The looks on faces of foreign visitors who are fortunate enough to be able to visit Wat Chedi Luang until May 24 is likely to be one of bemusement as they take in the noise and the crowds of local people during Inthakhin.
Lasting for seven days and nights, the Inthakhin festival is thought to predate the founding of Chiang Mai in 1296.
Originally a practice of the Lawa people, who are commonly held to be the aboriginals of the northern valleys in the upper Menam basin and nearby tributaries of the Salween and Mekong—an area popularly known as the golden triangle—the ritual is still celebrated with vigor in Chiang Mai.
The Lawa were known to install and propitiate sao lak, or city pillars, in the midst of their settlements. Prachao Mengrai, the ascendant Tai warrior prince at the end of the 13th century whose vision it was to build his new capital in a grand square of moats, also had a city pillar erected in the middle of it to be worshipped in the tradition of the Lawa which his Tai subjects had assimilated.
Khin is a pillar and Intha is a transliteration for the Vedic god Indra who ruled thunder and lightning. When Indra wasn’t too drunk on soma, or then again perhaps when had had a few and was riding his golden chariot across the skies, he would cast lightning emitting vajra causing rain to fall wherever he pleased.
And so it is that the people of Chiang Mai annually pay respects to the city pillar to ensure that Indra’s thunderbolts will allow another rice crop for the city’s wellbeing. Indeed, so great are the numbers of residents that come that the temple has to contract a bulldozer crew to remove the debris of offerings at the end of each day.
Ask any of the local folk moving slowly forward in a queue that can snake back for more than 50 meters as they wait for their turn to walk around the hall containing the city pillar to place flowers, sprigs of leaves and incense in 32 offering trays set up along a temporary bamboo fence why they have come and they will tell you that it is their custom and that they are making merit.
While they will almost certainly be aware that what they do propitiates guardian spirits most are unlikely to tell you that they are enacting a fertility ritual that may be pre-Vedic and go back more than 1,500 years to the early times of rice cultivation in the valley.
It is also not known whether, with the fanatical fervor of devotees if not with a little help from Indra’s soma, a young female and or male had been persuaded to remain in the hole upon which Chiang Mai’s pillar was to be placed and so give up their earthly existence to become guardian spirits. Certainly animal if not human sacrifice was part of the original Lawa practice.
Chao Kawila, the northern prince who is celebrated for liberating the city from Burmese dominion at the end of the 18th century, had the city pillar moved from its old location in the area now known as Wat Inthakhin to its current location in Wat Chedi Luang. Were excavations to reveal skeletal remains at the uncertain former location of the pillar, it would likely be seen as a bad omen and cause great offense.
Kawila had the pillar installed in its new location but it was Indra who commanded the pillar to be brought down from heaven and placed there by two Kumphan, or guardians whose shrines Kawila had built nearby.
Kawila also planted a now much venerated dipterocarp tree. Standing next to the four-door hall that holds the city pillar, its massive trunk is part of the devotional round.
The city pillar itself is not visible, it being covered with stucco and a mosaic of mirror glass atop which stands a Buddha image. Women, who are not allowed to enter the building, will be able to glimpse the pillar as they pass one of the four open doors—at other times these are normally kept closed.
In another example of religious syncretism, or how Buddhism has absorbed earlier beliefs, the Phra Fon Saen Ha Buddha image is placed in a special stand in front of the temple’s main hall, or vihara. This image has close associations with the power to bring rain.
At the beginning of the festival, which lasts for seven days and nights, the Phra Fon Saen Ha is paraded around the city before being placed where people can make pour lustral water in libation by way of raised Naga channels that will automatically pour the water upon the image.
Many people still prefer to approach the image in person, however, pouring lustral water from a small cup upon the lower part of the image and then scooping a little water with their fingers from a collection trough beneath and rubbing their hands and hair in purification.
This being a Buddhist festival, the temple loses no opportunity to raise money for its upkeep and charitable causes.
A long table in the center of the main vihara provides a platform for 108 metal offering bowls in which people walk around placing coins. For 30 baht (about US $1), supplicants will get enough saleung coins (there are four to one baht) for every bowl.
Both inside the main and outside the vihara folks can adorn various images with gold leaf. At one stall a mechanical mannequin with a zombie-like face beneath a wooly hat bows up and down while making the Thai waiin thanks to those who donate towards coffins.
Indra likes to have a bit of fun and he must be entertained. There is a stage with a tradition band and dancing and both in the compound and on the main road outside stalls sell foods. Since this is also a Buddhist festival, however, no one is selling any soma.
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Text and photos by Frank Douglas © Frank Douglas – All Rights Reserved.
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