Y’all come! Our village temple community is having a Poy Luang festival March 4 and 5, and you are invited. A Poy Luang festival is a cross between a village-wide open house and a community home-coming. It is a big party and a fund-raising event for the temple. If you want to be in on this come around dusk either day (the weather is getting punishingly hot in the afternoon) and we will be glad to see you and give you something to eat and drink.
“Poy Luang” is not found in the Thai-English dictionaries I have. It is a Northern Thai (Lanna) tradition with similar but not identical events in other parts of the country called different things. Here’s what I think it is and what I expect to happen. I’ll be back to you afterward with more specifics.
The other day the whole thing was kicked off by a ceremony to mark the placement of the Poy Luang Banners. These banners, called tung, are long colorful woven pieces of cloth hung in such a way as to catch every breeze and remind people that there are ancestral spirits around. They are light weight and meant to move and sway. But a long line of them in bright colors along a roadway is a sure sign they lead to a temple planning a Poy Luang festival. Each of the colors is meaningful, especially those standing for the days of the week.
Before that kick-off event, there was a major renovation in and around our temple. A dilapidated old building was removed, a wall was extended, and things were painted. Even the pavement of the road next to the temple was improved. The major income from the Poy Luang was to do these things. Another campaign raised funds for a gong collection. The old-timers have been practicing, although they don’t sound like they need much practice.
There is no set way to conduct the festival. Our community is having a lower-key celebration, but there will be a music ensemble and performances on the night of the fourth. Throughout the day and evening of the fifth of March abbots from other temples will come with delegations. The laity will visit homes first.
We have been laying in supplies. We will feed however many people come to our open house during the day and night of March 4 and 5. Artty, a neighbor, (whose supplies are pictured above) expects college friends to come and has planned accordingly. At our house emphasis will be on light food and beverage with a lot of ice. Some families are hiring music making equipment, especially karaoke music, which gives volunteers a chance to sing for the whole village, depending on the volume. To be honest, the volume will be high. Pramote and I have decided to forego that formidable aspect of the open house.
Sometime late on the second day we will carry a money tree to the temple. Every household participating in the Poy Luang will go to the temple, dancing and cavorting as they go. Almost every house in the village is beyond our house. We expect them all to pass by here.
The last time our temple had a Poy Luang was eight years ago, so they don’t happen that often. But when they do it is a community event that involves everybody who can get out of bed. I maintain that these festivals are the glue that holds Thai society as well as Buddhism together here in the valleys of the North.
Funny things happen in Thailand connected to “The Day of Love”, also known as Valentine’s Day. If you consider these things over time, trends become apparent. I have been pondering 3 reports from the past week:
Pong and Noey got engaged.
Three guys got married to each other creating a news sensation for their 15 minutes of fame.
Thailand got listed as the world leader in adultery, several points ahead of Denmark.
Once upon a time, before the Internet and Facebook, you could count on two things about an engagement in Thailand: first, it would not even be hinted at until it was formally announced; second, it would involve at least the tacit consent of both families because a marriage was the beginning of a merger of two clans. Before that an engagement involved the exchange of assurances and the Thai form of dowry, the groom presenting the bride’s family gifts to compensate them for the contributions they had made in raising her. Those negotiations could be somewhat tedious in the old days, but they assured social stability no matter what might happen to complicate things afterward. Today the romantic form of love has triumphed. A couple will decide for themselves to get married and let the families know, maybe on Facebook. So Pong and Noey made their formal announcement of engagement on Valentine’s Day, and showed us their matching engagement rings.
Assuming the three fellows are serious rather than playing a social network joke (one of the guys is nicknamed “Joke” so there is some suspicion about their announcement) in what sense are they possibly married? They are certainly not married in the legal sense. Thai law does not recognize same-sex marriages or three-party marriages. So they cannot have their marriage registered as hundreds of couples did on “The Day of Love”. Bang Rak district in Bangkok is the unofficial capitol of Valentine’s Day, since bang rak literally means “a place of love” (bang also means a waterway, referring to a canal that used to go through the district). Couples line up in the dead of night to be sure of getting their marriages registered on that auspicious day and place. The 3 guys might still be married in the social sense, which includes at least tacit agreement from families. They will solidify their place in their many overlapping social circles by how they stay connected and contribute to the needs and projects their social groups undertake. In Thailand Buddhism exercises no authority over marriages per se. There is no dogma to be considered nor even any necessary religious ceremony. They said they poured water. Water pouring is a sacred (but not necessarily a Buddhist) ceremony to ratify a covenant and seal it. So they are married if they say so, but we’ll see.
We were less than startled to learn that Thailand leads the world in percentages of adultery. The statistics say that 56% of the married people surveyed admitted to having had an adulterous affair. Thailand, in fact, was the only Asian nation in the top-ten. I would like to offer some short-hand observations about that. Based on life here in the village, far fewer than 50% of the marriages here have ever ended. There is considerable family stability and the welfare of children is almost never jeopardized by family affairs. Since the marriage survey would probably be heavily slanted toward urban respondents, and since the nation is still heavily village and small town dwellers it could be that the statistics are a bit off. Nevertheless, I would submit that:
Monogamy was mandated at least in part to counter the charge that polygamous cultures were uncivilized and would be better off if they were subjected to social improvement by colonial powers. That rationale has never had a very strong hold on Thai thinking and behavior. Nor has polygamy ever seriously undermined the social structure or the central authority of the family-clan.
