On Christmas Day here in Chiang Mai you can go get a driver’s license, go to class at the university, get a spare part for your car, or have your dog vaccinated. In other words, it’s not a holiday. But if you go to a shopping mall there will be a faux Christmas tree several stories tall and Christmas muzak (is that still a word for elevator music?). Big hotels will have Christmas buffets at elevated prices, and churches will have services or will have had them the night before. Christmas is for Christians. For the rest of the population Christmas is a bit of foreign culture that has drifted in and been adapted. But the fit may not be seamless. Here in South East Asia references to snow don’t fit. Eggnog is a mystery, as is wassail and mulled wine. On the other hand, colored lights are pretty. Presents are nice. Festive food is fun. So if any of these happen, great.
Christmas here will not be what it is elsewhere. But the fact that Christmas has “always” been culturally eclectic is our loophole. It can be done OUR WAY, because there is no one way it has to be done. We can create Christmas traditions, and we can accumulate them or dispense with them as circumstances change.
It is rather sad when we meet expatriates here who are depressed because they have failed to include some component of Christmas, without which their whole Christmas is flawed. Not that this is an ex-pat phenomenon; the death of a loved one can deprive Christmas of a critical element. Christmas can be lost wherever you are. Or it can be re-described. We are free to do that.
It has always been that way. Of all the world-wide festivals Christmas is the most fluid. The culture of Christmas is an amalgamation of cultural contributions: Christmas trees from Germany, Santa Claus from Holland, a Christmas crèche from Italy, “Silent Night” from Austria. It is ironic that Christmas is almost universal but not one thing about it is firm. There have been times when Christmas was illegal in Christian lands, including Puritan America. At other times and places observance of Christmas was one indispensible element to identify a real Christian. There are multiple dates for Christmas. The very meaning of Christmas is controversial. Some absolutely essential elements of modern Christmas are newer than railroads. Some are newer than airplanes. Some are religious, others decidedly secular.
Our colleague Bill Yoder has been here in Chiang Mai for 50 Christmases or so. Until recently, for scores of people his annual Christmas open house has been a key ingredient to Christmas in Chiang Mai. It couldn’t be Christmas without roast pig at Bill’s place. This year Bill has been in the hospital for all of Advent. As the days to Christmas dwindle it’s beginning to look doubtful he’ll be back into his Mae Jo home, named “Paradise” (in some language or other) by Christmas. Bill and those scores of people are going to have to do Christmas some other way.
The thing which makes a tradition function effectively is an implied narrative. If there is no story there is no tradition. The best stories can be told in words. But the story may be more elusive than that. Uncle Tom’s Christmas visits or Minnie’s plum puddings are spindles for stacks of stories in our family up to a certain time. Lots of people in our clan back in Illinois have a recollection of Uncle Tom’s visits and Grandma’s Christmas dinners ending with plum pudding aflame with fuel that questioned her devotion to “tea totally”. Now they are memories some of us share, but the tradition is over. Someday the last of those who remember will be gone and the stories will also be forgotten.
So far I have been talking about Christmas traditions in “modern” time. Since Christmas is a religious celebration its story is about “sacred” time. Sacred time is when something holy took place. The only events that are holy are when divinity is involved directly. Religious rites are ritual re-enactments of those holy events. They symbolize the core aspect of the narrative about a divine-human encounter. Those who participate in celebrations are blessed if they intuit how those encounters in sacred time reflect incidents in their own lives.
As long as there is an intersection or at least a coherent parallel between a modern story and a sacred story, they can be said to be related. The connection must be in some way real, either as an intellectual notion or an emotional one or a cultural one.
So what’s going to make it a Christian Christmas here in Chiang Mai?
No one thing, I think. It’s cumulative. The Payap University performance of Saint-Saens Christmas oratorio last week-end, the All Saints service of “Nine Lessons and Carols” next Sunday December 21 at 5 p.m., the family oriented Protestant service at First Thai Church at 7 on Christmas Eve, and the midnight mass at the Roman Catholic Cathedral could be events for some of us to contextualize Christmas here, where the largest Christmas trees are really just cone-shaped strings of lights, the best you do for plum pudding is a canned fruitcake from Rim Ping Supermarket, and Skype is the closest you can get to your blood relatives. Add to that some family traditions: a tree in the living room, cinnamon rolls for breakfast, cordial glasses of Cherry Herring and Crème de Menthe (red and green, get it?) … the elements could be anything. Somehow they add up to Christmas. Finally, top it off with a surprise or two. Behold, Christmas!
