'A TRYST WITH THE DAN SAI SPIRITS'

'A TRYST WITH THE DAN SAI SPIRITS'

A Story by Vasco

 'A TRYST WITH THE DAN SAI SPIRITS'


FUN-LOVING SPIRITS GATHER IN DAN SAI TO WELCOME LORD BUDDHA’S RETURN FROM A LONG JOURNEY. A grand merit-making festival is held once a year in the Dan Sai district in Loei Province, the Boon Luang Festival, or what is popularly known as the bamboo rocket festival, or as the Phi Ta Khon, which blends the essence of two ancestral traditions, the local Isan and the Buddhist.

 

The local Isan belief in spirits and ghosts celebrates with the Boon Bang Fai Festival the importance to invoke their protection for the wellbeing of the community with a good harvest season; and, the Thai-Buddhist belief in enlightenment celebrates with the Boon Phra Wate Festival the importance to make merit by listening continuously to thirteen sermons and therefore be brought closer to meeting Lord Si-Arirya, the next Lord after Lord Buddha.

 

It is difficult to trace the exact origins of the Phi Ta Khon, however, there is one theory more than others that I would like to bring to you, the one that claims its origin to the tale of Lord Buddha's last great incarnation before attaining enlightenment. The tale recounts that when Prince Vessandara, the Buddha's penultimate incarnation, returned to his city, it was such a joyous occasion that the village spirits came forth to join the welcoming parade. Is the vibrant Phi Ta Khon a lively re-enactment of this tale? Well, whether this is true or not, one thing is certain that the Dan Sai community dress up in ghostly attires and spirit masks, taking the center-stage of the three-day celebrations.

The ghoulish multicolored Phi Ta Khon masks, made adhering to the unique Dansai craft, consist of three main elements: The horned hat, creatively fashioned from ‘huad’, a traditional woven bamboo basket used for steaming sticky rice; the face, skillfully carved out from the coconut leave sheath; and, the nose, made from softwood, traditionally on the shorter side but nowadays more elongated, resembling a sort of witch’s nose. The rambling costumes are made of colorful strips of clothes sewn together to resemble shrouds.

 

The Phi Ta Khon spirits announce their presence by the clanging sound of cowbells worn around the waist and love to flaunt obvious phallic-shaped swords, teasing and amusing the crowd. The good-natured and fun-loving Phi Ta Khon spirits never spurn photographers, on the contrary, they love being photographed either on their own or together with the overwhelmed spectators that join the celebration. 

By and large the Boon Luang Festival is replete with revelations: An opening ceremony rich with suggestive rituals by the Mun River to invoke Phra Opakud a monk with supernatural powers; two-day parades, where the Phi Ta Khon dance their way to the temple to the rhythm of northeastern folk music with gongs, drums, tambourine and Thai flutes playing in sync with pop music; a final solemn procession, carrying on platforms a sacred Buddha image, four monks and Jao Por Guan - the medium of the village, who sits on a bamboo rocket and throws good-luck coins to the tumultuous crowd; and, the bamboo rockets firing ceremony as the grand finale. From then on till the last day of the event the villagers collect at the Wat Ponchai to listen to the monks reciting the story of Lord Buddha's last incarnation before attaining enlightenment.

Phi Ta Khon has been compared to Halloween and famous carnivals but comparison takes away the authenticity of an ancient ritual which is now reinventing itself as a modern cultural event attracting curious and creative from home and abroad. Moreover, unlike the Phi Ta Khon, Halloween lacks in-depth, folklores, and spirituality. Some may say that Phi Ta Khon lacks in variety of masks and colors when weighed against some of the major carnivals, but then it is all relative as there is not one but many carnivals, to name a few: The Italian; the Spanish; the Caribbean; the Brazilian. But, for those who want to experience something quaint and unique, there is the Phi Ta Khon. 

The Phi Ta Khon Festival 2007 has gone and the villagers put away their masks and costumes for another long year, ready to return to the paddy fields, but not its spirits: they will linger on to protect Dan Sai and will come back to light next year to commemorate Lord Buddha and once again to be photographed, videoed and written about. Phi Ta Khon is becoming a muse for many writers and artists inspired by its earthly spirits and enlightened Buddha.

© 2020 Vasco


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Added on May 1, 2020
Last Updated on May 1, 2020
Tags: thailand, festival, Loei Province, animism, buddhism, masks, music, culture, off-bitten track

Author

Vasco
Vasco

Canada



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