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Ceremonies to mark the end of the Buddhist Lent in Thailand: Awk Pansa and Toawd Gathin

The month of October in Thailand is marked by festivals of faith held to celebrate the end of Buddhist Lent, and known as Awk Pansa and Tawd Gathin.

These ceremonies follow the three-month rainy season and are rooted in the country's agricultural tradition, based on the lunar calendar that marks the passing of the seasons and dictates the planting and harvesting of crops; mainly rice.

Awk Pansa means "leaving the period of rain" and normally falls on around early October till early November, and this year it is 7th October. The occasion is to mark the end of Lord Buddha's retreat to heaven in the wet season, during which he preached to his mother. Upon his return to Earth, his followers presented Lord Buddha and his disciples with gifts of food. This event is celebrated today by the presentation of food and other gifts to the nation's monks as they emerge from their rainy season retreat in temples across the land. The monks prepare for this occasion by shaving their heads and eyebrows, and donning fresh robes before leaving their temples and travelling throughout the countryside.

Awk Pansa falls on the night of the full moon when Thai people will visit their local temple to pray and to pay respects to the sacred relics and structures (such as chedis) within the temple grounds. Candles will be lit and placed outside homes and in temple compounds across the country. This is to mark the end of the rains that have brought sustenance to the land. This occasion comes on the eve of a thirty-day period of merit-making for the people of Thailand.

Tawd Gathin

Gaining merit through the offering of gifts to monks is an ancient Buddhist tradition that can be witnessed in the centre of bustling cities and in the dusty streets of rural villages on a daily basis. There is a special significance, however, in the thirty-day merit-making period that follows Awk Pansa, and known as Tawd Gathin - or "the laying down of robes."

Among the many gifts offered to the country's monks during this period, the most significant are new robes. Again, this is based on ancient Buddhist teachings, as the gift of new saffron robes dates back to the time of Lord Buddha. It is written that some thirty or so holy monks set out on a journey from Patha to Savatthi in India at the end of the wet season to visit the Buddha. Travelling along wet and muddy roads, the good brothers presented themselves before Buddha in a most bedraggled and forlorn state. When the Buddha saw his followers in their soiled robes, he decreed that they should be given fresh robes annually at the end of each rainy season.

Gathin ceremonies traditionally favour water processions to temples for the presentation of new robes, although this can also be done by land if necessary. Being the sole sponsor of a Gathin ceremony can be very expensive, and many Thai people today participate in a Gathin Samakkee, or United Gathin.

Prayers will be held in a temple on the eve of the festival. Early the following morning, the Gathin procession, led by musicians, heads to a selected temple. Upon arrival at the temple, the new robes are carried round the main sanctuary three times before being presented, along with food, toiletries and simple utensils to the monks, following their midday meal.

Money is also offered towards the upkeep of the temple; the notes being arranged as leaves on the branches of silver and gold coloured money trees.

On completion of a Gathin ceremony, two crocodile flags are placed at the temple's entrance to show that it has received the annual Gathin donations, and that worshippers should find another temple from which to gain their seasonal merit.

The Royal Barge Procession

As keeper of the Buddhist faith in Thailand, His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej is, by custom, the first person to present new robes to the monks; presiding over a Gathin ceremony at a temple of royal rank, such as Wat Arun (the Temple of Dawn), or Wat Po (the Reclining Buddha Temple) in the capital, Bangkok.

The king will travel there aboard the Royal Barge accompanied by an impressive fleet of escort barges along the Chao Phraya River from the Grand Palace to Wat Arun, where he will present the new robes to the abbot. The Royal Barge Procession is a splendid affair, comprising as it does of more than fifty barges manned by some two thousand colourfully dressed crewmen; the bulk of whom man the oars of these ornate vessels.

The procession stretches to more than a kilometre in length and keeps to the original military formation created as a show of strength; indeed, many of the barges continue to be armed today with ornamental cannon. Pride of place in this royal fleet is held by the three principal barges occupying the centre of the procession. The most distinguished of the three is the Suphannahong, or Golden Swan, modelled after the vehicle of the Hindi god Brahma. This is the king's barge, and a vessel carved from a teak tree some 46 metres in length. The master boat builder who fashioned the hull is reputed to have abandoned his tools when the barge was completed, vowing this to be his final creation.

The vessel is crewed by sixty men, is gilded and mirrored, and bears backward-flowing wings depicting a swan in flight. Spectators who annually line the banks of the Chao Phraya in their tens of thousands to witness this grand event, can easily identify the king's barge by the flashing of the oarsmen's silver and gold paddles as she makes her way down river. The king's presence aboard the Suphannahong is indicated by the crystal tassel, ending in tufted yak's hair, and suspended from the beak of the golden swan in the vessel's bow.
Second in rank is the Anantanagaraj, the naga-headed regal barge with the role of transporting the king's gift of new robes to the monks during the royal Gathin ceremony. This seven-headed snake barge is manned by fifty oarsmen and carrying a portable shrine housing a Buddha image, placed on the centre of the deck specifically for the Gathin ceremony.

The third principal barge, and the oldest in the fleet, is the Anekajatphuchong, built on the orders of King Chulalongkorn. This vessel is used to carry other members of the royal family, and is manned by sixty oarsmen. In the absence of a figurehead, this barge, if viewed from a distance, may seem rather plain for a royal vessel, but on closer inspection reveals intricate carvings on its hull.
The Royal Barge Procession glides down the river to a background of cadenced chanting, the wailing of horns, and muffled drums, captivating all who line the riverbank to witness this magnificent spectacle.

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