Candles shine light on local artisans
Ubon Ratchthani craftsmanship gains national recognition
Gone are the days when monks used candles to provide light, but the tradition of candle offering on Khao Phansa, the first day of Buddhist Lent which falls on July 14, continues, and with it Lent candle processions.
These candle parades showcasing elaborate wax carvings to mark the arrival of the three-month rainy retreat for monks are held across the country. However, many believe no province can rival Ubon Ratchthani when it comes to this form of artistic creation.
In 1977 the annual procession in this northeastern province gained recognition from the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT), and it has since gone on to become the province's biggest festival with a competition thrown in for added flavour.
Ubon Ratchathani's candle work for Khao Phansa never ceases to amaze visitors and even the local community, which has its local artists to thank for their craftsmanship, creativity and devotion to keeping the tradition alive.
Wichit Boonjing, a 60-year-old self-taught craftsman, has been taking part in the Lent candle procession for years for Wat Khum Klang in Muang district and walks away with a handful of prizes every year.
In this year's contest on July 13, his work depicts the story of Lord Buddha when he attained enlightenment. The main piece and other components including Phra Malai's journey to heaven will be displayed on an 8-metre-long trailer.
Mr Wichit's carved candles have been showcased in several countries such as Singapore, China and Japan. The fact that one of his Lent candles is installed at Suvarnabhumi airport speaks for his craftsmanship.
It took decades of training to master his art skills and despite years of work he feels a rush of excitement every day he gets to work.
"I work every day and every day I feel freshened, fun and challenged. Candle carving requires patience and perseverance which form the basis of success," he said.
He developed interest in candle carving when he was in his early teens and began carving candles without formal training or guidance.
He collected old candle stumps in a can, melted them into liquid and poured it into a bamboo barrel.
When the wax was set, he carved simple traditional Thai patterns into it and repeated this process for years. It was learning by trial and error.
Back in those days, artisans did not like to share their knowledge and so he kept himself close to these masters, quietly observing them at work.
He had a chance to accumulate skills after starting by helping with candle carving at various temples. Mr Wichit said he has been training younger generations in this craftsmanship to keep the Lent candle procession alive.
Sudsakhon Wangdee, who has more than 10 years of experience in Lent candle making, said carving candles is a laborious task requiring patience and skill.
Candle trunks created by his team for this year's procession depict the life of Lord Buddha from birth to enlightenment to death, and are for Wat Phra That Nong Bua. "We work day in, day out to carve candle trunks. It is exhausting but we keep working. It's worth it when we see the reactions from both Thais and foreigners," he said.
Mr Sudsakhon is a construction contractor by profession and his skill sets in construction help him make strong foundations for large-sized candle trunks and other components.
While Mr Wichit carves an elaborate pattern on the candles trunks as ton thian, 57-year-old Sukhom Chaowalit specilases in another technique known as tid-pim.
In this technique, the interior of the candle trunks is made of coconut coir tied together and coated with plaster.
Moulds are used to make hundreds of thousands of pieces of dok phueng with various shapes and forms for use in decorating the candle trunks as designed by artists.
There is no carving or scraping in the process of attaching dok phueng or patterns to the candle trunks, a technique from which the name tid-pim originated.
Mr Sukhom's team for the Lent candle procession comprises people of various professions who come together to create candle trunks.
They make Lent candles for Wat Burapha and have won many prizes.
Over a million pieces of dok phueng from 30 patterns have been made for this year's event. It is a labour-intensive and time-consuming process, but Mr Sukhom believe it has its merits.
"I like this technique because it creates jobs for others. People who are trained in this method can use this skill in other work and expand their skill.
"Moreover, it is about teamwork and inexperienced students can do simple patterns using sharpened sticks," he said.
Mr Sukhom was interested in candle work in his teens and asked to try his hand, but without any skills no one trusted him with this delicate work.
It was Surin Kanchanasane, a veteran of in the art, and his son who gave him a chance.
Under their guidance, he started out with jobs like wax kneading before working with patterns and other tasks in the Lent candle-making process.
With more than 30 years of experience, Mr Sukhom is one of the province's best hands in this technique.
"I wanted to be the best and put all my effort into candle making. But the real value is in keeping the tradition alive. And," he said, Ubon Ratchathani's Lent candles are widely known for their Buddhist art."
Faith, art and tradition
Pongrat Piromrat, governor of Ubon Ratchathani, said the Lent festival kicks off today and activities will be held until July 17 at Thung Sri Muang.
In the lead-up to Asanha Bucha Day which falls on Wednesday, people can observe candle making at eight local communities.
A procession of royally provided Lent candles and bathing robes takes place on Wednesday morning, followed by a ceremony to launch the Lent candle procession part of the event.
On Thursday, Lent candles and floats put together by masters and their apprentices will be paraded through town and accompanied by various performances.
The candle procession festival in this northeastern province is believed to date back to the reign of King Rama, when a local official thought about making large-sized candles for offering to monks to give them light during Buddhist Lent.
Candles, which were tied together and offered in small bundles, were then melted together and the liquid was poured into a mould to create even larger candles. The details of candles have become increasingly elaborate over the years.
These well-known ceremonial activities act as a showcase for Ubon Ratchathani's rich culture each year and have also brought some financial reward to the community, which makes available small carved candles among other souvenirs and mementos on sale to tourists.
Local artists are contracted by individuals or organisations to make Lent candles, some of which have been sold for prices up to 1 million baht.