Nung is known by our group of friends as “Big One” to distinguish him from numerous other sons nicknamed “nung” indicating their birth order. Nung is “ambiguous” above all else. He is a guy who uses feminine pronouns and a gambler who is a spiritualist in his spare time (or is it the other way around?). Nothing about big Nung is obvious at first glance except his exceptional size, about which he is sensitive. On this day, however, Nung is the center of attention. He is the organizer of a cultural event that puts him in a class apart.
The day begins with the dedication of a shrine. The shrine looks like a small booth with a tile roof and three walls made of laths. In this case the shrine is too small for a person to enter, even a child, but there is a temporary platform beside it for the day’s activities. The shrine was dedicated by offerings which signified the nature of the veneration being undertaken. Among other gifts of fruit and cigars, there was a pig’s head. This was not a strictly Buddhist ceremony. Indeed, the presence of Buddhist monks would be brief and unusual.
The main event, however, was a dance or series of dances that lasted for hours from morning until nearly sunset. It involved about 40 dancers, similarly clad in floor-length sarongs with brightly colored shirts and matching head scarves. The colors were bright, the dance music was lively, and the movements were sinuous. None of the dancers seemed to be paying much attention to others, but there was an informal synchronization of their movements.
By afternoon everyone was dancing. The seating area near the shrine was abandoned. Throughout the morning Nung or one of the other better-known practitioners had been occupied with individual conferences. The content of the conversations varied from humiliatingly personal to boringly general. The form was predictably about problems and resolutions. The practitioners funneled advice from the beyond to reply authoritatively while usually puffing on one of the cigars. Nung is locally well-known for his accuracy. Each conferee presented him with paper money which he wore strung around his neck for the rest of the day.
A few days later Nung organized another event in a village on the other side of the district at which more than a hundred dancers gathered. Events differ. Some of them are more like séances.
There are two things I would like to make clear at this point. First, at no time did I see anybody dancing in a trance-like condition. There were none who seemed to be out of touch with immediate reality, or in a frenzied state. Second, I did not see any of the practitioners indicating that they were channeling voices from the beyond. This was just one of the more ordinary and very common fawn yoke kru (dance to elevate a teacher) ceremonies here in North Thailand.
But as an observer, it was clear that the ethnic origins of this dance were Burmese, Mon to be precise, as indicated by the composition of the musicians and the style of costumes. Just below the surface all of low-land ethnic traditions, art and culture here in the North are Burmese-Tai-Lao that was simply called Lanna until less than a century ago.
The best thing written for popular consumption about this aspect of Thai faith is “Mediums & Shamans: Psychic consultants peddle ancient remedies to modern society” by Philip Cornwel-Smith in Very Thai: Everyday Popular Culture Bangkok: River Books, 2005. Cornwel-Smith’s sample is small but he has excellent corroboration from Thai scholars and good pictures by his colleague John Gross. From Very Thai, we learn that there are upwards of 100,000 khon song practitioners (“mediums”, called khon song jao around here indicating they are supernatural). If this were a separate religion it would be the second largest in the country with scores of believers for each practitioner, and with a wide variety of practices in addition to spirit dances. The jao referred to here in Chiang Mai is the same “lord” that is worshiped in the ubiquitous “spirit houses” Thailand is known for. Cornwel-Smith dances around his subject, implying skepticism without outright ridicule.
Others are not so cautious. To many, spirit dances and spirit mediums are clear signs of religious decadence and superstition. They are laughable. However, ambivalent as most ordinary Thai people I know may be, they are not laughing. As with all other types of supernatural faith practices, there is an element of the hypothetical about them. They are treated as if they might be valid and as if they might be important. They are not as central as Buddhism, but when Buddhism gets too staid there are dances to liven things up.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.