Thursday, May 26, 2016

21 May 2016 Bun Bang Fai Ban That







Last weekend, we attended the Ban That Rocket Festival.  The Festival started Friday 20 May and finished on Saturday 21 May this year.  However, Saturday was the only day of the rockets actually being launched.

May is the month for rocket festivals as well as just local people firing homemade gunpowder propelled rockets into the sky of Northeast Thailand (Isaan) and neighboring Lao People's Democratic Republic.

The typical rocket festival lasts for two days, with the rocket launching being set for the second day like the Tambon Nongwa Bun Bang Fai near my wife's home village.  However large festivals can last longer.  The Ban That Bun Bang Fai Festival is typically one of those longer festivals - historically lasting 5 or 6 days.

This year it was different for Ban That Bun Bang Fai.  The festival was only two days long with only one day of rocket launches.

It has been two years since the military took over governing Thailand.  As is typical in most countries, the military is more conservative and concerned about the morality and safety of the nation and its inhabitants.

Gambling other than the national lottery is illegal in Thailand.  The military has cracked down on the enforcement of the laws against gambling. Under civilian rule, there were "exceptions" and "accommodations" available with local Police authorities.  This is now extremely difficult to obtain.

The military is now also more vigilantly and diligently enforcing the existing laws regarding the purchasing and consumption of alcohol.

Every year people are injured and some are killed in accidents at Bun Bang Fai events.  Two years ago a man and a woman were killed at the Ban That Bun Bang Fei when an errant rocket slammed through the cab of their pick up truck as they arrived at the festival. The military, whose duty is to protect the nation considers that duty to include protecting the inhabitants from themselves.

With the heightened awareness over gambling, drinking, safety, and public misbehavior, there was a concern about the Ban That Bun Bang Fai would even be held this year.  I tried to find out when it was going to be held, typically the first week of May, but could not find out anything - there was no publicity about the event.  I ended up finding a phone number of the subdistrict office for the area where the festival is held.  I had my wife call and although it was not the right place to call for information, the person gave her the phone number for the Ban That administration.  Duang called and we got the information that we need to attend the festival.

What is a rocket festival?  Why make and launch rockets into the sky?  Why doesn't every country do it?

Well, first of all it is a cultural thing rooted in religious belief.



It is believed that these Buddhist festivals evolved from pre-Buddhist fertility rituals to bring the return of the Monsoon rains.  The festivals are held just before the start of the planting season.  It also is one last opportunity for the people to blow off some steam before the exhaustive rice planting season starts.





Some aspects of the fertility rites is retained in the current rocket festivals in that there typically are floats with animals with engorged genitals.  Some men match carrying a bow powered machination - it is wood figurines of a woman on her back and a man on top of her spread legs.  It is very realistic down to the details of pubic hair.  Well close to reality - other than the size of the man's "equipment" or "package".  As the man flexes the bow, the figurines perform the "horizontal mambo", "the nasty", "do it", "hump", "humpty dance", "slapping uglies" or whatever euphemism of your choice and preference.  All this is done to the delight of the crowd people of all ages.




Once the Buddhist religion was established in the area, Buddhist beliefs supplemented and complimented the fertility rites but never replaced them.  A Long time ago, during one of Buddha's many reincarnations, this time as a toad, the rain god (King of the Sky), Phaya Tan  (Taen) was angry with the people and animals. Buddha, Phaya Khang Khok, sermons were drawing people and creatures from earth and sky away from the King of the Sky.  He decided to punish them by withholding the necessary life giving and sustaining rains.  After seven years,seven months, and seven days of drought, the surviving people and animals got together and consulted with Buddha.


Naga Atop A Rocket

After much deliberations, they decided that Phaya Nak (Naga), the giant snake, would lead them in war against the rain god, Phaya Tan.  Phaya Tan defeated the giant snake and his troops.  Buddha and the survivors then sent Phaya Dtaw, the wasp along with Phaya Dtan, the hornet, to battle the rain god.  Phaya Tan was once again victorious and the surviving people and animals returned home to wait for their inevitable death from the lack of water.

