Friday, February 20, 2015

Pha Kwan

Pha Kwan (Pah kwan)  Used In "Marriage" Ritual

I have written that I do not necessarily believe everything that I learn and experience in my life here in Southeast Asia but then again that is also true of my life back in the USA - perhaps even more so because language is not such an issue for me over there.  However I strive to be truthful and accurate in what I have observed and experienced here.  I leave it to the reader to come to their own conclusions based upon the facts that I have shared.

Last week I witnessed the preparations for the Bone Party of a villager in Tahsang Village, my wife's home village.  A big part of the preparations, along with preparing food, making offerings for the upcoming ritual, and building basahts, was making the banana leaf and flower centerpiece for the ritual.  For a long time I have referred to this arrangement as "bai sii su kwan" or "pahn sii khawn".  I did not make it up, this is what I was told by my wife or at least what I heard her tell me.

Duang is ethnic Lao - a heritage and culture more in line with the people who live along the lowlands of the Mekong River in Lao than the majority of Thai people.  The people here speak "Isan" - actually Lao amongst themselves and speak Thai when dealing with government and "high class" people.  As such Duang knows two words, sometimes very different words, for everything.  Two words that she has to translate into English for me to understand.  Take for instance - Jack Fruit, one of my favorite fruits.  In Lao it is, or what sounds like to me - "Buck mee" but in Thai it is or once again sounds like to me - "koh num".  I have mentioned a couple of times, "or what sounds like to me", this is of great importance especially in being able to write an Anglicized version of the word.  But it is extremely difficult here - Isan has six tonal variations for saying words.  The way you say a word completely changes its meaning - talk about apples and oranges!  Thai is also a tonal language but has ONLY five ways of saying a word. This complicates communication at times - all the time when you can only distinguish three of the tones most of the time.

Two pha kwan for Bai Sii related to casting Buddha statue

Well I now learn that what I had been calling "bai sii su kwan" or "pahn sii khawn" is actually "pah kwan" or/and "pha kwan".

Pha kwan is an ornate floral arrangement consisting of banana leaves, ornate pressed metal bowls either silver or gold colored (gold is typically used for more auspicious ceremonies), flower buds, flowers, and pieces of cotton string.

Pha kwan are the centerpiece(s) of an ancient ritual of the Lao peoples (including their cousins now living in Isaan (Isan, Esan, Esarn, Isarn).  The ancient ritual, Bai Sii (Baci, Su Kwan or in the case of my wife - "Bai Sii Su Kwan") harkens back to the time when Animism was the religious belief system of the land - in the time before Brahmanism, Hinduism, and eventually Buddhism arrived.

Bai Sii (baci) rituals dominate life here in Isaan even today.  Bai Sii rituals are conducted to mark significant events in an individual's life or community events.  Bai Siis are performed for marriages, prior to the ordination of a novice Monk, birth of a child, a Bone Party, to heal or cure, to celebrate recovery from illness, to wish good luck before a grand journey, to honor visitors, and to celebrate a success.

It is believed, still today, that there are 32 spirits that inhabit the body.  These spirits are necessary to maintain health, wealth, and fortune.  Sometimes some of the spirits will wander off which creates problem for the individual.  A bai sii ritual is conducted to call back the wandering spirits and to ensure that they remain in place by wrapping around and tying the right wrist of the person with short pieces of cotton string - sai sin.

Elderly Female Villagers Making Pha Kwan Components
The creation of the Pha Kwan is an integral component of the Baci ritual.  The making of the pha kwan is typically the work of the elderly women of the family and village.  They typically sit on top of low wood platforms of rough wood or of bamboo to produce the components for the pha kwan.  If they do not position themselves on the handcrafted platforms, the elderly women will work upon woven reed mats, sahts, placed upon a tile floor.

