Sunday, July 31, 2022

Jinuo Villages in Xishuangbanna, Past and Present

 

 

                                  by Jim Goodman


       The Jinuo people were one of the earliest settlers in Xishuangbanna, Yunnan, and nearly all of them still live there today, mostly around Jinuoshan in the center of the prefecture.  The area is very hilly and has become famous as of one of the six major mountain regions cultivating Pu’er tea.  Legends trace the Jinuo origin to a detachment of soldiers in Zhuge Liang’s army during the 3rd century Three Kingdoms Era.  The unit overslept one night and when it finally caught up with the army Zhuge Liang would not allow them to rejoin.  They were to stay and settle where they overslept.  But to make it easier for them, Zhuge Liang gave them seeds for tea bushes.

       This was supposed to have happened around Mojiang, but the Jinuo later migrated south to Xishuangbanna.  The Jinuo never developed a script for their language so never recorded these events.  It’s not possible to say precisely when they began living in Banna, but the best known and most popular Jinuo origin myth casts them as indigenous to Jinuoshan.  Accordingly, the first human, a giantess called Amo Yaobai, using clay models, created the Han, Dai and Jinuo people.  The Han and Dai occupied the plains, but the shy Jinuo opted for the hills.  When a great flood swept across the land Amo Yaobai bade one Jinuo couple to hide inside a sealed drum to keep them safe from drowning.  When the waters receded the drum landed at the foot of contemporary Bapo village in Jinuoshan district.  The couple who emerged from the drum became the Jinuo ancestors.   

       Only in recent decades have any Jinuo opted to take up residence in the plains.  Always a reclusive people, they have remained ensconced in the forested mountains around Jinuoshan throughout their existence.  At an elevation a few hundred meters higher than the plains, they enjoyed a cooler summer, while the winter was never very cold.  Establishing their villages within the tropical forests, they could take advantage of jungle resources like wood and bamboo for building materials, animal and plant food and natural medicines.

       When setting up a new village the Jinuo usually chose a site on a hill slope facing the morning sun.  After clearing the area they marked off the village boundary with tablets of stone or wood, decorated with carved spears and swords, presumably protection against nefarious spirits.  They built stilted houses of wood and bamboo, roofed with thatch or wooden tiles.  The political and spiritual leaders stayed in individual houses.  Everyone else lived in longhouses, usually ten to twelve families from a single clan, occasionally large enough to fit twenty families.  Residents shared one big room for meetings, socializing, cooking and dining.  Families lived in compartments on both sides of a central aisle, each with a separate fireplace.  When families got larger, to three generations, it became so crowded that people built another longhouse.

       In the longhouse tradition private life was mostly public, for every family was keenly aware of what other families were doing.  It’s hard to imagine growing up in such conditions with a strong sense of individualism or inclined to rebel against any cultural norms.  The family was an important institution, but the village as a whole was the main social unit.  They were farmers and the land and labor on it were collectively shared.

       They cultivated dry rice, corn, bananas, papaya, cotton and tea.  The latter they grew in gardens, which could begin yielding the right kind of leaves four years after planting.   Fruit trees were permanent, but the grains and cotton required fields cleared from the jungle.  In early spring farmers cut down the trees in a section of the forest and burnt them down to the layer of ashes that would soak into the soil when hit by the first rains and provide enough fertilization to grow crops for a year or two.  Then they would have to clear a new patch and leave the just used one fallow for ten years.  After that, with the land fully rejuvenated, they could clear and sow it again.

       The Jinuo were not the only ones to practice this ‘shifting cultivation’ (or ‘slash-and-burn’), it was common throughout the hills of the province.  So long as the population was small and stable the system worked.  The people rotated fields over the same route, re-using the fields and not extending further into the forest.  There was little strain on the overall ecology.

       Besides sharing the produce of the land, the collective ethic also characterized hunting.  Men formed parties and hunted together.  Whatever they caught was shared equally, though the one who shot the animal got to keep the pelt.  They also carried with them bamboo tubes of different lengths, each making a different sound when struck.  The way the party played these on their return informed the village how successful they were.

       Women were not part of these parties, nor were they allowed to do the butchering, because these were life-taking activities.  Jinuo women were the life-givers of the society, giving birth, nurturing babies, planting seeds after the men cut down (and killed) and burnt the trees.  But they were also subject to ritual restrictions, such as not being allowed to touch or beat the village drum.  This drum, intended as a replica of the one that saved the Jinuo progenitors in the great flood, was housed in its own building, beaten by the headman as a summons to a collective meeting, and put to use during important rituals and festivals. 

       The schedule for the preparation of their fields ran according to the annually predictable weather pattern.  At the end of the hot, dry season it was time to cut down and burn the trees and wait for the first rains to mix the ashes with the soil.  But the day to begin sowing the fields depended upon the spiritual leader’s decision and that was after conducting ritual animal sacrifices to appease the land spirits.  Beating the drum accompanied the ritual prayers.  Then the elders ceremonially planted a few seeds in their own fields and after that the rest of the village could start planting.

