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!

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