Assembling a Pha Kwan
One woman is recognized as the master or best Pha Kwan.  She is responsible for taking the various components created by the other women and assembling them into a completed pha kwan.  The center of the pha kwan is a cone created from many banana leafs wrapped, twisted, and held together with homemade pegs fashioned from bamboo.  The large cone is placed in the center of an ornate pressed metal ceremonial bowl.  Scraps of banana leaves are bunched around the cone to secure it in the bowl or a banana leaf covered foam ring is placed over the cone and against the interior of the bowl .  Although similar, pha kwan reflect the style and experience of the individual and community that create them.  The often used Thai expression of "Same, same but different" definitely applies to pha kwan.

The other elderly women associated with making the pha kwan were occupied with making smaller cones, placing flower buds at the tips and stringing them together.

Duang's Aunt At Work

The strings of small banana leaf cones will be shaped to form wing like shapes attached to the central cone of the pha kwan.

Soaking Wing Like Structures To Keep Them Fresh

Attaching the Wing Like Structures to Central Cone

Plucking Buds To Attach to Banana Leaf Cones

One of my favorite models in Tahsang Village was part of the group of women working on the pha kwan to be used the next day for the Bone Party ritual.  There are a small group of people that I get a great deal of satisfaction photographing.  It is interesting to document the progression of this life for them.

The baci ritual is intended to benefit an individual - either living or dead.  However, as often in the case here, it is not what it first seems to be .  Besides benefiting the individual, the baci ritual also benefits the family and community by strengthening their bonds - just as the bonds of the sai sin contain the recalled spirits of the individual. Harmony of the community as well as within the individual is a highly respected and a desired state for the ethnic Lao of Lao and Northeast Thailand.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Preparations for Tamboon Nung Roy Wan - Basaht Building

On Day #1 Men Building A Basaht

On Thursday, we drove out to Tahsang Village for me to photograph mushroom workers.  Upon arrival at the village, we found out that the people would not be harvesting mushrooms that day - an apparent change from just the night before.  No matter the case - there was something interesting, as usual, going on.  Workmen were busy constructing a fence, more like a wall, in front of my mother-in-law's house.  I occupied myself observing their tasks and photographing them.  It really  was interesting than one would expect - remember this is Thailand. There will be another blog soon about fence building in Isaan.

Around 10:00 A.M., the sound of ethnic Lao music blasted through the air.  Looking down a side street next to Yai Puu's house, I could see some scaffolding associated with Mor Lam shows or huge speakers for taped music.  Something was definitely going on.

I grabbed my camera and walked down the side street to see what was going on.  As soon as I arrived at the intersection of the side street, a man approached me.  He was serious and determined - he wanted me to take pictures of him and his buddies making two spirit houses underneath a canopy across from his home.

I immediately recognized what was going on - preparations were underway for a Tamboon Nung Roy Wan party.

As part of the ethnic Lao Theravada Buddhist culture, during the Tamboon Nung Roy Wan (100 days after cremation) ritual also known as "Bone Party", offerings are made to the spirits - both to the recently deceased as well as others.

In addition to making offerings to the spirits, offerings are also made to the local Monks.  The making of offerings is a merit making ritual by the family, friends, and neighbors of the deceased person.  Merit is earned in many ways and is a determining factor in a person's reincarnation.  People earn merit for themselves as well as for their ancestors.

Basahts are also used to make offerings to the Monks on special religious days, such as the end of Vassa, also known as the End of Buddhist Lent and End of the Buddhist Rain Retreat - Ok Phansa

For death rituals and 100 Day Anniversary, the offerings to the spirits are made in small spirit houses called "Basahts".  The spirit houses are hand made out of local materials such as bamboo, banana leaves, banana stalks, colored paper, Styrofoam, wax, and foam board. Often plastic chairs or a piece of furniture, either metal or wood, serves as the base for the basaht.

Day #2 - Men Finishing Off One of Two Bassahts
The spirit houses are constructed by men - including the elaborate cutting of colored paper to create lantern type decorations.  I have noticed that there is a distinct division of labor in the preparation for funerals and Tamboon Nung Roy Wan (100 Day Anniversary Party).