In the past, before “modernization” under the influence and sometimes considerable pressure from Europeans, marriages of young people in the upper social strata were arranged in order to strengthen social and political alliances. They were not necessarily limited to one wife or husband. Meanwhile, individuals caught in arranged marriages felt free to seek solace and satisfaction outside those official marriages as long as they did not endanger the social structure or the ranking inside the families and clans. They were married to the first spouse for status and the next one for love. Even though those extra marriages were not always official (although they often were), there was social pressure for patrons to accept responsibility for everybody involved. In other words, “adultery” and “bigamy” are legal terms in these modern times, but as pejorative terms they do not have a great deal of social support. Simultaneous multiple spouses, of course, are expensive and so this form of polygamy is more common among those who can afford it. It is less apt to happen in villages like ours.
So is LOVE undergoing change? If you are a romantic, you would say, “Love is being accorded its true place in the hierarchy of values.” If you are a traditionalist, you would say, “Love is an emotional experience that appears in direct proportion to hormone secretion. It is not a sound basis for building relationships.”
As a long-term observer, I have to say that the 3 guys are pushing the frontier in trying to establish a 3-way gay relationship if they are hoping to avoid social consequences. I will also say that Pong is a modern young man getting engaged and telling the world about it before consulting his parents. Nevertheless, we will support him and hope to meet Noey very soon.
“A” is 21. He was born in Nan and grew up there. He came to Chiang Mai this year to go to a technical college to study computer business. He works as a masseur in a “for men only” spa and gets big tips from the sexual favors he provides. He really enjoys himself and his customers, but he’s planning on marrying a woman in a few years.
“B” is 31. She was born and raised as a boy, transitioning into a young woman when she quit school. She is the “minor wife” of her older sister’s husband. She also has a hunky boyfriend of her own.
“C” is a florist. He uses feminine pronouns and gestures but dresses as the male he has always been. He has women as friends and no boyfriends of consequence.
“D” is a chauffeur. He is just 30 but has the liver of an 80 year-old because of his alcoholism. He is passionate about sex with males of any age when he is sober, which is more of the time since he got this job as a driver for a man of very substantial influence.
“E” likes to dress up as a woman. Otherwise he presents himself and considers himself to be a man with a preference for older men as lovers. He can afford to pick and choose. He is not looking for Santa.
“F” waited for his mother to die before coming out as gay, not that it mattered. Everyone knew he had two lovers as well as a coterie of happy party goers.
“G” was the first gay Thai guy to die of AIDS that we knew personally. He was a talented nightclub performer and managed a very successful Thai restaurant in Los Angeles. In his funeral memorial folder his family pointedly printed his death certificate, saying he died from pneumonia.
“H” is 17 but likes to claim to be older. He is trying to decide how to tell his parents he has no interest in marrying a girl and continuing the family line. He has experimented and knows what he likes.
“I” has two families, one includes a wife and three children and the other consists of him and Goi. The two families overlap in many ways. It works because they don’t talk about it.
“J” does not call himself gay. He does not think he is anything. He finds solo-sex best, but he can be really turned on by watching a guy “do it”.
Being gay in Thailand is not any easier than it is elsewhere in the world. It is a juggling act between being authentic and being acceptable. What sets Thailand apart from other lands is that the predominant religion does not usually launch a homophobic campaign, local communities take their signals from clans about whether a family member is OK or not, families measure their sons’ characters first of all by how they treat their mothers, and strict gender identification is a recent cultural gloss that shows signs of fading again.
Being ambiguous about ones sexual or gender orientation is not a matter of being sly or in denial. The fact that few gay guys in Thailand are clear about their identity tells more about the inadequacy of labels and diagnoses than about Thai self-awareness.
We can say that this is a convenient fog. Since being queer can lead to controversy (loss of face being one form of loss) or conflict (which is to be avoided in Thai society whenever possible), it is better to be ambiguous most of the time. Just be yourself. But be unclear about who you are. The only thing we should allow to show is our individual story, and only as much of that as may be inevitable.
That is convenient social obfuscation. It does not help the “cause” of gender equality or gay rights or greater understanding. Observers and activists object that this gay grayness hurts the cause. What would help would be coming out and being honest.
It is the nature of these narratives to be individual and not to conform to categories. The smaller the pigeon-hole the less pigeons will fit into it. Clear sharp definitions are analytical and comparative tools, but not helpful in promoting individuality. “Causes” need masses. Individuals need to self-identify with the mass whose cause they decide to espouse. So far the convenient fog feels fine.
February 4 was a historic day in our thousand year-old village. On that day trash collection began. Those of us who signed up for the service were provided 18-gallon trash cans identified with a code number. We are entitled to fill the can once a week. There is a collection fee equivalent to $1 a month.
Everybody in the city that I’ve told about this has had the same reaction, “What? You’ve not had trash collection before? What did you do?”
