Ritual Loom

Weaving, cutting, dying, sewing. In a remote part of the Kingdom a group is keeping alive an almost-extinct tradition.

In a remote village in northern Thailand, Mae Ui Jai carefully checks to make sure her weaving machine is in good condition. She will be weaving cotton into robes for monks in the Kathin Laen ceremony this weekend, an event she looks forward to each year.

Throughout their lives, Mae Ui – which means grandmother in northern dialect – and her neighbours in Baan Yang Luang, in Chiang Mai’s Mae Chaem have been practising and keeping alive this almost extinct religious tradition, which is popularly known as Chula Kathin.

The annual ceremony is held to celebrate the conclusion of Buddhist Lent, when monks, after having stayed in their temples during the three months of rainy season, are free to travel again.

Chula means “a little”, and reflects the Buddhist belief that sharing and caring in even small doses is beneficial and should be encouraged. It also reflects how during Chula Kathin, small pieces of newly made fabric will be cut and then sewn together into the five main pieces of clothing worn by a monk.

“The ceremony is a very important religious tradition that requires strong faith because it takes a whole day to complete the merit making,” explains Paothong Thongchua, deputy director for Arts and Culture at the Thai Khadi Research Institute, which studies and help preserve Thai traditions with the support of Thammasat University.

Though Chula Kathin takes place on just one 24-hour period, the preparation is lengthy. The six-month process begins by planting specially chosen cotton seeds, and carefully tending the plants into which they grow. The procedure and ceremony are based on the story in which the Lord Buddha performs the humble task of preparing robes by hand for his monks.

In the contemporary Thai version of the practice, jackfruits are used to stain the fabric the distinctive yellow-orange colour of Buddhist robes. After they are woven, the fabric is dyed, cut, sewn, and ironed carefully before being presented to the monks.

Thai villagers traditionally went to such lengths in making the robes to honour the monks and their sacrifice of confining themselves to their temples for focusing on spiritual growth during rainy season. The ceremony also honours the teachings of the faith and supports the good deeds of the monks.

But in today’s modern consumer society, its hardly surprising that many find themselves without the great amounts of time needed to prepare robes for the ceremony.

From years of research in Baan Yang Luang and other villages, Paothong has come to understand more about why this once popular tradition has fallen out of favour, and credits the unprecedented social and economic restructuring of Thai society over the last century and a half with the decline.

The young women who traditionally made the robes now leave their villages to find work in larger cities. He also says a declining faith in Buddhism is partially responsible. Ritualistic items needed for Buddhist ceremonies are easily bought in stores these days.

“The tradition of weaving monk robes for Chula Kathin decreased sharply during the reigns of King Rama IV and V with the ascendance of many religion-related industries,” says the researcher. “Merit making became easier and less time-consuming. Convenience has replaced tradition.

“When I first visited the village over decade ago, the Chula Kathin ceremony had disappeared from the community. Wat Yang Luang then only had a few monks, and only four families in the village were still weaving. After my personal study and learning from the old generation and monks about the ceremony for many years, I helped reintroduce this tradition to Wat Yang Luang 12 years ago,” recalls Paothong, who has his summer house in the village. He also works closely with weavers in the village in order to preserve skills and techniques called upon in the ceremony.

To celebrate the centenary of the birth of the late Princess Mother this month, the Thai Khadi Institute is helping organise an even more elaborate Kathin ceremony. On Saturday and Sunday, weavers will use one hundred looms to create what will ultimately be one special piece of 20-metre-long cloth. Since the small Baan Yang Luang does not have enough looms, villagers from over 20 villages, including members of a nearby Lue hill tribe community, will bring their looms for this special Buddhist ceremony.

The ceremony will start after the monks take their mid-day meal on Saturday, and runs for the next 24 hours until mid-day Sunday. The ceremony starts with weavers gathering in the main hall of the temple to pray that they will be able to complete the robes in one day. Then seven young girls, representing angels, will collect the harvested cotton from villagers, and present the cotton to seven veteran female weavers of the village.

On Saturday afternoon, the weaving begins, accompanied by dancing and drum beating in a parade, the highlight of which is the waving of paper-made flags, in the tradition of Lanna villages in the area. While women prepare the weavings that will be transformed into robes, make garlands and other handicrafts for the ceremony, men will craft objects such as terracotta bowls, knifes, tables and chairs, also to be given to the monks.

The long cloth will be cut into 100 small squares, one for each year that has passed since the birth of the Princess Mother. Efforts will then focus on sewing together the small squares into five special pieces, which will be worn by one chosen monk. These pieces are the angsa (a broad band worn across the shoulder), sabong (sarong), rad prakod (waist band), jeworn (robe) and sangkathi (special ceremonial robe). The remaining squares will be sewn into a special covering for the main Buddha image in the village’s temple.

“These tiny square-shaped pieces of cloth are meant to resemble rice fields,” Paothong explains. “Imagine, old and young, men and women joining hands and sewing these tiny pieces. That scene makes me to cry,” he says. “These villagers have strong faith.”

The delicate and complex process is designed to remind the villagers of the symbolic and spiritual value of the cloth, and bring them merit.

“Nowadays, we just spend money to get clothes,” says the researcher, who usually wears the traditional fabrics that he studies.

Preparation of food also plays an important role in the ceremony. On Saturday villagers will prepare, khao thip, a special sticky rice dish incorporating nine ingredients. The number nine is auspicious in the Buddhist and Brahmin traditions of Southeast Asia. The ingredients are: peanuts, white sesame paste, black sesame paste, coconut, sugarcane, honey, milk, butter and sticky rice. Meanwhile, another group of older villagers will prepare kheepueng sue chata, a traditional wax which is believed by to protect from evil and bring good luck.

“In Southeast Asia, numbers are important and can bring about positive results. Odd numbers bring auspicious results. Even numbers are used for non-auspicious ceremonies, such as funerals, in which four monks take part,” the historian explains.

The Chula Kathin reaches a colourful climax with, hundreds of merit makers parading the newly sewn pieces of fabric through Baan Yang Luang enroute to the village temple, where the old cloth covering the main Buddha image is replaced by the new one, and the five pieces of clothing are offered to the monk. In previous decades, several monks were given hand-sewn clothing.

But even if in this more modest modern form, the tradition survives. Thanks to the efforts of the villagers, Paothong and the Thai Khadi Research Institute, the future of the ancient Chula Kathin, and the Buddhist ideals it represents, looks more promising.

Phatarawadee Phataranawik from The Nation Newspaper reports.