Tuesday, May 26, 2015

A Granddaughter's Farewell

Almost two weeks ago, my wife and I attended the funeral of an old man out in the countryside on the border of Changwat Udon Thani and Changwat Sakon Nakhon.  Attending the funeral was not out of morbid curiosity regarding death but rather an acceptance of one's obligations and duties as a member of a large family and an even larger community.

The grandfather of the young Monk from Wat Pha That Nong Mat outside of Tahsang Village had died and on 17 May he was to be cremated.  The young Monk is a close friend to Duang's family and many of the villagers of Tahsang Village.  A group of the villagers were going to attend the cremation to show their respect for both the dead man and his grandson the Monk.  I agreed to go and bring some of the villagers with us.

We first drove approximately 45 minutes south of our home to pick-up my mother-in-law, our grandson Peelawat, and two other older female relatives.  We then drove north for about two hours to Ban Dong Yen.

One lane of the two lane road in front of the dead man's home as blocked off - a typical situation for funerals, weddings, Monk Ordinations, housewarmings, and Bone Parties.  The additional real estate is used for parking and setting up pavilions for guests where they can eat and drink.

Son Carries Part of the Funeral Shrine From House to Pick-Up Truck
At roughly 12:45 PM the refrigerated coffin containing the consumable coffin and the corpse were removed from the home and placed in the back of a pick-up truck for the procession to the local Wat for the cremation ritual.

Family and Friends Load the Coffin On to Pick-Up Truck
I have attended many funerals here in Isaan, many more than I had attended in my previous 60 years in America.  I remember being sheltered as a child from attending funerals.  It was not until I was 17 or 18 years old that I attended a funeral.  Such is not the case here in Isaan.  At the earliest age and more importantly, throughout childhood, children attend and participate in funerals.

Children attend and participate in funerals as full members of the family or community.

I am often reminded of a wonderful quote from National Geographic contributor, Wade Davis, a renowned Canadian Anthropologist.  In his documentary series "Light At the End of the World" regarding the Buddhist attitude towards death ... "The Buddhists spend all their lives getting ready for a moment that we spend most of our lives pretending does not exist, which is the moment of our death". 

In Isaan death is a milestone of life which is familiar to and accepted by all people from a very early age. The conclusion of this life, which for many has been very difficult, presents the hope as well as opportunity for a better and easier life in the future - another step towards eventual enlightenment.

With this blog entry, my 20th related to the funeral rituals of the ethnic Lao Loum people of Isaan, what can be written or photographed that has not been done before?

Each funeral has been very similar but each had some unique aspects.  The different aspects are related to family traditions and the economic reality of the family.  For me, the most interesting aspect of the funerals, was the different people attending and their interaction with each other as well as with the ritual.

So with each funeral that we attend, I look for the special moments, the hidden details, and the personal moments of the event.  There are some standard shots that I end up taking at each funeral but I am always looking for the unique photos that tell a more unique and personal story or photos that better define the culture in regards to death.

This latest funeral was no exception.  There was an aspect to the funeral that I had not witnessed before.  Part of the funeral procession involved ritualized fishing.

Crossing the Bridge Over the River Songkhram, A Man Casts His Net Over the Road
At the front of the funeral procession, there was a man carrying a woven basket filled with popped rice.  Periodically as the procession marched along he would cast handfuls of the popped rice in front of the procession.  This is very typical in funeral processions.  The rice is offerings of nourishment to the local spirits.

However for this funeral, he was joined by three other men with unique responsibilities and duties.  One man walked at the head of the procession carrying a burning homemade taper.  Another man carried a hand fish net - the type used everyday to capture fish.  Another man next to him and often in front of him carried a spiked woven basket that is used to capture fish that are often found in the mud slurry of the rice paddies during planting season.

One end of the woven basket is a larger diameter than the other open end of the basket.  The larger end of the basket has the ribs of the basket exposed about 2 to 3 centimeters past the first hoop of the basket.  When a fish is spotted in the shallow mud slurry of the rice paddy, the larger diameter end of the basket is quickly shoved into the slurry to capture the fish.  The fisherman or more likely, the rice planter who has been interrupted in his work, reaches down through the small end of the basket to retrieve the fish.

I spent most of my time ahead of the procession so that I could photograph it as it approached.  Rather than being a solemn procession as one would expect for a funeral, the front of the procession was quite joyous with a great deal of laughing, joking, and animated conversation.