Men typically construct the basahts.  Younger men are responsible for cutting and preparing the pigs and cattle that have been purchased from vendors to feed the helpers and participants of what is usually a three day event.  The older women occupy themselves making the ornate centerpieces, Bai Sii Kwan, used in the merit making rituals of the Bone Party.  Middle-aged women typically handle the food preparation and cooking chores with young girls typically serving the food, cleaning the tables, and washing the pots, platters, trays, cutlery, and glasses. Everyone seems to know their job without being told.  The preparation crew is usually around 40 to 50 people.

Inside the spirit houses, household goods such as plates and cups, clothing items, food stuff, and money are placed - all items necessary for the ghosts to have on their journey to the other world.  Other offerings, offerings made to the local Monks, such as money, clocks, fans, pots, pans, brooms, buckets of toiletries, towels, etc. accompany the procession of the spirit house from the home of the deceased person to the local Wat.

"Tamboon Roi Wan" is the funeral anniversary party that has been written about many times in "Allen's World".  Tamboon Roi Wan is a merit making ritual that is held 100 days after the cremation of the body.  If for some reason, typically financial, that the ritual can not be held 100 days after the cremation, the ritual can be held at a later date and is called "Tamboon Jaak Khao". Whether 100 days or many years after the cremation, the ritual is identical and the merit is the same.

After photographing the preparations on Thursday, we returned to our home in Udon Thani.  That night, my wife got a phone call from her village.  The people that I had been photographing earlier, wanted to be sure that I was coming back on Friday to take more photographs.   They still had to finish the basahts and had plenty of other work to do.  They also told my wife that there would be many old people and children for me to photograph

I returned as requested the next morning to find plenty of old people, basaht construction, and children to photograph - just as had been promised.

Two men were busy for most of the morning completing the basahts.  They worked carefully and skillfully.  Using ordinary colored tissue paper, silver contact paper, and homemade wax half-sphere candles the men created a unique cultural icon - basaht.

Fringe on a Basaht

Handcrafted Fringe
After about four hours, my mother-in-law came over to have me return to her house.  Duang wanted me back to help out with some things around her mother's house.

Once again, I had been witness to the self sufficient nature of the Lao Loum people of Northeast Thailand.  The people make the most of what is readily available to them.  Their handicrafts help to bind families closer together and bind the families with their neighbors.

Their religious faith and observances also are very important components of their culture - providing a shared past, a common present, and a path to a future together.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Cambodian Soybean Harvest

Workers Secure Truck Load of Soybeans
When my wife and I travelled to Cambodia the first week of last November, our visit was timed to coincide with the full moon which signified the start of the fishing season on Tonle Sap Lake.

Our timing was about a week too early for the rice harvest.  We saw many rice fields where heavy golden panicles of rice were bowed almost as if in homage to the Earth or deities of the land.  We did see a couple of fields that had been harvested but nothing that would warrant stopping to photograph.  I did notice that the rice in the region was growing in very wet soil but not in paddies as is the standard in Isaan.  At harvest time in Isaan the rice paddies are parched and not muddy as in Cambodia.  Our rain stops in September and by November the ground is dusty and cracked until the rains return in April or May.

All was not lost in our quest to witness and photograph people going about their daily lives and activities.  On our way in the afternoon from the ruins of Koh Ker to the ruins of Beng Mealea along the paved two lane Cambodian National Highway 105, we came upon a hectic sight.

The area through which Highway 105 traverses about 20 kilometers south of Koh Ker is a hilly agricultural area.  The area is speckled with solitary huge trees - a reminder and testament to the rain forest that covered the land not all that long ago.  The forests have been logged out and the land converted into farm land in response to the economic realities of today in Southeast Asia.  Just as in Lao, vast expanses of Cambodia have been cleared to grow crops for markets in China and Thailand.

Soybeans and bananas now are grown along Cambodian National Highway where forests once stood.

