Friday, December 11, 2015

Thamnot Poo Papit Kanet





Siarn Ruesi - Ruesi Mask
The world that I find myself in now is very different from the world that I lived in for so many years of my life.  What I knew of Southeast Asia was dominated by nightly reports on television of the "body count" in Vietnam during the Vietnam, or American War, depending upon your perspective.

Shortly after my 15th birthday, I remember sitting next my grandfather as he drove his 54 Chevy not down to levee but over to Barn Island in Southeast Connecticut on one of our fishing and clamming expeditions.  There was a news bulletin on the radio regarding some ships from North Vietnam attacking one of our naval vessels in the Gulf of Tonkin.  I remember thinking that it was very serious stuff but also coming to the conclusion that it really had nothing to do with me.  Little did I, along with so many other people that day, realize how much that "incident' would affect their lives for the next 15 years or more.

I did not a very high regard for Southeast Asia and its peoples for many years due to the daily coverage of the war and related political events.

It was not until later in my life, when I went to work in Malaysia, that I began to learn and appreciate what a beautiful region and how interesting the inhabitants of the region are.  It is one of the motivational factors that I have in writing this blog and sharing my photographs.  The reality of this region is not what is so often depicted in film or on television.

Living here and being married to an ethnic Lao Loum (Lowland Lao), I have many opportunities to experience and witness unique peoples, cultural events, religious rituals, and traditions that are not available to the vast majority of visitors and tourists.  My wish is to share these with people who only know of this region from the traditional media.

I make a concerted effort to not judge what I see and experience.  I always check with my wife to ensure that what I report as fact is indeed fact and not my observations through the veils of my American experiences and perspective.  I write of what I see, hear, and what I am told.  There is the possibility of some inadvertent miscommunications and confusion.  Today's blog is perhaps one such example but it is my best effort.

Duang and I were invited by one of her cousins to attend a special ceremony on November 1 at her home in Kumphawapi.  Duang told me that her cousin was a special person, a person who was once the grand-daughter of "Papit Kanet".  After some further discussion, I learned that "Papit Kanet" is actually the Hindu deity "Ganesh" - the multi-headed Elephant with the potbelly.

The belief in reincarnation is an integral part of Buddhism and Brahmanism (the precursor to Hinduism).  Duang has been told by a Ruesi (sage, wizard) that she was once the grand-daughter of two Nagas.  Nagas are mythical serpent creatures sort of like dragons that live and rule the underwater world. She was the grand-daughter of "Si Phatoum Ma" (female) and "Si Suttoo" (male).

Many of Duang's family and friends believe that I was once Lao in a former life.  A Monk once told her that I was once a Naga.  However unlike Duang who is related to royal nagas, in a past life I was just an ordinary Naga.  Duang has forgotten my name as a Naga.  The Monk even told her where I used to live.

I have often marveled at how so many people, who believe in reincarnation, in the West believe that they were once royal, noble, or famous.  I have yet to meet someone who claims to have been a serf, slave, or vassal in a previous life.  Considering throughout history how many more slaves, serfs, vassals there were compared to royalty, nobility, or famous, I would suspect that there would be plenty of people today with not so desirable past lives.  Tonight I wonder if being a Naga in a past life here in Southeast Asia is equivalent to the West's preferred past lives.

Duang's Cousin's Home Shrine
We arrived at Duang's cousin's home and after being greeted, we sat down on the floor in the front room of the house.  The room was a shrine, a shrine of paintings, sculptures, offerings and masks associated with the Ruesi tradition, Brahmanism, Hinduism, Animism, as well as Buddhism.  This may seem somewhat strange to have a spiritual and religious focus on so many different faith systems.  However, although confusing to outsiders, the conglomeration of diverse faith systems is a reflection of regional history and culture.  Thai culture is known for its tolerance. 

