Ok Phansa: The End of Buddhist Lent
[cr. Manager Online]
At any festival, it is common to see people come together to perform a variety of cultural and religious activities. The essence of these activities, of course, is not just the physical movements of the participants but also, and perhaps even more so, the joy felt and shared by people within the community. In Thailand, Ok Phansa Day [วันออกพรรษา], which falls on the fifteenth day of the eleventh month in the lunar calendar, marks the end of a three-month monastic retreat for monks, a period also known as the Buddhist Lent. It is the day on which senior monks hold honest conversations with their juniors with a view to helping them develop into religious practitioners. For that reason, Ok Phansa Day is also called Maha Pawarana Day, when younger monks give permission (“pawarana”) to older ones to communicate openly with them. For the community, Ok Phansa Day is typically celebrated with a number of unique festivities and rituals that reflect the diversity of the societies, communities, and ethnicities that constitute Thailand.
According to a popular myth, Ok Phansa Day was the day on which the Buddha returned to the human realm after spending three months on Tavatimsa Heaven, where he had been preaching to the angel who was his deceased mother reincarnate. On that day, the Buddha descended on the human world, through a staircase to Sangkassa, a city in Punjala Province, modern-day India. As such, the day itself is called “Devorohana”, which means “descent from the gods”, as well as “The Day the Lord Opened the World.”
The Ok Phansa Festival is, first and foremost, a Buddhist festival, which is related to, but not limited to, Ok Phansa Day. Like most Thai festivals, the festivities and rituals performed during the Ok Phansa Festival vary in terms of their religious influence. For example, some rituals focus more on merit-making, a traditional Buddhist endeavor, than others. The purpose of this article is to introduce some of the festivities and rituals often performed during the Ok Phansa Festival.
Tak Bat Devo
Tak Bat Devo [ตักบาตรเทโว] is a nationwide merit-making ritual. Many Buddhists believe that on Devorohana, crowds of devotees who gathered to make merit directly to the Buddha grew too large, making it impossible for them all to offer food directly to him, so they resorted to wrapping their offerings and swinging them to the Buddha from a distance. This scene is mimicked in temples today: monks are invited to a high area of the temple, from where they descend when an auspicious time comes. Devotees swing a dish known as “Khao Tom Luk Yone” — small, flavored rice balls wrapped in palm leaves — to the monks as their offering.
This ritual is held the day after Ok Phansa Day, in other words, on the first day of the waning moon of the eleventh month in the lunar calendar. Within Thailand, Tak Bat Devo of Uthai Thani Province is arguably the most famous. The event takes place at Wat Sangkat Ratanakiri, at the top of a small hill in the temple’s center, which lends a stunning natural atmosphere said to be akin to the actual scene in Buddhist history.
Another common festivity is the offering of Kathina, known in Thai as “Thot Kathin” [ทอดกฐิน]. This tradition is crucial to Buddhists regardless of status and is practiced even by the royal family. It normally takes place between the end of the Buddhist Lent and “Loi Krathong Day,” the fifteenth day of the twelfth lunar month. The ceremony involves devotees expressing gratitude to the temples and monks through offerings, especially in the form of monastic robes.
The word “Kathina” indicates a wooden frame, which is used to stretch out the fabric for monks’ robes. It was an important tool in ancient times, when technology and tools for clothmaking were not advanced as today’s. In old days, Kathina and the monks’ robes were handmade, and if the monks themselves made them, there would be an elaborate ceremony.
[cr. Khaosod Online]
The Mahachat Sermon (sometimes known as the Mahachat Vessantara Jataka) is another popular tradition. Monks recite the sermon on Vessantara Jataka, the story of a past incarnation of the Buddha. During this ceremony temples will arrange special merit-making activities to raise funds.
Buddhists believe that all living beings are trapped in a cycle of rebirth. Our present selves are just the latest in countless incarnations that had come before us. The cycle is broken only when one attains nirvana, thus the story of the Buddha’s past life holds significance in helping to illustrate the path to liberation. The story Vessantara Jataka is considered to be especially important because it retells the Buddha’s final incarnation before being born as Prince Siddhartha.
