Fire and Water
UNDERSTANDING LOY KRATHONG
Loy Kratong comes on the night of the full moon of the twelfth lunar month, according to one of the Thai reckonings (or the second month, “Yi”, of the year according to the Lanna [northern Thai] calendar). It is the larger of two “secular” festivals in the Thai calendar and the most extensive annual celebration here in Chiang Mai. This year Loy Kratong is November 11 with the major city events on November 12.
The way Loy Kratong is celebrated varies from village to village, and in large cities from neighborhood to neighborhood. What they all have in common is making an offering of flowers and candles (called kratongs) on a waterway. The offerings are set on the water to float (i.e. to loy). Many homes will decorate their front walls with candles or prateep (candles in clay cups), hang paper lanterns, or erect festival gates made of banana leaves and stalks with palm leaves. Electric lights are becoming popular recently. Almost every village will build a stairway and pier to give access to the water where families come to launch their offering. Villages may hold contests of various sorts, especially contests for home-made kratongs. Fire crackers and fiery “flower pots” as well as “Roman candles” will be common wherever people can get away with it; police crack-downs have been effective where large crowds gather, after years of horrifying accidents. A big central event might include a boat race, parade of large commercial kratongs, beauty contest, or fireworks display.
In Chiang Mai Loy Kratong and Yi Peng overlap. Loy Kratong, as it is celebrated now, moved from the Central Thai region several decades ago. The celebration in the city goes on for three nights, with a big parade at the climax ending with fireworks on the river. Yi Peng is an older merit-making observance centered on village temples from which large paper hot air balloons (called khom loy) are sent aloft. The balloons are sent up during the day at the end of a chanting service, and are made of brightly colored paper, with a long tail. A delayed fuse sets off fire crackers when the balloon is overhead, and candy or coins wrapped in colorful ribbons are released to be chased by children. Khom loy are also launched at night in massive numbers these days. They make a stunning sight as they rise and then are caught by winds. The heat to fill the balloons is provided by a wax coil of string which burns up after 15 minutes or so, allowing the paper balloon to cool and fall. Airlines have to cancel, delay or divert flights to avoid the swarms of khom loy.
Some form of Loy Kratong festival is a tradition all over mainland South East Asia. However, the idea of floating a handmade offering is said to have originated with a woman named Nopphamat in the King’s court in Sukhothai. This story is how the festival is made particularly Thai. No trace of this legend can be found, however, before the beginning of the 19th century when a story of Nang Nopphamat appeared. HM King Rama IV accredited Loy Kratong to a Brahmanical festival honoring the Lord Buddha where a story says a bird with a candle in its beak flew down to worship the Buddha.
No matter the origin, there is complete agreement that one of the features of the festival is to venerate and appease … whom? The Mother of Waters would be one candidate, water being the very source of life itself. Rivers in Thai languages are called mae naam – Mother of Waters. So the floating offerings are composed of symbolic items: flowers, candle(s), incense, and perhaps a coin or a bit of something sweet or savory. The art of Thai traditional flower folding is employed in making these dinner-plate-size floats. Inherent in the respect given to the source of life is confession and apology for using and misusing waterways and water (and by extension all life-resources). It is said that some old-timers include a few fingernail clippings and sprigs of hair to symbolize the floating away of sins and the intention to lead a better life. It’s apparently going to take more time for the King’s application of Loy Kratong to the Lord Buddha to take hold. In any case, Loy Kratong is not so firmly religious that Christians feel obliged to shun it.
Another way to look at Loy Kratong is as an environmental festival. It is one of the few remaining celebrations where families bring children to appreciate their dependence on nature.
Fire and water are the most prominent elements in Loy Kratong. As traditional elements they are opposed to each other, and supplementary to each other. In one way Loy Kratong is the obverse of Songkran, where Loy Kratong comes when the rivers are high at the end of the rainy season and Songkran comes when the rivers are drying up. The one gives thanks for life-giving water and the other begs for it. Rainfall on the hills provides water for irrigation (rain is not counted on to make rice grow, but flowing water is). The hills are covered with trees where nature thrives and can be found to sustain life. The rain comes from the sky, into which the lanterns are sent in joyful reverence. Prayers go up with the khom-loy balloons, as well as downstream with the kratongs. Mother Nature, formerly called Gaia by the Greeks and Mae Toranee in this part of the world, is the source of life, the embodiment of earth and water, along with fire and air. People may not remember a particular name for the source of life, but the four elements of nature are evident when the kratongs float away from the pier and catch the current and when the khom-loy rise in the air and catch the breeze.
Loy Kratong is about sufficiency, sustainability, and sustenance. It is about life. It is a joyful and humble thanksgiving.
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Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.