Well, in the days before trash collection, which were all the days before this week, there was a lack of system. First, everything of value was sold, and that included aluminum cans and glass bottles. Some plastic bottles and cardboard boxes could be sold as well as large heavy plastic sacks. Light weight paper and plastic wrap, along with leaves, weeds and plant trimmings were kept for burning once in a while. Table scraps became fertilizer. Neighbors without a space for burning found a place to toss their trash. One by one those places were posted with 500 baht warning signs, but ours is a big farming area with lots of “places”.
We are delighted to have the trash collection remove the temptation to create unsightly nuisance sites. This trash collection is, so far, the one benefit of our sub-district of villages becoming a municipality. I understand another more limited and more immediate advantage is that the sub-district officials’ incomes have gone up in various ways they are hesitant to talk about.
I have thought about this health and safety innovation as an aspect of vanishing village culture. The question I ask when we see anything new affecting village life is, “What was it like before this?” Was there a time, “before trash?” It might amaze young people, even those born and raised in our village, to know that there was a time when there was almost no trash. There were forces of nature working on everything, of course, but trash? No.
To get a handle on that we have to look at our trash item by item.
What happened to bottles in the “olden days”? There were bottles and they were used over and over. There were bottles because there were no cans. Before there were even bottles there were few liquids that needed to be transported in small amounts. Larger amounts came in pottery jars. Dippers were important. Before glass there was clay, lots of clay around here. Those jars never wore out. If they broke, which was inevitable, they became used for something else in some way depending on how broken they were.
What about plastic bags in former times, what was used in place of them? Plastic bags are used to transport retail purchases from one place to another, right? Using our three-era system of considering village culture, we can remember that before plastic bags there were paper bags and before that, baskets; but retail shopping did not happen very far from home. Baskets were important. One of the rural icons (now vanishing) is of older women with two baskets suspended from a shoulder pole made of bamboo, trotting along to the rhythm of the bouncing baskets. Lunches were carried in little baskets. Great loads of rice where carried in great whopping baskets on ox carts. Some baskets were coated in lacquer to hold ground and powdered material, or water for a short time. Smaller portions of foodstuffs were wrapped in leaves secured by bamboo pins that looked like large toothpicks. All those things made of leaves and bamboo were exquisitely bio-degradable, helped by a great multitude of tiny bugs and worms, ants and mold.
What about garbage? Amazingly, even today in a village there is little garbage. What people don’t eat village dogs and cats are happy to have, and what little is left might attract birds. Peelings and fruit scraps unceremoniously become fertilizer. Only a large community meal is likely to produce enough residue to require united effort. In the olden days meat was not a daily food item, and vegetable parts of recipes were generally gathered as needed. In other words, food production for a family did not create waste products that no one knew what to do with.
If we sort out the contents of our black garbage bags, most of it is containers for products that have been used up, or wrapping material that products came in. Modern packaging has two purposes as far as I can see, from my perspective as a village consumer: the packaging is designed to get the product from the point of manufacture to the consumer in good condition, and it is designed to display the product attractively in retail markets where decisions about what to buy are made on impulse rather than from lists and order blanks. Some food products come in packages 3 and 4 layers thick as do my individually wrapped cheese slices and my chocolate coated wafers.
Almost all of this sort of waste has been developed within my own lifetime. Now we have junk yards with acres of cars waiting to be stripped for parts, mountains of rubber tires waiting to mysteriously catch fire and burn for months, and vast plastic lined and unlined trenches being filled with municipal waste that will be dangerous until the end of time. What do we do with all the toilets in a large hotel when it is torn down or the concrete from a highway that is being replaced? The human race never has had to confront this before.
Trash has meaning. In terms of village life, the increase of trash and the need to get rid of it systematically are indications of change. There will no longer be basket weavers in every village, and nearly every household. Even now the basket weavers in our village are growing too old to do it and they have no one to teach. Terracotta pottery objects have become cultural artifacts and are used for decoration rather than as necessities. The sound of chopping no longer means someone is fashioning a wooden utensil or implement.
The range of our dependency has expanded. We now “need” products that come from distances unimaginable by our ancestors just a century ago. And soon we will think we need them more quickly than even steamships, railroads or highways can provide. We will want pipelines, electronic product transfers, and delivery sub-stations nearby. We will think we have to have them. We will not be able to do without them.
Our little trash cans will look pathetically inadequate.
“The Hong is a bird of infinite grace…the head and neck of a Hong can be seen on the prow of the magnificent royal barge the Suphannahong. The Hong is also an auspicious animal, portending miracles. Nothing can match the grace of the Hong, for the great swan-like bird has a poise and delicacy beyond compare and its name is used in a modern Thai expression denoting unsurpassed beauty and grace.” That’s how one website describes the Hong, a mythological bird that is a popular figure in Thai architecture.
McFarland, whose Thai English dictionary of 1944 is still the standard work for biological references, defines hong(s) and hangs as “a goose; a swan”. He includes hong(s)-tong as “the golden mallard; hongsakati “resembling swans in actions”; hongsabat, a literary reference meaning “resembling the color of a swan’s foot”, i.e. pink; reddish yellow; hongsarot, a literary term meaning “having a swan as a means of transportation,” i.e. the god Brahma; and hongsaraj as king of the swans; the imperial swan.