Typical Cambodian Farm Home Along National Highway 105

Soybeans Drying Along the Roadside
It turned out they had missed the soybean harvest by just a day or two.  We did not see any machinery or people harvesting the soybean crop.  What we did see were many large tarps spread out along both sides of the highway and around the various farm houses.  The tarps were covered with a thin layer of soybeans.  The soybeans were exposed to dry out in the strong sun and breezes.  The same process is utilized in Thailand, Lao, and People's Republic of China for the rice harvest.  Dried, dehydrated product can be stored however moist, or improperly dried product will be ruined by mold and also become spoiled through fermentation.

Soybeans Drying In the Sun In Front of a Home

Sacks of Soybeans Being Loaded for Markets in Thailand or PRC (China)

We stopped along the road where there were several tandem trucks and large single trailer trucks were being filled by hand with large sacks of soybeans.  The location was a marshaling station for the nearby farms. The trucks were from a middleman in Phnom Penh with the final destination for the crop being either Thailand or PRC (China).

I rushed out from our car as soon as it stopped and started taking photographs.  A man, a man who was clearly in charge, walked over to me and asked politely in fairly good English what I was doing.  I explained to him how I liked (was obsessed?) in taking photographs of people and then writing stories about the people and related photographs on the Internet.  I showed him some of the photos that I had taken.  That was it - we were then "buddies".

I have never had a problem photographing here in Southeast Asia.  The people have been very receptive to being photographed.  I do not expect them to pose and let them know to just carry on with what they are doing. I share some of the shots that I have taken and they quickly relax.  Inevitably they end up joking and laughing over my enthusiasm and efforts to get that "perfect" shot.  There have been many times, that the people have pointed out someone or something that they though that I would be interested in shooting - I always make it a point to take that shot and share with them.

It turned out that the "man in charge" was an ethnic Chinese business man from the capital.  I bring up the fact that he was ethnic Chinese not in any judgmental or prejudicial sense but for the readers to better understand the conditions; the realities of today.  Throughout Southeast Asia, many of the business people, bankers, and merchants are ethnic Chinese - a fact that the local indigenous people are very aware of.  In some cases there is an underlying resentment of the ethnic Chinese prosperity.  In 1969, there were serious race riots in Malaysia against the ethnic Chinese.  Ethnic Chinese were also victimized in Vietnam earlier last year over the actions of China regarding oil exploration in disputed waters.  Things do not happen out of a vacuum - there are always underlying conditions that serve as catalysts.

Anyhow - the business man and his wife serve as middlemen for buyers in either Thailand or the People's Republic of China (PRC).  I asked the man how much money did he pay for a bag of soybeans.  I always try to learn and understand the value of the various crops that I witness being harvested.  He said that he did not know - he was responsible for arranging for the loading along with transportation of the product to final market, and it was his wife who handled the money.  I confirmed that his wife handled the family finances.  I told him that I handled our family finances and not to tell my wife that his wife handled his.  I joked with him about not telling my wife because then she would want to be the "Big Boss"  Just then Duang showed up to check and make sure that I was alright.  The man knew that I had been joking so I told Duang that I wanted to know how much was a bag of soybeans but he didn't know.  Apparently believing that the man would better understand her English better than mine, Duang asked him in English.  He told her that he didn't know because his wife handled the money and that she was the "Big Boss".  Duang caught on quickly and said to me "Me too, I want to be Big Boss - you give money to me to take care! See just like this man!"  The three of us enjoyed a good laugh.

We had come upon a frantic situation along the road.  Besides loading up the trucks with bags of soybeans, people were hurriedly folding up the tarps to completely encase the soybeans.  The sky had taken on the look which is typical for late afternoon monsoon rain.  Soybeans getting wet would be a disaster for everyone involved in the ongoing transaction.

Rolling Up A Tarp to Protect Soybeans from Rain
The weather forecast for the day had been for rain showers with a 57% chance of rain and 12.5mm (1/2") accumulation.  How did I know?  How do I still remember?  Prior to leaving our home, as I typically do prior to our big trips, I printed the weather forecast from the Internet and pasted it in the journal that I carry.

