The rice planting season officially begins tomorrow (Monday, May 11). After giving consideration to cancelling several May holidays, the Thai government declared they would go ahead but people are advised to stay at home, meaning that how they are observed would be mostly on TV. The most spectacular and ancient of the holidays is the Royal Plowing Ceremony, traditionally help in the Sanam Luang in front of the Grand Palace in Bangkok on the second Monday of May.
This ceremony, revived by HM King Rama IX in 1960, features a representative of the King (usually the Minister of Agriculture) plowing a furrow in 9 circuits, with the plow being pulled by a team of white oxen. Rice is then cast into the furrows by the royal representative from gold and silver baskets of seeds carried on shoulder poles by four women. The whole event is presided over by the Royal Family. Part of the ceremony also involves offering the oxen their choice of food and drink; what they choose is considered by astrologers to portend agriculture productivity. At the conclusion of the ceremony crowds of people surge onto the newly plowed field to retrieve as many grains as they can to mix with their own seeds to expand the kwan (“life force” which is part of the official name of the ceremony, พระราชพิธีจรดพระนังคัลแรกนาขวัญ).
The Thai ceremony is carried over in toto from a ceremony held in the Khmer Empire and even before. It reiterates an event in the Ramayana, the mythic saga that legitimizes the lineage of royalty throughout South and Southeast Asia. It recalls the ancient agricultural origins of culture and validates the king as the Lord of the Land. In this way, the Plowing Ceremony, along with coronations and funerals of royalty, symbolizes the stability, prosperity and wealth of the people, the country, and the culture.
Some say we have entered a post-agricultural age, but COVID-19 has reminded us of the fragility of metropolitan life. We forget our agrarian roots at our great peril.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.