As long as you can connect the narrative links, the stories will lead you to Christmas as surely as if you were sitting in St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City when Pope Francis is wafted in with clouds of incense.
Pramote and I think we can connect the dots between Luke chapter 2, a few of Julie’s Christmas cupcakes, and “Merry Christmas” to you.
“The shepherds were out in the fields keeping watch over their flocks by night,” a cherubic soprano announced, indicating three little boys holding crooked walking sticks while three more crawled toward them clad in white, covered with fluffy cotton wool.
Winnifred Clayborn Harrington of the Harbor Fort Harringtons leaned toward her son Kevin and smiled. Kevin was trying to be convinced that this act of Christmas Eve piety was going to reassure her about his spiritual welfare, but his mother’s amusement was ambiguous. Her visit to Thailand was all but certain when he had written telling her that he was signing a contract to teach a second year in the Land of Smiles, although he would probably have preferred for her to send the money for him to fly home for Christmas at Harrington Hall, tedious as he would have found it to be tucked securely away from all he loved. Kevin loved his mother, of course, to the extent that Harringtons could love each other. But the fastness and security of Harrington Hall was so entombing. In Thailand he had bloomed like the roses in the King’s palace on Doi Sutape. His mother had not really given him a choice about where he would spend Christmas, however. She had simply sent him her flight plans with the implied instruction to attend to her during her short visit. And why was it so short? Kevin had no time to ponder that question as the congregation lurched to its feet to sing, “Silent night, holy night.” What would his mother want to do next this Christmas Eve? Kevin hadn’t got that far. In his mind the evening ended for her at the church service.
He found out that she had been thinking of an extended evening when she skillfully steered him across the busy riverfront road to a supper club where a jazz band was rendering Christmas music. After appreciating the skill with which the bar tender shook her martini and poured it with a flourish, Winnifred leaned toward Kevin and asked in a conspiratorial tone, “Now where is the girly-boy show?” Kevin gasped in spite of himself. Showtime was the last place in Thailand he had planned to bring his mother. How did she even know about it and why, of all places, was she asking about it? “Ladyboys,” Kevin corrected her as he collected his wits and tried to be evasive. “Ladyboys,” she agreed, “where do we go to see them perform?” “Holy shit!” Kevin expostulated despite himself. His mother seemed mildly amused at his reaction. “Holy night,” she chided, merrily. Ladyboys were not what he would have expected her to be interested in, if he had thought about it, but his mind was reeling. Maybe he could still obfuscate his way into other territory. “Mother, the katoeys are hanging around the city gate looking for danger,” he tried. It didn’t work, “No,” she insisted. “Where is the cabaret show?”
So they were there in the front row when the lights dimmed and the music came on for the opening chorus line at the Showtime Cabaret Revue. It was an impressive spectacle, although Kevin was not thinking about the glittering, feathery dancers and their oiled, sleek companions as they whirled and leaped. He was reeling from the realization that his mother was not here by chance. There was more to her choice of this cabaret show on Christmas Eve than some random surfing the Internet she had done as she planned her trip. She confirmed it during a break when the stage was being set for the Christmas portion of the program. “Which one is Bird?” Winnifred asked, leaning toward Kevin as she stared at the team pushing Santa’s sleigh onto the stage. Instead of answering Kevin gasped, “How do you know?” “Charlotte told me all,” Winnifred replied with simple finality.
Then Winnifred switched into her motherly tone of voice. “Kevindear,” she used the familiar conjoined form of his name rather than “Kevin (pause) Dear” which would have signaled displeasure. She was being motherly and intimate, “Two Christmas dramas this evening are quite enough. It is time I met your Bird in the hand,” she punned. Charlotte had betrayed him; that was all Kevin could think about. She had promised to keep pretending their “thing” was still going on so his mother would not suspect the truth. “I made her tell,” his mother interrupted his inner-rant, determined to get back to the main subject that had brought her all this way from Harbor Fort, Maryland.
The music was belting out “Here Comes Santa Claus” when Winnifred flicked her hand impatiently at the chorus line behaving like lithe and lovely reindeer. “The one in blue,” Kevin pointed. Seeing him point, Bird in blue managed a demure wave and flashed a grin without losing a beat. Winnifred stared intently at the performers for several moments and then took another sip of her Christmas cocktail, a concoction of red tropical fruit juice with Smirnoff vodka topped with green mint leaves frosted with powdered sugar. Then she settled back contentedly with a look of victory spreading over her face.
