Bodies Made Out Of Rice

rice figure

I’ve always been a poor correspondent and an even lousier diary or note taker. Due to that I quite often find that the best memory prompts are photographs. In the new era of digital photography, photo storage is simple and my computer hard drive is now cluttered with thousands of images.

Somehow though, opening and closing images on a PC doesn’t have the memory pull of actually turning the pages of an old-fashioned Photo Album. The other day I was having a tidy up and I picked up an old album full of photos that I had taken in Thailand back in 1996. Scrolling through the album I came across a handful of photos that I took in a Village temple situated in the foothills of Khao Yai National Park.

Mali and I had in a moment of insanity bought some farming land here as an investment in 1990. Every couple of years we would return to check the land, which we had rented at give away rates to a local farmer. On previous visits I had found the village to be typical Isaan – quiet, sleepy and traditional. When we arrived on this particular visit in November 1996 in a Ute (Pickup Truck) full of family and friends from the village of Ban Phutsa we came across a place in transition.

The village and for that matter the rest of the district was enjoying the economic boom times that were to come to an abrupt halt a mere six months away in the 1997 meltdown that occurred from Seoul right down to Djakarta. There were new houses in the village and cars on the road but the biggest change was at the village Wat. Previously, the village temple had been just a number of small modest buildings.

When we arrived this time we were soon in the midst of a large construction zone with a new ordination hall near completion and a fully renovated Sala up and running. We entered the Sala to pay our respects to the new Achaan of the Wat. Village temples tend to have a lot of human movement, which reflects Buddhist culture in Thailand, but this temple seemed to be busier than most with a constant stream of villagers passing through the Sala.

I soon put this down to the new Achaan who would have only been in his early forties and had an aura about him that could only reflect charisma. In between chewing the fat with some local villagers, and offering lucky lottery numbers to a caller on the newly installed telephone, he even offered us coffee. After about fifteen minutes, a male villager who turned out to be an important layman entered the Sala.

rice figure1

The Achaan then asked whether we would like to take place in a body/soul cleansing ceremony. We said yes and the layman walked over to the corner of the room and picked up two large sacks. Onto a small tarpaulin that he laid on the floor he emptied the two sacks, which contained rice into two separate piles. Quickly he then spread the rice out and then hand carved the piles into two human shaped bodies or rather I should say – silhouettes. Absent-mindedly, they initially reminded me of the chalked outlines of homicide victims.

The “ Bodies” were then lined with yellow candles, which were then lit, by all of us. Mali, myself and all the family and friends who had come with us that day, donned the white robes of the novice and then sat and prayed in front of the rice piles as the Achaan and a senior Monk chanted. When the ceremony was finished, I reflected once again on the seamless nature of Buddhist practice in Thailand.

rice figure2

That’s me in the photograph above looking totally embarrassed or confused (possibly both).

On occasion, over the years through shyness or feeling a bit gormless (similar to that clumsy twit in Britain a few months back who wiped out two priceless Ming vases after he tripped over his shoelace) I have pulled back from being a part of ceremonies like the one described above and became an onlooker instead. Always a bad mistake because participation is so important if you want to be able to fully understand and enjoy Thai culture.

Final Sermon for today – “when in Thailand never forget the “P” word”.


3 responses to “Bodies Made Out Of Rice

  1. I have always find Thai BUddhism very peculiar. It tends to combine orthodoxy with animistic practices unique to Thailand. I have yet seen this tradition in any BUddhist temple. Is this a common practice?

  2. I think I would feel privileged to be asked to participate in any social activity in Thailand, sadly, like the greater majority visitors, I remain an observer.
    I also was in Thailand in 1996 -February , I remember being driven into Bangkok from the airport, passing all the busy building sites erecting new office blocks and seeing the empty completed ones, never thinking that the latter were in particular were going to be the main reason, (together with massive corruption concerning bank loans!) for the huge economic crash that followed a few months later.
    I felt sorry for that guy and the Ming vase-would you leave such a valuable item on a low window sill on a public stairway as the museum did? Think of the theft risk alone ! The Police even arrested him with a view to charging him with criminal damage at one point. Anyway they have managed to glue it back together again and as it looks as good as new and, as they are never going to sell it, it does not seem to make a lot of difference-bet they do not keep it in the same place, though !

  3. Thanks Khun Don.

    I probably did take a liberty in using that poor Bloke as an example of clumsiness. I think most of us have had the odd “major clumsy event” during our lives- albeit probably not as consequential as the “Ming”incident’.

    I saw a photo in the press of the restored vase, and was amazed at what the restoration team were able to achieve. I agree with you about future protection for the vases – they will probably be better guarded than the Mona Lisa.

    Thanks also to Kitjar Sukjaidee for your question about the “rice” ceremony. I spoke to my wife, Mali about it, and as far as she can recall, the ceremony was fairly unique at the time, but she has heard of it happening in other parts of the Kingdom since then.

    Its little adhoc occurences such as the “Body” ceremony that make Thailand such an intriguing country to visit.