The beauty of preserving ancient culture

A community of Tai Pheuan migrated from Laos 160 years ago and still maintain their ancient Buddhist ordination rites.

ordination ceremony

If this article sparks your interest, be sure to read the classic study of the Tai Pheuan's migration from Laos is A culture in search of survival: the Phuan of Thailand and Laos (1988) by Sanit Samakkaan and Kennon Breazeale, Yale University Southeast Asia Studies (See Google Books).

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Colourful novices: The Thai Phuan of Sukhothai's Si Satchanalai district proudly retain their unique ordination ceremony.by Karnjana Karnjanatawe


Somsak Phiewdaeng was painting a front nail of his elephant orange. He and his friend not only coloured all the elephant's large nails, but also drew a picture on the front of its ears, as well as parts of its face and body. They were preparing the 48-year old elephant for a teenage boy joining the large annual ordination ceremony in Ban Hat Sieo, Sukhothai province.

Ban Hat Sieo in Si Satchanalai district is home to the Thai Phuan, an ethnic group who migrated from Muang Phuan in Laos in the 1840s. In centuries past they raised elephants for logging work in the forest, but today the pachyderms are only used for traditional ceremonies such as the riding-elephant procession for novices' ordination ceremonies.

The ceremony has been well preserved by the Thai Phuan people who have lived in the Si Satchanalai district for almost two centuries. Every April 7-8, families with teenage boys have their sons ordained during the school break in summer because they, like other Buddhists, believe the ordination will bring the highest form of merit to parents.

"I am excited," said 15-year-old Sucha Kheedkhin, after his father finished shaving his head. He and his cousin Nattawat Poonworachot were ordained last year.

About 20 Thai Phuan boys and men joined the monk ordination in April last year.

In contrast to normal ordinations in which the head-shaving ritual is usually held in a temple, the Thai Phuan perform the rite in their houses. The host family of the two boys held a party with music and food for guests the night before the procession. There was also a party in the morning to welcome guests and to show their happiness. Both of the parents smiled broadly. They even invited complete strangers like us to share a meal with them. We were happy for them too and closely observed the event.

After the heads were shaved, the parents of each boy blessed Sucha and Nattawat by anointing their heads one at a time with a small bowl. Then relatives and guests were invited to bless the two boys. Later, the boys took a bath and changed into white tank tops and shorts. A professional make-up artist was called from Bangkok in order to apply cosmetics to both boys

The house was rather crowded. People walked in and out of the kitchen to cook and serve food while others prepared things for the procession. Guests kept arriving. Karaoke music was played while a singer tried to catch up with the tune.

Inside the house, Sucha and Nattawat were ready for their make-up session. The artist began by applying foundation powder, then drew their eyebrows, brushed orange eyeshadow on their lids, applied rouge to their cheeks and finished with rose red lips. Each face took about an hour to complete.

Then it was the turn of the clothes experts. They selected clothes in vivid colours such as pink, purple and blue for the boys. Each child wore a bright velvet long-sleeved shirt then donned jongkraben - the traditional baggy Thai knee breeches made from one piece of cloth. They added gold accessories around their necks, ankles, hands and several fingers as well as copper belts. A hat decorated with gold lines, artificial flowers and long pointed tail completed the ensemble. They were also required to wear sunglasses.

It took a couple of hours to get dressed up and they were already sweating and looked much like traditional dance performers.

It is unusual for boys about to become novices to wear such costumes and make-up. But it is an old belief that the beautiful and luxurious items are an illusion and the novices must learn the truth about life and rid themselves of these illusions and follow the Buddha's teaching. Wearing sunglasses before being ordained symbolises that the boys are in the dark and will learn wisdom while they are novices.

As the two boys donned their best clothes, a pair of elephants standing in the backyard of the house were also dressed up. A team of mahouts painted their animals with colourful lines and wrote the nickname of each boy on the body of each elephant. Vivid cloth was placed on top of their heads and backs while the top of the ears were also decorated. The elephants were ready for the afternoon walking procession.

Before climbing on the elephant, each boy knelt near the front legs and greeted the elephant by raising their two hands in the way Thais greet people and bow. Each boy sat on the neck of the elephant followed by the mahout and one relative who hold a large ceremonial umbrella to provide shade.

The elephants walked out from backyard of the house to a local temple, Wat Hat Sieo. They joined other boys on the main street of the village. About 20 were walking in one long line to the temple.

Old people in full dress were dancing in front of the procession while a marching band played music at the front. It was a big celebration day for the Thai Phuan.

