Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Beware of Falling Objects!

Rocket Launching in Ban That, Amphur Pen

I have been getting a start several times a day the past week.  The television keeps running announcement for the upcoming Labour Day weekend.  Have I been in a coma and only now coming out of it have lost 4 months of my life?  Like Rip Van Winkle have I been sleeping for 4 months as the world continued to progress?  Nope ... the key is in the spelling of Labour Day.   In the USA, Labor Day is celebrated in early September.  However in much of the remainder of the world, May 1 is celebrated as "Labour Day"

Launch Row at Ban That
May 1 was quite the holiday back in the days of the former Soviet Union and its associated client states and allies.  It was during the May Day celebrations, that they would have grand parades of their military might.  In addition to thousands of marching scowl-faced soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen, the governments would wheel through their capitals their powerful rockets.

May 1st is a holiday here in Isaan, and forget about vestiges of Communist glories or glorification of the "Workers".  May 1 marks the start of the Bun Bang Fei season here and across the mighty Mekong River in Lao People's Democratic Republic.

Throughout the countryside many homemade gunpowder rockets will be launched into the sky.

In some areas, Yasothon specifically, there are grand festivals associated with the rockets, -internationally recognized and attended by many foreigners.  In many small villages, the rocket launching is more parochial and an opportunity for the local people to enjoy themselves, and perhaps even earn some extra cash before the busy days of rice planting.

Just as the mighty powers parade their rockets, the people of Isaan parade their rockets and facsimiles of their rockets or mightier rockets.  Some rockets are actually finished  at the launching site.  Many of the rockets are first brought to the local Wat to be blessed prior to launching.

Multiple Launchings In Ban That
This evening, Duang returned from her village with big news.  The Ban That Bun Bang Fei Festival, this year, will be May 1, 2, and 3rd.  This is a good sized festival with a great deal going on but not overwhelmed by tourists - thus retaining much ot its cultural uniqueness.

May 1 is also the day of the day of the Korb Siarn Khru Ceremony in Tahsang Village which commences at 9:00 A.M.  Duang is not certain that we can do both, but I am optimistic and definitely willing to try.

My brother-in-law will be performing a morlam show out at the Ban Tat Bun Bang Fei on the 3rd of May so we will spending the full day out there.


By Henry Wadsworth Longfellow 1807–1882 Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

I shot an arrow into the air,
It fell to earth, I knew not where; ...

 Here in Isaan it is more like ...

They shot many rockets into the air.
They fell to earth, they knew not where nor did they seem to care ..

As the Saying Says - "Close only counts in hand grenades and horseshoes"
Well it is up tomorrow morning at 5:00 A. M. to attend a family wedding and then off to the ritual the next day and perhaps off to the rocket festival in Ban That.  It never seems to get boring around here.

Monks Enjoying Rocket Launches At Ban Tat

Friday, April 17, 2015

Coming Soon - Korb Siarn Khru Ritual

Life continues on here in Isaan - a cycle of events punctuated by milestones such as religious rituals and cultural celebrations.

Soon it will be May 1 once again.  May 1 is known as "Labor Day" in Thailand and in many countries around the world.  May 1 also marks other celebrations.

For me, more importantly, it is the day that a special ritual is performed at Wat Pha That Nong Mat.  Last night, Duang received a phone call from the young Monk, her son's friend, confirming to her that he would be conducting a "Korb Siarn Khru" ritual on May 1 and making sure that we would attend.

Korb Siarn Khru is one of those unique rituals that I am very interested in.  It is a ritual involving "White Magic", connections to a long ago past, links to an exotic land of spirits, and ancient teachings.  On the plus side, this ritual outside of Tahsang Village is untouched by tourism and mass media.  It remains for the time being a pure and genuine local event.

May 1 also marks the season of Bun Bang Fei - Rocket Festivals when homemade gunpowder rockets are launched into the skies over Isaan and neighboring Lao People's Democratic Republic.

