Sunday, September 17, 2017

Lost and Found: Chiang Mai’s Predecessor

                                   by Jim Goodman

Wat That Kao in Wiang Kumkam
       In the late 13th century, a small Tai Yuan state in the far north of present-day Thailand, under the ambitious King Mengrai, began expanding south.  Assuming power in 1261 when he was just 22, the following year he moved his capital from Chiang Saen to a new city on the Kok River that he named after himself—Chiang Rai.  The new kingdom was Lanna, which translates as ‘a million rice fields.’  The next 15 years he spent consolidating and incrementally expanding his control over his neighbors.  Then at the end of the 1270s he heard about the wealth of Haripunchai, capital of a Mon kingdom in what is now Lamphun.
        After a carefully planned campaign of subterfuge carried out by a secret ally within Haripunchai, Mengrai captured it in 1281.  He stayed there for over a year, then traveled throughout his newly enlarged realm to oversee new fortifications and to endow monasteries. He did not intend to make Haripunchai his own capital, preferring to maintain it as a major Buddhist center.  Instead, in 1286 he ordered the construction of a new capital, on an existing Mon settlement, further north, at Wiang Kum Kam, a few km south of contemporary Chiang Mai.
the original foundations of Wat Chang Kam, from 1290
        Haripunchai was the most sophisticated place Mengrai had ever seen.  His capture of it involved no destruction at all and he seemed determined to preserve it as he found it. He definitely absorbed its influence and sought, by building a city on its model, next to a river, surrounded by walls and moats, to make something just as splendid.  Wiang Kumkam lay on the south side of a bend in the Ping River, and thus on the right bank, as Chiang Mai is today. 
       The location was prone to flooding, though, and after a few years Mengrai scouted the area for a new capital, founding Chiang Mai in 1296. Wiang Kumkam continued to exist as a kind of sister city and in fact, most of its ruins date from long after the transfer of the capital to Chiang Mai.  Sometime in the 17th century, however, the Ping River changed its course, forcing the evacuation of its population, burying most of the city under 1.8 meters of sediment, and leaving it on the river’s left bank.
votive tablets unearthed at Wat Chang Kam
         For many generations Wiang Kumkam was just a memory that grew into a legend.  It was the Lost City, the Lanna Atlantis, the underground metropolis.  But nobody knew where it was.  Then in 1984 farmers in the area, while plowing their fields, unearthed some ancient votive tablets.  They turned them over to the Fine Arts Department of Chiang Mai University, who subsequently began excavating on the site.  It turned out to be Wat Chang Kam, the second oldest extant ruins in Wiang Kumkam, originally built in 1290.
       Only the foundations remain, but success here prompted excavations and restorations throughout the area.  At many of these sites just the foundations, and maybe parts of the columns, have been reconstructed.  A few contain well preserved chedis as well, and at Wat That Kao, renovators have restored a prominent Buddha statue by following the remnants of a lime-plastered, brick original found during the excavation.
Chedi Liam, from the west bank of the Ping River
statue of King Mengrai, Wat Phra Singh
         The most attractive remnant of Wiang Kumkam is Chedi Liam, at the western en d of the old city near the river.  Built in 1288, the first monument in the city, it copies the style of the Mon chedi in Lamphun’s (Haripunchai’s) Wat Chamadevi, dedicated to the city’s 8th century founding queen.  Multi-tiered on a square base, with standing Buddha images in niches all around each level, it is unique to temple architecture around Chiang Mai.  The compound, like Wat Chang Kam, also has a new and active temple today, with resident monks.  Other buildings include the assembly hall, ordination hall and a shrine to the four-headed Erawan, the Thai equivalent of the Hindu Creator God Brahma.
Buddha images on Chedi Liam
       If Mengrai had a palace in Wiang Kumkam it hasn’t been discovered yet.  Because of the flooding, Mengrai soon sought a new site and didn’t sponsor any more construction other then Wat Chang Kam.  Always an astute politician, he had earlier in 1287 forged alliances with the rulers of the small state of Phayao and the much larger Kingdom of Sukhothai.  Ostensibly, this was a response to the establishment of the Mongol Yuan Dynasty in China, although the Mongols never did invade Thailand. 
the compound of Wat Chedi Liam
       The alliance did prove useful to Mengrai in another sense, for, when he sought to build a new capital, he solicited the advice of his allies.  He had already scouted the area and roughly selected a site between the mountain Doi Suthep and the Ping Rive.  It was to be set a little distant from the riverbank, but close to tits tributary he Nam Kha River and its natural reservoir, northeast of old Chiang Mai, which would supply water to the city and its moats.
