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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