Well the adage about not believing everything that you read on the Internet proved true on the trip.  Without exaggerating - we had approximately 15 drops of rain hit the car's windshield during our entire trip - including the forecast of 79% probability of 20.9mm of rain the next day - which happened to be our best weather day!

After 30 minutes at the marshaling area, we recommenced our journey to what we were confident were the mysteries and sights that awaited us at Beng Mealea.  It was several kilometers down the highway before our nostrils were cleared of the earthy, perhaps even musty, odor of soybeans drying in the air.  However that scent remains a strong memory today of a great stop along a road in Cambodia.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Casting the Wat's New Buddha Statue - Day #3 But Not the End

People Retrieving Bronze Casting Splatter
Duang and I returned to Wat Ban Maet at 7:50 A.M. for the 8:00 A.M. scheduled start of the activities related to the new bronze Buddha statue for the sala.  We had asked about the time, confirmed the time, verified and re-verified the start time with the casting crew the previous afternoon upon completion of pouring the bronze.

I anticipated witnessing and photographing the removal of the plaster casting mold, rigging of the statue into place, and polishing of the statue.

As we pulled into the parking area at the Wat, Duang's often spoken words echoed in my head ... "Thailand not same Amireeka".  Although it was not quite 8:00 A.M., the large off-white plaster mold was no longer standing in the center of the casting area.  The plaster cast was located next to the larger beige cast that was bound for Loei, 4 hours to the west.

Some of the local people were scavenging small pieces of bronze splatter from the previous afternoon's casting operation.  No doubt these objects would be incorporated into home shrines or worn in conjunction with amulets to take advantage of their mystical powers.

Local People Removing the Casting Mold From Statue Arm
As the casting crew occupied themselves with breaking camp and loading up their flatbed truck for the next casting site in Loei, another group of local people removed the hard plaster casting mold from the two hands of the statue.  Typically statues are cast in sections because of complexity and delicacy of certain parts.

Cast Bronze Hand Still Wrapped In Mold Reinforcing Steel
Duang checked with the casting crew and determined that they along with the new statue were travelling to Loei for four days to cast the bigger statue.  They then would take a full day to drive back to their factory in Chonburi.

In Chonburi, the molds would be removed from around the statues, the statues would then be ground to remove imperfections and remove any remnants of the casting process, arms and other delicate features would be attached, and the statues highly polished along with a final coating applied.  In about two weeks the completed statues would be delivered and installed at their respective Wats.  I am fairly certain that there will be a special ritual for setting the statue inside of the sala - which we may or may not be able to witness - not for the lack of trying but more likely the miscommunication of timing.

Clarity in communicating time is complicated by the differences in telling time in Thai and telling time in English.  In English time is typically broken into two 12 hour clocks with the time being differentiated by A.M. and P.M. example: 5:00 A.M (morning) and 5:00 P.M. (afternoon, night). Military time, one 24 hour clock, eliminates the need to differentiate between A.M. and P.M. or day and night example: 0500 and 1700.

In Thai, there are 4 clocks of 6 hours each for a day. The first clock of the day is from 12 midnight to 5:00 A.M. These hours are named:  Tiang keun (midnight), dtee neung, dtee song, dtee saam, dtee see, and dtee haa - except for midnight, "dtee" followed by the Thai name for the numbers 1,2,3,4, or 5 - OK, a little different but manageable in my opinion.

6:00 morning - is Hok Mohng (6 o'clock) or Hok Mohng Cao (6 o,clock morning) - Still manageable ...for me.

However the time from 7 to 11 A.M. is where the confusion starts.  The second clock of the day in Thai kicks in at 7:00 - jet mohng chao (7 o'clock morning) OR neung mohng chao (one o'clock in the morning), 8:00 under the Thia method can be referred to as song mohng chao (two o'clock in the morning)

Often Duang has told me that we needed to go somewhere or do something at see mohng cao "4 o'clock in the morning" rather than the western terminology of 10:00 A.M. - talk about some confusion!