       Wiang Kumkam was a rectangular city, measuring 800 meters by 600 meters.  Mengrai envisioned a much larger city for his new capital, but his allies recommended something a little smaller.  In the end Chiang Mai, which literally means “new city,” was nearly square, 1.2 kilometers by 1 kilometer.  Like Wiang Kumkam (and Haripunchai), moats and walls surrounded the city. 
Sriphum Corner, where construction of Chiang Mai began
       Geomancers and astrologers determined the date and place for starting construction, which began at the northeast Sriphum Corner on 18 April, 1296.  While workers were busy building the city, Mengrai stayed in what is now the compound of Wat Chiang Man, which later became Chiang Mai’s first temple.  Its construction began in 1296, the same year as the foundation of the city. 
         From 1296 Chiang Mai was the most important city in Mengrai’s Kingdom of Lanna.  He subsequently marched his army south against the Mon kingdom of Hanthawaddy, centered around Pegu (now called Bago) in Lower Burma, but the Mon king there offered submission and bestowed his daughter as Mengrai’s bride.  Campaigning next against Bagan, he secured their submission as well.  Back in Lanna, he promulgated a law code that served the country throughout its existence.
bronze Buddha head found in Wiang Kumkam
the reconstructed Buddha at Wat That Kao
       Mengrai died in 1317 when struck by a lightning bolt while in the market at what is now Chedi Luang, in the center of the city.  Lanna then extended from the northern border of Thailand down to Lampang, with allied states or vassals on its southern borders.  Mengrai’s dynastic successors continued to rule until after the Burmese conquest in the mid-16th century.
Wat E-Khang
       After his death, Mengrai became a kind of cult figure for the northern Thai, right down to contemporary times.  In Chiang Mai, the second oldest temple, now called Wat Mengrai, contains a tall standing Buddha whose face is allegedly modeled on that of Lanna’s first king.  A statue of him stands in the garden behind the temple.  Other Mengrai statues are in Wat Phra Singh and Wat Chedi Luang.  The latter compound also contains the City Pillar, supposedly erected on the spot where lightning struck the king.  As the building is not always open, city folk constructed a new shrine a block north, which is always loaded with flowers and other offerings.
       Venerated just as often is the Three Kings Monument, another block north of the shrine.  This sculpture commemorates the famed 1287 alliance and depicts Mengrai of Lanna, Ngam Mueang of Phayao and Ramkamhaeng of Sukhothai.  Elsewhere, Chiang Rai honors its founder with a huge statue of him in a popular park in the northern part of the city and a big new shrine has recently been built near the highway in Mae Chan district.  In Wiang Kumkam, Wat Phaya Mengrai, near Chedi Liam, is one of the excavated ruins, though only the foundations remain.  But at Wat Chang Kam, at the far end of the ruins, stands a shrine that claims to be the resting place of Mengrai’s spirit.  Thai tourists never fail to stop in to offer incense and prayers.
the chedi at Wat E-Khang
demon statue at Wat Ku Aisi
       Although after the founding of Chiang Mai Mengrai no longer paid attention to his former capital, Wiang Kumkam continued to exist as a kind of ‘sister city’ to Chiang Mai.  Members of the royal family had homes there and Mengrai even returned there for a while in 1311 to recover from an illness.  Royalty and nobility continued to sponsor the construction of more temples.  Its position on the river gave it good commercial connections and among the items excavated were Yuan and Ming Dynasty ceramics from China.  Even after the Burmese conquered Chiang Mai in 1558 Wiang Kumkam continued to function as a city.  Burmese policy at this time was to rule Lanna as a semi-autonomous vassal state and to respect local culture and patronize the religion, which was the same Theravada Buddhism of their own country. 
Wat Nanchang, the north-facing temple
       As a result, still more temples were erected in Wiang Kumkam in the 16th and 17th centuries until the Ping River suddenly changed course sometime in the mid-17th century, swerved west and inundated the city, forcing its abandonment.  All the residents moved far away and the area remained deserted until the beginning of the 19th century.  Wars with Burma had all but depopulated much of the north in the last decades of the 18th century.  After King Kawila from Lampang re-established Lanna in 1796, people began leaving their forest hideouts to make farms and villages again.  And those who settled in the Wiang Kumkam area had no idea an ancient city lay beneath their homes and fields until farmers found those ancient votive tablets in 1984.