May is an exciting month of festivals and rituals before the start of the rice planting season here.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Bone Washing 2558 (2015)

A Monk Washes the Bones of Duang's Father
Yesterday, 15 April, I drove out to Tahsang Village to participate with Duang's family in the special Songkran.  Duang had spent the previous night at the village rather than driving back home at a late hour. The Songkran holiday is a very dangerous time on our roads - the most dangerous time in the the country ranked number 2 in the world for highway deaths. Thailand has 44 traffic fatalities per 100,000 population only outranked by Namibia with 45/100,000.  It seems that it is during Songkran that Thailand tries hardest to become #1.

I arrived at Wat Pha That Nong Mat at 7:00 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 Ubsoth (Ordination Hall).  Duang opted to have the ritual in front of the family Tat located along the Wat's perimeter wall.

I remained at the Wat while Duang stayed in the village organizing the family and completing final arrangements.  As it turned out the bone washing ritual for her father was not performed until approximately 11:00 A.M.  This was not that bad of a delay for me - other families associated with the Wat conducted bone washing rituals for their relatives before and after the daily merit making ritual of offering food to Monks.

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 three Monks would be seated for the ritual. This year the four village boys who had become semanens (Novice Monks) for their school break, participated in the Veeboonkun family ritual. The "Nens" sat on a saht placed on the ground next to the Tat.

Two containers of specially prepared water to be used in the ritual.  The water was prepared by filling the containers with water along with flowers.

A decorative porcelain urn, ghoat, containing the bone fragments was placed in an ordinary porcelain bowl along with a plastic drinking cup placed to the side.  A decorative metal serving tray was prepared with small portions of food offerings, two yellow birthday type wax candles, two sprigs of jasmine buds for offering to Duang's father's spirit.

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 plastic drinking cup.  The scented water was first poured by the Monks, including the Nens over the bone fragments contained in the ghoat.

Duang Pours Water Over Her Father's Bones
After the Monks had sprinkled the bones, the bowl was placed in front of the immediate family.  Each family member repeated the water poureding.  When they had completed, other family members and others came up to the tray and poured water.  The ritual was not limited to adults.

Our six month old grandson, Pope, was experiencing his first Songkran.

Pope was very interested in the ritual.  Children here in Isaan are taught manners and religion at a very young age.  Pope was no exception.  He was lead by her mother's hand and poured water over the bones of his great grandfather.

Pope Helps Pour Water Over His Great Grandfather's Bones
After everyone, who wanted to, had sprinkled or poured water on the bone fragments, Duang placed her hand over the open top of the ghoat 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.

As the ritual continued, a sai sin was unfurled to connect the food offerings, the Monks and the bone fragments together. The sai sin, 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 sai sin connects the Monks who are leading the procession back to the coffin with family members and friends in between holding on to the sai sin as they walk.  At the Wat during the most part of the ritual, the coffin is connected by a sai sin from the crematorium across to the sala where  much of the ritual is being conducted.

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

Part of this ritual, involved the pouring of water by the family members into containers to transfer the merit of the ritual to Duang's father's spirit.  Upon completion of this part of the ritual, the water was poured on the roots of plants in another merit making act.

Offerings are then made to the Monks in the name of the departed person.  Special plastic buckets are readily available in stores and shops for offering to Monks. The plastic buckets contain items such as tooth paste, tooth brush, hand soap, laundry detergent, toilet paper, and other toiletries.

Upon completion of the ritual, Duang's son took the ghoat and placed it back in the upper chamber of the Tat.  Duang, her youngest brother, and her son then washed the exterior of the Tat by pouring the remaining special water over the surface and rubbing it with their bare hands.

Life is measured by the passing of years and more specifically the rhythm of the seasons.  Another Songkran has arrived.  Some friends and family that we celebrated with last year, are no longer here.  During this Songkran, we wash their bones.

Another Songkran has arrived.  Some new family members have arrived and joined our extended family.  Little Pope celebrated his first Songkran marking a milestone in his life and adding a beat to the rhythm of this family's cycle of life.  Each death and birth marks the passage of time just as the planting along with the harvesting of the various crops in the surrounding countryside.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Songpoo Day 3 April 2015

This is my sixth year here in Isaan.  Every year I have participated in a grand event called Songpoo Day.  Try as I may, I have not been able to figure out exactly what Songpoo Day is.  Despite my questioning, perhaps bordering on interrogation of my wife I do not understand much more about the day than when I first arrived.