Buddha, the toad, developed a plan to attack the rain god by using termites to build mounds up to the sky so that scorpions and centipedes could climb up to battle Phaya Tan and his forces.  Moths assisted the attack against the forces of the King of the Sky by eating away the handles of the enemy's weapons. Buddha accepted Phaya Tan's surrender on condition that the King of the Sky immediately provide the rains and in the future.  If the King of the Sky should forget, the people will remind him by launching rockets at which time he will start the rains.

Rockets at the Wat before being transported to the launch area
Today, the launching of rockets is a merit making ritual for the the peoples of Isaan and their ethnic, Lao Loum (Lowland Lao) cousins across the Mekong River in the Lao People's Democratic Republic (Laos).  Monks are often involved in the construction and observation of the rocket launches.

One Vendor's Stockpile For the Day

The launching of rockets started at 9:00 A.M..  Rockets were roaring up into the sky every thirty seconds.



This year there were no large rockets - just rockets made from 6" or 8" PVC pipe - possibly due to safety considerations but more likely financial realities.

Unlike previous festivals at Ban That there was no play by play of each launch.  There were no officials tracking and announcing the time for each rocket to reach its apogee and total elapsed time from launch to return to the ground.  The total time is important as well as smoothness of flight along with stylistic points for the smoke plume are important in determining the winner of the prizes for the festival. I did not see any gambling whatsoever this year.



There were also no launch control this year - no men waving the appropriate red or green flags for launch safety or control.  There was no countdowns broadcast to give warning of impending launches.  The rules this year were like people sometimes say .. "The rules are ... there are no rules."



Rockets were blasting off willy-nilly every 30 seconds.  It was the wild west of rocket launches.  Due to the lack of larger rockets, people had a false sense of security and safety.  A pavilion with tables and chairs was set up about 100 feet from the launch pads.  Although too close to be safe - I enjoyed the shade and chair.  I was also able to get some good shots of an exploding rocket using my 28-70 mm lens.

Ban That ... We have a problem!


Whoops ... This was not planned or meant to be


Scattered about the launch area were pavilions underneath which, rocketeers were making the final adjustments and preparations for their rockets.

Both sides of the roadway along the perimeter of the land side of the launch area were lined with booths selling all kinds of food as well as drink - fruit, donuts, corn on the cob, water, fruit juices, soft drinks, fried shrimp. noodle soup, chicken feet, grilled dried squid, and other ethnic delights.  Other booths were selling umbrellas, hats, clothing, balloons, and inflatable toys.  There were not as many booths as in previous years and the crowds were far smaller.



I had gone off on my own to take photographs while Duang remained in the shade of a small tree on the edge of the launch area.  When I joined up with her to get cooled off somewhat and have some ice cold water, she told me that many people were complaining - the festivals are funded by grants from the government.  This year the military provided the same amount of money for the entire festival that had been just the amount in prize money for the rocket competition in previous years.  This no doubt was why this year's festival was so much shorter and smaller than previous years.  Fortunately it was just as much fun and exciting as in those earlier years.

At the far end of the launch complex there was a large stage were a grand show commenced at 11:00 A.M.  I made it to 11:30 A.M. when I gave in because I was having too much fun.  I was hot and sweaty - although it was very cloudy the temperature was around 95F and the humidity was up.

When I told Duang that I wanted to go home, she was also more than ready to head home.  Although it was a short time, we had enjoyed our stay at the rocket launches and there was no sense in risking it all due to a false sense of time being important in this endeavor.  Besides we are going to be attending Bun Bang Fai in Kumphawapi on 28 & 29 May and Tambon Nongwa on June 1 & 2!

I go out on every photo shoot with a goal in mind.  The goal typically is the type of shots that I want to focus on, mood or moods that I would like to capture and a story or stories that I want to tell with or through the photographs.  Well life, at times, is very much like photography.  We may have our priorities and our goals which are all good and necessary.  However, we can not let our goals and priorities blind us from seeing, experiencing and enjoying the unexpected opportunities that present themselves along the sides or margins of our awareness.  Often  it is these unexpected moments, situations, and opportunities that can give us the greatest pleasures. Life is to be lived, fully experienced and enjoyed.



