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Back to basics
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Thread: Back to basics

  1. #1
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    Back to basics

    Isan villagers at Thung Kula rediscover their roots in local folklore and supernatural beliefs

    VASANA CHINVARAKORN
    Bangkok Post
    31 January, 2008



    The spring is truly a miracle. Despite the passing of over two millennia, cool, fresh water continues to flow from the small hole, serving Isan villagers from near and far. Thus the apt name of the site: Bo Pan Khan, a well that could fill thousands of bowls. Over the centuries, millions of buckets have drawn water from the generous fount.

    Anthropologist Srisakra Vallibhotama recalled the bustling activity when he first visited in 1979. Hundreds of villagers were flocking there, busily mining or trading the earthen salt - the areas around Bo Pan Khan, now in Roi Et province, are reputed to be sources of salt in the Northeast, and a fresh water supply was crucial in sustaining the growing settlement, among the very first in the Thung Kula plain of lower Isan.

    "Caravans of villagers would come to dig up the salty earth here," Srisakra noted during a recent cultural study trip organised by Michelin.

    "It has supplied salt for Isan people for more than 2,000 years. The 'salt road' cut through Thung Kula to Surin, and all the way to Cambodia at Tonlesap."

    Srisakra added that a complex code of conduct and rituals enabled the locals to minimise the environmental impact of salt mining. The salt miners and traders must comply with certain rules lest they upset a guardian spirit by the name of Chao Pho Bo Pan Khan.

    For example, they could not use abusive words, act violently, engage in sexual activity, or allow their cattle, horses or elephants near the sacred spring. Legends abound about how the angry Chao Pho invoked sudden sandstorms, lightning or some inexplicable illness as a means of punishing violators.

    However, the state eventually put a halt to the traditional way of life and beliefs.

    Over 25 years ago, a provincial governor of Roi Et decided that salt mining at Bo Pan Khan posed a threat to the forest - he thought a large amount of wood had been used for fuel as part of the salt production process. (Srisakra said, however, that the locals had mostly used branches because they were concerned about the sustainability of their own livelihoods.) But the governor went ahead and ordered the construction of a dam that resulted in the flooding of Bo Pan Khan.

    Baphit Duangsanam, currently an assistant to the village chief, remembered his embarrassment when asked by people in Bangkok what the famous spring of Bo Pan Khan looked like, a site has long been associated with Roi Et. The so-called father of Thai history Prince Damrong, Baphit said, once claimed that those who came to the northeastern province but did not see Bo Pan Khan had not really been there.

    "As a native of Roi Et, I must admit that I never saw it with my own eyes. So the question made me feel quite ashamed of myself," he said.

    A couple of years ago, another provincial governor came up with a new plan. Baphit said that during preparations for a royal visit by the late Princess Galyani Vadhana, Roi Et governor Nopporn Janthom learned of the folklore of Bo Pan Khan and other historic sites (and saw the potential for the tourism industry). He finally ordered part of the dam be torn down in order to divert the water from the original Bo Pan Khan. The sacred spring emerged - and the amazing thing was that the water still tasted as sweet and as fresh as ever!

    Baphit said the villagers of Bo Pan Khan now have several plans to revive their community. One is to open a local museum and train young children to become cultural guides. Another is to continue the annual boat race and ceremony to pay respect to the Chao Pho and the nearby stupa called Phra That Bo Pan Khan. The ultimate goal is to restart salt mining. But will the old scenes of Bo Pan Khan salt market come back to life?

    The story of Bo Pan Khan village is just part of a larger effort to recover the roots of an area now known as Thung Kula Ronghai, comprising five provinces in the lower Isan region, namely Roi Et, Maha Sarakham, Yasothon, Si Sa Ket and Surin. Boonsert Siangsanan, a coordinator for the Thailand Research Fund's northeastern branch, described the project as innovative "action research", run by and for the locals.

    Called the "Local History of Thung Kula Ronghai Research Project", for which Srisakra serves as an adviser, it encompasses six communities, each with its own distinct set of problems and possible solutions (see map on front page). Boonsert said the locals have chosen their own respective themes - ranging from traditional knowledge of water and forest management, to co-existence in a multi-ethnic community and adjusting to social and economic changes, and local legends. Underlying every topic is a search for the latent, unifying "force" that once tied these communities together, which Boonsert refers to in Isan dialect as perng ban.