The first belief system was Animism, the faith in the existence and power of diverse spirits such as the spirits of the land, spirits of the water, and spirits of the home.  As time progressed the region was exposed to Brahmanism which was a precursor to Hinduism.  Rather than discarding the Animist system, the people assimilated Brahmanism into their culture.  As time moved on Brahmanism evolved into the system of current day Hinduism.  Once again the old systems were maintained and the elements of the new system, Hinduism, were assimilated.  Buddhism, the faith of roughly 95% of Thai and Lao people arrived from Shri Lanka.  The tenets of  Buddhism were accepted and assimilated into today's faith system widely referred to as "Buddhism" but retaining much of the prior traditions, rituals, and practices.  It is important in attempting to understand Buddhism is to recognized that Buddhism evolved originally from Hinduism.

Loading Up - Betel Nut Chewing

In the room with us were several young people all of them dressed in white or very pale blue simple cotton clothing.  The simple vestments are worn by woman and men laypeople for participation in special merit making rituals.  The start of the special ritual was the commencement of betel nut chewing by Duang's cousin, her husband, and many of the lay people.  Betel nut is a mild stimulant and it is widely known and accepted that the spirits appreciate and expect the chewing of betel nuts to participate in the rituals.

The ritual was very much like the Korb Siarn Wai Khru ceremonies that I have witnessed and written about before. But as we say, say often, here ... "Same, Same but different"  I was confused that the ritual was being conducted by a women who seemed to be acting like a Ruesi.  From what I know about Ruesi, they can only be men.  I have questioned Duang about this and she confirmed that only men can be Ruesi but women can be like Ruesi (Same, Same but different?).  Women like her cousin can be spirit mediums - able to communicate to and from spirits.

Duang's Cousin, Wearing a Khata,, Chants a Kata

The ritual was very similar to the Korb Siarn Khru ceremonies that I have previously witnessed.  Devotees would kneel before Papit Kanet and listen to her chanting a Kata (mantra), a sort of invocation or spell.  Unlike previous rituals involving Ruesi, in this ceremony the devotees as well as Duang's cousin wore silk scarves around their neck.  The scarf is called "Khata" and is a traditional ceremonial item in Tibetan Buddhism - another element assimilated into what is accepted as Thai Theravada Buddhism.  I did not know about the need for a scarf or even have a scarf but that was not a problem,  Duang's cousin graciously opened a package and presented me with a beautiful red silk scarf and gave it to me as a gift.

Another difference between this ceremony and others was the incorporation of betel nut chewing into the ritual.  The vast majority of the devotees, except for Duang, chewed betel nuts.  All of the people, except for Duang, who actually had the Ruesi mask placed on their heads had chewed betel nuts.  Chewing betel nuts is a mild stimulant and is quite often used as offerings to the spirits.

Duang Receiving the Siarn Ruesi
Another difference with this ritual and previous Khru rituals, was the dancing of the devotees while under spirit possession - that is everyone except for Duang.  This spirit possessed dancing is a common element in Hindu rituals.  At other rituals of this type the people were possessed by animal spirits of their sacred tattoos.  They would become violent and had to be physically restrained by other laypeople.  To break their animal spirit possession, laypeople would have to lift the possessed person's feet off of the ground and rub his ears.  For the Thamnot Poo Papit Kanet ritual performed by Duang's cousin no intervention was required.  However in addition to dancing some of the possessed people would choke, make guttural noises and spit phlegm into small containers lined with plastic bags.  I don't know if the spitting up of fluid was a result of chewing betel nut or possession by spirits.

A Possessed Devotee

Devotee Dancing While Possessed

At the end of the ritual for each devotee, Duang's cousin drew a symbol on their forehead using a long wooden rod and a paste like substance.  An ancient symbol which is a Sat Yank representation for Buddha was the end result of the marking part of the ritual.