Several times when throwing the fish net, the "fisherman" fell down - much to his amusement and the amusement of the other men.  I suspect that he was somewhat unstable from drinking the local whiskey all morning long.  On occasion it appeared that he was trying to net the other fisherman who carried the basket.  The road that we traveled on was not heavily used by vehicles but it was very apparent that water buffalo had come along that way.  Upon coming upon a large mound of water buffalo dung in the middle of the road, I cautioned the fishermen not to catch it - much to the amusement of everyone.

So what was going on with the net, basket and burning taper.  I asked Duang and she told me something along the lines of :  the men did not want to think about dying. they did not want the spirit of the deceased man to be sad so they were making believe that it was nighttime and they were all happy because they were fishing together.

After crossing the bridge over the Songkhram River we found ourselves in Changwat Sakon Nakhon and in the village of Khok Si.  The procession took a left turn down a narrow village road on its way to the Wat.

By this time, the men at the head of the procession had been joined by some of the children.  One of the aspects of life here that I particularly enjoy, is observing the confidence, self-reliance, self assurance and independence of the children. The children, at least one of them, a granddaughter were not timid or shy at the turn of events that they found themselves in.

I ended up taking several photographs throughout the cremation ritual of one granddaughter.  Her demeanor and demonstration of respect for her departed grandfather was inspiring and fit very well with the message that I intended to make about an aspect of life here.  "Life" here in a blog about a funeral ... death?  How can that be?  It actually is quite logical from the Buddhist standpoint.  Death frees us from this life and until we attain enlightenment, frees us to be born again.  So for Buddhists there can be no life without first having death.

Requesting Permission For the Procession to Enter the Wat Grounds

When the front of the procession arrived at the gate to the Wat, we could not enter.  The men at the front of the procession knelt before a Monk and talked for awhile.  They then seemed to ask permission as the truck carrying the coffin caught up to the group.  Perhaps as a symbol for the transition of the procession to a more serious mode, the man with the fishing net finally captured the other fisherman that had the basket to the delight of everyone - right in front of the gate to the Wat.

Personal Possessions and Prosthesis to be Burned As Part of Funeral Ritual

The procession entered into the Wat's extensive grounds at a side entrance at the back of the property. The crematorium was located very close to the entrance.

The coffin containing the corpse was removed from the refrigerated coffin and placed on two metal sawhorses at grade level in front of the crematorium rather than at the door to the furnace as in all previous cremations that I have attended.

A cardboard box of the deceased man's personal effects and his  two prosthesis were placed in a fire pit off to the side of the crematorium.  The man had both of his legs amputated due to the effect of diabetes.  Although obesity is not an issue in this area, and the people's diet is far removed from Western diet, diabetes is very prevalent here.  I suspect that it is perhaps due to genetics or possibly a virus.  As is typical in the cremation ritual, once the flames commence to consume the corpse, the personal possessions are burned.

A Granddaughter Watches As Her Grandfather Is Bathed in Coconut Water

The cover of the consumable coffin was removed to expose the corpse.  Monks and people came forward to pour coconut water straight from coconuts on the corpse.  Others poured water from bamboo stalk containers.  The granddaughter who had caught my attention showed no fear or revulsion.  She seemed more curious and remorseful over what she was witnessing.

 The young girl joined her parents following the coffin up the stairs of the crematorium for it to be placed upon a bed of charcoal on a heavy metal carriage.

The little girl remained alone at the doorway to the furnace as the doors were closed and the charcoal was ignited - a fitting and poignant tribute to the grandfather that she obviously loved.

People Scramble to Catch Candies and Coins Cast From the Raised Floor of the Crematorium

So it is ... life and death here in Isaan.  Life and death are embraced at an early age.

Children are integrated into their culture and society to prepare them for their future days ... in this lifetime as well as the others to come.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Building A Chedi

A Chedi Under Construction Outside of Khon Kaen

This weekend is a long holiday weekend in the USA, Memorial Day.  It is not a holiday weekend here in Isaan but that does not prevent the weekend from being special.

Yesterday, Saturday, was a special day for my wife and me along with many other people.  We attended and participated in a special and somewhat rare ritual ... the topping off and consecration of a chedi under construction at a Wat.