    "Past development schemes have typically been instigated by outsiders who usually overlook the values of the Thung Kula heritage," Boonsert said. "But we have more than four hundred old communities, marvellous water management systems and numerous holy sites to meet the locals' spiritual needs. Very few have taken an interest in studying and sharing the knowledge with outsiders, though. How many natives of Thung Kula are aware of the history of their own hometown? How can they bring out the good of Thung Kula to develop their communities?

    "In effect, the local history project is intended to be a forum, a process for the people of Thung Kula to work together to seek and strengthen their identity. It is a form of self-empowerment."

    Intriguingly, one of the forces of Thung Kula identified by the research team is the role and function of belief in the supernatural. The people of Isan have a sophisticated hierarchy of phi - supernatural beings - that range from those that protect individual families, to the guardian spirits of a community, specific local sites and the whole region.

    At the top of the (supernatural) ladder is the legendary Chao Pho Sri Nakorn Tao, believed to be the leader of the first group of settlers at Thung Kula. According to legend, after his death his spirit became the most powerful in the entire region. Many villagers who work with Boonsert cite numerous examples of Chao Pho Sri Nakorn Tao helping those who seek his blessing. He cures the sick, helps students pass exams, ensures safe journeys and brings bumper harvests to farmers who pay proper tribute to him. He can even predict the future of the community through his designated medium. But when it comes to coming up with winning lottery numbers, there have been fewer success stories - perhaps too many people have asked the same thing from Chao Pho, so he does not know who he should please, Boonsert's colleagues smilingly suggested.

    In return, followers of Chao Pho Sri Nakorn Tao are required to participate in occasional rituals, with particular types of offerings. Boonthan Kamol, who studies the legends of Chao Pho, said he favours two kinds of meat - tortoise for a ceremony held in the third month of the lunar calendar, and hare for another held in the sixth month. Boonthan noted how the villagers once had to offer a rabbit to Chao Pho, and through his personal medium (referred to as Nang Thiam), the Chao Pho expressed his displeasure by threatening to take the district chief away and make him "raise elephants for him at Nakorn Tao". The head of the mediums, called Thao Jam, intervened and tried to placate the Chao Pho by promising that the proper meat would be offered the following year.

    Indeed, life at Thung Kula still largely revolves around time-proven rules and etiquette. Srisakra said during the Michelin trip that belief in the supernatural should not be underestimated, let alone ridiculed. The presence of Phi has enabled the local community to keep its members within boundaries of propriety and order. Historian Nidhi Eoseewong added that the prevalence of supernatural beliefs are like a version of "technology" that reflects the relationship between people and nature. In the old days, we had Nang Thiam and Thao Jam to communicate on our behalf with different Chao Phos. Today we have scientists and doctors who espouse the merits of science, and dictate to us what kinds of food we should eat, how to lead our daily life, and so on.

    "Belief in the supernatural is, in effect, a method - based on knowledge of Phi - to control or shape the world [in the ways we desire]. So it is a kind of 'technology' based on knowledge of Phi, while modern technology is based on a knowledge of science. "They [the spirit mediums] are not so different from today's scientists who have a lot of power in the cultural and political realms. They can, for instance, order us to eat, or not eat, eggs, and we can only comply. And there have been subtle political repercussions. For example, there has been research in the US that the milk we consume daily is not at all beneficial. But the US milk industry pushes for a policy that makes everyone drink milk. So we are more or less forced to drink the milk."

    Westernisation, notably since the reign of King Rama V, has led to a decline in animism and things supernatural. The social and moral fibre, once served shrewdly by a fear of the supernatural, has been severed. Unfortunately, what we have left are poor substitutes, Nidhi lamented. The law and the judicial system are full of loopholes, and not applied fairly. Buddhism, as it is practiced now, focuses on the individual pursuit of liberation, while its social dimension is disregarded.