Another website transliterates the Thai word as Hongsa, whereas the final S in Thai is marked as silent [I put the s in parenthesis for this reason when transcribing McFarland’s reference]. The website says, “Hongsa is the vehicle bird of Brahma. In Buddhist mythology Lord Buddha himself was once born as a Hongsa. At the time the Buddha Hongsa governed 96,000 hongsas.”
That brings me to last Sunday when a crowd of us gathered in the village of Huay Yao in the hills of Mae Wang District, Chiang Mai Province, to witness and participate in a ceremony to initiate a Buddhist temple building. The building was described by the Buddhist abbot who coordinated the construction and the dedication, as a vihara (pronounced: wee-han, rhymes with neon), an assembly hall. With the inclusion of a vihara and a small chedi (stupa) immediately behind it, that Buddhist hillside now constitutes a temple in all but name. The name, no doubt, will follow after the site is officially approved for the designation. The culmination of the ceremony involved installing a symbolic umbrella on the back of a Hong standing on the middle of the roof-peak.
In Thailand there are umbrellas of a large variety, some functional and others symbolic. The most symbolic of all is the chatr (which rhymes with dot). In royal circles the many-layered umbrella signifies the rank of the royal person entitled to repose beneath it. Only the reigning King has a 9-step umbrella. The Queen and Crown Prince have 7-step umbrellas, and other princesses of the inner circle have 5 step umbrellas. In Buddhist symbolism the many-layered umbrella represents the many levels of heaven, namely 6. However, all Thai Buddhist art represents the Lord Buddha under a 5-layer umbrella. I was told long ago that refers to the fact that Gautama was a prince before he renounced his royal status to seek enlightenment.
The umbrella at Huay Yao had 5 layers. It was suspended on ropes with pulleys to be raised up to the rooftop. First, it was decorated by major donors who helped tie symbolic cloths and garlands to it, and then it was anointed by the presiding monk. As conches (or instruments representing conches) and drums sounded, the chatr was raised into the grasp of a couple of men who lifted it onto a tall spike sticking out of the back of the golden Hong.
What can we observe from this ceremony? What was being symbolized?
There is an unbroken link between Vedic Hinduism, Brahmanism and Buddhism. In ways some other religions do not, Buddhism respects its roots. On the other hand, Buddhist teaching moves an adherent toward severing that reverence along with other religious and supernatural fascinations. In the end, the Lord Buddha was able to identify the links in the chain of causation and to realize that all things are non-entities; they have no fixed reality but are constantly in flux. Temples are tools for those who aspire to the insight that all is an illusion.
Above the top of the world mountain (the axial mountain, represented both by the pinnacle of the chedi and (as in Huay Yao) also the peak of the temple roof) are heavens. Insofar, as the vast majority of us are not going to be able to achieve full enlightenment in this life, our hope is that our demise and cremation will liberate our spirits to fly to one of the levels of heaven from which we will be re-incarnated to try again, less encumbered by the terrible drag of karma. The umbrella, higher than everything terrestrial, draws us upward.
The best way to make merit to offset the gravity of our misconduct and failures is to contribute toward the dissemination of Dharma, which is work best done by monks, who are best supported in their doing it by the accommodating environment of a temple/monastery which is conducive to meditation and equipped with points of focus. The effort constantly being expended in temple construction can be understood in this light. It is a “godsend” to be fortunate enough to have the rare opportunity and means to participate in such an undertaking.
Only one man in our lifetime ever created mass audiences for pipe organ music, and he was gay.
Virgil Fox did miraculous things, controversial but fabulous things with the pipe organ and with his life. He was a virtuoso, a genius, and as queer as a three-legged goose.
Pipe organs are the most complex musical instruments so far ever invented. They were perfected in the 18th century in Germany and then in France. Johann Sebastian Bach was the undisputed master, the greatest composer for the pipe organ who ever lived; and the music world is divided between those who think Virgil Fox was the greatest performer of Bach’s work and those think Fox was the most egregious desecrator of Bach’s masterpieces.
First some facts.
Virgil Fox was born in 1912 in Illinois, not far from where I was born. He was a church organist when he was ten, and played his first solo concert to an audience of 2500 at the age of 14. He began to record for RCA and Columbia in the 1930s, and after serving in the Army Air Force in World War II he was hired as organist at Riverside Church in New York City in 1946 where his lover and partner was choir director. Fox developed the Riverside Church pipe organ into one of the largest instruments in the world. In the 1950s people lined up two hours early to be assured a place to sit inside the church for services and concerts. Fox’s improvisations on hymns were phenomenal. His recordings of organ music made both him and Riverside Church world famous. But the music so overwhelmed other aspects of the church services that he was asked to resign in 1965. His very public conflict with the choir director and their break-up may or may not have had anything to do with his leaving the church for a concert career. All of this was when being out, gay and a church musician were supposed to be incompatible. As a concert performer Fox played to large audiences. His flamboyant style, his glittering shoes and colorful jackets, and his embellishments of classical works of music earned him critical scorn and large audiences. He was routinely compared to Liberace, with whom he was a good friend. At the time, Fox, Liberace and Leonard Bernstein were the best known gay musicians in the world … before Elton John and Prince. But like his gay successors Fox played for younger audiences and brought classical music to them in a time it was thought to be impossible. He toured the USA from coast to coast with a massive Rodgers electronic organ he called “Black Beauty”. Some of his concerts featured light shows and smoke – when all the color of Woodstock music was provided by shirts and skin, a decade or more before rock concerts dared such extravagance as Fox’s concerts. His success enabled him to buy a 26 room mansion into which he moved with a new young lover, further scandalizing conservators of social values, as patrons of classical music tend to think of themselves. Fox continued his concert career and his celebrity status even after contracting pancreatic cancer. He died in 1980 and is buried in Illinois, not far from where I was born.