My wife has a very large family spread out across Thailand.  The family knows of my desire to witness, learn and photograph the unique cultural aspects of their religion and lives.  Often we will get a phone call informing us of some ritual, event, or festival that people believe I would enjoy going to.

Such was the case of yesterday's ritual.  Duang's mother knew about the ritual roughly 90 minutes south of Tahsang Village from a former Monk at Tahsang Village who had relocated to the Wat where the ritual would take place.  It was occurring at a Wat outside of Khon Kaen, Wat Pa Khao Suan Kwang Tat Fah, the very same Wat that we had visited to witness last October the casting of small Buddha statues.


Chedi, Thai word for "stupa", is a major architectural feature of many Buddhist Wats.  Chedis are revered and sacred structures. Chedi are built for a variety of reasons. Chedi are built to house relics from Buddha or relics from notable Buddhist clergy or notable laypeople considered to be saints.

Chedi, of a grander scale, Grand Palace, Bangkok

Chedi can also be built to house objects associated with Buddha or his disciples.  Sometimes a chedi is constructed to commemorate an event in Buddha's lives or the lives of his disciples.

Samakkhixay Stupa - Luang Namtha, LPDR
Other chedi are symbolic of various aspects of Buddhist theology and others are built to to commemorate visits or to gain merit.

No matter the reason or motivation, the construction and participation in the consecration of a chedi or stupa is a very important religious event for the Buddhist community.

Stupa at That Phum Phuk outside of Luang Namtha, LPDR

The ritual for the chedi being constructed at Wat Pa Khao Suan Kwang Tat Fah after the daily merit making of offering food to the Monks.  Once the Monks had accepted the offerings of food for their one meal of the day, the lay people removed the plates, trays, and bowls of the extra food that the Monks had not taken.  That food was then placed amongst the lay people to consume as part of a community meal open to everyone.  After everyone had finished their meal, most of the people took the short walk to where the chedi was being built.  Those who did not, remained behind to clean up and wash the dishes.

Several pavilions were set up amongst the trees and bamboo to shelter Monks, dignitaries, and lay people from the strong Sun of the mid-day.  A sort of altar was set up next to the chedi.

The altar was constructed of some sturdy metal tables covered with white cloth and an ornate rug.  The color white is very important during many Buddhist rituals.  Many of the men and most of the women wore white or very light blue clothing for the ritual.

Several Pha Kwan, the ubiquitous banana leaf and floral centerpieces of Theravada Lao Loum Buddhist ceremonies, were placed on the ornate carpet atop the tables along with several ornate pressed metal golden bowls used in religious rituals. Some of the bowls contained lotus petals and other bowls contained chrysanthemum petals. Some of the ornate bowls contained a mixture of seeds and beans.  Although this ritual was ostensibly a Buddhist ceremony, its Animist origins were very apparent.  I was told by one of the lay people that the ceremony was to invite the spirits to enter and reside in the chedi.

On a plain cotton cloth which was surrounded by the Pha Kwan and ornate bowls, several different types of amulets were placed. Undoubtedly these amulets would be considered to be powerful objects upon conclusion of the ritual.  Several small glass orbs filled with oil were placed on ornate pressed metal platforms for the ritual.

The construction as well as the consecration of a chedi involves Buddhist teachers.  Buddhist teachers are typically former Monks who lead the lay people in rituals.  These men can be Brahmans or lay people who have received advanced training by Monks - "tapawkaos".

The consecration of the chedi was actually lead by a Ruesi also referred to as a Luesi (OK now, no jokes or snickers about "Flied Lice"!)  Ruesi are hermit sages that meditate, develop psychic powers, collect herbs, minerals and odd things.  They are like wizards.  Their goal is to help people, to use spells to cast away spells, evil spirits and curses.  They can also help bring good luck as well as fortune to people.

A Tapawkao (white) and a Rusei Performing Ritual
Before the start of the ritual, back at the hall where people were eating, Duang pointed out one the Rusei to me and told me that the man had been crazy before but now he had "pii" (spirit, ghost) inside of him so he was OK now.

Well it turned out that this man was the person who actually performed most of the ritual.  He may have been crazy before but there was nothing wrong with him now.  Without the benefits of any book or notes, he performed the ritual with pause or any indication that he did not know what he was doing.  I was definitely impressed.  A tapawkao who assisted needed notes for his part in the ritual but not the Ruesi!