The potential for confusion includes the hours 7:00 P.M. to 11:00 P.M. with the Thai time being 7:00 P.M. - tum neung or neung tum (one o'clock), 8:00 P.M. - song tum (two o'clock) - Yes, Duang has caused me some adrenalin rushes telling me things using this Thai method for telling time!

Other people were busy dismantling the offering table used for the previous day's ritual.  As we were leaving, one of the women came over and gave us two of the watermelons that had been offered to the spirits.  After getting permission, Duang removed two of the scallop shell wind chimes that had hung at the entry to the casting area.  The wind chimes now hang outside of our home.  "Good for us, good for house"  Good for Duang - she hung them so that they do not work - I can't stand the sound of wind chimes!

Hand Painted Gable of the New Sala

Friday, February 6, 2015

Casting the Wat's New Buddha Statue - Day #2

Workmen Pour Molten Bronze Into Mold for Buddha Statue

Sunday, 1 February, was the big day for casting the Buddha statue for Wat Ban Maet.

Our day at the Wat started at 9:15 A.M. - our timing was to coincide with the start of the daily Ta Bart ritual.  There was a very large crowd at the Wat.  The new sala was filled with chi pohm, the women who were participating in the two night religious retreat, and laypeople - many of them children.  Children receive religious training and instruction at a very early age.  With lighting candles and burning incense being central to worship ritual, most children are very willing students.

Worshipping with Yai (Grandmother) and Teddy

Outside of the new sala and the old sala, many people were occupied setting up food and beverages on bamboo tables.  The food and beverages on the tables were not intended for the Monks.  The food was for the people who had arrived to witness the casting of the statue of Buddha.

Everyday people bring food to offer to the Monks.  The Monks take a little bit from the various platters, plates, and bowls - placing their selections inside of their Monk's bowl.  The food that they have selected must be totally consumed during their one meal of the day.  Their meal must also be consumed by 12:00 Noon.  Food that has not been selected by the Monks, is placed on the woven reed mats, sahts, that had been placed on the floor of the sala.  The laypeople then have a community meal.  This is the way it is all across Thailand - anyone and everyone is invited as well as welcomed to eat the food that the Monks do not accept.  Years ago, Duang and her children survived by eating this way.

On special celebrations, the casting of a statue being one, there is another tradition involving food and drinks.  Since the special celebrations last longer than the typical two hour daily Tak Bart ritual, people donate food and drinks for the people.

Some people, often families, donate 1.5 liter bottles of soft drinks - colas, Fanta Strawberry, Fanta Orange, Fanta "Amoung" (a banana, pineapple, coconut, orange concoction). The soda is then distributed to everyone in small plastic cups filled with either crushed ice or ice cubes from large plastic coolers placed on the ground.

Young Girl Enjoying Her Soft Drink
Other people supply small prepackaged drinking water or prepackaged soft drinks (fruit juices and kool aid)  The various booths and stalls are manned by family members of all ages.  Children at an early age learn to help and participate in good works.

Other stalls offer curries, noodle dishes, rice dishes, ice-cream, and donuts.

The ice cream booth was quite interesting - as always.  You have three choices for your ice cream - a cone, a bowl, or ... small hot dog bun.  Hot dog bun?  Yup - here in Isaan you can get three small scoops of ice cream served open faced on bread.

The ice cream arrives in large, heavily insulated metal cylinders.  Flavors are typically coconut, strawberry, jackfruit, and corn. Corn?  Here in Thailand corn is used just as much for a dessert as for a vegetable entre.   Other popular flavors are mango, pineapple and taro. I opted for a single scoop cone of Jackfruit ... twice!

People earn merit by offering free food and drinks to the people at these events.  However there is a hierarchical order in earning merit.  You earn merit for offering food to people at Wats but not as much as offering food to the Monks during Tak Bart - either at a Wat or alongside the road as the Monks walk by.

The previous day, before we left for the day. we confirmed that the statue would be poured at 1:00 P.M.  Our plan was to arrive at the Wat for Tak Bart, stay for the casting of the statue , and return home around 2:30 P.M.