Before reading further, I suggest you watch this YouTube clip of Fox at his controversial best “dancing” and encouraging his audience to dance to Bach’s “Gigue Fugue”. The picture quality is not good, but you can see how Fox thought relating to his audience was more important than the music itself. That was outrageous to many, but there was far worse, and it had nothing to do with his personal life, his lifestyle or his gender orientation. The fact that it did not, indeed, is remarkable. If you enjoyed the dance, click here to listen to Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in D major. All his critics admired his ability to instantly play more than 250 pieces of music from memory.
The unprecedented offense that Fox committed was to depart from the norm with the music. For a century the musical world had been trained to respect the importance of maintaining the authenticity of the music. Great effort was made to recreate the sound of Baroque music, like Bach’s, as closely as possible to the way the original audiences had heard it. Fox broke all the rules. He rehearsed his concerts at double speed, and played pieces faster than any other organist dared, or was able. Critics sniped that Fox also was unable to play as fast as he did. “His left hand lacked accuracy” critics thought. “He’s showing off at the expense of the music.” There was an obvious element of showmanship in Fox’s playing, both in church and out. Performers were expected to wear black ties and tails. When Fox did, the lapels were velvet and he came with a cape lined in scarlet. For the most part he preferred psychedelic colors and collars and cuffs of lace, which “distracted from the music”. Classical music concerts are traditionally solemn affairs where the audience is to be extremely quiet and even applause is scripted. Listeners are to appreciate the music and how well it is performed as opposed to how fabulous the performer is. In order to reach his young audiences Fox did not apologize for classical music or pander to them, but he played for them. Never did he popularize for the sake of being popular himself. But he adapted and contextualized. He was hopelessly sentimental when he played romantic pieces by Mendelssohn or the French composers of the 19th century. A Bach organist is not supposed to do that. And most of all a performer is not supposed to tell audiences what they are to like about a piece of music, which Fox loved to do. “Listen to how I spell out B A C H with my feet,” he’d instruct them, drawing attention to the rhinestones wrapped around the heels on his slippers. Critics hated that.
The name Virgil Fox has not survived in popular culture into the 21st century. He died 35 years ago this coming October 25. But his concerts and albums have been digitally re-mastered and are still selling well. He is the only performer (as opposed to composer) whose works are still often featured in concerts in his memory. No person coming into prominence as an organist fails to kneel to the legacy of Virgil Fox.
What’s more he is a gay hero, a model for being out and honest, and a model for taking ones talent and going as far as possible with it.
There’s no reason I chose to write about Virgil Fox right now except that a new organist has appeared on Facebook several times recently. Cameron Carpenter ("Neo Organ Boy") reminds me of Virgil Fox in terms of talent, eccentricity and self-assuredness, and he is on Wikipedia’s listing of “Bi-sexual people A-F” a few names below Caligula, so he’s one of us. That’s why. I encourage you to watch this 6-minute video about the sensation that Carpenter has generated from his genius maneuvering of the pipe organ.
Dr. Rebecca Hall is making a long-term, in-depth study of funeral customs in Thailand. I think she’s on the right trail; if you want to understand the culture of a people there is no better place to start than with their funeral customs. Her purpose in coming recently was to study tung sam hang, 3-tailed banners. They are often used here in the North at the front of a funeral procession on the way to a cremation grounds. Rebecca had a number of questions to which she had been receiving conflicting answers. So I took her to visit with the abbot of Wat Ta Pong in the village next door to our house. Tu Daeng was available. Here are my notes on our conversation about funeral customs:
Tu Daeng, the Abbot of Wat Ta Pong was reluctant at first to talk about the “Three Tailed Banners” used in funerals. It is a taboo subject he said, and then amended his comment by adding, “You should ask those who make them, they are used at funerals.”
Later he warmed up to the subject, to some extent. He said that banners are usually made by the same people who make the catafalque for funerals. The banner and the catafalque are ordered by someone who is making arrangements for a funeral and delivered at the same time. He agreed that if the funeral did not involve a catafalque then anyone could make the banner if they had ever been ordained a monk or novice.
The banner is in the stylistic shape of a human. There is the head and body and the lower part preparing to take flight to heaven.
