Yet, some Thai people pay reverence to Chuchok’s image because they have forgotten the finer details of the story (see last week’s column about this, here).
Historically, Thai people re-enacted this story once a year in an annual festival that was dedicated to Prince Vessantara. Perhaps nowhere in Thailand was this festival more vibrant than in Isarn. Here, this story was preserved on long scrolls that would be donated once a year and guests were sent for by special dispatch. The scrolls usually were crafted anonymously.
Prior to the festival, the village would receive an immaculate cleaning. Rows of Thai Buddhist flags bearing the symbol of the “Wheel of Law” lined the main thorough-fair and ornamental dress was commissioned for all the villagers. Old men weaved bamboo baskets and old women rolled handmade cigarettes, betel nut chews and rice balls: each numbering 1,000.
As the scrolls are donated once a year, the basic story has largely stayed intact. The scrolls are not read to simply recite the story, but rather to invite the prince and his family back into the world of the living. The sacred act of posting the scroll beckoned the prince’s spirit. The temple would become his palace for the two-day festival. Special boundaries would be laid-out in the temple where Mara, the Buddhist devil, could not enter.
In antiquity, the scrolls were rather black and white. Long candles were donated by households, bamboo stages were brought in that would be lavishly decorated and special floats were made by hand. Each house commissioned a handmade plate and elephants were sometimes used for re-enactments. Special food was also baked, particularly khao tom mat, a sweet treat.
Women carried flowers. Men beat the village drum. Boys played music on mouth organs. Onlookers wailed in unselfconscious displays of pure emotion. Ribbons of good luck were tied on the villagers’ wrists. Junior monks facing each other simultaneously read in rapid verse. Holy water in a sacred tub called ang nammon was on hand, as well as another tub containing turtles and fish.
Back then, the festival could be during the week, so the date was planned far-ahead and the long reading of The Prince of Charity could take up to 24 hours (services sometimes started at four in the morning).
As the story goes, Prince Vessentara had accrued the merit of 500 good previous lifetimes and the Thai Buddhist view of perfect generosity leading to karmic success comes from this 13-chapter story. This is because he endured the ruin of his entire family in a selfless act of pure charity.
The story is still crafted on hand-made scrolls, but Thai people probably won’t tell you who the craftsman was. However, sometimes you can figure it out from particular spelling features. Moreover, Laotian scrolls can be spotted by a layperson based on alphabetic differences.
Alas, a lot is changing. Many ancient Buddhist texts were not saved and many other service items became the trinkets of private collectors; so this part of Thai culture has largely been hidden from the West.
Moreover, many of Isarn’s traditional wooden buildings are being obliterated in favour of concrete. Nowadays, Buddhist stories are often abbreviated. Additionally, the Western work-week has arrived; so what was once a great spectacle now is only a shorter weekend affair.
Loud-speakers and microphones have replaced hand-crafted platforms and ornaments. Black and white has given way to full colour. The artwork is often no longer gender specific, as it once was and the new texts are far more graphic.
However, the biggest change is a pronounced drop in temple attendance. So, the great Buddhist stories are fading and that’s why some people pay homage to the wrong image, even though their intentions are good.
As F Scott Fitzgerald might say, changing times bring changing traditions. So, we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
All About Buddhism is a monthly column in The Phuket News where I take readers on my exotic journey into Thai Buddhism and debunk a number of myths about Buddhism. If you have any specific queries, or ideas for articles, please let us know. Email firstname.lastname@example.org and we will do our best to accommodate your interests.