When the show was over the performers lined up so members of the audience could have pictures taken with them for extra tips. Bird hopped out of the line and jogged over to Kevin and his mother. He had heard all about Kevin’s anxiety over his mother’s visit, and had doubted it was going to be as dreadful as Kevin feared. Bird had been warned to stay out of sight, but when they came to the show Bird knew the play had changed. Bird was probably the most stunning male creature Winnifred had ever seen. He had a smile that would melt iron and eyes that glistened like deep pools. He had covered his sculptured torso with a blue vest spangled with dark blue sequins to match the stripes on his skin tight leotards. Winnifred’s smile dissolved into a smirk. Kevin was immobilized, locked in ineptitude. Bird and Winnifred took over. He gave his lover’s mother a graceful Thai greeting and she wrapped him in a most un-Thai hug and planted a sloppy kiss on his cheek. For two people who had never met, they certainly were friendly.
Their holy night continued at a Starbucks near the hotel where she had a suite for the three of them.
At brunch the next day Winnifred finished what she had come for. Following slices of flaming plum pudding served by a chef with a tall white hat bedecked with holly, Winnifred produced two envelopes which she handed to her two sons. “Merry Christmas, Kevindear,” she said. “Merry Christmas, Birdsweet!” Sweet Bird chirped gaily as he waved his ticket to Baltimore and bent over so Winnifred could kiss him again on the cheek.
December 5 is the 87th birthday anniversary of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Rama IX, the King of Thailand. In the picture accompanying this essay HM the King is wearing his distinctive symbol of office, his ceremonial robe. This symbol incorporates several strands of tradition in somewhat the same way crowns do in Europe. In fact, there are seven pieces of regalia the King received on his coronation in 1950, but these days it is the robe that every Thai person recognizes, while the rest (including “The Great Crown of Victory”) are rarely used even on major occasions.
Julia Brannan and Yaowalak Bunnag produced a definitive study of “Thai Official Rank Robes (Sua Khrui)”. They describe the history and methods of producing these robes. See www.caringfortextiles.com/site3/wp.../Arts-of-Asia-March-2014.pdf
Brannan and Yaowalak explain that HM the King’s robe “…is constructed of a netted fabric worked with…embroidery and … embellishment on top….” “…the exclusively royal robe with ‘solidly overall’ gold-thread net that can include gold thread or beetle wings, or sequins.” The thread for the net base is made of either gold thread or gold wound around a silk core. For lesser officials the net can be of other metallic thread or of silk alone. The gold net of the robe is made with a special technique called thak ta chun. The method of knotting is taught only in the Thai royal court. The knot looks similar to a common “fisherman’s knot”. It is a loose knot creating a very open mesh. The variation in the size of the loops, density of the honeycomb-like fabric, selection of threads and the skill of the artist could create gossamer or dense cloth. The embroidery of the King’s robe is “solidly overall” meaning that the net is entirely filled in. The resulting robe weighs about five kilograms (11.2 pounds).
During the early reigns of the restored Siamese Kingdom after the fall of Ayutthaya in 1767 the production, ownership and use of ceremonial robes was strictly controlled. No one could have such a robe without the King’s grace. The robe for the King was produced in the inner court, in a special workshop, supervised by a prince. Then the robe was bestowed in a highly ritualized rite to insure the unbroken sequence of tradition.
As far as can be speculated historically, the style of the robe can be traced back to Persia. There were Persian advisers and experts in rites and rituals in the courts of the Khmer (Cambodian) monarchs in Angkor Thom as well as in Ayutthaya which followed. The role of the Persians was supplemented and then taken over by Brahmin advisers in the 18th century. Brannan and Yaowalak tell us, “The Kings’ robes are very specifically embellished with royal symbols, such as nagas (mythical serpents), Garuda (mythical bird and Vishnu’s mount) and even insignia or monograms.” These latter symbols would specify the monarch for which the robe was made, while the former symbols would link the monarch (and him alone) to the mythical roots of the cultural tradition, and reiterate that he is an incarnation or direct descendant of those who created the universe.
A category of exiting church members has come to my attention in the past few days. It is being called the “dones”. This category is made up of people who are feeling “done” with the church and their role in it. They may have been leaders heavily involved and committed to the church, but they are done with that now. They are also done with any other role in the institutional church and may not even be regular attendees at church services.