“When a person dies,” the abbot said, “the spirit wanders around wondering where it should be. It is looking for its place. When it sees the banner it will follow it and take its flight to heaven.” He commented also, “The banner is black and white, representing both the good and the bad that the person has done. It contains the name of the dead person as well as the date of birth and death and the age.” He reiterated that this was to aid the spirit to identify where it should be going. Tu mentioned that for other life extension ceremonies the cloth banners representing people’s spirits are colored, with various colors representing aspects of character.
“The ‘undertaker’ usually carries the banner. He is dressed poorly. Otherwise some drunk or mentally deficient person is recruited to carry it.” The banner is to be carried by the dregs of society or by someone whom no one would be tempted to emulate. [In village society the “undertaker” is virtually an outcast, but he is the one who prepares bodies for being put in caskets, prepares the cremation fire, hacks open the skull of the dead person at the last moment before the casket is set afire, and helps with gathering the cremated remains the next day.]
The banner is always burned in the cremation, the abbot insisted. Its very purpose is to show the spirit of the deceased the way to heaven. The cremated remains are gathered in a white cloth or in an urn covered with a white cloth (but not the banner of the day before). In our part of the country, Tu said, the bones are turned to powder and mixed with soil (and other things?) and stored or interred. The disposal of the bones varies from place to place.
There is also a two-tiered metal frame (somewhat resembling a funnel upside down topped by a small cone, all painted green) that Tu Daeng said holds 16 silver and gold leaves. The model he had brought for us to see only had 8 leaves, as if it was one of a pair. The leaves were called by the same term as the three tailed banner. Each of the leaves had something glued to one side. On one pair of leaves were grains of rice, on another grains of sand, and on another were small white flowers. These frames with their dangling leaves are often placed on top of the coffin during a wake.
The abbot has explained a lot, after all.
Aside from the folklore and the tradition, this raises the central question of what is going on in a Northern Thai funeral. A great many of the customs have to do with trying to make sure the spirit of the deceased finds the way to heaven. In this regard we could mention the customary fireworks, the design of the prasat (catafalque), the events at igniting the cremation fire, and several kinds of offerings. There is obviously a great deal of anxiety about wayward spirits (pii,ghosts and sometimes demonic spirits). That is confirmed repeatedly in folk traditions regarding supernatural occurrences, many of which are attributed to wandering, malcontented spirits.
The custom of having the banner carried by someone unattractive can be explained as a safeguard against the spirit being tempted to enter the banner carrier. It is a dangerous job. The spirit is distraught and may confuse the surrogate deceased with the porter. The same logic sometimes is used to name a baby “dog”, so the demonic “purchasing mother” will not be tempted to carry the baby’s spirit away.
Without waiting for Rebecca’s scholarly article, I will tentatively speculate about the 3-tailed banner. In the example which Rebecca provided (accompanying this essay) the name of the deceased has not yet been inscribed. Even without the name spelled out, the spirit of the deceased will be attracted and directed by the banner. Tung (long narrow banners suspended from tall bamboo poles to catch the breeze) are used for a variety of occasions, but they have one thing in common: they symbolize spirits. If you see a tung you think of spirits. But, as with all aspects of supernatural faith, there is an element of ambiguity and uncertainty. If the banner flutters or twists, as it is designed to do, it could be because of a stirring of the air caused by a spirit.
Another instructive device is the symbolic tree that Tu Daeng and his novice showed us. Trees are axial symbols; they connect earth to heaven. The little metal tree with its 8 leaves (note: 8, an inauspicious number rather than 9) stands for earth and all its requisite provisions. “Keep your eye on the prize,” the little tree says to the disconsolate spirit surrounded by signs of mourning and death.
Banners on auspicious and meritorious occasions are meant to attract spirits and have them involved in the festivities as benefactors or beneficiaries.
The three-tailed banner of a funeral is supposed to entice the spirit to follow the procession from the familiar home and village into the liminal, threshold precincts of the cremation forest (cemetery, called baa chaa or “lingering forest”). It would be natural for a spirit under those circumstances to be skittish, so its attention is repeatedly drawn to the presence of the deceased in hopes that the spirit will believe the priest’s chanted references to the naturalness of all that is going on and the benefits of leaving this world. Meanwhile, the banner flutters with its tail like a bird taking flight, like a phoenix to be precise.
Here in Thailand the second Saturday of January is a national holiday. It is Children’s Day. Schools, government agencies (at least some of them) and numerous businesses have a party to make children feel important in line with the slogan “Children are the future of the nation.”
It would be foolish to try to make a casual trip to the zoo or any of the malls today. The crowds would be intimidating. But children will be thrilled to get little toys or souvenirs, treats to eat and sweets to drink.
Here in our village we combined our resources to have a local party on Children’s Day. From the looks of it, all families with small children brought them, and some neighbors came from nearby villages, too. Not everything was about what the kids got. Several of the children were ready to perform on the stage. There were games with prizes and ongoing refreshments. The climax of the evening was an extensive drawing for “door” prizes including two bicycles and countless smaller items. Everybody got something.
These parties are going on all over the country. There must be tens of thousands of parties for little children altogether. In fact, the festivities are spread over two days.