Wednesday, May 18, 2016

School Is Back In Session





Hoisting the flag at Thasang Village Elementary School

Yesterday was the first full day of the new school year here in Northeast Thailand. I ended up at Thasang Village Elementary School just before the start of the school day.  I was attending a religious event at the house behind the school and planned my arrival to coincide with the start of day activities at the school.


Thasang Village Elementary School


The elementary school that Duang attended for four years and the school that is still used for six grade levels is located on the main road just outside of Thasang Village.  When Duang went to school, students started school when they became seven years old.  Today the children start when they are three years old.  The school is comprised of several buildings.  There is the main classroom building - an elevated 8 room wood structure.  There is an assembly hall about 10 meters by 10 meters square with a tile floor at grade that is also used as the 3 and 4 year old classroom.  There is a library building similar to the assembly hall but smaller.  There is a kitchen building.  There is a bathroom building.  A large playing field separates the school building from the road.  The school is typical of the schools scattered amongst the villages throughout Isaan.



This year, forty of Tahsang Village's children attend the school.  They are instructed by 4 teachers (a couple of teachers instruct in more than one class at a time), a Principal, a Deputy Principal and acting Nurse, and Administrative person.

There are some differences in this typical Isaan school and public schools in the USA.  Outside of the building there is a Buddhist shrine near the flagpole.  In the classrooms there is a religious Buddhist picture alongside a photograph of the King and a picture of the Thai flag. The Buddhist religion is an integral component of Thai daily living, Thai government, and Thai education.

Although 97% Buddhist and with Buddhism being the official state religion, Thailand is tolerant of other faiths.  I have seen and visited Catholic, and Protestant churches along with Hindu temples.  I have seen many Mosques and I have seen Mormon missionaries out and about Udon Thani on their bicycles.

Elementary schools in Isaan are constructed out of wood rather than steel, brick and concrete.  The schools here do not have air conditioning which makes sense because the schools do not have glass in their windows or ceiling insulation or even insulation in the walls.  The windows in the school do not have screens either.  There are a couple small fans in the class room to move the air around - just as in the student's homes.  The floors of the school are wide wood planking - I suspect teak wood.  The floors are smooth from many years of many students walking over them.

There is a TV mounted in a sturdy steel frame on the classroom wall so that media can be integrated into the teaching program.  There was also an old desktop computer on the teacher's desk of the classrooms.

The classrooms are illuminated by a couple of bare florescent tube lights - no reflectors or diffuser grids - just a bare tube - like in the student's home.  The school roof is corrugated steel with no sound damping application which must make for difficult hearing during downpours.  The classroom furniture is heavy wood and utilitarian.  I suspect that some of the chairs and desks that Duang used over 40 years ago are still being used.  As in so many aspects of Lao Loum culture here in Isaan, the schools fully utilize what is available and take care of what they have.  There is a focus on items being "fit for purpose" rather than "stylish" or "modern".

After parking my truck in front of the school, I was soon surrounded by some of my young friends from the village - Tey, Fugh, Nong Kem, Pizza, Eat, Omsim, and Care.




While older students were busy sweeping out the classrooms and corridor of the school, the younger children were free to play.

Omsim made it a point to show me what she could do with the playground equipment.




The playground equipment was quite rudimentary but fit for purpose.  There is plenty of ground for the children to run around - flat ground - dirt and some grass.  There is a small section that is paed over with concrete with a basketball hoop at each end.  There is also a soccer goal with tattered netting at each end.

There is a run set up similar to the tires that American football players run through during training.  However rather than being constructed of car or truck tires, this running maze is made out of recycled motorcycle tires painted with bright colors and bound together with parachute cord.  Little Omsim ran through the maze like a little champ!

Perhaps the most popular equipment was a series of wood columns of different heights and spacing driven into the ground.  Each of the columns was painted with a different bright color.  It was so much fun that even I gave it a try.  However my knees and tentative sense of balance reminded me that it has been a long time since I was in elementary school and that this piece of equipment is meant for children.




