Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Songkran 2016 (2559 BE) - Bone Washing

We are now past this year's Songkran Festival.  The festival is traditional Thai New Years marked by the passing of the sun into Aires.  In Thailand the astrological calculations are no longer used to determine the start of Songkran. The official Songkran Holiday here in Thailand is April 13 to 15. If any of the official days are a weekend, the day or days are added on to the end of the official period.

That is what is supposed to be but there is the way that things are.  Many places celebrate the holiday for 6 or 7 days no matter what.  Thasang Village, this year celebrated from April 12th to the 16th with Songpoo Day, which has always been before Songkran, being celebrated tomorrow - 21 April. Just to add to the confusion some places celebrate at slightly different times - such as Pattaya concluding their celebration 1, 2, or 3 days after Bangkok.

There is some method to what may appear to be madness either figuratively or literally.  Staggering the local celebration dates allows people, especially those from Isaan and work in the Bangkok or Phuket areas, to celebrate with friends that they work with and still be able to return to their homes to celebrate with family.  Besides it allows a great party to continue even longer.

Songkran is a time when people are expected to return to their villages to pay respect to their elders - living and deceased.  It is a time of family reunions, family parties, celebrations with friends, and religious merit making to go along with merriment in general.  Songkran here in Thailand is like the combining of Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years, and the Super Bowl into one grand celebration in America.

The joy and festivities of Songkran often leads to tragedy.  Newspapers keep a tally of what is labelled Songkrans 7 "Dangerous Days".  Thailand's roads are the second most dangerous in the world and even more so during Songkran. 

Songkran also has a more somber and sober side.  It is during Songkran that Theravada Buddhist families will wash the bones of their ancestors.

During Songkran, Thai people demonstrate care, concern and respect for elders by pouring cool water and placing scented powder on elderly people.  Mid-April is the hottest time of the year and the end of the dry season here in Thailand.  Traditionally the people poured cool water on elderly people to help them deal with the heat.  The tradition is still practiced but the rowdy street parties and roving water wars along public thoroughfare's get the most attention nowadays.

Every Songkran people pour water over Buddha statues in homes and in Wats to clean, cool, as well as to show respect. The grounds of the temples are also cleaned up as well as residential property.  At many Wats there are festivals to raise funds for the maintenance of the temple and related property.  During the Songkran Festival families will remove the bones of ancestors to wash them and then return them to their resting places inside of the family Tat.

Everywhere where you drive about Isaan you will see places with colorful and sometimes gaudy concrete structures can be purchased.  Many of them are "Spirit Houses" but many are Tats.  Tats are elaborate structures on temple grounds in which bones are stored.

As family members die, they are cremated, and some of their bone fragments are retrieved by the Monks.  The Monks store the fragments and bury the remaining fragments and ashes on the Wat grounds.  After the family has constructed a Tat, the retained fragments are interned in a special ritual to place them in the Tat.

We arrived at Duang's Aunt's house on the morning of the 15th around 8:00 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 at other locations beside the Wat.  Duang's family, this year, opted to have the ritual in the home of the matriarch of the family.

Sahts were placed on the floor for the Monks, family members, and for the trays used in washing the bones.  Two containers of specially prepared water to be used in the ritual.  Duang's Aunt prepared the water by filling the containers with water and the adding flowers and scented powder to the water.

Serving Tray with Ghoats Containing Bone Fragments

A decorative porcelain or decorative metal urn, ghoat, containing the bone fragments was placed on an ordinary metal serving tray along with a metal drinking cup, as well as a bunch of sprigs from a daugkuhn shrub from the grounds of the Wat.  Another decorative metal serving tray was prepared with small portions of food offerings, two yellow birthday type wax candles, two sprigs of jasmine buds for the spirit of the ancestors. 

Washing Bones

The Brahman supervised and lead the family in the ritual.  Water was drawn out of the large container with the metal drinking cup.  The sprigs of daugkuhn shrub were then dipped into the metal cup and withdrawn to sprinkle the scented water over the bone fragments contained in the ghoat.

