I would get the best photos.  He had no concern for the dignitaries that he walked me in front of.  He wanted to be sure that I was at the foot of the stage - center stage!  I acknowledged the seated dignitaries and Monks seated under a large canopy about ten meters to my right.  I took a few quick shots and retreated to a less obtrusive location at the end of the stage.

This is a common experience for me here in Thailand.  People, even security people, are very friendly and accommodating when I go to take photographs.  I show them some of the photos that I am taking which is a small way of thanking them for their help.

Another Sarapan Ensemble Performing In Ban Dum Nam Muang
Apparently Sarapan singing is a unique aspect of Isaan culture - mostly likely specifically the Lao Loum ethnic culture.  Sarapan singing originated from Theravada Buddhist Monks prayers.  Monks taught the laypeople how to sing the Sarapan.

The singing of Sarapan often during Vassa became popular and there are many competitions.  Here in Isaan there are many competitions between the local villages of sub districts.  At the end of each year there is an athletic competition between the various village elementary schools.  These competitions are a rich blend of sports, music, ethnic foods, dance, crafts and socializing for people of all ages.  In early May, at the start of the Rainy Season, there is a competition between the villages of a sub district.  The competition, traditional dancing, associated with Bun Bang Fai (rocket festival) has each village entering a dance team wearing traditional Lao Loum costumes.  It is great to watch and very interesting to photograph.  Weeks prior to the competition, the villagers practice their routine - called to practice and dancing to music blared over the village sound system.

These competitions as well many religious festivals and events foster a sense of community and reinforce the cultural identity of the Isaan people.  Sarapan competitions serve the same purpose as well as being merit making rituals for the performers.

Awards Table
Ensembles in Sarapan competitions are evaluated on their singing, appearance in addition to how they sing.  There is a formal and stylized way in which the singing is to be done.

For the Sarapan competition in Ban Dum Nam Muang cash prizes were awarded.  First place was 8,000 Baht.  Second place was 5,000 Baht.  Third place prize was 3,000 Baht ($100 USD approx.). All other participating ensembles received 2,000 Baht to help pay for the costs of competing.

The local government helps to finance the competition as well as donations from local politicians, patrons, and local businesses - again the community contributing to building a sense of community and supporting the celebration of local culture.

Our second encounter with Sarapan Competition was on September 28th.  For two weeks our friend, Luang Por Pohm Likit, had read an invitation to the people of his forest Wat to attend a Sarapan competition in a small village.  We ended up driving him in our truck as part of a four vehicle convoy over to Ban Nong Na Kham.  Ban Nong Na Kham is very close to the Wat that we witnessed the first Sarapan competition.

Sarapan Ensemble In Ban Nong Na Kham
Buddhism is the life of the middle path.  Luang Por Pohm Likit is a Buddhist Monk, but apparently when it comes to navigation, he prefers and chooses the narrow and curvy path.  I followed his directions - a combination of Thai, English and hand gestures over one and one-half lane country roads that snaked around rice paddies, and through tiny villages for what seemed to me to be a very long time made all the much longer by frequent encounters with on coming vehicles as well as death wish motorbike drivers.  Eventually we arrived at a point where I recognized a familiar landmark - an abandoned brick chimney near Ban Dum Nam Muang!  Looking further past the chimney I saw the main highway, Highway 22 from Udonthani to Sakon Nakhon!  I knew where we were and planned to take the much quicker and safer Highway 22 back to Udon and then back to Wat Ban Mat for our return.  After a few more twists and turns we arrived at the site of the competition.

Duang stayed with the other people of Ban Mat and I wandered off to take photographs.

Novice Monks Finishing Their One Meal of the Day
The Wat had many interesting venues to take photographs in.  There were many Monks enjoying the entertainment of the competition.  Many people and plenty of children were there to enjoy the singing, food, as well as the company of residents from several villages in attendance.

I was enjoying myself listening to the singing, taking photographs, and interfacing with the people when after a short while, or so it seemed to me, I ran into Luang Por Pohm Likit in a wooded grove on the Wat grounds.  He said that my wife was looking for me.  We went off together and quickly found Duang who informed me that she had been looking for me for an hour.  I guess time does fly by when you are having fun.  I was not the only one having fun that day.

Enjoying Ice Cream At the Helium Balloon Booth
It turned out that it was time for Luang Por Pohm Likit and the rest of the Ban Mat convoy to return to the Wat in the forest.  We got in the truck and arrived soon at an intersection,  I spoke with the Monk about wanting to take Highway 22 back.  He once again chose the narrow and winding path to go.  I don't know why he wanted to go back the same way - perhaps he was enjoying the ride and wanted it to last longer or if he liked the more scenic route.  No matter the case, we went along the path that he chose.  Similar to the Muslim religion where devotees do not ask for things from Allah for to do so would be to question his will to begin with and "Who are we to question the will of Allah?"  Who was I to question, let alone argue with, the will of a Buddhist Monk especially when Duang is such a devoted Buddhist.  As they say - some things are best not argued and best left alone.

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