    But in today's society, would restoring ancient knowledge be effective in uniting people? Walailak Songsiri, an assistant to Srisakra, noted how the people at Thung Kula have in recent years become more active in participating in different community affairs to pay respect to their local guardian spirits. For outsiders, we may take their actions to be just another animistic ritual, but for those on the ground, the process has drawn both young and old to review the legacy of their ancestors, the viability of traditional moral codes and to chart their future together.

    Boonsert, the coordinator of the local history project, said recent state-initiated schemes have been mostly geared toward opening up new tourist destinations. The local voice, and folklore, has not been taken adequately into consideration. He cited the example of Bo Pan Khan, which boasted the salt market and the annual boat races by different communities along the Lam Nam Siao River. The villagers wish, he said, to see the return of their once thriving economy and culture, so that future generations do not have to leave in search of work. Neither do they want to become tourists in their own hometown, he added.

    "Thung Kula," said Boonsert, "has been a strategic spot since the old days. From the scattering of the old communities, the area is now promoted as a centre for fragrant jasmine rice. But Thung Kula's past has been torn away. The benevolent force from within has been largely ignored, while development from the outside has led locals, especially the young ones, to become lost and to not really know themselves.

    "The return to local history is a process to link the forces of the past with the lessons of modern development, in order to bring about development that truly responds to changing situations. It's a process that reflects the potential of local people, a dynamic collaboration between those from the inside and their friends and allies from the outside. And this might be the answer for development by insiders that would be sustainable."


    What of the future

    The famous plain of Thung Kula, comprising about 2.1 million rai (336,000 heactares) in the lower northeastern region, has witnessed dramatic changes over the centuries.

    The name Thung Kula Ronghai usually evokes an image of a vast, dry and barren area that prompted the Kula people, who legend say were trying to cross the plain, to feel utterly desolate and sit down and cry. This well-circulated story, however, glosses over the complex and varied geo-physical, historical and ethnic make-up of this unique area.

    Anthropologist Srisakra Vallibhotama pointed out how hugely rich Thung Kula actually is. Settlements here date back to at least the Iron Age, about 3,000 years ago, when iron smelting techniques were first developed in the region. The remains of several moated sites, with multiple networks of man-made reservoirs surrounding settlements - a few of which continue to be functional - reflect highly sophisticated knowledge of water management. The extreme climate at Thung Kula was probably a key factor. Severe flooding during the wet season is followed by a very dry season. The soil is largely salty, with few and scattered patches of trees. And yet the area has drawn different ethnic groups - the Lao, the Tai Khorat or Tai Beng, the Khmer and the Kuy or Suai. How the Isan people have been able to survive and even thrive in such an environment shows the wisdom of their ancestors.

    But can they confront rapid transformation in the name of development? The introduction of roads, electricity, cash crops and tractors have turned villagers into capitalist farmers, small- and large-scale entrepreneurs, consumers, and for many who cannot make it, workers for hire. Beside the proliferation of fragrant jasmine rice, another heavily promoted cash crop is eucalyptus. The sight of the white bark trees growing along the ditches of rice fields, or even in plantations is taken as a sign of wealth by some, and a cause for concern by others.

    Called ton kradat (the paper tree), eucalyptus has made major inroads in Isan thanks to promotion by the government and pulp and paper mill businesses. The tree's abilities to withstand drought and high salt levels are considered a boon to Thung Kula. On the other hand, a few villagers have noticed that wherever the trees are grown, fish in nearby standing water die. And some have raised the issue of the potential depletion of soil nutrients. However, a growing number of community forests have recently seen groves of eucalyptus trees being planted. To critics, the paper tree phenomenon may bring quick cash to the locals, but may inadvertently seriously undermine the sources of livelihoods of Thung Kula, down the road.
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  2. #2
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    Re: Back to basics

    This is really the first specific article I have read about a part of history from Roi Et. My travels in Isaan have always seemed to go around that area. The "salt road" was of interest because I am now wondering if Khmer is spoken along the route as far as Thung Kula.

    I also thought it was interesting the government official brought down parts of a dam to open up Bo Pan Khan because of cultural and historical significance. That kind of thinking still seems to have its place in Isaan and I am very happy for it.

    I may have to check in with Chao Pho Sri Nakorn Tao for a little help with the Forum

    Great Post! Thanks yeows.
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