Wat Huamong
       For the next twenty years archaeologists excavated and restored as much as possible in over two dozen sites.  Today it is an ever more popular tourist attraction in Chiang Mai, different from visiting ancient cities like Ayutthaya, Phimai or Sukhothai, where all the monuments are enclosed together.  At Wiang Kumkam the ruins lie scattered among village neighborhoods, with houses right next to them.
       The area is too big to cover on foot, so groups take tourist carts or buses and individuals explore by bicycle or motorbike.  Another option is to take a leisurely ride on a pony cart, which seats up to three and costs 300 baht (c. $9) for a tour around nine temples.  Traffic is very light throughout the area and various drink and snack shops exist along the roads and in the two new temple compounds at Chedi Liam and Wat Chang Kam. 
elephants at the base of a Wat Huanong chedi
       The pony carts start from the park’s official entrance, next to the highway around the corner from Wat Chang Kam. Those on bicycles or motorbikes, though, can also start from Chedi Liam and follow the signs indicating the name, direction and distance of the various ruins.  A section of the original moat and city wall remnants lie just east of Chedi Liam, with Wat Phaya Mengrai on the other side.  Further on the road passes Wat That Kao and its large reconstructed Buddha image.  It’s the only Buddha image in any of the sites, though bronze and stone sculptures have been excavated and are now displayed at Chiang Mai’s National Museum.
       The ruined chedi at Wat That Kao rises a little higher than its base, but two other sites a little north feature relatively intact, full-sized chedis,  They are in a different style than Chedi Liam and probably indicative of the type of chedis that used to stand in all the other excavated sites.  The older compound, Wat Pupia, holds the foundations of the viharn and ordination hall, a small water tank in front of the latter and the chedi towers behind the viharn.  The statues in the niches are gone, but some of the stucco sculpture around them remains. 
Wat Ku Magleua
       The other extant chedi is at Wat E-Khang, one of the last to be built in the city.  The original name has been lost, but because it was until recently a haunt of wild monkeys, local people began calling it E-Khang, after the Northern Thai word for monkey (khang). 
       Most of the ruins are just reconstructed brick foundations and the bases of vanished chedis, but even a few of these can be interesting.  Wat Nanchang is a rather large compound and, unusual for Thai temples, faced north, to the Ping River’s course at that time.  Wat Huanong, from the 15th-16th centuries, contains the foundations of several buildings, part of the entry gate and four extant elephant sculptures around the base of a chedi.  Wat Ku Aisi features a large demon statue.
       Other ruins, though without any sculpture or chedi, local people continue to venerate by adding  small modern sculptures and a makeshift altar.  At Wat Ku Khao, next to the tree-lined road to Lamphun, it’s a larger bronze seated Buddha.  For local people, they may not be very familiar with the ancient city’s history, but the excavators have uncovered many hitherto unknown holy places that they must recognize and venerate.  The buildings may be in ruins, but the gods are still there.

Wat Pupia
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Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Starting with Sukhothai

                                    by Jim Goodman

the chedi and viharn at Wat Mahathat
       For a long time Thai people believed that their political history began with the foundation of the Kingdom of Sukhothai in 1238.  Modern research has revealed that other Thai states existed before that.  But they have left few traces and were not significant in the formation of Thai culture.  Sukhothai lasted much longer—140 years—than any of its ephemeral predecessors and expanded its territory much further, covering central and eastern Thailand and south to the Malay Peninsula.
       In the late 14th century Sukhothai fell victim to the rising power of Ayutthaya.  But the conquerors absorbed many of the characteristics of the Sukhothai state, from its administrative arrangements to its identity as a Theravada Buddhist nation.  Besides these contributions, and its special style of religious sculpture and architecture, Sukhothai also bequeathed to Thai culture its alphabet, invented in the late 13th century, and the lovely autumn festival of Loy Krathong.
Wat Si Sawat, from the Khmer period
       Sukhothai lies in the Yom River Valley in western central Thailand, 427 km north of Bangkok.  From the 12th century the area was part of the Khmer Empire of Angkor.  Its population was largely Thai, who had migrated over the centuries down from China.  The Khmer Empire reached its peak at the end of the 12th century under Jayavarman VII.  He was the monarch who commissioned the construction of temples and compounds that are among Cambodia’s major tourist attractions today.  But when he died in 1215 the treasury was broke and the government no longer had the means to, for example, maintain tight administrative and military control over its most distant provinces.