Another fit for purpose and recycled piece of equipment was a climbing structure constructed out of motorcycle tires lashed together with paracord and painted with different bright colors.  It looked  like a great deal of fun but was not meant to support someone my size.






After a while, the school principal struck a metal bell, which sounded like a ship's bell, several deliberate times to signal the official start of the school day.  Three of the older students came forward to the flagpole with the Thai flag.  All the other students lined up by class on the play ground.  The younger students, wearing their distinctive school uniform - red shorts, red skirts, pale blue shirt, and smock, formed up at the left closest to the flagpole.  The other students formed up by class and separated by sex to the left of the small students.

As the Thai flag was raised, all the students sang the Thai National Anthem.

https://youtu.be/BrcGzLIEsAU?t=11s




It was quite a moving rendition of the national anthem.  The children more than compensated for their lack of singing sophistication with their energetic enthusiasm.

After completing the anthem, the student's attention became focused on the platform to the left of the flag pole. Inside of a cage on top of the platform is a statue of Buddha.  Led by one of older girls, all the students prayed and chanted.




Upon completion of the religious aspect of the start of day ceremony, the children then paid their respects to each other.  In Thailand, people demonstrate greetings and respect by performing the "wai" gesture.  The wai is performed by raising the hands in a praying position while bowing the head.  The degree the head is bowed and the height to which the hands are raised indicates the level of respect for the person and is dictated by the social status of the person that the gesture is offered to. The significance of the wai to Thai culture and social fabric is so great that children are taught how to do it starting when they are 6 months old.




After showing their respect to their classmates, the students then showed their respect to the older students and finally to their teachers.

The principal then made some announcements.  After the announcements, she had the older students pair up with the youngest students prior to all the students setting forth on "yard duty"  The students set forth about the school grounds picking up trash.


Yard Duty
After clearing the school grounds of plastic bottles, glass bottles, plastic cups, scraps of paper, candy wrappers, foam containers, plastic sheeting and assorted debris, the students assembled at the edge of the playground.  One of the teachers than gave the students a lecture on recycling.  She talked about recycling plastic and glass.  The students then placed the materials in the appropriate recycling bin.

The students then proceeded to the outdoor wash station to clean their hands and. for some, play with some water before heading off to their classrooms.


Cleaning up before going to class

Just like I have written about the differences in medical care and more importantly medical care costs here in Isaan as opposed to America, I have the same conclusion regarding public education here in Isaan.  A great deal of the costs of public education in America is involved in the physical facilities as well as maintenance of those facilities.  Those costly monuments, vestiges, and trappings of the current education system do not necessarily pay dividends in the quality of the student's education. They are more resume builders and testimonials to the administrators of the local education bureaucracy.  Here in Isaan the facilities no way compare to those in the USA however the students seem to get the education that they need for this society.


Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Korb Siarn Khru 2016




Por Gae Ta Fai

Duang and I drove out to her home village on May 1st to witness another Korb Siarn Khru ritual being performed at the Wat located just outside the village amongst the sugar cane fields.  This was the third ritual that we have observed during the past three years.

 The Korb Siarn Khru ritual is a variant of the  Wai Khru ritual.


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.





The Korb Siarn Khru ritual involves paying respects to teachers known as "Ruesi", sages and seers, who are masters of the occult (outside of ordinary knowledge).  In a twist on the Wai Khru ritual, the devotees have a mask placed upon their head to transfer blessings and to link them to the lineage of the masters and deities.

The Korb Siarn Khru ceremony removes black magic spells and provides protection to the devotee.




Attending large and well known events such as the Wai Khru Ceremonies and Korb Siarn Khru Ceremonies provide opportunities for me 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.


The young Monk of the Wat performed a typical offering ritual outside of the shrine 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.


The Ruesi shrine has changed over the past year.  The open sides have now been enclosed and there are two additional shrines inside of the enclosed space.

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 known throughout this world.


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.







Inside of the shrine there was an 
overhead matrix  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.

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.

