Love and devotion

Love and devotion

The Mon people of Sangkhla Buri celebrate Songkran in their own unique way. Story by Karnjana Karnjanatawe and Photos by Thiti Wannamontha and Pornprom Satrabhaya

The highly respected seated Buddha image is taken from the temple hall to be blessed by villagers. Pornprom Satrabhaya
The highly respected seated Buddha image is taken from the temple hall to be blessed by villagers. Pornprom Satrabhaya

Stacks of long bamboo poles are placed on the ground at Wat Wang Wiwekaram, a famous temple built by the revered late abbot Luang Pho Uttama. The temple is located in a Mon village in Sangkhla Buri district, on the Thailand-Myanmar border in Kanchanaburi province.

Villagers tie the poles together and put them on supports to form a great network of bamboo water pipes for the Songkran festival. From above, the large structure looks like a giant paper fan.

"Building the bamboo water pipe network is a way of making merit because it gives everyone the chance to bless the monks," said Piman Sirihong, 49, who was born in the community.

Monks walk on the backs of devotees with the aid of helpers. Thiti Wannamontha

The ancestors of the Mon people in Sangkhla Buri, among them Piman's mother, migrated from Myanmar more than 60 years ago. They helped the late abbot build the original temple in 1953. After this was inundated, due to the construction of Vajiralongkorn Dam by the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand, a new temple was erected at its present location on a hill. It is notable for its golden Bodh Gaya-style pagoda, which houses Buddhist relics.

The Mon community celebrates Songkran every year from April 13-18. On April 13, the temple hosts a prayer session. From April 14-16, a number of elderly villagers will stay in the temple to observe the five precepts. According to community tradition, temple abbot Phra Ajarn Maha Suchat Siripanyo said their children and grandchildren come to serve them rice every morning during their stay.

In late afternoon, the younger family members return to the temple with containers filled with water to bathe the elderly devotees and wash their feet in a demonstration of gratitude.

Meanwhile, on the temple grounds in front of the pagoda, a group of men spend the first couple days of Songkran building the bamboo water pipe network.

"The late abbot told villagers to keep our traditions alive and use bamboo poles instead of PVC pipes. The wisdom of Luang Pho Uttama encourages villagers to work together in order to get the job done. The activity helps unite us," said Phra Ajarn Suchat.

Fragrant water from a network of bamboo pipes is used to bless the monks. Thiti Wannamontha

Bit by bit, the split bamboo poles are tied together into a network for water to flow through. This structure can serve hundreds of people who wish to take part in the water pouring ceremony on April 17.

Also between April 14 and 16, in one corner of the temple grounds next to a big Bodhi tree, another group of villagers build a five-tier sand pagoda. They decorate each tier by pinning small colourful paper flags. Once this has finished, locals pay their respects at the sand pagoda by offering flowers, lighting candles and burning incense sticks. Some bring their own sand while others use sand provided by the temple.

Locals believe that, once a year, they should replace the grains of sand that they unintentionally carry away on their shoes whenever they visit the temple. The monks later use the sand for temple construction projects. This is another way of making merit.

Locals don traditional dress. Pornprom Satrabhaya

On April 17 at around 3pm, people start to come to the temple. They don the traditional attire: women wear phasin or long traditional wraparound skirts, long-sleeved dresses and long scarves over the shoulders; men wear red longyi (a Burmese-style sarong) and white shirts. Each villager brings a large bowl filled with fragrant water and flowers.

At around 4pm, the temple grounds are packed with people. Everyone finds a place to stand along the bamboo pipe structure. A community leader brings a revered seated Buddha image from the temple hall. He places the image on an offering tray, below the tip of the two bamboo pipes at the end of the pipe network.

People walk across the famous Bamboo bridge over Songkaria River to Wat Wang Wiwekaram. Piyarat Chongcharoen

"Jo dai! Jo dai!" announces the MC. This is the signal to begin. Jo dai means to pour water in the Mon language. Everyone takes a small bowl in their hand and dips it into the larger bowl, scooping up the fragrant water and pouring it into the bamboo water pipes. The water flows together, carrying small flowers toward the end, where it all cascades over the seated Buddha image.

"Toey! Toey!" comes another signal. This means "stop".

After the Buddha image has been blessed, it is the turn of monks and novices. Male devotees lay face down next to one another on the ground to form a human path. Then, one by one, the monks and novices walk on their backs.

Locals take part in the thod pha pa parade in which they bring food and goods to make merit. Pornprom Satrabhaya

The practice started in the time of Luang Pho Uttama, according to Phra Ajarn Suchat. It was because villagers had such strong faith in the late abbot that they wanted him to step on their backs as a New Year's blessing. The tradition has continued ever since.

"I have taken part in the ritual since I was young," said Piman. "Luang Pho Uttama lightly stepped on everyone's back. I didn't feel much." Once all the monks and novices have been soaked, everyone throws the remaining water over each other, its pleasant fragrance filling the air.

The last day of Songkran (April 18) is the thod pha pa ceremony, where villagers offer donations and saffron robes to the monks. Everyone gathers near the community market, dressed in traditional costumes and holding artificial trees decorated with banknotes or other offerings such as spoons, plates and notebooks. Many carry food for the monks.

As the monks are carried back to the temple, some devotees take the opportunity to clean their hands and feet. Pornprom Satrabhaya

A student marching band starts playing before 8am. This is the signal for the parade to begin. The procession moves slowly, some walking, others dancing. Along the way, people throw sweets and coins into the air for children. The distance to the temple is only about a kilometre, but it takes them an hour to get there.

When they arrive, the hae yod chat ceremony begins, where they add a golden tiered roof to the sand pagoda. This is followed by a prayer session. At the end of the ceremony, they perform the kruadnam ritual of pouring water from a small cup into a bowl in order to dedicate their merits to all beings, including the spirits of departed loved ones.

"Songkran is not a time for having fun. For us, it is a time for making merit," Piman said.

Locals light candles and incense sticks and place them around the sand pagoda. Thiti Wannamontha

An offering parade. Thiti Wannamontha

A child takes fragrant water from a large bowl. Pornprom Satrabhaya

Sand is used to build a five-tier pagoda. Thiti Wannamontha

On April 18, the last day of the festival, a tiered roof is added to the sand pagoda. Thiti Wannamontha

The bamboo pipe network allows everyone the chance to take part.

Water is added to the bamboo pipe network in order to bless the Buddha image and the monks. Pornprom Satrabhaya

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