Khmer temple of Wat Phra Phai Luang 
       Places like Sukhothai housed a Khmer governor, but a local Thai prince actually ran the province on behalf of Angkor.  His main responsibility was to provide annual tribute to the Khmer Court, including the onerous task of delivering water collected from sacred places for use in Court ceremonies.  As earthen pots held this water and ox-carts were the vehicles transporting it all the way to Angkor, the wares were vulnerable to breakage.  A Thai legend says that around this time a local Thai prince dispatched his water tribute in a far less fragile bamboo container, an act that aroused the suspicion of the Court.
       Whether the legend is true or not, a generation after Jayavarman VII’s death the Thai in this part of the empire were ready to revolt.  And they signaled the start of their insurrection by terminating the water tribute.  Two Thai princes joined their forces, attacked the Khmer garrison at what was then called Sayam, expelled the Khmer and announced the independence of a new state they named Sukhothai, the Thai variant of the Pali word Sukhodaya, meaning “Dawn of Happiness.”
Khmer-style prang
Thai-style seated Buddha
       The establishment of Sukhothai made a profound impression on Thai people, especially those still under Khmer rule.  They gave Sri Intratit, its first king, the name Pra Ruang –Glorious Prince—for his stunning defeat of the hitherto invincible Khmer army.  Its success and subsequent prosperity made it easy to expand later that century by annexing more Thai-inhabited parts of the Khmer Empire, often with local support.
Wat Si Chum, housing an enormous seated Buddha
       The greatest expansion took place under Sukhothai’s third king, Ramkamhaeng the Great (1279-1300).  He extended the kingdom’s rule all the way to Luang Phabang and south to Nakhon Si Thammarat.  He made alliances with the northern Thai kingdoms of Lanna and Phayao and opened diplomatic relations with China.  He was also an accomplished linguist and Pali scholar, familiar with the writing systems of the Mon and Khmer.  Under that influence he created an alphabet for the Thai language.  With some small changes over the centuries, it is still basically the Thai alphabet used today.
       After Ramkamhaeng’s death many of the territories he’d added to the kingdom broke away.  Sukhothai continued its existence in its smaller size and under King Lithai, who ruled from 1347 until sometime between 1368 and 1374, Sukhothai reached its greatest achievements in Buddhist art and architecture. 
Sinhalese-style chedi at Wat Chana Songkhram
       By then the new state in Ayutthaya had already seceded from Sukhothai and Lithai, accurately gauging the strengths of the two states, refrained from trying to bring Ayutthaya back into the fold.  After his death, though, Ayutthaya began campaigning against Sukhothai.  By 1378 it had reduced Sukhothai to the status of a vassal and in 1438 absorbed it as part of its own kingdom. 
       The original, abandoned city fell into ruins and never revived.  When a new Sukhothai arose centuries later, it was sited 12 km east.  Sukhothai submitted to Ayutthaya before it could be attacked, so did not suffer destruction and looting by enemy armies, which was to be the eventual fate of Ayutthaya.  When it was declared a World Heritage site in 1991 its extant ruins were in fairly good condition, particularly the large Buddha images.  The monuments now get constant attention, others have been partially restored, and the ponds reflecting them kept clean.
       The Thai were originally animist, venerating (and fearing) a variety of spirits inhabiting natural phenomena like ancient trees and special springs.  This animism has never disappeared from the Thai mind-set, even after the adoption of Buddhism.  Although Jayavarman VII was a Mahayana Buddhist, in his time the Theravada (Way of the Elders) form had already taken hold among the Khmer commoners, as well as the Mon and Thai subjects in the empire.  This was a result of a strong overseas promotion by the Theravada Buddhist Kingdom of Sri Lanka in the 12th century.
Phra Attharot at Wat Mahathat
Phra Attharot at Wat Saphan Hin
       From its foundation, Sukhothai identified itself as a Theravada Buddhist kingdom.   By this move it adopted the cultural influence of South Asia, Hindu and Buddhist, that characterized the societies of its Khmer, Mon and Burmese neighbors.  It absorbed these influences and produced religious monuments and imagery that replicated those of the states around them.