From my wife I have learned ... "Songpoo Day, very good day, good day for Buddha, People take care Buddha, Happy happy - good for everybody, have party."  Well I do know and accept what she says.

Part of my difficulty in understanding Songpoo Day is the day that it is celebrated.varies from year to year.  Some years it is before Songkran and other years it is at the official close of the Songkran Festival.  The one thing for certain is that Songpoo is associated with Songkran.

Laymen Offering Food to the Monks
My latest theory on Songpoo Day is that it is a special event that is determined by each Wat as to when to celebrate it during the Songkran season.  During Songkran, respect is demonstrated to the elders by pouring scented cool water over their hands and and rubbing the back of their necks with the water to help cool them off during the hottest month of the year.  On Songpoo Day the people have a big party at the Wat.  Part of the ritual of the day is when the people walk around the Ubsoth (Ordination Hall) three times clockwise bearing money trees - actually banana stalks with bamboo skewers holding paper money stuck into the stalk.  The money trees are late offered to the Monks. The money is intended to help pay for the utilities and maintenance of the Wat.

Special Foods to be Offered to the Monks
The event starts off with the daily ritual of offering food to the Monks.  Because of the festive nature of Songpoo Day, there was more and a higher quality of food offered to the Monks than on regular mornings.  There were also more Monks at the Wat than a typical day.

Songpoo Day was celebrated at the "Outside" Wat, Wat Pha That Nong Mat.  Wat Pha That Nong Mat is located in the sugar cane fields outside of Tahsang Village.  The "Outside" Wat and the "Inside" Wat are Theravada Buddhist temples however they are of two different monastic orders - Mahanikaya and Dhammayuttika.  The Monks of the outside Wat are Dhammayuttika, a more restrictive order, than their Mahanikaya brothers of the inside Wat.

Although Duang's family prefers the Dhammayuttika order, Monks from both orders typically participate in family events.  This is yet another example of the Thai expression of "Same, Same But Different".

On special days such as Songpoo Day the Monks of both Wats will join together for the ritual. An example of another popular Thai saying "Good for me, Good for you"

Because this is also the school recess season, the Monks were joined by four "Nens" semanens (Novice Monks) school boys attending a sort of religious summer camp.

Villagers Building their Money Trees in the Vihear to Parade Around the Ubsoth
After the Monks had completed their meal in the Vihear, the lay people enjoyed a community meal. Upon completing their meal and cleaning up, the people went outside to participate in the festivities.  At these big festivals there are many booths set up with food, soft drinks, and drinking water.  You can eat and drink as much as you wish to ... for free.  My lunch was a bowl of Thai noodles with pork and chicken called "Rattna", an ice cream cone, to go along with the bottle of Coke, package of cake, and a banana leaf filled with rice/coconut milk concoction offered to me by one of the Monks.  It seems that they always take care of me on my visits.  It has gotten to the point now that they will stage direct me during the rituals - letting me know when and where to set up for a good photograph during the rituals.

Pare Enjoys One of  Her Many Ice Cream Cones - I counted three
Never Too Young to Enjoy Ice Cream
Or Too Old to Enjoy Ice Cream

Peelawat Enjoys Some Free Watermelon
Families provide the food, drinks and ice cream for the people in attendance.  It turns out they earn merit for providing offerings that attract people to donate to the Wat and to enjoy themselves.  The food is always good and everyone is in good spirits.  Some people are in better spirits than others but they have to provide their own ... and I am not talking about phi (ghosts).

Although you can drink beer and whiskey on the Wat grounds ("Up to you"), alcohol is neither donated or offered for sale.

Offerings to the Monks In the Ubsoth
Another ritual was conducted inside of the Ubsoth, the Ordination Hall.  Actually it was more like an Ordination Room than a Hall - a roughly 10 meter by 10 meter free standing building.  Because of the festival when statues will be washed, several statues from the Wat had joined the statues of the Ubsoth for the day.