When the procession arrived at Wat Hat Sieo, they walked around the ubosot of the temple three times. Then the boy dismounted the elephants and walked inside the main hall. They were welcomed by the abbot who would start the ordination process a day later.

In the late afternoon, the boys rode the elephants back home. The normal novice ordination process would begin the following morning without the fancy dress. The novices would stay in Wat Hat Sieo for a couple of days before moving to a temple selected by their parents for further dharma study.

The Thai Phuan ordination ceremony is unique in combining dressed up elephants carrying boys wearing make-up and dressed in colourful costumes with dazzling accessories.

It is a merit-making event when locals welcome visitors to closely observe the quaint ceremony.

This year's event will be held tomorrow and on Friday at Ban Hat Sieo, Si Satchanalai district, Sukhothai.

Call the Tourism Authority of Thailand (Sukhothai office) on 05-561-6228/9.

(Source: Bangkok Post, Colourful novices: The Thai Phuan of Sukhothai's Si Satchanalai district proudly retain their unique ordination ceremony, 6/04/2011, Karnjana Karnjanatawe, link

Muang Phuan in Laos - the place in Laos that this group of Tai Phuan migrated from (See Wikipedia)
Tai Phuan - , also known as "Thai Phuan" but "Thai" usually refers to the country of Thailand and the people who live there, "Tai" refers to the greater world of people who speak "Tai" languages and share a "Tai" culture, (See Wikipedia and also see Tai Peoples category)
ethnic group - a smaller group of people living in a country (with their own language and culture) (example: the Mon in Thailand)
migrate (verb) - move from one place to another place to work and live
migration (noun) - the act of moving from one place to another to work and live (See Wikipedia)

Buddhism Vocabulary

ordination - the act or ceremony of making someone a priest or other religious leader การบวช
ceremony - a formal public event งานพิธี
ordained - became a monk, made into a monk in a religious ceremony

novices - people preparing to become monks (not yet ordained)

merit - (Pāli puñña) Buddhist idea of "merit" and "making merit", merit "accumulates as a result of good deeds, acts or thoughts and that carries over to later in life or to a person's next life. Such merit contributes to a person's growth towards liberation," merit can also be transfered to others such one's family or even whole country (See Wikipedia)
bring the highest form of merit to parents - performing a religious act that brings the greatest amount of Buddhist merit to your parents

bless - make holy, add religious value to, sanctify  ทำให้เกิดความศักดิ์สิทธิ์ (See Wikipedia)
anoint - to put oil on a person's body during a religious ceremony ทาด้วยน้ำมัน

traditional - things (clothes, music, customs, etc.) that have been part of a country or society for a long time
procession - a line of people or vehicles moving in a slow and formal way as part of an event ขบวนรถ
procession - a parade, a special large event in which many people march and walk along a road wearing special clothes with special displays and decoration (See Wikipedia)

head-shaving - the act of removing all the hair from the head, shaving all the hair off of the head (before a person becomes a monk)
ritual - a formal ceremony พิธีกรรม พิธีการ
rite - a traditional ceremony, especially a religious one พิธีกรรม (พระราชพิธี)

host - to provide the space and other things necessary for a special event ทำหน้าที่เป็นเจ้าภาพ, เป็นผู้จัดรายการ จัดงาน
host family - the family that has the celebrations and party in their home (providing a place and probably food too)
party - a celebration, a small fun gathering of friends งานเลี้ยง

ceremonial umbrella -
the umbrella or parasol is one symbol found in Buddhism  
novice - (Pali: Samanera) monks in training who keep the ten precepts as their code of behaviour and are devoted to the Buddhist religious life (See Wikipedia)
ubosot - the holiest prayer roon in a Wat or temple, also called the "ordination room" because the ceremony to ordain monks takes place in this room (See Wikipedia)

abbot - the head monk at a temple เจ้าอาวาส
dharma - the teachings of the Buddha which lead to enlightenment (See Wikipedia)

illusion - something that appears to exist, but does not really exist (you think you see it and you think it exists but it doesn't) ภาพมายา, ภาพหลอน, ภาพลวงตา
get rid of - take action so that you no longer have something unpleasant that causes suffering
rid themselves of - when a group of people
rid themselves from illusion - through the study of Buddhism see the truth

symbol
(noun) - something that represents something else (especially an idea) สัญลักษณ์, เครื่องหมาย
X symbolises Y
(verb) - X is working as a symbol of Y
wisdom
- knowledge gained over a long period of time from experience

knelt - put one or both knees on the ground คุกเข่า
bow - to show respect, bend your body or head forwards โค้งคำนับ,  โค้ง, โค้งศีรษะ,  ก้มศีรษะ (See Wikipedia)

