I have always had an intrigue in Buddhism in Thailand, and the lives of monks in their saffron robes. But the more I learn of them, the more I find an unlikely familiarity with routine, where the structures of Buddhist Holy Days remind me almost of the Sabbath in the church back home. But there will always be the annual ceremonies and celebrations to shake things up during the year, to give that added intrigue in the temple. And I share some of these through 'The Shades of Saffron’.
One of the more obvious routines for monks is the alms collection when they circle the local neighbourhood to collect offerings for the temple. However, there will be various days through the year, like regular Holy Days, when these offerings are made on temple grounds. And this includes the alms offering for Ok Phansa which marks the end of Buddhist Lent in Thailand when the local monks circle the temple ordination hall for the alms collection.
The Temple Consecration
While a temple compound may have existed for a while, it will never be deemed wholly complete until all necessary buildings are in place, like the ordination hall, prayer halls, and just the necessities to exist as a small close-knit community. The Temple Consecration ceremony ‘Ngaan Fang Look Nimit’ then celebrates the fully-fledged status of a temple, when 9 boundary stones are buried around the ordination hall, before 9 leaf-shaped boundary markers are erected to create the sacred boundary of the temple.
Most Thai men will spend at least some short period of time as a monk, like a rite-of-passage of sorts, to bring merit and status to their family. The more intimate ceremonies will often take place away from the temple, such as the head-shaving ceremony, and dressing in white ceremonial robes, before a procession leads them through nearby streets to finally ordain at the temple. The ordaining monks will then commit to life at the temple, and will change into their iconic saffron robes of Buddhism.
These days the Thai New Year is best known for mass water fights taking place throughout the kingdom. But more intimate ceremonies take place at the local temples, where often a service of prayer is followed by the congregation paying their respects to the temple monks lined at the front of the temple hall. Here a queue will form, as the congregation pours water, scented with oils and flower petals, into their cupped hands, before washing the monks’ feet.
The Big Candle Festival
This Isaan specific event marks the beginning of Buddhist lent ‘Wan Khao Phansa’ and the start of a three month period when the monks will be set to remain in temple grounds. But on the approach to the festival, giant candles of various shades of saffron will be moulded, shaped and sculpted in intricate carvings, to join a parade and celebration through the central streets of Isaan towns.