A couple of the Monks who were seated off to the side underneath one of the pavilions came out a couple times and touched a couple of things on the tables but it was apparent that the Monks were in a supporting role.  It was the Ruesi's show.

After the ceremony had been going on for a short while, a nice looking van arrived.  I could tell from the reaction of the people that someone important had arrived.  Perhaps a politician?  Perhaps a government leader?  An Army General?  I saw a young Monk get out of the van first so I figured that the van must be transporting a high ranking Monk.  My theory quickly dissolved when I saw the next person exit - it was a Ruesi.  This Ruesi, that my wife told me was the "Number 1, all Thailand" Had the longest hair that I had ever seen on a person - he had dreadlock type hair that went to the ground.  How did he keep from getting it dirty or tripping on it?  He draped it over his left shoulder.  I know that it touched the ground because a couple times he let his hair down and I saw it touch the ground.

Ruesi and Monks Holding Sai Sin
The Rusei entered the pavilion were the Monks were seated and after paying his respects to them and accepting their respects, he took the seat of highest honor at the right end of the row.  Like the highest ranking Monk seated to his left, he occupied himself chewing betelnut.

Lay People Participating In Ritual
When I had first arrived at the site of the chedi, I noticed some cords going from the top of the chedi down to ground level amongst a bamboo and tree thicket area.  Attached to the cable at grade level was a styrofoam Naga assembly.

Naga Assembly
In front of the Naga was a Monk's bag.  It was obvious that the Naga would be hauled up and most likely transport something up to the top of the chedi.

Remember in the old days when you spent many spring and summer days playing "Marbles" or "Shooters"?  Our vocabulary and focus was centered upon "Cats Eyes", "Boulders", "Steelies", "Pee Wees", and the most desired of all ... "Puries".  "Puries" were marbles of pure single color solid glass - you could look at the world through colored puries.  Puries were highly valued ... to be shared, to be enjoyed, to be treasured and very seldom put at risk of loss in a game of marbles!

Well a variation of puries is highly regarded and considered powerful here in Isaan and it has nothing to do with child's games.  It has everything to do with "Nagas"  Nagas are serpents of the underwater world.  Nagas are an integral component of the belief system of the Lao Loum people of Northeast Thailand and LPDR (Lao People's Democratic Republic).  The balls, of many different sizes, of pure colored glass are associated with the eyes of the Naga.

In my wife's shrine upstairs in our home, she has several of the "Naga Eyes" some roughly 5mm in diameter and some approximately 150mm in diameter.  You can also find these objects in many of the local Wats.

At one point in the ritual. some men scrambled up the makeshift scaffolding to the top of the chedi - the point where there was an open gold colored ornamentation.  At the same time a special basket containing a large colored glass orb was attached to front of the Naga assembly.  A sai sin (sacred thread) was attached to the Naga assembly.  The sai sin ran from the orb to the area where the chief Ruesi and Monks were seated and was terminated amongst the bowls and pha kwan on the tables.  Great care and caution was taken to prevent the sai sin from touching the ground.

Lay people congregated around one of the cables and pulled on it to transport the Naga assembly to the workers on top of the Chedi.

Naga's Eye Being Transported to the Top of the Chedi
Once at the top of the Chedi, the workers set the glass orb to close the opening at the top of the Chedi.  The orb was secured in place with caulking and mortar.

Ruesi Breaking Sai Sin Into Pieces for Lay People

Back down at the ground level, the sai sin was being broken off into small pieces by the "No 1" Rusei and given to the lay people.  My wife is rather reserved in day to day things, but in matters of faith, she always seems to manage to get to the front of the crowd.  So it was yesterday.  She got some of the sacred thread from the Ruesi.

At this point in the ritual the senior Ruesi took over the ritual.  He went up to the tables and did some chanting as he handled the amulets, and the vials of oil. He sprinkled the items with lotus petals.

As he was finishing up the ritual he sprinkled lay people with chrysanthemum petals followed by handfuls of the seed and bean mixture.

"Not So Shy" Duang Getting Her Blessings

As the Ruesi departed the area to return to his vehicle, people knelt along his path to receive his blessing.  I saw him touch one man's shoulder with the tip of his dreadlocks - no doubt a special blessing.