Make-up Vocabulary

cosmetics - substances that you use on your face and skin to make yourself look more attractive เครื่องสำอางค์ (See Wikipedia)
make-up - same as ":cosmetics"
make-up artist - a person who is skilled in applying make-up to the face in an artistic manner (See Wikipedia)
make-up session - the period of time when a make-up artist applies make-up to a person's face (in an artiful manner)

apply - put on the skin 
apply make-up
- put make-up (cosmetics on the face)
 
foundation - supporting structure รากฐาน
foundation powder - powder put on the face before putting make-up on the face (serves as support for make-up)

cheeks - the soft parts of your face below your eye and between your mouth and ear แก้ม
nail - fingernail

Elephant Vocabulary

dressed up elephants - elephants with special clothes (colourful, decorated)

pachyderms - the group of animnals to which elephants belongs (See Wikipedia)

logging -
cutting down trees to make wood that is then sold by a company as a product

mount - climb up on top of an elephant
dismount - lower yourself down to the ground, when you are sitting on top of an elephant)

mahout - skilled driver of elephants

Clothes Vocabulary

tank top - a shirt without sleeves, leaving arms bear (See Wikipedia)
vivid - having or producing very clear and detailed images in the mind ชัดเจน
bright - a very light colour
velvet - a cloth usually woven from silk or cotton with a thick soft furry surface ผ้ากำมะหยี่
jongkraben - "traditional baggy Thai knee breeches made from one piece of cloth"  

donned - wear clothes, put on clothes
dressed up - with special clothes on, wearing special clothes
luxurious - very comfortable and expensive ฟุ่มเฟือย, โอ่อ่า หรูหรา

accessory -
fashion accessory, fashion items that women wear in addition to their clothes, "decorative items that supplement and complement clothes, such as jewelry, gloves, handbags, hats, belts, scarves, watches, sunglasses, pins, stockings, bow ties, leg warmers, leggings, neckties, suspenders, and tights" (See Wikipedia)

fancy dress - special clothes (very high quality, formal or having some decoration)
dazzling - glittering, sparkling พราว, แพรวพราว, แวววาว, พราวแพรว

General Vocabulary

annual - happening once a year ประจำปี
retain - to keep something and not lose it รักษา
unique - very special, unusual or good ที่มีลักษณะพิเศษ เป็นเอกลักษณ์

preserved - kept in good condition, not damaged or destroyed คงอยู่, สงวนไว้ kept something as it is, especially in order to prevent it from decaying or being damaged or destroyed ซึ่งปกป้องไว้
well preserved - kept in good condition (has existed for a long time but does still works well, looks good)

contrast - a noticeable difference, difference between two things when you compare them ความแตกต่าง
In contrast to X, Y - different from X, here is Y ...

catch up - after falling behind another person or the main group, moving fast to be at the same place they are
share
- to have or use something at the same time as someone else ใช้ร่วมกัน

copper
-  a brownish metal  ทองแดง
artificial - made by people instead of being something natural ที่ประดิษฐ์ขึ้น, จำลอง ที่มนุษย์สร้างขึ้น
artificial flowers - not real forests, flowers made in a factory (that last forever), not growing naturally in a forest

pointed
- with a point on the end แหลมคม, แหลม, คมกริบ, ซึ่งมีปลายแหลม,
tail - the back part of something (example: the tail of an animal:  หาง (สัตว์) )
pointed tail - a tail that gets narrower and ends in a point, tapering 
ensemble - a group of things that combine well together

a couple of hours -  a few hours, probably about 2 or 3 three hours

nickname
- an informal name for someone or something, especially a name which you are called by your friends or family, usually based on your proper name or your character ชื่อเล่น
vivid - very clear and easy to see (producing very clear images in the mind)

relative - a member of your family ญาติพี่น้อง
provide - to give someone something that they want or need
shade - an area protected from the sub, a place where the sun's light does not enter, under a tree or under an umbrella, for example ร่ม
local - in or related to the area that you live, or to the particular area that you are talking about ท้องถิ่น
marching band - a group of people who wear uniforms and play musical instruments (usually with a lot of horns and drums), often march in parades and often are usually students from a nearby school (See Wikipedia)

process - a series of actions that you take in order to achieve a result แนวทางปฏิบัติ, กระบวน, วิธีการ

locals - people who live in a particular place ชาวบ้าน
observe - to watch or study someone or something with care สังเกตการณ์
quaint - unusual in a nice way มหัศจรรย์ น่าพิศวง

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Writer: Jon Fernquest
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