Feast of Devotion
Buddha Parade in Laos
Text & Photography by Eric Pasquier
Every year in mid-November the That Luang in Vientiane, Laos, becomes the stage for one of the most spectacular and sumptuous Buddhist feasts in Southeast Asia.
For three days the people of Laos parade in long, colourful processions through the streets of Vientiane, carrying Buddhas and wax replicas of pagodas on their shoulders.
They gather at That Luang, a massive temple covered with gold and lavish frescos – to implore the benevolence of Buddha.
Vientiane is more of a village than a metropolis. Night falls early here and women scuttle around lighting lamps and braziers.
The main square is already filled with people who have come to celebrate the festival.
They flock to Vientiane from the interior but also from Thailand and Cambodia - many of the devotees wear traditional dress.
The bonze, or Buddhist monks, dressed in their saffron-coloured robes remain at the temple complex, which is set on a hill just outside the capital.
That Luang marks the end of the religious year for the Laotians. It literally means great temple or main temple. But the devotees that flock to the city are not just here for the religious celebrations.
The festival is very much a combination of the religious and the profane. A visit to the temple can be combined with a round of shopping at the annual fair where every village has its own pavilion.
There are many legends and stories about this temple and its eponymous festival. It is said that Buddha himself created the edifice by folding his robe in four, putting his upturned begging bowl on it and propping it up with a stick. According to another legend, this festival dates back to Ashoka, who in the third century BC ruled an empire that stretched from India to Afghanistan and was instrumental in the spread of Buddhism.
The emperor built That Luang in order to house a relic of Buddha, allegedly a piece of his sternum. Yet another legend tells of five Laotian monks who brought back the relic from India and built the first stupa in the fourth century BC.
The building as it stands today was constructed by King Setthathirath in the 16th century. In the following centuries, however, the temple faced pillage and plunder: soldiers from Siam (present-day Thailand) and China ransacked the complex and it was struck by lighting in 1896. Little was left of the venerable building at the turn of the century. It was overgrown, the monastery completely destroyed and eight spires were missing. Between 1929 and 1935, the French Far East Institute (Laos was part of French Indochina) restored the That Luang.
One of the highlights of the three-day festival is the procession of the phrasat pheung, or wax palaces. On the first day, the procession makes its way to That Simuong, or the Simuong temple, which is dedicated to Vientiane’s patron spirit Lak Muang. The temple is named after a young pregnant woman - Sao Si – who was predestined to become the protector of Vientiane.
Again according to legend, she flung herself into a pit that was part of the foundation of the temple and was subsequently interred. The temple was then named pagoda of the city Si or Vat Si Muong.
The wax palaces are put together either the evening before the festival starts or on the first day. Their construction is an integral part of the celebrations and most definitely a group undertaking: families, neighbours and companies get together to make a wax palace. The phrasat is made of bamboo or banana tree wood and can be up to two metres high. They are decorated with multi-coloured papers and banknotes which will be offered to the bonzes, the Buddhist monks.
Towards the end of the day, another procession starts. Devotees now carry round ton kalapheuks, small banana trees, also decorated with small offerings and folded bank notes. They symbolise the hope of being reborn in paradise, or in the era of Buddha Maitreya, the Buddha of the future. All participants carry incense sticks, small candles and flowers. When they have arrived at That Luang, the devotees circle the temple three times, counter-clockwise. The monks recite prayers and deliver a sermon. The temple itself is a mixture of styles: Khmer, Indian and Lao and is surrounded by thirty stupas, or shrines, representing the thirty Buddhist perfections.
The ceremony of tak bat is central to this festival and to the way the Laotians express their religious feelings in general. Tak bat literally means “almsgiving”. Kan tak bat, or giving alms in the morning, is the most common form. At the crack of dawn, the master of the house brings a bowl of freshly cooked rice to the temple. As the monks approach, the devotee kneels down and contemplates an aspect of Buddhist teaching, a deceased loved one or concentrates on a special family need. Tak bat is the quintessential religious act and the most important duty of every Laotian Buddhist.
The monk, meanwhile, tries to meditate on the transience of material objects. He moves along the line of kneeling devotees very slowly, stopping only briefly to receive a handful of rice in his begging bowl. As the monk moves on to the next person, the donor places his palms together and bows three times. This ceremony is attended by many notables including the prime minister and president of Laos.
The ceremony at That Luang is followed by a game of tikhee, a ceremonial game that resembles hockey and dates back to the days of the Vientiane Kingdom when a team representing the ‘establishment’ would play a team representing the people. Traditionally, victory was granted to the people’s team ensuring another year of calm and obedience. Nowadays, different neighbourhoods will play each other. The players use bamboo sticks and a ball made of bamboo root.
Copyright © Eric Pasquier
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