It had been a great day but this is not the end of the story.  Near the end of the ritual, one of the two nice women who befriended us got on the PA system and made an announcement.  After a while she started speaking in English and invited me by name to return on June 1 for a big special celebration and to take photographs and write a story.  Of course we will return - who can refuse an invitation like that and ignore such an opportunity?

 Definitely not me!

Monday, May 18, 2015

The Story Behind the Photo

It is said, written, and even sung that "Every picture tells a story".  Paul Harvey had a television show and book titled "The Rest of the Story". In today's blog entry, I will be telling a story with two photographs, giving the reader the rest of the story, along with informing you the story behind these photographs.

Yesterday, my wife and I attended a funeral out in the Isaan countryside near Kham Chanot.  The funeral was not for a family member.  We were part of the group from Tahsang Village participating in the funeral for the grandfather of the young Monk from Wat Pha That Nong Mat (the "outside" Wat of Tahsang Village).

On the trip from Tahsang Village out to the funeral, Duang told me about a little girl that she had met on a previous visit to the grandfather's home.  Duang and I have a term for young precocious children who are extremely self-confident.  We refer to them as "Naughty girl" or "Naughty boy".  Naughty boys and girls provide us with a great deal of entertainment and joy.  Duang described a 2-1/2 year old naughty girl who talked too much, and kept looking through Duang's purse for lipstick.

When we arrived at the home of the deceased man, the naughty girl was missing.  Duang asked about her and found out the the little girl had gone home to take a nap.

I encountered the little girl at the local Wat for the cremation.  I took some photographs of her but she didn't seem all that thrilled about either being photographed or the results.  She told her mother that she did not want her picture taken.  I stopped taking photos.  The little girl became very animated.  She ended up pulling out a tube of lipstick from a pocket on her dress.  It turned out to be the tube of lipstick that Duang had given her a week ago.

Without the aid of a mirror and with out any adult supervision or input, the little girl confidently applied the lipstick to her lips.  She was very precise and focused in getting the job done.

When she had finished the job, I took some more photographs.  She was much more cooperative and seemed pleased with the results.

Here in Thailand, women take a great deal of care and pride in their personal appearance.  This attitude and trait starts at an early age as evidenced by this 2-1/2 year old diva.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Bun Bang Fei - Ban That 2015 Gallery Is Available

A new gallery of 22 selected photographs from this year's Bun Bang Fei event in Ban That, Thailand is now available for viewing and for your consideration.

During the Bun Bang Fei event, hundreds of homemade PVC-Gunpowder rockets are launched into the sky.  The event is a Lao cultural tradition which is celebrated on both sides of the Mekong River.


Sunday, May 10, 2015

Korb Siarn Khru Ritual Gallery Available

Siarn Ruesi
A 24 photo gallery of the recent Korb Siarn Khru Ritual here in Isaan is now available for viewing and your consideration.


Monday, May 4, 2015

Korb Siarn Khru Ceremony - 2015 (2558)

Korb Siarn Khru Ceremony In the Isaan Countryside

Ruesi Masks

In a Wai Khru ceremony, devotees pay homage and demonstrate their respect for their teachers and the deities associated with their art or practice.  The term, "teachers", is not restricted to the people who are employed to teach reading, writing, and arithmetic.  Teachers in this sense of the word includes all those that have instructed, inspired, and trained others in a wide variety of matters.

Buddha is considered to be the greatest of teachers.  There are teachers of many things such as music, dance, martial arts, astrology, traditional healing, and magic.

The Wai Khru ceremony is not a Buddhist ceremony although Buddhism is often involved in the ritual.  The origins of the Wai Khru ceremony are in the Animist and subsequent influence of Brahmanism.  Animism was the original religious belief system of the native peoples of Thailand and in particular the inhabitants of the region referred to as Isaan (Northeast).  The history of Southeast Asia is fraught with migrations, wars, invasion, and subjugation. One of the consequences of the turbulent past was the spread of different religions and philosophies.  One of the religions that spread to Thailand was Brahmanism, the precursor of Hinduism, originating in Northern India but most likely spread in Thailand from Cambodia as part of the Khmer Empire.

Rather than eliminating the former Animist practices, beliefs and rituals with the arrival of Brahmanism, the old traditions were assimilated into the new system.  The same thing occurred later when Buddhism arrived from Ceylon.