[cr. Post Today]
Pah Pa [ผ้าป่า] has been a tradition since the Buddha’s lifetime, when he did not allow monks to accept new, clean cloths (to make robes) from members of the community. He allowed monks to take only dusty cloths, which people called “Pah Pa”, or cloths that had been discarded into garbage heaps or used as corpse wraps. Before the monks could use these cloths, they had to be washed, sewn, and dyed. The preparation was no easy feat. Faithful villagers saw the trouble the monks had to undergo and sought to help by leaving cloths on the monks’ regular routes, dumping the cloths in the garbage or wrapping corpses in them to facilitate the monks’ collection efforts.
There are no rules about when the Pah Pa ritual must be practiced, although it is most often done during the end of the Buddhist Lent or once the Buddhist Lent is over (thus overlapping with the Kathina tradition). When they finish offering Kathina, worshippers will typically offer their Pah Pa cloths immediately after, or — if they are offering Kathina at a chain of temples — they would spread Pah Pa cloths along their route.
Poi Learn Sib-ed
[cr. Chiang Mai News]
Poi Learn Sib-ed, also known as Poi Duan Sib-ed (meaning a celebration of the eleventh month), is a month-long period of festivities celebrated by Tai people (sometimes known as Tai Yai people), an ethnic group prominent in Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai, and Mae Hong Son Provinces, where more than 70 percent of the population is of Tai Yai ethnic origin.
During the day, the ritual is focused on telling stories about the Buddha’s journeys in the human world. Tai Yai people come together to make Kheng Sang Pud, also known as Jong Para — these are castles made from bamboo and decorated with colorful paper; inside, they hold banana shoots, sugar cane, and decorative lanterns, as a sign of worship to the Buddha’s journey. Finished castles are placed outside the home, under the eaves or outside the fence, or in the middle of lawns at homes and temples. At night, the most dazzling castles are showcased in a parade, which is also accompanied by traditional dances imitating the movements of yaks, birds, kinnara, kinnari, butterflies, and other animals from the Himmapan Forest (a forest in Buddhist mythology), which are said to come out to admire and welcome the Buddha.
Towards the end of Poi Learn Sib-ed, before the eighth day of the waning moon in the lunar calendar, there is also a Lu Ten Nueng event, or the offering of thousands of candles. Then, on the eighth day, also known as Joy Jod Day, there is a large ceremony comprising many events. For instance, there is a wood-offering ceremony, in which people bring large bundles of mountain pine firewood, averaging at least two and a half meters long and thirty centimeters wide, and present them in a parade. There are also other events — some would say the highlights — which are contests of Tai Yai arts and culture. Events such as a Miss Tai pageant, a Tai dress contest, a sword dance contest, and a Jong Para contest, are held. Along the streets and in front of homes, people come together to dance in the form of various animals.
The term “Ok Wa [ออกหว่า]” refers to the end of the rainy season, but Ok Wa is also a festivity particular to Mae Sariang District in Mae Hong Son province. Because of its relatively isolated location, Mae Sariang has been able to keep the tradition’s unique flavor, and the tradition seems to have not escaped Mae Sariang.
The highlight of this festivity is the offering of alms, which happens at four in the morning in front of the residents’ homes, for three days in a row. They believe that this choice of location will boost blessings for the house and the family. They also decorate the house with lanterns and host a candles and lantern parade, with various accompanying cultural performances, which speak to Devorohana.
Naga Fireball Witnessing & Fireboats
[photo cr. blockdit: Masterpiece STONE]
A popular festivity in Northeast Thailand along the Mekong River — in Loei, Nong Khai, Bueng Kan, Nakhon Phanom, Mukdahan, Amnat Charoen and Ubon Ratchathani Provinces, for instance — is Naga Fireball Witnessing. For years, there have been reports of fireballs shooting out of the Mekong River around the end of the Buddhist Lent, and many people gather to witness them. The connection with water is rooted in Buddhist legend, according to which the Naga, a mythical creature that occupied the underworld, was shown the Buddha’s clemency and in return sought to become a monk, which was not feasible, for only human males could be ordained. Still, the Naga dedicated itself to Buddhism, and it expels fireballs to celebrate the return of the Buddha.
During the Naga fireball festivities, worshippers also float fireboats in the Mekong River. This practice is done in various styles across Thailand. There is a particularly famous fireboat event that takes place in Nakhon Phanom Province, where there are competitions to decorate and design dazzling fireboat lights. In addition, the boat creators use thousands of fire cans and set off fireworks, allowing the boats to illuminate the whole river in spectacular fashion. It is a sight for all of Nakhon Phanom City. They also add items of worship to the boats in the hopes that they will ultimately float to the Namthanee River, following the footsteps of the Buddha.