       Although no roofs have survived, the parallel rows of extant columns indicate that one such borrowed characteristic was the shape of the temple’s viharn--assembly hall.  At the end of many of the temples among Sukhothai’s ruins stands a chedi in either the Khmer prang-style, resembling an upright corncob (or to the modern eye a bullet), or in the shape of a bell, a style imported from Sri Lanka. 
elephants around the chedi base at Wat Sorasak
       Sukhothai’s ruins are preserved today as part of Sukhothai Historical Park.  The oldest monuments are actually those erected by the Khmer in the late 12th and early 13th centuries, before the Thai expelled them.  The prang is the dominant feature of these compounds and, while largely stripped of its exterior decorations, the building in the best condition.  The prang in Wat Phra Phai Luang, for example, in the neighborhood outside the northern gate of the old city, retains its white stucco surface and stands in sharp contrast to the dilapidated chedis and shrines in the compound.  At Wat Si Sawat, though the viharn has all but crumbled, the trio of prangs behind it, minus their exterior sculptures, stands intact.
       When Sukhothai became independent they employed the Khmer style to some extent, with a few prangs here and there and Khmer-style towers over the gates of the city walls.  They also began building chedis in the Lanka style, shaped like an inverted hand-bell on a square.  The chedi at Wat Chana Songkhram, in the center of the old city, is a well-preserved example, and this form of chedi is the most common in the Park and its environs.
sculptures at a chedi base in Wat Mahathat
       The neighboring Mon people, also Theravada Buddhist, had been building this type of chedi for a long time already, so the Thai simply adopted the style when they made Theravada Buddhism the state religion.  They also adopted the Mon style of Buddha images, particularly the seated Buddha.  Usually this depiction is the Earth Witness posture, with the Buddha’s eyes open and one hand over his knee with the fingers nearly touching the ground.  This refers to his moment of Enlightenment, when he called on the Earth to witness his achievement.  Most of the Buddha images in the Park and its environs are in this style, often very large, and sculpted in a much more accomplished and aesthetically pleasing way than the Mon models.
       But the Sukhothai artisans not only faithfully transmitted the artistic motifs and styles of Khmer, Mon and Sinhalese models, they created their own as well.  In architecture it was the ‘lotus bud chedi.’  Rather than a round, bell shape, it rose on a rectangular block, surmounted by s lotus bud-shaped central section, topped by a narrow, pointed steeple.  The best example of this is Wat Mahathat, the old city’s biggest and most important temple. 
       Wat Mahathat also boasts the best assemblage of Sukhothai’s innovative art.  Besides the local style of chedi, the compound displays a wonderful seated Buddha at the end of a double row of columns that once supported the viharn roof.  Several smaller chedis stand around the main one.  Interned in one of these are the ashes of King Lithai.  Buddha images sit on all sides of another, with a few surviving sculptures below them of demons and deities, elephants and a girl holding what looks like a gourd or a coconut.
Buddha hand with silver leaf pasted by devotees
Sukhothai Walking Buddha
       The temple also housed an 8 meter-high bronze seated Buddha.  This image survived Sukhothai’s abandonment and remained in place until the foundation of the Chakri Dynasty in Bangkok.  King Rama I wanted to endow the new capital with impressive religious monuments, so he ordered the transfer of famous images in abandoned old temples throughout Thailand to be brought to Bangkok.  Wat Mahathat’s bronze Buddha was one of them.
Wat Tra Phang Ngoen
       Besides the elegant seated Buddhas, Wat Mahathat also features two other kinds of Buddha images, both of them quite novel for the times.  The most readily visible is the giant standing Buddha,12 meters tall, flanked by two walls that rise up to the ears.  A stele stands behind it, with a rounded top slightly taller than the Buddha. The style is known as Phra Attharot and similar statues stand in Wat Chetuphon, outside the old city’s south gate, and at Wat Saphan Hin, beyond the west gate.
       Standing Buddhas of one kind or another were not new to the Buddhist art tradition.  They were just never so big, nor flanked by walls.  Sukhothai’s other creation though, the Walking Buddha, was definitely an original, not found in any other Buddhist country.  The Buddha cocks one arm in front of him, with the palm of his hand upright and giving a blessing.  To indicate motion, the legs are slightly apart, one is a little bent with the heel raised, the other has the foot flat on the ground.  And the Buddha’s gaze is at a slight angle, not straight ahead as in standing or seated Buddhas.
carvings of devotees at Wat Mahathat
       Another Sukhothai innovation was surrounding the base of the chedi with carvings of the front half of an elephant.  Wat Sorasak and Wat Chang Lom are the best examples, with the elephant sculptures well preserved. 