I want to reflect on our village party. The work of putting up the temporary stage was handled by older young people. They were busy all afternoon. Fried rice was cooked by the housewives association. The day began with a collection of money that was publicized over the village public address system. As the names of donors and amounts were read, it sounded like people were being generous.
From smaller beginnings a few decades ago the party has grown. There are no signs that Children’s Day will diminish. Children are highly valued and given special treatment and consideration. There is no hesitation about supporting events for children and making sure they are secure. It is clear, as well, that the credit and responsibility for all this is vested in the clan (the extended family) and also in the local community. The only thing that can jeopardize the care and concern shown to little children is collapse of the extended family and deterioration of village society.
January 10 is Children’s Day this year, but every day is “children’s day” as far this village is concerned.
One sign that an aspect of village culture is vanishing is when an item stops being functional and becomes an artifact, or when a totally different function is imposed on it.
Log water pipes are a case to consider.
Not long ago forests were close to our village. Trees were large and available, and by available I mean that village people felt free to cut trees they needed. Water for home use came from a well that was dug at an auspicious location near the house. Water for fields came from irrigation canals and ditches. When gravity didn’t work to get water where it was needed for gardens or orchards the water was lifted from a stream either by a water wheel or by muscle power. The distances were short but occasionally bamboo or wooden conduits were needed.
One type of conduit was a log cut lengthwise and hollowed out. These log pipes were common farm items made by hand. Every village must have had several, perhaps scores of them. When rubber, metal and then plastic pipes became available along with motor-driven pumps the log conduits were usually abandoned, left to decay and to be re-discovered as a valuable resource decades later.
There was a long gap between the end of pre-industrial agriculture in North Thailand and the end of the forests. From about the 1850s until the 1950s lumber was Siam’s most important product for export and for foreign exchange. It took another 50 years to actually stop deforestation and get what is left of the forests protected.
In the decade before the year 2000 (using the international calendar) a transition took place that included turning the log pipes into tables. Aspects of this transformation are worth considering. There are insights to be gained about vanishing village culture.
When the forests were depleted and the government really began to clamp down on logging, wood working was still a major source of income for villagers. The money economy of village life depended on supplemental income. Wood workers began to recycle wood from old houses and from abandoned farm equipment.
There was a transitional time that is still going on between subsistence farming and a money economy. The phases can be described this way.
· Pre-mechanical village life was almost wholly spent on projects related to securing food, shelter and clothing. Power came from muscles of animals and people.
· The first phase of utilizing manufactured products and money involved the introduction of tools and textiles that were not locally made and could not always be obtained by barter. In effect, these purchases usually helped villagers produce whatever they needed more efficiently. This enabled them to produce more than they needed for the family to use, more baskets or more posts, for example.
· The second phase into a money economy involved the introduction of machinery. In North Thailand the steam era was largely by-passed; gas powered motors were the first wide-spread mechanization that revolutionized transportation and soon everything else. At this point every clan needed at least one money-earner. Farm animals were on the way out.
· The third phase is the one we are now in around here. Farming is an adjunct aspect of an extended family’s income. Two crops of rice are grown, one for consumption and one for sale. The cash crop can also be onions, garlic, soybeans or corn (maize). In other parts of the country different crops do better. Here in the hill country cash crops are strawberries, cabbage, cauliflower, and many sorts of vegetables and flowers as well as coffee and tea. A minority of family members work full time at agriculture; a majority of adult workers have full-time or part-time jobs in service work, commercial establishments, construction, or as teachers or other government positions.
· The post-agrarian era of village culture and life is not far off. Farms are becoming larger, owners more distant, and the work is far more mechanized.
So what does the conversion of log water pipes into dining room tables tell us about vanishing village culture?
We may gather that these products of the pre-mechanical era are no longer needed. The era of handmade equipment is over. Wooden farm implements are being disposed of or “recycled”. The first to go were ox carts. At one time every family had a cart and animals to pull it. Thai carts were icons of agriculture that differed from region to region. A wheelwright and blacksmith were necessary artisans for every few villages. Plows and pipes are now made of other things and must be bought and brought from far away.
The second thing these recycled water pipes signify is that fresh wood is in short supply. There must be a reason these things from yesteryear have renewed value. The end of forests is what has created a demand for these derelict pieces of wood as well as for stumps and roots of trees cut decades ago. “Junk” wood is now turned into new products.
A long-term observer would report that there was a time recycled farm implements were never used as furniture parts. That innovation involved two major steps: developing a market and shifting designs. Why was this effort necessary? One reason was that furniture makers and wood carvers needed to have a new product-line when freshly cut wood became scarce. Farm-home styles of décor were not an instant hit. The furniture was rough and crude, although that made it attractive in its own way. Farm-home décor falls in-between antique and modern. It is reminiscent of log-cabins and cowboys, but also of Northern Thai village life fast disappearing. (Never mind the fact that in village culture of the past furniture was hardly used at all). Furniture from old farm items (plow handles, ox yokes, fence posts, gates, rice barns, door panels and much more) was a specialty product line that required supportive accessories such as homespun cloth, rough cast eating utensils and stoneware dishes. Not coincidentally, such handmade items were also traditionally produced or could be adapted from items that were made by handcrafters here in the North. Once a whole range of products in the farm-home style was available the line began to take off. As a style it runs the risk of being a fad. Classical styles last, fads fade. But the supply of weathered log pipes and wagon wheels is limited. These products are filling in for the time being. If the log troughs and wagon wheels have to be manufactured to sustain the furniture style the price will rise. The initial attraction of farm-home style furniture being more affordable will be lost.