Casting Crew Accommodations
The casting of the Buddha statue was performed by a company from Chonburi - roughly 8 hours from Udonthani.  The ten person crew, 9 men and 1 woman, arrived at Wat Ban Maet with the mold to be cast as well as a much larger mold for another statue to be cast in Loei - 4 hours west of Udonthani.

The crew arrives at a location three days before the scheduled casting day.  The first day is spent offloading the firewood to fuel the temporary furnaces required for the casting operation.  Besides the firewood, there are also many bags of charcoal to fuel the furnaces.  The firewood is burned in a large furnace that surrounds the statue mold.  Charcoal is burned to create the much higher temperature necessary to melt the bronze ingots for the casting.

The crew also offloads their bags of refractory cement, metal stands, piping to be used as furnace and mold supports, as well as their crucibles and pouring tools.

While part of the crew works at offloading the statue mold, setting it upside down and constructing the natural draft furnace around it, other members of the crew construct the bamboo/macramé panels that form the ritual area for the casting process.

Natural Draft Wood Fired Furnace Drying Out Statue Mold
The mold for the statue was fabricated at the company's facility in Chonburi.  The mold is associated with the lost wax, also referred to as the investment, cast process.  I wrote about the process on a much small scale regarding a visit to a Wat near Khon Kaen,

Since the statue to be cast is much larger and will contain 500 KG (1,100 pounds) of molten bronze, the mold is much more substantial than the molds used in Khon Kaen.  A great deal of reinforcement steel, chicken wire, was incorporated into the Wat Ban Maet to handle hoop stresses and evenly distribute heat throughout the plaster mold.

The mold arrived at the Wat as a three layer sandwich - a wax/clay core with a thick plaster coating on each side.  The wax/clay core melts out of the mold creating a void into which the molten bronze will flow and fill.

After setting the mold and building a furnace around it, the workers heated the mold for 2 days.  Heating the mold serves several purposes - it hardens as well as cures the plaster, it removes any moisture from the mold (water and molten metal is an explosive combination due to rapid creation of steam), it removes the internal wax/clay core, and heats the mold to ensure that the molten metal does not "freeze" when poured into the mold during the pouring process.

As is typical for traveling workers in Southeast Asia, the casting crew did not stay in hotels or guest houses.  They stayed in small tents and under an awning that they had brought with them - camping out on location of their work.

Duang and I, on Sunday, stayed at the Wat until roughly 10:30 A.M. when it became obvious that the casting would not happen at 1:00 P.M.  We asked around and verified with the casting crew supervisor that the casting would actually be at 5:00 P.M.  We returned home to relax and take advantage of the more convenient restroom facilities of our home.  I spent a couple hours working on photos when an inner voice, perhaps a spirit, told me that we should return to the Wat immediately.  I told my wife to get ready.  She reminded me that it was too early for the casting at 5:00 P.M. I told her about my premonition and attributed it to Buddha - end of any further discussion from her!

We arrived back at the Wat at 3:45 P.M. to find the place a beehive of activity.  Dignitaries had arrived and were seated in their places of honor in front of the new sala.

Luang Por Pohm Likit and Dignitaries In Front of New Sala
The two forced draft charcoal fuelled furnaces for melting the bronze ingots were blazing away sending thick clouds of smoke into the late afternoon sky.  The oxygen required to raise the charcoal fire to the necessary temperature to melt the bronze was supplied by forcing air into the bottom of the fire by electrical blowers located at the side of each furnace.

Forced Draft Furnaces Ablaze - Melting Bronze Ingots
Tending to the Bronze Furnace
Small Molds for Statue Parts
The large temporary furnace around the statue mold had been dismantled  and replaced by metal pedestals at four corners to the mold.  Although the furnace was gone the remaining coals on the ground surrounding the mold were still giving off quite a bit of heat.

Heating Up the Tools for Casting Bronze

Many spectators were situated just inside the casting area along the east side.