       In the Kingdom of Sukhothai the royal court was the chief patron of the religion.  Its monarchs also established traditions that have persisted to modern times.  King Lithai took time out from his royal duties to become a temporary monk, thus inaugurating a tradition not only practiced by kings but by all Thai families with sons.  The forest monk phenomenon, in which monks lived far from the city, primarily to study and pursue mediation, began in Sukhothai’s time.
taking krathongs to float in the river
       Even while Sukhothai’s political power declined to the point of becoming Ayutthaya’s vassal, its Court continued to patronize Buddhism.  Wats Sorasak and Chetuphon date their foundation to the early 15th century.  Royal patronage of Buddhism passed on to the states that succeeded Sukhothai right down to modern times, along with many other characteristics that have become part of Thailand’s identity. 
       Contemporary Thais may not be fully aware of how many of their Buddhist customs began in Sukhothai.  But they are likely to be aware of its claim to be the origin of the most beautiful annual festival—Loy Krathong, held around the November full moon.  According to Thai folklore, a Sukhothai queen, Nang Noppamas, made the first krathong—a small, banana leaf or tree bark container holding a candle, incense, a coin and flowers, that floats on the water, carrying away the bad luck of the previous year and honoring the river goddess, expecting her in return to make the waters recede now.
       The festival grew and spread across the country and today draws hordes of foreign tourists as well.  Sukhothai Historical Park hosts a spectacular show, where people float krathongs on the ponds, especially in front of Wat Mahathat.
       Doubt exists about this legendary origin, for Nang Noppamas’s name does not show up in any historical records.  She first appears as a character in a late 18th century poem.  For Thai celebrants, however, the legend still prevails.  To them, like so many other Thai customs, practices and cultural characteristics, it all started with Sukhothai.

seated Buddha in the ruins of the viharn at Wat Mahathat
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Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Xishuangbanna Craft Villages, Past and Present

                                                             by Jim Goodman

ceramic figurines on a temple roof
       In the classic period of its history, from the late 12th to the early 19th centuries, Xishuangbanna was a virtually autonomous state.  Its ruler acknowledged the Chinese Emperor as his suzerain and in return ruled his domain without imperial interference.  He also paid tribute to the Chinese Court, but sometimes he also, just to be safe, paid tribute to the much closer Burmese Court.  The state’s population was mainly Dai, inhabiting the plains towns and valleys.  Non-Dai minorities lived in the hills, but interacted little with the Dai, while their administration was left to village headmen.
       Dai society then was strictly hierarchical.  At the top were the ruler—chao phaendin—and his extended family.  Just below them were his relatives.  They formed the Dai aristocracy, the classes that didn’t have to indulge in any manual labor.  That responsibility fell on the much more numerous commoner classes of indigenous settlers, servants and slaves, in the form of taxes, requisitions or services.  
       Villages were basically self-sufficient.  Hence, commercial trade did not play nearly as important a role as it does now.  District towns had shops, of course, for farmers couldn't produce everything they required.  They also had periodic market days, when people from the vicinity came to exchange goods.  A few of these have persisted to contemporary times, such as the Menghai County towns of Menghun, Menga, Xiding and Mengman.
Dai potter at work
making paper in Manzhao
       Besides their ordinary agricultural production, some villages specialized in particular crafts.  Sometimes these were for contracted customers, such as the ceramic figurines for decorating temples, palaces and the homes of aristocrats, or the paper and palm-leaf manuscripts used by temples and government offices.  Other times they worked under contract to supply the aristocracy with its needs.
       Certain craft items were produced for the market and the public at large, such as pottery, drums, jewelry, umbrellas and cloth.  Some of these villages, mostly in Menghai County, have maintained their craft traditions down to the present day, even if fewer families are engaged in such production.
traditional paper umbrella
Dai drums
       Jingzhen village, home to the Octagonal Pavilion, has long been associated with the production of the little ceramic figurines that decorate the roofs of temples and houses.  They are made from a certain kind of white clay peculiar to the area.  Workers pound and knead this clay and then shape it into figures of roosters, peacocks, nagas, stylized flames, etc. and paint them different colors.  When these are dry the workers put them in a small kiln to bake them.
making a drum in Mandan
       Manzha village, in Menghun district, still produces the kind of ceramics for general use—bowls, vases, pots, jars and basins.  Nowadays much of the production is of bricks and tiles, which were not used so much in the past.  But pottery for domestic use still accounts for a good percentage of the output, made in the same manner as it was hundreds of years ago, without the use of a kiln.