In Thailand there is an often used expression of "Same, same but different"  At first it is easy to snicker and dismiss such an expression.  However, after living here for a while, I have developed an appreciation for the phrase.  It captures some of the essence of being Thai and conveys the notion of being connected to something in a changing world.  For Buddhist life is change. Nothing remains the same  ... unchanged.

This Korb Siarn Khru ritual was the third that we attended and it was "Same, same but different"

The biggest difference in the ritual was the part of preparing the sacred water that is sprinkled on the devotees and attendees of the ceremony.

The water is produced pretty much in the same manner that Monks use in many of their merit making rituals.




The young Monk allowed the drippings from two white candles to fall into a converted Monk's bowl as he recited katas.





This year however was different, at the conclusion of the preparation of the sacred water, the Monk ate the fire from the candles.




The "eating of the fire" was not a carnival or street-performer feat.  The Monk,  a devotee and disciple of Por Gae Luesi Ta Fai was demonstrating his expertise of "Kasin Fai" - Fire Elemental Control.

Por Gae Lusi Ta Fai is a hermit wizard with a third eye.  He can stare at anything and make it burst into flames.




As the ritual continued 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.
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.



The intensity quickly diminished once the young Monk sprinkled the devotees with the 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.


As their turn arrived the devotees, who had not made their offerings previously, would place themselves in front of the Monk involved in the ritual.  Once in place they would make an offering and give it 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.


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.


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.  As often is the case, there will be more than sufficient "Same. same but different" to also keep it interesting.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Khon Masks









On May 1st, we attended a Korb Siarn Khru Ritual at Wat Pha That Nong Mat outside of my wife's home village of Ban Thasang.

Special masks play a very important part of the Korb Siarn Khru Ritual.  I have posted some photos of the masks on Facebook over the past week.  One of my friends asked if they were Halloween masks.

No they are not Halloween masks.  The reply just like the reply for some people to the social media question about if they are in a relationship ... "It's complicated"

The history and culture of Thailand is definitely complicated.  Although Thailand was never conquered or colonized by Europeans, the history of Thailand is a series of conflicts - the rise and fall of kingdoms internal as well as external.  Each progression influenced and progressed to what is today's Thai culture.

The region, now recognized as Thailand was also subject to migrations of peoples from China, Tibet, Cambodia, Lao, as well as Burma.

In regards to religion, I have written before that ... "It's complicated".  The influx of the various peoples bringing their own belief systems and traditions added to the Animist belief system.  Over time Brahmanism, the precursor to Hinduism, exerted its influence over the region's religious beliefs.  Rather than rejected their old Animist beliefs, the people incorporated the Brahman rituals and traditions into their belief system. When Buddhism arrived, the people once again adapted and incorporated the new system and traditions into their religious Pantheon.




Khon masks have their origins in Hinduism, specifically the Hindu epic poem "Ramayana" circa 400 BC.  The Ramayana, like epic poems such as Homer's "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey", Virgil's "The Aeneid", Milton's "Paradise Lost, and Dante's "Divine Comedy, is a long, narrative poem that is  about heroic deeds, intense adventures, heroic deeds and events that are significant to the writer's culture.

The Thais adopted the Ramayana around 900AD with the earliest record of it being in the 1200s.  The Ramakian, Thailand's adaptation, was supervised and portions written by King Rama I from 1797 to 1807.  Previous copies had been destroyed by the invading Burmese  in 1767.

King Rama II, modified parts of the Ramakien for the basis of Khon, a mask dance drama which includes music, singing, dance, narration and acrobatics.  Originally the Khon was traditionally only performed for the royal court to celebrate significant events.



The performers of the Khon wore masks to identify the characters of the Ramakian whom they were portraying.


The characters of the Khon performances are gods, deities, spirits and greater humans.  In the Hindu religion there are 14 worlds - 7 heavens and 7 underworlds each inhabited by various beings.



One group of beings, Rishis, are also known in Thailand as "Ruesi" are sages and seers.  Ruesi was 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 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.



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 - creatures of the Ramakian, also spelled as Ramakien.



No, they are not Halloween masks, but masks of much greater tradition. meaning, and significance.  Khon masks are also much more complicated - transcending the ages, across great spaces and binding cultures together.



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