From a wider perspective these dining tables and lounge chairs made out of obsolete farm implements instead of raw lumber, are a reminder that the forests are gone, which is an environmental fact that has profound implications for the future of village culture. If water supplies change, agriculture changes. Rice farming takes a lot of water. If agriculture changes so does village culture. But if water disappears because the forests are gone (which is a grim possibility) village culture goes with it. Life beyond water piped from reservoirs would not be viable. Villages will not even be retained as commuter residences.
I am afraid that log tables are not only rustic, they are ominous.
Village life is changing. Of course it is. That fact is so much a given that it seems hardly worth remarking about. Nevertheless, I am dedicating a portion of our website this year to investigate aspects of Northern Thai Village Culture before they completely disappear. I confess that I have little nostalgia about these things we see vanishing. A great deal of village life for our ancestors was hard, hand-to-mouth, subsistence living. Things feel better now. Few of our family and neighbors would prefer to revert to the old days and old ways before there was electricity, roads and money (not to mention available public health and education). But there are consequences to what we see coming that are being disregarded as if they are avoidable or hypothetical.
One of the projects (I think of it as a sub-project) is to compare what we have of village life now with what it was like a few generations ago. Those will be our case studies in this largely inductive investigation.
That brings us, on this New Year’s posting, to the IRON.
There are two versions, were there not? One is flat and one was not. The real flat iron is heated on a stove. A person needs a couple of them to keep working. While one is being used and was cooling off, the other was re-heating. The second version needs a built-in source of heat. In the picture accompanying this essay, the irons use charcoal. They are heavy and cantankerous. One can scorch fabric if the iron gets too hot. The heat is unpredictable and the operator has to be constantly alert. Still, they may be the best irons available.
These charcoal fired irons are a cultural case-in-point. There are some things to notice about them.
First, they are made of metal. In “great-grandmother’s time” (say, before World War I) here in North Thailand there was not much in a village that was made of metal. Entire houses could be constructed without a particle of metal. Kitchen-ware was non-metallic. A metal iron had to be obtained from outside the village. It was a major purchase.
Second, it is not an expendable item, but an appliance meant to last a long time. Things that had to be purchased were expected to serve into the foreseeable future. It was not predicted that the iron would ever become scrap or less useful than the day it was bought. Village culture in that era did not actually include the categories of trash or scrap. There was hardly any category for “obsolete” either.
Third, the iron represented a technological advance. In villages around here there was a time before irons. People had only a few items of clothing and if a piece needed to be wrinkle-less it was washed carefully and spread carefully to dry flat. The charcoal iron was a labor-saving device. Saving “labor” is an indicator of advancing socio-economic conditions. It is a time “after” the time when one’s labor (time + energy + skill) was of less consequence than some other aspects of one’s life. The charcoal iron arrived when subsistence living was ending.
Fourth, the appearance of charcoal irons in Northern Thai villages was a sign of cultural diversification and opening of cultural influences. Irons did not appear before there was commerce. Commerce was concomitant with transportation and travel. When five miles was the farthest a person might ever travel in their whole life, it took a long time for cultural influences to spread. By the time “great-grandmother” thought to strategize about how to get a charcoal iron, merchant-peddlers were plying the routes between towns and villages. The money economy had begun to get a grasp on people’s lives. In fact, it is probable that the first charcoal irons in North Thailand were owned by the elite, and then by those who ironed garments for those who worked for the patrons (people in the military or in government service).
These will be the measures we will use when we look at such other vanishing features of village culture as clay pots, wooden plates, herbal medicine and woven mats. What came before that object and what is replacing it? Why is it significant? What conditions are having an impact on the values people hold and the way they live?
A couple of final thoughts about those charcoal irons.
Rural electrification is almost complete here in North Thailand, so why are these irons still being sold at this market at the end of 2014? They have not yet achieved the status of memorabilia or cultural icons. There were both new and used ones on sale. None were actually antique. They are being bought to use and not to show. Their presence in the market shows that electricity is not yet everywhere. It is expected that people will be coming to this market who will carry these irons beyond the end of the electric wires. Somewhere out there, not too far away, are people living in a pre-industrial culture. The frontier of cultural transition is just beyond here. All you need to do is follow whoever buys these irons.
Since the general view is that electricity has come to everybody important (“almost everywhere” is the way it is stated), then it follows there are some people out there who are less than important. Now, we have come beyond a socio-economic discussion to a socio-political one. There are real people out there who buy real charcoal irons because they do not have access to electricity or cannot afford to use it. I suspect they do not have enough money to attract attention. It could be they do not have other things that money can buy here too, like facilitated access to citizenship papers, cultural identity with the majority, and education or other means to upward mobility and movement out of subsistence living.
Those irons tell us things if we think about what they are saying.