This all makes for a very interesting and quite often confusing religious system which is practiced here in Isaan today.  Today, 95% of the Thai people are Theravada Buddhists but a vast majority of the Thai people's religious beliefs, practices, as well as rituals are vestiges or heavily influenced by Animism and Brahmanism.  The Wai Khru Ceremony is one example.

A Table of Offerings for May 1st's Wai Khru Ceremony

My ambition and goal in photography is "to show extraordinary people doing ordinary things.  In so doing, I wish to show how different people appear, to provide a glimpse of other cultures, to celebrate the diversity of mankind, and to demonstrate that despite our appearances, we are so much alike"

Attending large and well known events such as the Wai Khru Ceremonies and Korb Siarn Khru Ceremonies provide opportunities to meet my ambition and achieve my goals in regards to photography. I prefer the smaller, more intimate venues where there are not television cameras, reporters, or thousands or even hundreds of tourists.  These events and venues, where the people are conducting rituals for their own benefit offer much better opportunities to experience and better understand the event and its impact on the local people.

Living in Thailand and being married to an ethnic Lao, gives me many opportunities to experience and photograph "extraordinary people doing ordinary things."  Often I have opportunities to experience and photograph "ordinary people doing extraordinary things"  Often my wife, Duang, will get a phone call from someone in the extended family notifying her of some ritual, event, or thing that they believe that I would like to photograph.  Just as new religious systems have been assimilated, I have been assimilated into Duang's extended family.

Such an opportunity occurred once again on - May 1.  Duang had gotten a call earlier in the week that a Wai Khru Ceremony along with an associated Korb Siarn Khru Ceremony was going to happen at Wat Pha That Nong Mat, the "Outside" Wat in Tahsang Village.  We drove out to the Wat under the bright and hot sun through the parched sugar cane fields to the "Outside" Wat (the Wat outside of the village as opposed to the Wat inside the village).  The rainy season has not fully arrived yet so the farm land is dry and dusty

A Pig's Head Offering to the Spirits
At the perimeter of the Wat's grounds, near the small huts were the Monks sleep, we went to the small Ruesi shrine.  We had gone to the small shrine a few times for special rituals where Duang and her friend would be doused with buckets of water by the Monk in a special ritual and when Duang's youngest brother received some special blessing while wearing an ornate mask.  Visiting this shrine is not a common occurrence for us.

Three pavilions had been erected around the shrine with plastic chairs set up for people  to sit out of the strong sun light.  In front of the shrine a large folding table covered with a white cloth had been set up.  Upon the white cloth covered table there were many objects associated with the upcoming ritual.

There was a Pahn Sii Khwan, a centerpiece made by local women out of fresh banana leaves, jasmine buds and chrysanthemums, along with a smaller handmade arrangement on the table along with food offerings to the spirits and deities. The main food offering was a  cooked pig head.  Offerings of a pig head are not common and typically reserved for special occasions. There were also offerings of eggs, pineapple, cooked prawns, sweet potatoes, coconut, cooked duck, oranges, limes, bananas, mangoes, prepared bananas, sticky rice and coconut wrapped in banana leaves, apples and some bowls of special desserts.

Ruesi (Luesi) Mask - "Siarn Ruesi"
The table also had a silver colored pressed metal ornate tray upon which rolled up sai sin (sacred) string, a tiger skin cloth and a full life sized Ruesi mask (Siarn Ruesi) and a pumalai of chrysanthemums along with jasmine buds.  These items all symbolize things for and in the ritual.

Pumalai symbolize and celebrate beauty of this life but as they age and deteriorate they remind people of the impermanence of this life as well as the fate that awaits all of us.  The tiger skin patterned cloth is symbolic of Ruesi, hermits of the forest some of who make Sak Yant (magical tattoos). In another  silver colored pressed metal ornate tray containing the sweet potatoes were lotus flower buds, white candles and joss sticks.

The young Monk of the Wat performed an typical offering ritual outside at the white covered table while devotees sat in chairs underneath the pavilions.  After completing this part of the ritual, he went inside of the shrine for the remainder of ceremony - the Korb Siarn Khru Ceremony.

Children Observing the Korb Siarn Khru Ceremony Outside of the shrine

The Ruesi shrine was very congested.  One wall of the room was covered with statues and masks related to Ruesi. High on two walls of the shrine panels with many Yant symbols - symbols thousand of years old.  Ruesi is a hermit sage that is prominent in several legends as well as stories in Thai folklore.

