Thursday, 1 March 2007
Propitiating the Spirits
I'm out here in the far rice fields of Surin, caught in the middle where two worlds collide, the world of ancient ritual and spirit worship and the clinical modern world of digital photography and satellite internet by which I post this blog.
As I sit at my computer and send it out out into cyberspace, I can still hear the insistent thump of the drums and the sweet wailing of the pipes. The ceremony is set to go on all night.
In an earlier blog about cutting the mango trees, I told you about the strong willed old soul. a former teacher and great aunt of Cat who was wheeled round to our house on a push cart for a little party out on the grass. In her eighties she seemed to be fading fast but she kept rallying with all the spirit and energy she'd shown throughout her long life. So tonight is the time for her family and neighbours to hold a traditional ceremony to propitiate and banish the spirits that are afflicting her and causing her weakness. They are all still out there now, the women dancing and swaying gently to the music, their hands sinuously outspread, even as I write these words.
The old lady is sitting on the floor under the bamboo and palm roof erected for the occasion, where she is the centre of attention. She must be stirred by having so many old friends and relatives around her expressing their love and concern and by the power of the ritual that's so deeply embedded in her psyche. She senses the overthrow of the spirits that are afflicting her and she's bouyed up, though her eyes are dim and she feels a little disorientated. She's intoxicated by the music and by more besides as the candles flicker dizzily before her eyes. She's rocking to the music ever faster, clapping her hands ever louder, transported, entranced. Everyone is willing her on to a last burst of energy. They're putting a necklace over her head, and now they're helping her to her feet and she begins to dance, straight and strong as she once was before. The spirits are banished. She has been made whole again.
With the clouds occasionally revealing the moon sailing high above the palms, the flash of lightning in the distance and the night breezes moderating the heat that still remains from the day, it's indeed an atmospheric occasion, a retreat into a world of ritual that has become obscured by aggressive modernity but which nevertheless is still very much alive in older peoples' hearts.
I, the outsider, look around at the ranks of elderly women, their serious faces dark and lined from years of toil in the the rice fields, while the children play without a care in the world.
Perhaps they'll remember the significance of today, though as they grow older will rituals and practices such as this one finally die out? I do hope they survive as even if you do not recognise the power of the spirits, a collective ritual of solidarity is an encouragement and support to a person whose grip on life is weakening. Nothing is worse than the terrible sense of being alone.
In the West, we cannot ask for anything like this... everyone is too busy. They have no time for the old. We do not know our neighbours and all we can expect is for a health visitor to assess us and then perhaps an occasional knock on the door from an over-stretched geriatric nurse. In comparison, old, rural communities like this one have such huge strengths. Urbanisation may bring gains in perceived standard of living, but it also causes an irreversible loss of community. Yet it seems that in Thailand, everyone dreams of the urban lifestyle and they'll sell themselves, both soul and body to get something of it.
I wish I could tell them that they should value and preserve their traditional culture. If only I could!