Praying Hands Connected to Sai Sin (Sacred Thread)
Duang's cousin, the Abbot of a Wat out in the woods, presided over the ritual in the Ubsoth.  This was a great ritual.  Besides the lengthy chanting by the Monks, the Abbot burned two white candles over some water held in a pressed metal decorative silver colored bowl.  The water as part of the ritual this sacred water was sprinkled over the laypeople and poured on the statues.

Pouring Water On a Statue
Besides families offering food and drink, other people offered their talents.  Duang's youngest brother is a morlam performer.  He stages shows through out the province.  Duang's father, who died a year ago, was also a well known local morlam performer who taught many of the older traditional performers in the area.  To honor Duang's father and to make merit during Songpoo Day many of his compatriots and students agreed to perform for free at the Wat.

Morlam Show
As always, the music and dancing was great - a strong link to the Lao Loum ethnic roots of the people of Isaan.  People placed woven reed mats, sahts, on the ground underneath the tall trees of the Wat's ground.  The area was sprinkled with groups of grandmothers with their grand-babies, young people drinking alcohol, families, and the guys that you can always count on being drunk at these events.  Everyone was well behaved and there were not any problems.

Just Because You Are Not in the Band Does Not Mean You Can Not Play the Cymbals
Enjoying the Show With Yai (Grandmother)
Songpoo Day 2015 in Tahsang Village was a joyous occasion spent with family and friends. It was another example of an event that strengthened people's bonds to their faith, family and community.  It remains a cultural event that has been usurped and polluted by tourism.  My hope is that it always remains that way.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

The Buddha Statue - The Rest of the Story

Two months ago, 1 February, I photographed and documented the casting of a new bronze statue of Buddha for the new Vihear (Wihan) at the Wat in the forest outside of Ban Maet.

After being cast here, the casting traveled to Loei where another larger statue was cast.  Later both castings were transported one day south to the factory in Chonburi for final assembly and finishing.

At first it was my understanding that the completed statue would return in a week.  It then became two weeks and was actually returned after two months. Returning yesterday was actually very good timing whether intended or not.  We are now entering into the Songkran, New Year, season.

Songkran is officially  April 13 to 15 ... Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday.  That is the way things are supposed to be.  However there is the way things actually are:  There is the Saturday and Sunday before the official start of the festival and there are the two days after the official closing of the holiday.  The Songkran Festival is also known as "Thailand's 7 Deadliest Days" due to the number of traffic deaths.

Although it is the first week of April, many preparations and rituals related to Songkran Festival are underway.  The placing of the new Buddha statue fit quite well into the spirit of the season - a season of joy and happiness.

The celebration of the arrival and placement of the statue was supposed to start at 8:00 A.M.  Based upon the issues of scheduling and timing that we experienced for the casting of the statue, we decided to get out to the Wat at 7:30 A.M. to ensure that we did not miss out on anything.

Well the law of averages does exist - even out in rural Isaan.  Nothing really happened until 8:30 A.M. when I was asked to haul a bunch (10+) people in our truck out to Highway 2410 which passes along the front of Ban Maet.  It turned out that many vehicles and people were assembling alongside the highway.  Soon Luang Por Pohm Likit arrived in a decorated truck bearing the new statue on the flat bed.  The Monk was also accompanied by a truck bearing a large speaker system and several musicians playing joyous ethnic music.  It turned out that the plan was for the truck bearing the statue to lead the procession of the people walking and dancing the 2 KM of dirt road back to the Wat.

I determined that the best place for photographs would be back at the corner just before the Wat.  It was another hot morning here and the sun was very bright - not particularly good for photography and definitely not good for standing out in the sun.  I walked out to the corner from the Wat and waited, and waited, and waited even some more.  I eventually walked back to the Wat and returned with a plastic chair that I set up under the shade from the small farmer's hut at the corner ... and waited some more.  Eventually a saamlaw, a three wheeled transport, arrived filled with some dancers.  The dancers, I can not honestly call them "girls", were excited to see my camera and posed for a group photo.