Witnesses to a Casting

This was another family affair with the audience being people of all ages, in some cases four generations of a family.  Just before the actual start of the casting process, a sai sin, white cotton string, was unrolled and held by each of the witnesses.  The sai sin connects people, alive and dead, with the Monks and statues during many rituals of Theravada Buddhism.  The string, a sacred thread, brings good luck and good fortune to people while connecting the people to the spirit world.  On Sunday, the sai sin connected all the people - the lay people, the young, the old, the Monks, the dignitaries with the mold for the statue.

The casting process began with four Monks ascending and sitting in the lotus position on the large elevated rattan thrones laced in each corner of the casting area.  A small portion of the statue - the flame usnisa which is placed on top of the statue's head  to signify Buddha's enlightenment was cast with the assistance of the ranking dignitaries.  I assume that the small casting was the flame usnisa based upon the shape of the mold.  Of course my analysis is presupposed upon the notion that you can judge or at least determine a casting by its mold unlike not judging a book by its cover. The casting proceeded with the rhythmic and somewhat hypnotic chanting of the Monks filling the air.  Their voices disappearing into the late afternoon sky along with the disappearing pillars of grey and white smoke plumes of the casting process.

Casting the Flame Usnisa
The casting of the main part of the statue proceed rapidly and continuously after the formalities of the flame usnisa.  Time and the cooling effects of open air are the enemies of making high quality castings.  Bronze melts at 1,700F and is poured into the hot mold to ensure that it remains free flowing throughout the mold and to prevent is from freezing.

Awaiting the Word to Commence Pouring the Statue
The casting crew manned their work stations - four men at the top pouring platform level, four at the intermediate level, and two people to carry the crucibles from the furnaces to the staging area and from the staging area to the intermediate level.

Under the Thai Buddhist Flag (Dhamakra Flag) and Sai Sins, Workers Top Off the Bronze Pour
After the main pour had been topped off, the dignitaries walked clockwise around the mold tossing offerings of flower petals on the mold.  After the dignitaries had completed their circumambulation, Luang Por Pohm Likit with the assistance from one of the casting crew sprinkled the mold with water  - akin to blessing the mold with holy water but more like transferring the merit of the proceeding ritual with the statue.

After completing the blessing of the cast statue, Luang Por Pohm Likit blessed (transferred merit) the crowd by sprinkling water upon them with a reed brush made specifically for that purpose.  As typically happens, I got a heavy dose of water and three taps to the head - much to the delight of the crowd.  I suspect that this is a sort of Buddhist evangelizing or proselytizing ... they do not try to persuade people to become Buddhists leaving it to individual choice - "up to you" but I suspect a little extra water and three taps (the Buddhist three gems - Buddha, the teaching of Buddha, and the Sanga (Buddhist religious community) are offered as encouragement.

Blessing the Crowd
The ritual was now completed.  I looked at my watch and noted that it was 5:02 P.M.!  It was very fortunately that I had listened to my or whosever voice that I was hearing back at our home.  Well as Duang reminds me "Thailand not same, Amireeka"

As we left the Wat, I stopped by the worker's accommodation and had some fun with the supervisor who I had gotten to know.  I looked at him and pointed at my watch and then at the completed cast statue.  I told him in Thai that I did not understand.  I told him it was 100% at 5:00 P.M. not 0% like he told me.  He instantly knew that I was joking with him.  I told him that I was happy that Buddha told me to go to the Wat at 3:45 P.M. not 5:00 P.M.!

I then had Duang ask him when the plaster mold would be removed from the casting and the statue placed in the sala.  He told us it would be 8:00 A. M. the next morning.  I asked twice to confirm that it was 8:00 A.M. the next morning and not 8:00 P.M. that night or the next night.  I reminded him about his telling me 5:00 P.M. for today's casting when it actually ended up being 4:00 P.M. - "Thailand not same Amireeka".  We all enjoyed a good laugh, said goodbye , and promised to return the next day at 8:00 A.M.


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