In contrast to other withdrawing members, the “dones” have no hard feelings toward the church. In most cases there was no precipitating event that led to their departure. They do not disagree, necessarily, with the church or its theology. They have not developed a new point of view that is more enthusiastic than other people in their church can tolerate; they have not cooled down to the point that they are disgusted with the church and do not want to associate with it any more. They still like the church, or at least what they may call “THE CHURCH” as distinct from the institutional church. They do not consider that their faith has withered or their relationship with God has changed. They have achieved closure with the church.
In most cases their separation from the church is irreversible. They will not be persuaded to return. There is no issue that can be addressed to heal their feelings. Their feelings toward the church as a whole have not been hurt. There is nothing to heal.
In reading hundreds of responses to an Internet article entitled, “The Rise of the Dones” that can be found on www.holysoup.com/2014/11/12/the-rise-of-the-dones I think that most of the stories told by “dones” say that they are de-churched for one of two reasons: (a) they are done with the institutional church in order to be unfettered in finding a more authentic form of Christianity, (b) they are done with the institutional church because of being burned out. There are other reasons why active, committed Christians feel “done”.
I am one of the “dones”. Looking back on it I see that my commitment to the church was conditional. I was committed to being a church leader. I was convinced, with much encouragement from community and friends, that I would find that role fulfilling. I prepared for it since about age 16 by being very involved in church work and conscientiously expanding my range of experiences. It was more than a vocation; it was an identity. During the next 50 years my faith grew more mature and my theology did too. When I stopped being in a leadership role my reason for being active in the institutional church ended. I was ready for almost any new leadership role, but the church here in Thailand made it clear I was no longer acceptable. I had broad background as a senior pastor of large churches, evangelist, seminary teacher, missionary, national staff worker and finally as a Christian college administrator. I was not unqualified to change roles and I was available to assist in many ways. But when leadership options ended I no longer fit into any category I was committed to. I was invited to continue as a college administrator, but it was specified I was not to perform any religious functions. I had come out as gay. I was done.
I conform to the category of “done” in that when I chose to distance myself from the institutional church in order to keep from causing them to face issues they are unready to confront (and thereby jeopardizing others), I did so with actual respect for the church. I have positive regard for the church here in Thailand. I know enough of organizational dynamics (having taught that very subject) to understand that the church’s time to face gender diversity has not yet come. I let my former students (now pastors and leaders) know that I was still on call if they wanted me, but the phone never rang. I was disappointed but not surprised. I am neither burned out nor angry. I have a different ministry now, manifesting Christian core values non-confrontationally at the grass-roots (village) level and writing “bridge-building” articles [many can be found on this site]. I am done with the institutional church. I am officially “honorably retired” but my actual status is “done” and I have contentment and closure.
I do miss the pipe organ music.
John is a grocer. In our village he supplies the makings of the evening meal for a fair share of the households. At 7:30 in the morning John goes to a large market beyond the range of people on foot or with bicycles. He buys about 5000 baht ($150) worth of perishable vegetables, meat, confections and a small amount of fruit. He loads this onto his motorcycle side-car in packets and sacks and into his ice chest. He includes sacks of ready to eat lunches as well, because customers looking for lunch and snacks are his first sales.
When he is ready he starts out on a regular route where customers are waiting at usual times. Stop by stop he works his way through 6 villages toward home. During the morning his customers are buying things to eat for lunch. By about 3 he is ready to unload his remaining produce onto a long roadside table in front of his house.
Even before he is finished, customers begin to pedal and walk over to decide what they will fix for supper. A few bring things to sell or trade from their gardens or orchards, but most of what he sells comes from the central market and is bought for cash. This season fish are plentiful. Many households will eat fish twice or more a week. Pork and chicken are other mainstays. Those are almost always added in small amounts to a dish that contains a preponderance of vegetables, either boiled or stir-fried. It only takes a few herbs or spices to turn one set of ingredients into a variety of dishes. As often as possible, a family will dine on something from their own yard or orchard. Pumpkins, melons, jack-fruit, green beans, sweet corn, lemon grass, mangoes and bananas are sometimes just out the back door. [In a blog later this year I will report on “Hunting and Gathering Right at Home”. Throughout 2015 there will be essays on “Thai village life: see it before it disappears”.]
Most families expect to spend about twenty or thirty baht (less than a dollar) cash per person on the night’s meal with enough left over for breakfast. If money is scarce a meal can be cooked for less than that. Bamboo shoots and mushrooms still come from the woods.