The Dancers Waiting to Join the Procession
After a while we heard the energetic music of the approaching procession.

Buddha Followed By the Dancing Villagers

Villagers Following the Statue
The dancers joined the procession to walk the short distance to the Wat.  Their arrival was punctuated by whooping and hollering that typically is associated with a wedding procession here in Isaan. It was a definite joyous occasion.

Arriving at the Wat
Upon entering the Wat grounds, the procession was joined by people who had been waiting for its arrival.  My wife is very reserved and somewhat shy ... except for things related to her faith.  Duang managed some how and some way to grab a prime spot to accompany the statue on its three time clockwise circumambulation of the Vihear.

Duang Escorts the Statue Around the Vihear
After three times around the Vihear the truck, transporting the statue, stopped at the edge of the building to the left of the raised platform where it would be placed at its final location.  I was curious s to how the statue would be rigged in to location.  I did not see a crane or even a boom truck to lift and place the statue.  I did not even see a ramp, rollers or even metal pipe to facilitate moving the heavy object.  Just how did the people move and place the statue?  Similar to the famous slogan of the investment firm, Smith Barney, "We make money the old fashioned way.  We earn it."  In the case of moving the heavy statue - They moved the statue the old fashioned way.  They lifted and moved it by hand. - many hands!

Some Say "It takes a village to raise a child" - It definitely takes a village to set a statue

Many of the village men surrounded the statue and grabbed a hold of it.  Under the commands of one of the men, they slightly lifted the statue and tilted the statue to a horizontal position.  Perhaps a concession to safety - one man placed a mon, small rectangular pillow, at the base of the statue's neck.  All went well and without much struggling, the statue was placed and slid into its final location.

Once  the statue was set, men poured some water on it and gently wiping the water. squashed bugs, and hand prints from the surface.

It was now time for the daily ritual of the people offering food to the Monks.  Yesterday because of the special nature of the day, there were more Monks participating in the ritual.  Some Monks from a more established Wat in the vicinity attended the ritual.  I suspect that the Abbot from that Wat was necessary to ensure that the process of enshrining the statue was properly done.  The Abbot always sits to far left of the lines of Monks - sitting in the front row and to the right of the others. Luang Por Pohm Likit sits to his immediate left.  There were two rows of Monks yesterday including several semanans (young boys on their school break as novice Monks).

After the Monks had completed their only meal of the day, the gathered laypeople ate the remaining food - a sort of community breakfast that strengths and reinforces the community as well as family bonds.

After the lay meal had been completed and the area cleaned up, a special ritual was conducted for the new statue.  There was a great deal of chanting by the Monks as well as by the laypeople.  As is typical for the rituals, the laypeople were lead by a man called a "tapakhao"  Tapakhao, the same as a  Brahman, are elderly men who were once Monks for a considerable time and have received advanced training in spiritual as well as ritual matters.

I especially enjoy the chanting of the Monks.  They chant in the language of the people who first brought Buddhism to Thailand - Pali.  The chanting is rhythmic and energetic to the point that is almost hypnotic. The voices of the various Monks seem to compliment if not harmonize with each other.  The Senior Monk leads the chanting almost always uses a microphone along with an amplifier.  Typically another of older Monks or a younger Monk with greater training will also chant using a microphone and amplification.  I have not figured it out yet but every time I witness the chanting, the Senior Monk will pause either to catch his breadth or to check on the chanting of the other Monks.  After a short pause he will resume is chanting as if he never skipped a beat.  For me, this hesitation and pause adds to the drama and atmosphere of the ritual.

I often reflect and appreciate as I photographing and witnessing the ritual that this has been going on for almost 2,500 years.  There is a connection to people for over 100 generations that is repeated every day.

As I look upon the laypeople participating in the rituals, I see babies and toddlers being taught the ways of the ritual - ensuring another generation will be connected.

The new Buddha statue, like all the other Buddha statues, serves as a reminder and focal point of the middle way that Buddhists believe will lead them to liberation ... enlightenment.


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