Duang Being Marked

My "Marked" Wife
Parts of the ritual were quite intense - chanting of katas, guttural sounds, loud Oriental music punctuated by reverberating drums, clanging cymbals, the odor of burning incense, and the high energy of the participants.  I could feel the energy of the ritual and started to immediately thing about experiencing a small glimpse of mass hysteria.  Eventually the energy level and its intensity subsided - a welcomed denouement.

Kali Standing on Shiva's Corpse
With everyone returned to normal, I was able to ask some questions regarding some things that I had observed - things that I had not seen before.  Off to the left of the raised platform where Duang's cousin was located for the ritual, there was a full sized grotesque black statue that had one of its feet resting upon a supine blue life-sized man. This statue was something that I imagined was related to some type of voodoo ritual in Haiti.  The standing figure was demonic with a long dark red tongue fully projecting from its mouth.  A wreath of skulls was worn around the neck of the statue. A ring of heads encircled the waist of the statue.  This was the substance of children's nightmares and perhaps even mine.

I asked Duang what it was all about.  She quickly informed me that the black statue was Pamet Gali - a good female spirit that takes care of people (OK ... who am I to cast doubts upon someone's believes and besides Duang is my wife BUT I was not convinced)  This good female spirit, Pamet Gali, was the sister of Mare Touranni.  I know about Mare Touranni - she is the deity that protected Buddha while he was meditating.  His enemies had massed to attack him but she came up out of the Earth and created a flood by wringing the moisture out of her hair that drowned the enemy forces.  She is highly revered in Lao and Thailand.  You will often find statues of her - a beautiful young maiden often topless twisting her long hair draped over her shoulder.

Duang went on to tell me that the blue statue under the black statue's foot was her husband, Si Wa Tet, who was in the Army and taking a rest.  I remember that there are some Wats in Thailand named or containing the words "Si Wa Tet" in it, so I was feeling somewhat more comfortable in Duang's explanation but then again there were those skulls and severed heads.

When I write these blogs, I truly want to write the story of the people that I encounter rather than writing my story.  Perhaps I am trying to be a living medium - communicating their story to others through me.  As such I always run what I saw, what I thought that it was all about, and its significance with my wife before I write a blog entry.  I also do Internet research to confirm, verify and better understand the elements and facts of my blogs.

This blog was no exception.  I started researching the Ruesi, the silk Khata, and the chanting of kata.  Lo and behold I stumbled upon information regarding "Pamet Gali" and I even found a very similar statue WITH explanation.

Duang's "Pamet Gali" is actually the Hindu deity - Kali.  The story behind the statue is entirely Hindu and as follows:  Kali is the dark Hindu Goddess of time and change.  She killed a demon named Raktabija, an enemy of her husband - Shiva.  She ill-advisedly licked up the blood of the demon before it could touch the ground to prevent him regenerating.  The demon's blood messed up her mind and she went berserk - destroying everything and everyone that she saw - in THREE worlds.  Her husband Shiva wanted her to stop and snap out of her craziness.  Shiva took the form of a corpse and laid in front of her.  When she tripped over his body, she snapped out of her madness. She was concerned that she in her frenzy had killed her husband.  She placed her foot on the corpse of her husband, Shiva, to bring him back to life.  Shiva came back to life in the form of a crying child.  Kali was so moved with maternal instincts and love, that she shed her fierce form and became Gauri - the radiant mother and giver of life.  AHHH - it started making a great deal more sense ... to me.  Duang, as typical, knew exactly what she was talking about.  The problem is sometimes she "not talk English good" and more often "You English, not understand"  Fortunately we get it all straightened out - often with the help of Google.

Ruesi Papit Kanet and Laypeople
There are connections that tie things to the past, the present, and the future.  The connections are not always readily recognized, appreciated or understood but they exist.

It turns out that one of the sons of Kali and Shiva was Ganesh - the multi- headed elephant deity.  Another connection is that after killing the demon Kali celebrated by dancing wildly about the battlefield.

I was beginning to understand a little better the spiritual world of the people about me.  My learning and experiences into that spiritual world was to continue in November of this year.

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