Rice is naturally the staple. Most families grow the rice they eat. Steaming the day’s supply of sticky rice or cooking the “pretty” rice is a routine task in every home. Families who stick with traditional Northern Thai steamed, glutinous rice eaten with the fingers, will inevitably have one or another sort of chili-paste which they either make at home or buy.
In our village there are also a couple of stores that sell non-perishable necessities for daily living. [An essay will feature this function of village life in a blog, later.] John’s mobile market does not provide meal ingredients that come in cans or bottles.
A few things are delivered to houses. Most homes have drinking water delivered; a woman brings eggs on demand from her chicken farm in the neighboring village. Ice cream comes by motorcycle, too.
John’s customers do not regularly travel to and from the city or distant work sites. In the city or in towns, people tend to shop in super markets or from the same sort of market that John buys his produce. More often salaried people stop on the way home and buy supper items from cooks who offer pots and pans of a dozen stock dishes they sell in front of their homes. Some villages have enterprising cooks that do this, too, but not our village. John used to supplement his produce with 3 or 4 pots of curry, but he gave it up as not cost effective. In our village about half of the households consist of older people and folks who stay around their homes and farms full-time. They are John’s customers.
John’s roadside table closes by about 7:30. That’s a 12 hour day. Minimum wage in Thailand is 300 baht per day (about $10). John’s profit if people are hungry is about that.
One of two unexpected spiritual resurgences here in Thailand is the expanded cult of Mae Kuan Im (the other being the cult of Genesh). One of the largest and most opulent shrines to the Chinese Goddess of Mercy is on the south side of Chiang Mai. In the picture accompanying this essay she is depicted standing atop her transporter, a great dragon, dispensing blessings symbolized by water flowing endlessly from a jar.
For a more complete account of the various identities of Mae Kuan Im, refer to the Wikipedia article on Guanyin on the Internet. The remainder of this essay deals with two issues: (1) how Mae Kuan Im became so dispersed throughout religions of South and East Asia, (2) and why her cult has arisen in Thailand at just this time.
Huston Smith [The World’s Religions: Our Great Wisdom Traditions, New York: Harper, San Francisco, 1991, p. 143] blithely tells us, “The Dalai Lama is the bodhisattva who in India is known as Avalokiteshvara, in China as the Goddess of Mercy Kwan Yin, and in Japan as Kannon.” The Wikipedia article reiterates the same claim. C. Kerenyi, a protégé of Carl Jung, demonstrates the process by which such mythological transferals take place.
The Voguls worshiped—and perhaps still worship—one especially among their gods who bears the name of “The Man who Looks at the World.” He is a god let down from heaven in two variations: with his mother and without her. With his mother he was “let down” in such a way that he was born as the son of a woman expelled from heaven. She fell upon the banks of the River Ob. “Under her right arm-pit two ribs broke out. A child with golden hands and feet was born” [Munkacsi]. This manner of birth, the emergence of the child from its mother’s right side, betrays Buddhist influence. The Bodhisattva who later became Gautama Buddha entered his mother’s womb from the right side and at the end of ten months left the right side of his mother again in full consciousness and immaculate; thus it was according to the northern sect—Mahayana Buddhism, as it is called” [Lalitavistara]. “The Man who Looks at the World” is the exact translation of “Avalokiteshvara,” the name of the world-ruling Bodhisattva in the above religion whose missionaries dispersed throughout Northern Asia. Avalokiteshvara is just such a divinity compassionately observing the world as the god of the Voguls became. From the latter’s titles—which refer to him as a goose, swan, or crane—we get a glimpse of his original nature. [Munkacsi]. Golden limbs are characteristic as the new-born Buddha of the Avalokiteshvara world (our world) “who gleamed, shining like gold worked in the fire by the Master’s hand [Sutta Mipata]. The orphan’s fate has nothing to do with all this and leads us into a world quite different from that of the Dalai Lama, the present day embodiment of the Avalokiteshvara. [Kerenyi, C. 1949. “The Primordial Child in Primordial Times” in Essays on a Science of Mythology by C.G. Jung and C. Kerenyi. Princeton: Princeton University Press]
The Virgin Mary has also been identified with Guanyin. In what sense, however, are Mae Kuan Im, the Dalai Lama, the Lord Buddha, and Avalokiteshvara the same? The mechanics to discern this are in the science of mythology, rather than theology. Theologically, the Virgin Mother Mary and Mother Kuan Im are separate contexts. Theologically, a Thai (Theravada) Buddhist would have to be broad minded to identify the Lord Buddha with either the Hindu Avalokiteshvara or with any Bodhisattva including Mae Kuan Im.