       Potters use a small, thick wooden wheel mounted on a swivel.  Seated on a stool beside it, the potter drops a lump of clay onto the wheel, spreading it up to a few centimeters from the circumference edge.  Giving the wheel a spin, the potter shapes it from the inside, adding more clay as required to make it taller, using a thin, flat stick to make the inside surface smooth and a thicker, flat board for smoothing the exterior.  After the piece has been put into its desired final shape, the worker takes it to an open field, stands it on its rim, covers it with straw and burns the straw.  When the piece has been completely fired it is darker, hard and ready for use.
sample of inlaid patterns on Dai textiles
       In former times the village production of everyday ceramics served many villages in the area. But these are in competition now with containers made from synthetic materials like rubber-plastic.  As the Dai have become more prosperous though, they have often replaced their wooden houses with ones made of brick, like in the Dai neighborhoods of Menghun.  This is why production in the village shifted more towards bricks and tiles. 
       The production of palm-leaf manuscript pages, formerly the specialty of Mangui village, east of Jinghong, has all but died out.  Paper long ago had already been replacing palm leaf for religious manuscripts and the Red Guards destroyed nearly the entire stock in the village in the late 60s.  Mangui lies opposite a strange, abandoned park called The Art Garden of Banna Dreams.  It contains a number of dilapidated buildings in the Dai style and weird statues of a bearded Indra and various good and evil creatures from local mythology.  Supposedly the statues took their appearance from descriptions in the palm-leaf manuscripts of Mangui.  Nowadays the village reprints the old manuscripts on paper.  They are used to guide the selection of auspicious days for weddings, funerals, building a house, etc.
Dai weaver in Manluangdian
Traditional paper-making, however, is still carried on in a few places, such as Manzhao, about five kilometers north of Menghun.  Workers begin by boiling bark from the mulberry tree for a long time, then beating it to pulp on flat rocks.  Then they spread the pulp in a long tray, add a little water, and mix it to make the solution relatively even.   The worker then carefully lays a rectangular, framed screen into the solution just below its surface, spreads the pulp evenly across the surface of the screen, lifts it out, removes any twigs or debris and leans it against a tree or wall to dry.  On a sunny day the sheet is dry in one afternoon.  Besides official documents and religious manuscripts, the paper also found use for wrapping bricks of tea.
       A thicker version of the same paper is used for making umbrellas, still a tradition in Manxing village, south of Mengzhe.  Families involved in the trade produce their own paper, treat it with sesame oil and color bands of it black, brown and pale yellow.  The frame and handle are from bamboo.  Local farmers use them and traditional umbrellas are one of the gifts devotees donate to the temple monks.
making a basket--men's work
plaiting split bamboo
       Temples also needed drums, especially big ones, though they were not the only customers.  Traditional orchestras, village dance troupes and martial arts groups also used drums.  One of the last places still pursuing this trade is Mandan village, about 15 km east of Mengla, involved for over three hundred years.  It also enjoys a reputation for its martial arts tradition.
       The wood comes from various hardwoods in the nearby forest.  After cutting the wood to the appropriate sizes, the worker leaves it in the house to dry for over a year.  Then he uses chisels, knives and other tools to hollow it out and shape the outside.  When that is done he paints it with lacquer colors, usually red, white and black.  After the paint dries the last step is to stretch a square strip of rawhide over the drumhead and secure it with fasteners of split bamboo. With changes in temperature and humidity the drumhead tends to slacken and must be tightened by pulling on or twisting the fasteners tied down on the upper side of the drum.
Dai-style jewelry, from a Menghun workshop
As for cloth production, weaving was much more widespread in the past, for virtually every Dai family had a loom and mothers trained their daughters in ginning, spinning and weaving at an early age.  Women used a wooden frame loom with two treadles and sat at a bench at the end of the loom to weave.  Heddles separated the warp threads and by stepping on a treadle every other thread was lifted, creating a shed through which to throw the shuttle with the weft thread.  After moving the reed forward to beat the weft into place, the weaver stepped on the other treadle to make the next shed.  The interlocking warp and weft threads created a strip of plain-weave cloth, with no surface adornment or complex pattern.