Ruesi were and are hermit sages who spend their time meditating and developing their psychic powers - sort of like wizards.  They collect magical herbs, and minerals.  Using magical ingredients they produce love charms, spells and powerful amulets. The goal of the Ruesi is to help others have a happier life by telling their fortunes, conducting rituals and making spells to reduce the effects of bad karma.  Ruesi also are able to ward off evil spirits.  They also help people by protecting them from enemies.  Certain rituals performed by Ruesi can bring good luck and fortune to their devotees. Some of the Ruesi make Sak Yants, the magical and powerful tattoos know throughout this world.

I was about to once again dip my toes, if not enter once again, into a new world, the world of the occult in Thailand - "Saiyasart" (waes -magical spells).

As Dorothy said in the Wizard of Oz - "Toto, I've a feeling that we're not in Kansas anymore" or at least any parts of Kansas that I visited some 21 years ago!

One of the most important Ruesi rituals is performed once a year is the Korb Siarn Khru - laying the Ruesi mask of the master teacher, Ruesi Por Gae, on the devotee  The Korb Siarn Khru is performed during the Wai Khru Ceremony.  The Siarn Ruesi mask is a full sized mask with head dress with an open mouth, three eyes, two teeth sticking out of the mouth, a moustache, and a beard.  There are also masks of other deities within the Ruesi pantheon - some of them being tigers, elephants, yaks (giants) and other creatures.

Siarn Ruesi As Part of Shrine

Inside of the shrine there was a matrix overhead formed by stringing sai sin  across the room in a checkerboard pattern.  Where the sai sin intersected, separate lengths of sai sin were coiled up.  As the devotees entered the shrine they uncoiled the sai sin and wrapped the free length around their head connecting them physically and spiritually to the Buddha image in the corner of the room, the Ruesi image and the items used by the Monk in the ritual.  A thick sai sin dropped down from the overhead grid just to the right of the Monk conducting the ritual.  He held the thick cord in his hand and several times during his incantations would violently pull on the heavy cord causing the entire grid to pulsate up and down in rhythm to his chanting.  It was at this time that things started getting intense and for many people - very intense.

A Devotee Exhibited the First Signs of Spirit Possession
As part of this initial ritual which involved all the devotees as a group of roughly 20 people, the Monk would sprinkle the crowd with sacred water that had been produced during his chanting by wax dropping from two lit horizontal white candles suspended over a metal bowl of water.

A sort of mass hysteria developed in the devotees as the volume, intensity, and rhythm of the Monk's chanting increased.  Some of the devotees would have their bodies stiffen and go into spasms.  They would begin to hyperventilate followed by roars, squeals, and animal sounds. Their limbs would start to flail about followed by the entire body going into convulsive spasms.  The devotees who have Sak Yant tattoos adorning their body, are now in the possession of their internal animal spirits - animal spirits associated with their Sak Yant tattoos.

It was quite an experience being in the midst of all this confusion and intensity.  Rudyard Kipling's poem, "If" comes into my mind after the event.

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs ...

Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And---which is more---you'll be a Man, my son!

To be honest, I had anticipate a certain degree of this when I first entered the shrine.  I positioned myself between the two stations where the Monks were situated. I was just to the right of the young Monk that conducted the ritual.  I was also next to a huge young man, a Thai man, perhaps the biggest Thai I ever saw - I estimate that he was 2 meters tall (6' 3") and 135 KG (300 pounds) and muscular - he looked like an NFL player!  He and about 4 other young men were responsible for controlling the people who had gotten out of control due to spirit position.  They would restrain the people, talk gently to them and as a last resort lift the people off of the ground.  It is widely known that to bring someone out of spirit possession you need to get their feet off the ground - it works about 95% of the time.  If it does not work - you get the possessed to lay flat on the ground and ride out their possession.  I have also used the technique of pulling on their ear lobe three times (signifying the three gems of Buddhism) to bring people out of spirit possession.  Perhaps it was really the realization that a falang (foreigner) was trying to bring them back that actually snapped them out of their possession.

For additional protection I had one of the shrine's structural columns at my back and a Rusei shrine also on my back.  That was one direction that I did not have to worry about.  I did not have to worry about in front of me where the Monks were.  I figured that the huge Thai guy had my left flank covered leaving me to only worry about my right flank.