I believe it is no mere coincidence that the cult of Mae Kuan Im has re-emerged into prominence at just this time in Thailand. Several reasons could be cited. First, the cult of Mae Kuan Im has reappeared all over South East Asia, particularly wherever the Mahayana branch of Buddhism has become stronger through the contributions of ethnic Chinese in dispersion and the interest of Chinese tourists. Second, Mae Kuan Im is considered the patron of the childless and the destitute, leading to reliance on her by those with particular needs. Third, Mae Kuan Im is female in a time and region where masculine religion predominates; her cult is a refuge and implied protest against the adamant refusal of the dominant religions to provide women equal status. Fourth, the cult of Mae Kuan Im in Thailand involves an alternative form of meditation through chanting that devotees attest offers elevated levels of serenity. Finally, and most importantly, the cult of Mae Kuan Im coincides with the economic emergence of Thailand as an economic power in the region especially prior to the economic downturn of 1997. A central aspect of this variety of faith is its connection to prosperity, which is a core value in Thailand. Those who visit shrines and centers of devotion to Mae Kuan Im testify that they are motivated by hope for inspiration and results with regard to their business enterprises, their gambling (especially in the lotteries which abound in the country), and their health and relationships. Mother is the care-giver, the refuge in times of distress and turmoil.
A friend of mine is a devotee, persuaded by overwhelming evidence, he claims. He has been diverted from a lucrative business selling a Thai confection (and from traditional evangelical forms of Christianity) by visitations from Mother. Typically she instructs him where to travel on journeys with unspecified purposes, which often produce gifts of religious statuary, some of which are rare and valuable. “She tells me where to go,” he says. “She sent me to a distant temple I had never seen before and when I arrived the abbot was standing at the gate holding this,” he pointed to an elegant jade Buddha image. “The abbot said he had a dream that he was to give it to me.” Our colleague had to break off his narration at that point because the line of people waiting to see him for personal messages from Mae Kuan Im was growing restive.
Loy Kratong is always held on the night of the full moon of the 12th lunar month. This year that is November 6. It is the most popular Thai holiday of the year. Nearly every able-bodied person takes part in Loy Kratong somehow.
A short list of various Loy Kratong activities includes:
1. Making and floating a kratong [see the picture above]
2. Adorning the front of one’s house with candles or lanterns
3. Setting off fire crackers and fireworks
4. Attending a community fair or parade
5. Merit making at the temple
The basic meaning of Loy Kratong is a bit obscure. In general it is understood to be a festival to pay homage to rivers and waterways as a source of life. It is an ecological observance. But there is a layer of veneration involved in making an offering to the “mother of water” (the literal meaning of the Thai word for “river”). The traditional offering is home-made if possible, and is a floating tribute with a coin, incense and always a candle. These are set adrift by families with a prayer of thanks for the gifts of prosperity the waters of nature bring and a prayer of forgiveness for pollution and disrespect one may have had for the river in the past.
As is the case with other festivals in other lands, patriotic and religious notions are attached to Loy Kratong. Officialdom attributes the origins of Loy Kratong to King Ramkamhaeng whom they also credit with inventing Thai writing. It is said that the first lovely kratongs were floated (“loy”=float) in Sukhothai 700 years ago by the lovely queen and the idea simply caught on. The religious aspects involve merit making to atone for past sins, and they have the convenience of the fact that Loy Kragong always falls on the day of the full moon, which is a Buddhist “Sabbath”.
Since Loy Kratong observances are centered on waterways, boat races may also be held. Sometimes there are river parades. In Chiang Mai large kratong floats are loaded on trucks and move through town before being launched on the Ping River. Fireworks are indispensable aspects of the colorful festivities. Here in the North people also launch tissue paper hot air balloons by the thousands. They include a coil of waxed string suspended underneath that provides the heat to make them rise and gives them an orange glow as they float away on upper wind currents. Hopefully they do not descend until the fire burns out and then they come down harmlessly as they cool.
Above all, Loy Kratong is a family time. It is a night to have fun, to instill community spirit, to do things together, and to appreciate nature.
Perhaps the most misunderstood major religious symbol is the Shiva-lingam. It is prominent in Thai Buddhist architecture, which is the reason I am devoting this essay to it. It is also a very fine example of how the realms of discourse about faith overlap here in Thailand.
