Welcome to one of our “slow” videos. I know a video should be short and sweet because most people's attention spans are pretty short (thanks to our multitasking culture in part...) but that’s not how life is in Laos, especially in rural Laos (80+% of the country) and it would be impossible to really learn much about village life in Laos in fast food “nuggets.”
In the village in this video the villagers recently had a celebration called Boun Kong Khao, also known as Boun Ban. Boun Kong Khao is a ceremony for the spirit of the rice and the word “kong” means pile. So literally the villagers will take rice that they have harvested that season and bring it to the wat and add it to a huge pile on the floor of the wat as seen in the photo below. It is up to each family on how much rice they want to give to the wat and it really varies from family to family, maybe from about 10 up to 40 kilos of rice, which will then be sold and the money used by the monks for the wat upkeep. This celebration usually happens in December or January after the rice is harvest. Sometimes even as late as February or March, it’s up to the village.
After every family has brought their rice then the monk(s) and elders in the village will give a special blessing for the rice spirit and thank her for the recent harvest and with prayers that next year’s harvest will be even better. After the temple blessing, in the late afternoon and evening, there will be music with lots of food and drinks, for at least one night, often for two nights. It’s a very festive occasion the villagers look forward to.
This is where the video comes in. Whenever there is a festival like this the village has to invite the spirits of Phanya Khut and Phanya Nak to come and protect the ceremony and village so nothing bad will happen, and if Phanya Khut and Phanya Nak want to join in the festivities, all the better. Phanya Khut and Phanya Nak are featured in the Lao epic, Sinxay which we wrote a post on here. They are brought to a haw (small spirit house) on the temple grounds, along with the village spirit which is brought from the village shrine on the edge of the forest.
If Phanya Khut and Phanya Nak and the village spirit are not invited they could get upset and become mischievous and who knows what bad things could happen. As John Holt writes in Spirits of the Place, “In Laos although phi [spirits] are often protective in nature, their power, rather than being understood as unambiguously good or morally based, is also understood to be potentially destructive, if not sometimes downright malevolent. For phi can be of many kinds. Rather than begging a comparison to the devatas of Sri Lanka, the power of phi is more reminiscent of the power of yaksas, a power to be feared because it is ambivalent in nature and less morally informed or engendered. The power of phi seems less domesticated, less morally guided, less buddhisticly channeled, more intrinsic rather than cultivated and hence more to be feared because of its ambiguity.”
What happens when Phanya Khut and Phanya Nak are invited is that the village spirit guide will lead a group of elders to the river and invite Phanya Khut and Phanya Nak to join them and then someone will wade out into the river and pick out two rocks, which represent their spirits. And then they are carefully place on a small platform carried on two poles by a couple of the men accompanied by the sound of a kong, seng (cymbals) and drum. They are then carried (royally) to the haw on the temple grounds where they stay during the duration of the celebration, along with the village spirit. Once the celebration is over then they are taken back “home” to the river.
In the beginning of this video you can see Phanya Khut and Phanya Nak being taken back to the river after the Boun Kong Khao is over. Then the same group which includes the village spirit guide and elders comes back to the haw (spirit house) on the temple grounds where the village spirit has been residing. They then invite the village spirit to go back with them to the village shrine which is located on the boundary between the village and forest which is where the village spirit normally resides. In the video I followed the procession as it wound through the village in the early morning finally arriving at the village shrine. For those of you unfamiliar with Lao animism, you may be surprised at how ramshackle the shrine is. But there is a reason as Holt writes about in Spirits of the Place. “In Laos the representation of the supernatural thewada and phi is much more subtle and is almost always aniconic, that is, there are virtually no artistic traditions of sculpting anthropomorphic images of phi or portraying their mythic or supernatural exploits in temple mural paintings, and so forth. While diminutive spirit houses for phi are regularly positioned near the boundaries of premises for many commercial establishments, the shrines for village guardian phi are usually either very humble sheds or ramshackle canopies with little or no symbolic representation located in the forest outside the boundaries of the inhabited village area, or their presence is indicated simply by a pole or pillar placed at a central location in the village, often in front of the house of the village headman.
The spirit house usually remains an empty dwelling, precisely because the spiritual force that it symbolically represents refuses, ultimately, to be permanently embodied, for in essence the phi are actually not embodied personages at all. Rather, they are fundamentally bodiless or “post-embodied” forces, wills or powers.”
This is the same shrine seen in the four part video I upload to our channel about my father-in-laws ceremony to thank the village spirit for its part in helping him get well after an almost fatal illness.
The interaction/fusion between Buddhism and spirits in Laos fascinates me and anyone similarly interested will love John Holt's new book, Spirits in the Place. A MUST read.
Who are Phanya Khut and Phanya Nak. You can see them below with Sinxay.