One Friday morning earlier this month there was a ceremony to bless a bridge that crosses an irrigation canal 2 meters wide in the middle of rice fields along the border between our village and the next. The bridge is on a lane so small that it does not show up on Google maps at street level. My estimate is that there may be an average of 5 motorcycles a day cross the bridge. The bridge cost 255,000 baht (which is about the cost of a 4-room house around here) and it replaces a bridge that was too narrow, the project said, although it was wider than the lane that crossed it. The bridge was number 8 of 10 being built over that canal in our sub-district.
About a hundred people from our two villages attended, of which a third were in civil service uniforms. At the auspicious hour of 9:39 a.m.the ceremony began, as virtually all do, with a layman leading chanting everybody knew by heart. Then a chapter of 5 priests from the temples in our 2 villages chanted stanzas for about twenty minutes. Finally, the Chief District Officer (Nai Ampuhr) presided as an official in charge of the construction read a report about the rationale, in vague generalities, and costs, in precise numbers. The Nai Ampuhr cut a ribbon, crossed the bridge in 4 paces and struck a gong, apparently because it was carried way out there for him to do that. Final blessings were chanted, water poured, and priests invited to have a meal. 11 officials presented traditional buckets of gifts to the priests and the ceremony ended. It was time for pictures and noodles.
I was amazed at the ceremony.
What was the event all about? Why did it attract such attention? Both villages took up substantial free-will offerings even though the project was funded by the government. Work crews volunteered to put up tents for the audience and take them down. People came as if the bridge blessing was an important occasion.
I believe there were 3 motives.
First, the ceremony was meritorious. It was a merit-making opportunity. The call for donations, the day before, had invited people to “make merit.” The money given would be used not only for the lunches and monk’s baskets, but also for the communities’ charitable funds.
Second, the occasion was about community-building rather than socializing. When folks arrived they sat in chairs and didn’t move around much. There wasn’t much to see and waiting for things to start was all there was to do. Very few came out of curiosity since everyone knew just about what to expect. The whole thing from setting-up to taking everything down was a community undertaking.
Third, the village and district officials were on display. There can never be too many opportunities for politicians to appear before their grateful constituencies. The bridge dedication was a salubrious chance for them to take credit for being beneficial, which is a topic I have heard doubted from time to time.
At the same time, two factors were missing or hidden that might have to do with the size of the affair.
First, there was no reference made to veneration or placating supernatural entities. Rivers, literally “mothers of water,” are nurturing, divine forces. Rivers must never be encroached upon without paying respect, but this was a canal. The canal itself involved a gouge across the land, dug decades ago after proper rites at that time. No offerings to the eternal Lord of the Land were in evidence. So this had nothing to do with quelling concerns for the well-being of those who cross the bridge. As far as the supernatural realm was concerned we could have done without the ceremony.
What were resounding in their absence were the sub-district governor and council from our neighboring village. A recent edict by the central government has declared that any sub-district with residents below a certain number must merge with a neighboring sub-district. Not long ago the governor of our neighboring sub-district retired and was not replaced. Instead, the village heads elected one of their own as kamnan to preside at their meetings. Now what? Our two sub-districts are to be merged, we hear. That means that in order to remain in office in the new sub-district our sub-district governor and council representatives on this side of the canal will have to stand for election in mid-term after having gone to great trouble (and expense) not long ago. I may be overly suspicious but I cannot dismiss the thought that the large size of the blessing ceremony for our tiny bridge has to do with some maneuver to fend off this mid-term election, or at least to get as much construction as possible finished and to their credit while the funds are still under control of those who were counting on the opportunities such projects provide. Otherwise, why spend all that money getting elected?
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.