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Spirits of the Irrigation Dam

One of the prominent features of rice agriculture in the Chiang Mai Valley were the Muang Faai, or traditional irrigation systems. A single village, or several adjacent ones, would construct, administer, and repair the irrigation system which diverted water from a major watercourse like the Ping River and sent it through primary and secondary canal systems into their rice fields through a well-organized irrigation association.

In the old days the diversion dams which raised the water level so it flowed into the canal system were temporary structures constructed of wooden poles, bamboo, and bundles of brushwood. While able to send water into the irrigation system, enough flowed through the porous dam to serve the needs of downstream neighbors. When the river was at flood stage, the dam was usually destroyed and had to be reconstructed yearly.

The social organization of these irrigation systems was entirely cooperative. During the yearly cleaning of the canals, families were expected to dig out and weed the banks of a set number of meters of the canals based on the number of rai (land area equal to 1,600 sq. m.) of land they farmed that received water from the irrigation system . The number of poles, bundles of brushwood, and bamboo pegs for the yearly reconstruction of the irrigation dam each family was expected to gather and prepare was set by the same criterion

Rather than being viewed as an onerous task, the construction of the irrigation dam was thought by the people to be nearly a festive occasion, despite the hard, wet work. On the designated day, water users from all the villages in the system would assemble at the dam site bringing the construction materials they had prepared, mats and food to eat, white whiskey, and all the kids. The senior official of the irrigation system would assign construction of various portions of the dam to separate work groups, each made up of people from the same village.

At the signal to begin, each work group would rush to its assigned portion of the dam in the now shallow and sluggish river and hurry to pound in the support poles of the dam, fill the framework with the brushwood bundles, and secure each with a bamboo peg. The work group that finished its assigned portion first received no first prize, but the good-natured competition between groups to see who would finish first ensured that the work was completed quickly and provided a sense of fun to the hard work. When the construction was complete, friends from distant villages who might not visit each other often could sit down together and a communal picnic ensued.

Northern Thai people believed that each irrigation dam had one or more protective spirits who, if properly propitiated with yearly ceremonies and offerings, would protect the irrigation dam so that it would not be damaged during the crucial rice growing season and need to be reconstructed more than once a year. And, these spirits might have influence on the level of water and the river as well.

While such rituals as these may have eroded in areas close to developed Chiang Mai, in the rural areas of the North belief in the spirits is still strong and these ceremonies are still carried out.

In one irrigation system observed the ceremony was set on a certain lunar day and month in the dry season. It was the responsibility of the village headman in each village that used water from the irrigation system to collect a nominal amount of money from each household and buy a chicken, some sticky rice, and some white rice whiskey -- although the illegal home-distilled sort was more often provided -- for the spirit offerings. The spirit elders who performed the ceremony gathered together the food and other things provided by the villagers and also necessary offering goods such as strung areca nuts, bags of puffed rice and other items.

On the day of the ceremony a small group of elders went to designated offering spot close to the irrigation dam armed only with the food and whiskey, cooking pots, baskets of cooked sticky rice, prepared curry condiments, and the long-bladed bush knives in their rattan scabbards that most villagers carried when they went to the forest.

While much of the land around the villages was largely deforested, that near the offering place was thick. One frequently mentioned spirit belief in the North is that if a villager cuts wood near the abode of a spirit without the spirit's permission, he risks grave harm.

While some of the elders proceeded to begin preparing chicken curry in the pots they had brought along, cooking over a wood fire, the rest started to construct the offering table, and all of the eating paraphernaliaparaphernalia entirely from locally available materials.

The offering table was constructed by driving four bamboo stakes into the earth where the offerings were given, and a table top made of a loosely woven split bamboo frame covered with banana leaves finished it off. Plates for the rice and curry were made in the same way, and cups for the whiskey were simply separate cut joints of tree bamboo.

When the food, and offering table and eating utensils were complete, the chief spirit elder arranged the curry, sticky rice on bamboo frame and banana leaf plates, whiskey in the bamboo cups, and ceremonial items on the offering table. All crouched down on their heels with hands raised in a wai and the spirit elder began the invocation to the spirits and prayers that they protect the irrigation dam and insure sufficient irrigation water for the coming rice-growing season.

All waited respectfully while the spirits, it can be presumed, came down and enjoyed the essence of the food and drink offered. The elders then removed the food and drink from the offering table and proceeded to provide themselves with a picnic of sticky rice, chicken curry, and white whiskey. The discussion during lunch revolved around their disappointment that some of the younger villagers had become disinclined to donate the nominal sum of money to support the yearly offerings. This reluctance might have been due to the fact that the Irrigation Department had replaced the impermanent diversion weir with a concrete dam ten years before.

When the meal was complete, the elders packed up the goods they had brought and left the biodegradable goods fabricated on site to decompose in the coming rainy season until it was time to offer to the spirits in the next dry season.

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