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Meritorious Matters

Our nation of Thailand is noted for its many traditional festivals. Some are lively, light-hearted, fun events of music, dance, flowers and marching bands. They reflect the "happy-go-lucky" side of Thai cultural life and the Thai love of "sanook" (fun). Others are deeply rooted in Thai hearts as they are Festivals of Faith and thanksgiving to the Lord Buddha and the monks who represent Buddhist teachings in everyday life. During this month of October a series of festivals, of the latter category, take place throughout the country. These festivals take the names of Owk-Pansa and Thord Pha Gathin; in some years they culminate with the magnificently dignified pageant of the Royal Barge Procession in Bangkok. Every Thai, from the humblest rice-farmer to the most regal personage, is involved in these meritorious Festivals of Faith.

For centuries traditional, agricultural Thailand has followed the lunar calendar and the passing seasons which dictate planting, harvest or rest. The time of full moon, during the eleventh lunar month, signifies the end of the 3-month rainy season. This is the time of Owk-Pansa the end of the Buddhist Lent. Monks, throughout the rainy season, have confined themselves to their home temple (rather than visiting other temples or travelling on pilgrimages) so they prepare themselves for the end of the rains and the incoming season. Robes are repaired and freshly laundered, heads and eyebrows are newly shaved and there is a general tidy-up around the temple.

On Owk-Pansa day of the full moon, villagers and city dwellers will go to their local temple for prayers and paying respect to the sacred relics and structures within the temple. Nightfall sees the worshippers placing lighted candles right around the temple perimeter (and outside their own homes) to herald the end of the rains which have brought life and sustenance to the land. Owk-Pansa is also the beginning of a 30-day period of merit making which affords a special opportunity for prayers to Buddha and for the presentation of gifts to the monks for preserving the faith. This thirty-day span of merit making and religious gift giving is referred to as Thord Pha Gathin. The original word was Gathin Thusa, a piece of saffron cloth to be given to junior monk by a senior one. The receiver will sew it as a robe and later a ceremony will be held for blessing or thanksgiving.

Thord Gathin takes its name from the "laying down" (giving) of new robes to the monks. Followers of Buddha gain merit throughout the year by offering food and nourishment to monks but the period of Thord Gathin is significantly special. And the offering of new, saffron robes to the monks is particularly meritorious and important (the old robes may have become muddied and stained during the rainy season). Other gifts to the monks may include basic utensils, toiletries, writing materials and food (such as canned milk, fruit juices and health drinks).

All gift giving are acts of appreciation and gratitude to the monks individuals or community groups (such as a village) may perform them. Many villagers combine efforts by collecting money donations for the maintenance of their local temple. Such donations are vividly arranged on a "money tree" which looks rather like a colorful Christmas tree bedecked with 20, 50 and 100 baht notes (whatever can be afforded) as the "foliage". The money tree is ceremoniously paraded to the temple, led by a team of lively drummers and musicians, with the villagers carrying their own individual gifts on beautiful trays, bringing up the rear. In this way at Thord Gathin, the lay-people of Thailand reaffirm their faith and, in a joyous fashion, bring gifts to Buddha and his servants.

As Custodian of the Buddhist Faith in Thailand, His Majesty King Bhumibol is, by standing practice, the first person to make merit by offering new robes to monks. At a unique Thord Gathin ceremony in Bangkok, H.M. The King will travel to one of the Royal Temples and offer fresh robes to the Abbot and monks. The merit making ceremony itself is as simple and humble as in any temple in the nation, however, when travelling by river (not every year as the Sovereign may visit a temple not served by water), the King's progress to the temple is rich in protocol, tradition and pageantry it is the Royal Barge Procession.

Thailand is a nation bisected by rivers, canals and waterways so the custom of royal water-borne transport is centuries old (dating as far back as the Sukhothai and Ayutthaya periods). Nowadays, this spectacular event is during the Thord Gathin ceremonials when His Majesty leaves his official residence at the Grand Palace and goes to offer robes at Wat Arun (the Temple of Dawn). The waters of the great Chao Phraya River host a scene that has few rivals in terms of historic spectacle, pageantry, splendor and color. It is a scene from Old Siam re-enacted with pomp and regal majesty amid the bustle of modern Bangkok's busy river.

The Royal Barge Procession consists of 51 exquisitely crafted and decorated vessels with such wonderful sounding names as "Victory on the Celestial River" and "Appreciation of the Moonlight". Grandest of all these grand craft is Suphanahongse (Golden Swan) which carries H.M. the King. The Royal Barge Suphanahongse, mirrored and gilded in the image of a mythical Golden Swan, is attended by two officers and is crewed by 50 oarsmen, two helmsmen, a flagman, a signalman and a chanter (who chants the rhythm of the oar strokes). A crystal tassle, braided and tufted with yak's hair at the end, is suspended from the swan's golden beak as soon as the Monarch boards the vessel. With helmeted, crimson uniformed oarsmen, their gold and silver oars rising and falling in unison to the voice of the chanter, H.M. King Bhumibol seated on a canopied throne; the Golden Swan, Suphanahongse, is a sight to behold.

The procession of the Royal Barge fleet (over one kilometer in length) glides in formation of three parallel rows the most important barges occupying the middle row (the Naga-head barge Anantanagaraj follows behind the Golden Swan and carries the King's Thord Gathin gifts of robes for the monks) and the Anekajatphuchong third in line with other members of the Royal Family and nobility aboard. The outer rows consist of "security" barges with such tasks as "warding off evil"; "drum bearer" and "soldier carrier" and many of these beautiful barges are named for the duties they traditionally performed.

At the end of the Buddhist Lent, the ceremonies of Owk-Pansa, Thord Gathin and the Royal Barge Procession will engage every Thai, from Royalty to manual worker, from richest to poorest, young and old, in offering merit making prayers and gifts during these Festivals of Faith.

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