To be honest, there were moments when I felt very uncomfortable with all the screaming, growling, screeching, and  growling along with the highly unusual movements of the possessed people about me. Once or twice I thought about bolting out of the shrine - but it was just too interesting to leave.

Lan Sai (Grandson)  Peelawat Enthralled By the Ritual
The intensity quickly diminished once the young Monk sprinkled the devotees with the sacred water.

Sprinkling Devotees and A Falang With Sacred Water
The devotees then scrunched forward to the Monk with their pre-prepared offering plates (candles, joss sticks, flower buds, three cigarettes and sprigs of leaves) along with their money offering.  The individual plates were gathered and placed first on a gold colored pressed metal tray and then transferred to the raised platform where the Monks were seated.

Monk Accepting A Batch of Offerings
As their turn arrived the devotees, who had not made their offerings previously, would place themselves in front of one of the two Monks involved in the ritual.  Once in place they would make an offering and give it to the Monk.

A Lady-Boy Makes Offering to the Monk
After accepting the offering and placing them on the raised  area off to the left from where he was seated, the Monk would start chanting.  It was a special chant called a "Kata".  Chanting a Kata is necessary to cast a spell.  As the Monk was chanting, he selected a Ruesi mask and placed it over the face and head of the devotee.  As the Monk's chanting became louder and more animated, the devotee tensed up with his arms and hands becoming rigid as if going into a catatonic state or becoming possessed - for some ; once again.

Placing A Ruesi Mask On the Devotee's Head

A Devotee, Wearing A Siarn Ruesi, Tenses As He Becomes Possessed
The devotees would grunt, howl, and screech the sounds of the animal or deity that was possessing them - their spirit.  The devotees would then start to writhe, crawl, jump, and hop as the spirit took control of their body.  To prevent damage to the devotee, Monk, observers and the shrine, layperson assistants flanking the devotee, would restrain the devotee as the possession reached its apogee.  The Monk would then blow upon the devotee to energize the Sak Yant tattoos and to complete the transference of the spell.  The Monk would then remove the mask.  The devotee, physically and emotionally spent, would then perform a wai (bowed, raised hands clasped in prayer position - the Thai demonstration of respect and gratitude) before leaving the shrine.

A Possessed Devotee Being Restrained

Monk Using A Walking Staff to Help Break A Particularly Strong Possession

So what was that all about?

In the Korb Khru ritual, devotees believe that they receive very powerful blessings, are rid of evil influences and black magic is eliminated,  In addition, the merits and strengths of the ancient Ruesi Por Gae, the master teacher of all Sak Yant practitioners.  The Master Teacher, Kroo, protects devotees of his teachings that have passed through the ages amongst the teachers from word of mouth.

I learned from Duang that the young Monk at the "Outside" Wat had studied under the very famous Sak Yant master - Luang Pi Nunn at the famous Wat Bang Phra near Bangkok..  People often remark that it is a small world obviously referring to this physical world but apparently the spirit world is also somewhat finite.

A Devotee With Sak Yant Tattoos Receives A Spell

The Korb Siarn Khru and subsequent Wai Khru Ceremony at Tahsang Village lasted from 10:00 A.M. to 3:00 P.M.  People, all of them from local villages, arrived by motorbike or pick up truck. There were five waves of roughly 20 devotees at a time undergoing the the laying of the mask and white magic spell.

There were no tourist vans or tour buses. It was a event for ordinary people - local people.  It was an extraordinary event - a great opportunity for photography and a special opportunity to experience a unique aspect of Thai culture.

Although I did not participate in the ritual, just experiencing and photographing it, Duang told me that I had earned merit as well as she because we had purchased and distributed soft drinks along with drinking water to the people.  Her cousin had prepared a big pot of food - Pad Thai that we also distributed.  Another family donated and distributed ice-cream - earning them their merit for the day.

This was just a glimpse into the realm of the occult here in Isaan.  Interestingly the occult here is related to doing good and benefiting people whereas my previous view of the occult in the West was that it was related to doing evil.

There is always something to learn and experience no matter where you are or how old you are if you are only willing to get off the beaten track and interact with the ordinary people.

If you have seen it before, there is always the opportunity to better understand and gain greater knowledge.