After the Monks had sprinkled the bones, the tray was placed in front of the immediate family.  Each family member repeated the water sprinkling.  When they had completed. other family members and others came up to the tray and sprinkled water.  The ritual was not limited to adults.  Children here in Isaan are taught manners and religion at a very young age.  These little girls were no exception. 

Our grandson, Pope 19 months old participated despite being ill.

Part of the ritual which was conducted by the Monks, involved chanting while candles dripped wax into a metal container of holy water and some metal coins placed at the bottom. The candles are traditional offerings and the dripping of the wax into water conveys the merit of the offering to the water which is a major vehicle in Theravada Buddhism for conveying merit between people of this world and the spirits of other worlds.  The coins are offerings to the spirits for use on their journeys.

Making Food Offerings to the Spirits

Food Offerings to Spirits Presented to Abbott

The focus of the ritual then became the offering of food to the spirits of the deceased family members.

As the ritual continued, a sii sein was unfurled to connect the food offerings, the Monks and the bone fragments together. The sii sein, 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 processions a thick sii sein connects the Monks who are leading the procession back to the coffin with family members and friends in between holding on to the sii sein as they walk.  At the Wat during the most part of the ritual, the coffin is connected by a sii sein from the crematorium across to the sala where  much of the ritual is being conducted.  As the Monks chanted, family members placed food offerings to the spirits of their deceased family members on a tray supported by a woven basket like structure.

After everyone, who wanted to, had sprinkled or poured water on the bone fragments, Duang's Aunt 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 food offerings for the spirit are brought to the two senior Monks who pour water over the offering to symbolize the transfer of merit to the spirit from the family.

Offerings are then made to the Monks in the name of the departed person.  Special bundles had been prepared the day before the Monks.  Items such as tooth paste, tooth brush, hand soap, laundry detergent, toilet paper, and other toiletries had been placed in three of the bundles each contained in plastic shopping bags.  One bundle, the fourth one for the Abbott, was wrapped in a special plain white cotton cloth with sii sein binding at the top.  This bundle contained new items such as pants, eye-glasses, watch, belt, socks, shoes, wallet, underwear, and shirt for the spirits.

After the ritual, the Monk will give the offered personal items to local people who are in need.

Paper Strips With Names of the Deceased Ancestors Are Burned
After paper strips, each of which had a name of a deceased family member written on it, were burned, the Abbott of the "inside Wat" got up and with the assistance of a family male member sprinkled water from the bowl that contained the coins and wax drippings using a bundle of coarse reeds.  The act of sprinkling the water transfers merit to the assembled family members.

As the Abbott, whom I have nicknamed "Rocketman", start about the room sprinkling holy water on people, I grabbed my camera and moved to the far reaches of the room.  I have been there and had it done before!  Rocketman started smiling and the family started laughing ... there was no escape and I was in Rocketman's sights!  As he approached me, I placed my camera behind me as far as I could reach.  Rocketman gently sprinkled me without getting any water on the camera - thankfully.  As I lowered my head in a gesture of respect, he then tapped me on the top of my head three times with fully loaded brush strokes of water.  As well as soaking my hair with water much to everyone's amusement, the three taps were also significant in that they symbolize the three Gems of Buddhism - Buddha, the Teachings of Buddha, and the Sanga (Buddhist religious community).  No doubt that as a foreigner and a Christian, Rocketman must have believed that I needed additional merit for my journey to liberation.

My merit for the day was not over with the triple tap.  One of the other Monks that always gives me heads-ups for photographing rituals, stopped by me on his way out.  He grabbed one of the metal cups and had one of the male family members fill it with water from washing the bones.  He gestured to me that he wanted me to pour it over my head.  I aim to please, most of the time, so my head got doused once again.

It was a memorable day ... paying respect to the ancestors, being with family, and having some laughs.

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