Fireboat festivities are also performed in Chiang Khan District of Loei Province. However, the details are slightly different, as they call the floating object a “Pra Sat [ปราสาท],” meaning a castle, not a ship. Also, the meaning of this practice is different from the Nakhon Phanom fireboat and the other boat festivals. In Chiang Khan, celebrators include small pieces of hair and nails of the Pra Sat owner into the “castle” before putting it in the river. Their goal is not necessarily to worship, but to make a wish or to float away bad fortune.
Fireboat rituals are, in fact, shared festivities that are not only found in Thailand. In Luang Prabang and Vientiane, for example, residents also float fireboats with a similar belief. Apart from the floating fireboat, they also have some variations on land, as well as some that look more like Thailand’s krathong.
Phra Sat Phueng (Bee Castle)
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Pra Sat Phueng is a unique and important merit-making tradition of Sakon Nakhon Province. Its highlight is the construction and the parade of an elegant wax castle, which symbolically serves as a castle to receive the Buddha on Devarohana.
Paper Incense Sticks Castle
In Nong Bua Daeng District of Chaiyaphum Province, there is a tradition of people offering paper for monks to use to make incense sticks, which are an important part of their routines. However, during Ok Phansa, the incense sticks are also used to make colorful incense stick castles. As with a bee castle, an incense stick castle awaits the Buddha’s Devarohana return.
While it may not be religiously linked to Ok Phansa, the Chao Phraya River Boat Race is now often associated with the Ok Phansa Festival. The Chao Phraya River Boat Race is a festival — a traditional boat race during the high-tide season — that has been passed down from ancient times, celebrating a river that has served as the backbone of Thai people’s livelihood. Usually occurring at the end of the rainy season, the festival sees the transition of the rainy season into winter, when the river’s currents become less strong, and boaters may enjoy racing.
Organizers of the boat races, who realize that the boat race opportunity coincides with the Ok Phansa Festival, celebrate the two in tandem. The name of each event may vary, depending on the organizers, of which there are a few. There are Phichit Boat Racing and Nan Boat Racing, for instance.
In Chumpon Province, there is a very different kind of boat race, which involves men clambering on the thin tips of large boats to fight for a flag. This happens at Mae Nam Lang Suan River.
Lak Phra and Chak Phra
[cr. Post Today]
In the south of Thailand, festivities called Lak Phra [ลากพระ] and Chak Phra [ชักพระ] are carried out during the Ok Phansa Festival. The intention of these two festivities is to bring rain to the area, as the rainy season there is often delayed. Believers have faith that the Buddha will grant them rain for agricultural use. In a parade-like atmosphere, worshippers tug a decorated throne holding the figure of the Buddha carrying an alms bowl. The main difference between the two festivals is that Lak Phra occurs on land, for the temples that host this festival are usually far from a water source such as a river or a canal, while Chak Phra takes place in water. Those who celebrate Chak Phra create a decorated throne on a large boat, which they let sail, for a river or a canal is not too far from them.
To prepare for these festivities, worshippers practice playing a local drum called Ta-pone in a ceremony called Kum Phra. The drums are played continuously for ten to fifteen days to encourage others to join the ceremony. This practice has led to drumming competitions. In some cases, such as in Phatthalung Province, there is a combined festival called Kang Phone Lak Phra which combines the drumming competition and Lak Phra. Lak Phra has become an important tradition at the end of the Buddhist Lent Festival in many provinces of the south.
Wing Kwai Festival (Buffalo Racing)
Another — perhaps more extreme — example of festivities losing touch with religious origins is Wing Kwai Festival [วิ่งควาย] or Buffalo Racing in Chon Buri province. Also held during Ok Phansa Festival, the buffalo races do not have an obvious connection to Buddhist Lent.
The Ok Phansa Festival is a time of celebration for Buddhists in Thailand. It is a time for celebration not just for common Thai people, but also for monks and novices, who come together with villagers and worshippers to celebrate. The purpose of the festivities and rituals is not merely entertainment, but also education and tradition. Of course, the extent to which each festivity or ritual is directly linked to the Buddhist Lent remains a question.
Buahaphakdee, Apinan. “[เทศกาลออกพรรษา ช่วงเวลาแห่งการเฉลิมฉลอง]” Watthanatham Journal: Department of Cultural Promotion, yr. 58, no. 3, July – September. 2019, pp. 6 – 19. Retrieved April 1, 2021. Link