       To add the embroidered designs onto the cloth required making extra heddles for supplementary weft thread.  This they did by inserting thin bamboo sticks particular ways into the warp to separate different sections of thread.  Complex surface patterns needed at least a couple dozen of these extra heddle sticks.  Besides cloth for making clothing items, weavers produced sheets and bedspreads, pillowcases, towels and, when feeling religious, wall hangings (tung) for the temples.  In classic times the palace and various aristocratic families, whose women didn’t weave, contracted certain villages to produce their clothing, brocades and other fancy textiles.
Dai-style gold ornaments
leaf-style silver hair ornament
       In contemporary times looms have practically disappeared from ordinary village households.  But a few, such as Manhuomeng, near Menghun, and Manluangdian, just west of Jinghong, maintain the weaving tradition.  Most of their production is in specialty items, such as fancy brocaded bedspreads for wealthy locals and tapestries for tourist customers taken there by tour operators.
       Weaving cloth was always women’s work, but weaving split bamboo baskets and other containers was men’s work.  After cutting the bamboo into strips, men plaited the strips and shaped them into various containers.   They could be woven very loosely, with spaces between the joints, as in baskets for carrying firewood or bags of grain and other produce, or very tightly, like the large ones for carrying grain or the small tobacco cases. No particular village specialized in split-bamboo products, for they all produced them.  If they made more than they needed they sold the surplus in the markets. 
silver hair bun ornament
       In Banna today there are more men still weaving with split bamboo than women weaving with handlooms.  Factory-made cloth of all kinds is readily available in any town market, and while cheap synthetic substitutes for split-bamboo baskets and containers are also available, it takes far less time to weave a basket than a bolt of cloth.  Some men keep it up because it gives them something useful to do.  The synthetic stuff might be cheap, but that made from bamboo is free.
      A craft that was not so universal, nor the specialty of a certain village, but rather that of select families in towns like Menghun, where it still carries on, is that of making jewelry.  Dai women have always loved ornaments.  They wore rings on their fingers, bangles around their wrists, rings and studs through the earlobes, necklaces and fancy pendants, silver belts, sometimes with attached pendants, to hold the sarong around the waist, and various pins and brooches.
       They also decorated their hair with flowers, ribbons and jewelry.  Women tied their hair in a bun and embellished that with a special pin, affixed silver leaves to it, or wrapped it in an open-work silver cone, with dangling pendants.  The upper classes referred gold, while the commoners used silver.  Nowadays, with the classes abolished and prosperity reaching all Dai villages, traditional jewelry is still popular.  On market days particularly, Dai women like to show it off. 
      In those families still involved in the production, young women do most of the work.  Their tools comprise an awl, clamps, pliers, a small, bellows-operated, acetylene torch, a perforated plate for sizing wire and a roller to make silver plate super-thin.   They use the little torch to weld together chain links, using a copper-silver alloy, though the rest of the item is pure silver.  For filigree work they make careful use of the pliers.
making a silver chain in Menghun
rubber seed necklaces in Manhefang
       Traditional jewelry is still popular in Banna because the Dai people, though not immune to modern influences, have retained a strong sense of tradition.  They often prefer using split-bamboo baskets and containers and ceramic pots over substitutes in the market just because they are traditional.  In recent years some villages that have kept their traditional stilted houses have applied for recognition as a “culture village.” 
       One of these, Manhefeng, south of Jinghong near the prefecture museum, invented a new handicraft—the making of rubber seed necklaces to sell to tourists.  The village didn’t have enough land to turn over to rubber plantations and so the people never benefited enough from their small rubber patch to afford new houses.  But with the prefecture government promoting all things traditional, Manhefeng saw a chance to turn their small rubber production into a new income.   
       Because of its traditional architecture and its location near the museum, Manhefang became a regular tourist stop.  A couple of silver workshops are on the itinerary, along with stalls selling Dai clothing, but the main souvenir item is the rubber seed necklace.  Villagers use on an old-fashioned wooden punching device to make holes in the seeds.  Business has been good since Manhefang became a “culture village” and its residents have monetary incentive to keep their tradition.  One can only hope that other Dai villages, not yet wealthy enough to have the option to discard their traditions for a modern look and lifestyle, will be inspired to do something similar.

Dai-style silver sarong belt with pendants
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