The rice planting season usually begins in April or May. Rice is by far the most important of all Thai crops and the principal food for people throughout the country. Whether boiled and eaten plain, distilled into al liquor known as lao khao, or transformed into sweets and noodles, rice and its cultivation comprise a central pillar of Thai life. Kin khao, the Thai expression for "to eat," literally means "to eat rice."
The grain provides major government revenues and for centuries has been Thailand's leading agricultural export. Visakha Puja, the year's greatest religious holiday which commemorates the Buddha's birth, enlightenment ,and death , comes during seeding and plowing. Village elders attend temple celebrations and sermons during the day, while those who have been working all day in the fields return at dusk to join the solemn candle or torchlit procession tha t circumambulates the monastery chapel three times. Each person carries flowers, three glowing incense sticks, and a lighted candle in silent homage to the Buddha, his teaching, and his disciples.
Shortly after transplanting is completed, usually toward the end of May, the first of the annual monsoon rains arrive to inundate farmland. Daily rainfall replenishes the fields and while the rice is growing much of the family's time is taken up with Rains Retreat observances.
During this annual three-month period (Phansa in Thai), Buddhist monks are required to remain in their monasteries overnight, a tradition which predates Buddhism. In ancient India, all holy men, mendicants and sages spent three months of the rainy season in permanent dwellings, thus avoiding unnecessary travel during the period when crops were still new for fear they might accidentally tread on young plants. In deference to popular opinion, the Buddha decreed that his followers should also abide by this tradition. This initiated a move away from an itinerant life to a more or less settled existence since the advantages of communal living became apparent. Phansa represents a time of renewed spiritual vigor. The monk meditates more, studies more, and teaches more.
Laymen, too, traditionally endeavor to be more conscientious, perhaps abstaining from liquor and cigarettes and giving extra financial and physical support to local monasteries. Phansa is also ordinarily the season for temporary ordinations. Young men enter the monkhood for spiritual training, to gain merit for themselves and their parents, and to conform to the widespread feeling that a man who has not been a monk cannot be considered a mature adult. The Buddhist ordination is a mixture of religious solemnity, merit- making, and boisterous celebration reflecting the Thai belief that the three most important events in a man's life are his birth, his ordination, and his marriage. The ordination ritual itself originated over 2,500 years ago as the Sangha (the Buddhist monastic order) took shape and has changed little to this day. Socially, it is something in which the entire village participates. Local monks comprise the presiding chapter and preceptors, while villagers gain merit by accompanying the tonsured, white-robed candidate for monkhood (known as the nak) in a colorful procession to the monastery, often marked by joyous dancing and the infectious throb of long drums. Symbolism permeates every aspect of the ordination ceremony. The nak's white robe connotes purity and the royal umbrella held over his head reminds participants of the royal heritage Prince Siddhartha Gautama renounced during his spiritual quest to become the Buddha. The nak leads the villagers in a triple circumabulation of the monastery chapel to evoke the Buddhist Triple Gem the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha (the Teacher, the Teaching, and the Taught.)
Once the rains have ended, the daily rhythm of field work is increasingly concerned with keeping birds away from the ripening rice. During this time fish are abundant in rain-swollen streams and fields. methods and equipment for freshwater fishing vary from region to region and depending on where the fish are being sought -- canals, rivers, ponds, or rice fields. In early November, one of the most beautiful of Thai festivals, Loy Krathong, takes place. Loy means "to float," and a krathong is a lotus-shaped vessel traditionally made of banana leaves. The krathong usually contains a candle, three incense sticks, some flowers, and coins. By the light of the full moon, people light the candles and incense, make a wish, and launch their krathongs on the nearest body of water.
The Goddess of the water who plays such an important role in rural life is thus honored, and it is also commonly believed that the krathongs carry away the past year's sins as well as the hopes of the launcher for the future. Moonlit waterways throughout Thailand are covered with tiny, flickering lights representing millions of silent aspirations.
By late November or early December, rice in the north and the central plains is ready to be harvested. Wherever possible, water is drained to allow fields to dry. Harvesting schedules are determined by common consent within each village. Early each morning, cooperative work groups go into the fields with sickles to harvest each farmer's crop. Around noon, the host family sends food to the fieldworkers, and after lunch work resumes until dark when the host family provides another meal. The cut rice is spread in the fields to dry for several days before being bundled in sheaves and taken to the family compound, where it is threshed and winnowed.
Except in the south, where later monsoons arrive late in the year, harvesting usually ends in January to February. Then the farm family turns its energies to activities neglected during the rice harvest. Buildings, tools, and fences are repaired and secondary crops are either planted or harvested.
The hot dry season after the rice harvest is marked by the important Songkran festival, which celebrates the traditional Thai New Year. At this time people from rural areas who are working in the city usually return home to celebrate. Songkran is observed with special elan in the north where, because it occurs during a time of relative leisure, it becomes a three to five day festival of entertaining and socializing. A thorough house cleaning, sprinkling of Buddha images with lustral water, memorial ceremonies, merit-making presentation of gifts to monks, elders, and spirits, the release of caged birds and fish, pilgrimages to holy shrines, parades, dancing, and uninhibited, good-natured water throwing are all features of the Songkran celebration. Around this time, showers signal the dry season's approaching end, and villagers once more prepare for rice planting as one annual cycle ends and another begins. The unique Thai-style takro still maintains its popularity among the younger generation.
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