First, what is the Shiva-lingam? In Hindu symbolism the lingam usually looks like a short post that is either round or octagonal, but sometimes square with a round top. It refers to the energy and potential of God. It alludes to power and creativity. But it is indivisible from the female counterpart represented as the Yoni. They are similar, then, to the Yin and Yang of Northern Asian religions. Recent Hindu theologians have objected to the very idea that the Shiva-lingam is a phallic symbol. They insist that the idea was developed at a time when Buddhism was predominant, and it was reinforced by the British who despised all things Hindu, and especially the Shiva-lingam. In Thailand nine Shiva-linga are used as boundary markers around a bot (ordination chapel) in a Buddhist temple. The ninth stone is actually buried in the very center of the chapel as its foundation stone. City pillars are also in the form of Shiva-lingam. Scholars indicate that the city pillars of North Thailand were a tradition inherited from Tai cultural roots that pre-date Khmer influence which was Hindu.
So, there seems to be a separate strain of faith. What is it?
Clearly, it is a fertility symbol. To this day there are examples of phallic symbols scattered throughout Thai folklore and practice. For the most part there is no use denying that the symbol is a penis, sometimes grotesque and sometimes very realistic. It would be convenient to sanitize these as crude forms of Shiva-linga, but I cannot accept that interpretation. The symbol, called in Thai palad khik, is a power-attracting charm or talisman. The folklore regarding palad khik carries all the marks of supernaturalism with a heritage that goes back to early animism (the pantheistic belief that all things in nature had spirits worthy of reverence). The main characteristic of modern supernaturalism is its ambiguity. So also with palad khik. They are sometimes used as fertility symbols, sometimes as protective symbols (especially against drowning), or to restore energy to resist the spiritual aspects of disease and misfortune. A man may wear a little carved penis image on a cord around his waist, keeping it away from his real thing, to deceive demons and add to a man’s strength and resistance. Parents might put one around a baby’s waist to persuade the demon that the vulnerable child is really a full-fledged adult. A woman might purchase a palad khik and offer it at a shrine where these are collected, to encourage a wanted pregnancy. Philip Cornwel-Smith has an excellent article on this in Very Thai: Everyday Popular Culture with excellent pictures by John Goss [Bangkok: River Books, 2005].
If Siva-linga and Thai palad khik have anything in common it is a shared reference to creative energy and perhaps a heritage from religious culture that predates Vedic Hinduism. But the symbols should not be confused. The most potent palad khik are invested with power through chants that few know how to do these days. Mistreating a palad khik, or misrepresenting one by subjecting it to ridicule, can easily create hard feelings and strong reactions. But mis-handling or scorning a Shiva-linga can be considered in the same light as demeaning a Buddha image or a Christian crucifix; it would be a crime under Thai law.
Finally, I admit that not all people in Thailand agree with this distinction I have made. Most Thai people accept the Buddhist notion that Shiva-linga are phallic symbols as are palad khik. A controversy in Krabi Province reported on Oct 24, 2014 by Thai InfoNet conflates Shiva symbols with phallic symbols. Most Thai Christians have inherited the missionary bias that all these sexual referents are demeaning and wrong while refusing to recognize the same idea in tall church steeples. Most young men want nothing to do with the mockery that would come from being found to have a penis image tied around their waists or tattooed on their bodies. Most modern Thai people think of the whole subject as at least a little dirty. One has to be a bit desperate to have anything to do with this questionable aspect of spiritualism. Cornwel-Smith thinks the veneration of palad khik will pass away in a few years. I have doubts about that. This symbol in one form or another is one of the oldest and
Ghosts in Thailand, it’s complicated.
To sort it out let’s first note that talk of ghosts belongs to two realms of discourse. One is supernatural and the other is literary. That is true in many cultures.
Ghosts in literature are largely in the category of fantasy. Here in Thailand ghost stories are ubiquitous. They are equivalent to vampires in movies and popular culture in America these days, except that Thai ghosts predate Edgar Allen Poe or even the classic American Halloween story “The Headless Horseman” by Washington Irving, with plot borrowed from Medieval tales. Thai cartoons either exploit ambivalence about ghosts or veer toward outright ridicule. The noticeable thing, however, is how widespread they are. They are everywhere, in comic books, Saturday morning TV, soap operas, and theme parks. [The picture accompanying this essay is from a park in Pattaya, based on the famous “Tiger Balm Gardens” park in Singapore, now in sad decline.]
