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.

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