As an aspect of the supernatural, pii are of two types. One is a restless, wandering spirit, and the other is thought of as the spirit of a place. Popular attitudes toward the two are very different.
In Thai language the “jao thii” or lords of the land are the manifest proprietors of the world of nature. They are many and they are one. They were here from the beginning and will be here long after human beings relinquish their right to inhabit a place. They are given honor by being venerated in shrines for which Thailand is famous, the iconic “spirit houses” (a misnomer).
Wandering spirits are apt to be more troublesome. One reason they are wandering is because they have been prevented from their rightful destinations. Their stories are grist for legend-spinners: tales of vengeful lovers, the unburied and un-cremated dead, ghosts of those spitefully abused, and many others who ought to be reincarnated to work out their karma but cannot be until some condition is met. Meanwhile, they find no rest from their pitiful plight. They wreak havoc in their wrath, or plague us with their mournful outbursts, or interfere with people’s health in order to wrangle a second chance to die.
How seriously are these ghosts taken? Seriously enough to spawn an industry worth millions of baht that needs to use no advertising or promotion to sell their spirit houses, statuary, and paraphernalia. Seriously enough to inspire entire communities to concerted action whenever there is a death. Action can be as limited as an individual lighting an incense stick or as vast as a royal funeral. It has been a long time since the last nation-wide effort to appease virulent spirits, but even in these modern times such a thing is possible.
The related question is how literally these ghosts are taken. That there are pii few Thai people would disagree. What they require is less certain. What is universal is the sense that if anything is to be done, it is done “just in case”, to cover the options, to fulfill long-held tradition, and to clarify our standing in the world of nature and unseen forces. Ambivalence is the feature of supernatural belief that separates it from religion.
There is no better day to ponder the mystique of HM King Chulalongkorn, Rama V, than October 23, widely called in English “Chulalongkorn Day” but in Thai wan piya maha-raj (Day of the Beloved, the Great King). I would observe that a level of veneration has developed for King Chulalongkorn that has never been given to any past monarch in modern times in Thailand. It is that phenomenon that I will discuss in this essay.
What is the veneration?
In addition to the equestrian monument in the plaza in front of the Ananda Samakhom Throne Hall in Bangkok where military rededication ceremonies and massed royal audiences are held, portraits and images of HM King Rama V are widespread. They include pictures hanging in countless homes, statues proliferating in front of government buildings, and shrines in places of business which are attended to in very much the same way as are shrines to divinities overseeing prosperity and economic success. His anniversary (following oriental custom, the date of his death), alone among past monarchs, is a national holiday. His legacy and legend are vivid in the mind of every Thai person. There is also a mystery about him that has to do with the perception that he is a connection to the gods and powers that enable this nation and the people in it to prosper.
What did King Chulalongkorn do that is so memorable?
His most remembered accomplishments include, as a school child might recite them: freeing slaves, building railroads, defending Siam from being colonized, and modernizing the country. [I discuss this more extensively in an essay entitled “Protestant Influence in Siam”]. It is the aspect of modernization, I believe, that is predominant in the rise of what scholars have sometimes called the “cult of King Chulalongkorn”.
During the reign of King Chulalongkorn from 1868 to 1910, Siam joined the community of nations and empires. To do this the King had to modernize both the economic and the political structures of Siam. His revolutionary changes included sweeping away the thick layers of protocol and privilege that isolated the King from the people. Rama V was out among his people, expressing his ideas in person and in print, and visible in photographs as well as on trips, doing everything from sitting shirtless cooking to modeling his own designs of modern court and military apparel. He coordinated a massive program of constructing public buildings, palaces and temples, as well as boulevards to get to them. He instituted land reform by giving every residence a deed to the land on which they lived and farmed as well as the right to buy and sell land. He expanded the irrigation system, opening up areas for cultivation that doubled the food production capacity of the country transforming subsistence agriculture into the most important source of foreign exchange (replacing forestation). He set up a civil service that evolved into the nation’s largest employer and elevator for upward mobility.
It does not seem a mystery to me why the rise of the “cult of King Chulalongkorn” should be concomitant with the rise of the Thai business sector to world class standards during the time when Thailand was one of the Asian “Tiger” economies with double digit GNP growth and 13% interest rates before 1997. There was a phenomenon about prosperity that could be traced back to Rama V. If my guess is accurate, a fall in those statistics would be reflected in a quieting down of the level of veneration. Has this happened? I think so, but it’s difficult to measure