      Later in the year Jinuo villages also roll the drum out to the center of the settlement on the occasion of Temaoke, a festival honoring the blacksmith, a Jinuo cultural hero.  Before the blacksmith came into society Jinuo life was harsh.  Nearly everything they did was slow and laborious.  The blacksmith introduced tools and weapons that transformed their lives:  axes, machetes, hoes, spades and plows for the field work; knives, spears and swords for hunting and defense.  As a result the Jinuo work load became easier and life was more tenable and sustainable.

       The festival events include rituals by the men honoring the drum and a series of dances mimicking the successive activities of the rice-growing cycle.  The theme is unique to the Jinuo.  Other peoples have blacksmiths, too, but they do not accord them the same cultural prominence.  Temaoke thus represents a celebration of what’s special about being Jinuo and nowadays the people dress in their best traditional garments for it, even if they no longer wear them every day.

       Nowadays, too, the festival includes vigorous drum-beating while the dances transpire, especially by women, no longer forbidden to touch or play it.  In fact, the women’s drum dance is more attractive than the men’s.  Men beat it from a single position, standing in front of it and striking forward.  Women move around, hitting it forward, sideways and backwards, dancing while doing so, making for an energetic, more entertaining performance, especially when more than one woman is playing.

       Besides the taboo on touching the drum, the injunction against women being butchers has also lapsed.  They still do not take part in killing animals for sacrifices to the spirits, for the control of religion belongs to the men, but in recent decades a few Jinuo women have undertaken jobs as butchers.  Nowadays there is virtually no occupation off-limits to women and they hold a highly respected position in society.  Tradition says that in the past Jinuo society was divided into seven matriarchal and seven patriarchal clans, but that the matriarchal system was abandoned three centuries ago.

       Nevertheless, Jinuo villages have two recognized leaders:  the oldest male and the oldest female and the latter supervises women’s affairs.  Within the longhouse the younger generation engaged in fieldwork, while the elderly women stayed behind and looked after the children.  Thus grandmothers were of strong influence on a child’s upbringing.

 

      The Jinuo did not venture down to the plains very often and were a mystery to the Han and Dai, who called them Youle people, after a prominent mountain in Jinuoshan.  Governments classified them as a branch of the Dai nationality, though their language belongs to the Tibeto-Burman linguistic family, unrelated to Dai.  Familiarity with Jinuo culture and identity only began with the founding of New China in 1949.

       From 1954 Communist Party cadres began contacting isolated Jinuo communities to help them improve their lives.  The following year they set up cooperative work teams for agriculture and introduced wet-rice cultivation to replace the dry-rice farming that relied on the slash-and-burn method of field preparation.  Now the Jinuo built permanent fields in terraces, irrigated by water pumps.  Production increased and, thanks to health care improvements, so did the population, nowadays reaching 25,000.  The old way of shifting cultivation would not have been tenable much longer anyway.

       The government also established the town of Jinuoshan, an administrative seat for the Jinuo-inhabited area.  A network of roads came next, linking major villages within the district.  Hydroelectricity projects reached the villages and electric lights replaced the tiny oil lamps for internal illumination, while electric milling machines took over from mortar and pestle action.

       In 1979 the government finally recognized the Jinuo as a separate minority nationality.  They were no longer a branch of anyone.  They were their own people.  The year was the start of the Reform Era, the dismantling of the commune system and the revival of ethnic consciousness, long castigated as “little nation chauvinism”.  For the Jinuo this meant a new appreciation of their traditional clothing and subsidies for their festivals, as well as other cultural promotions appealing to ethnic pride.

       From 1979 many Jinuo families took the newly possible option now to leave the commune system altogether and started their own farms.  They also began building separate homes outside the longhouse.  In general they were stilted houses of wood and bamboo with roofs of wooden tiles.  Into the 21st century they began deviating in style, with roofs of corrugated iron, walls of brick or cement and directly on the ground.  This has been the fate even of the officially designated “cultural village” of Bapo, where the drum landed after the great flood.

       The village lies above a slope and lying across that slope is a massive stone sculpture of Amo Yaobai.  It was made by a Sichuanese sculptor after a design drawn up by the Sichuan Academy of Art.   She is lying on her back, limbs outstretched, face up and eyes open.  A walkway alongside right up to the village enables visitors to view the entire work up close.  Tour agencies bring groups here, usually arranging for ethnic dances as well.  Bapo, like all Jinuo villages, still has its drum house, though the village architecture has modernized so much it hardly justifies the enormous ticket price to enter.

      One of the government projects designed to promote ethnic consciousness in Jinuoshan was the opening of a Jinuo museum.  Unfortunately, it was not in Bapo cultural village, nor in or near Jinuoshan, where visitors might look for such a thing.  Instead it is in Baka, east towards Menglun, in a rather dilapidated state, converted from an abandoned longhouse.  Separate cubicles hold exhibits of hunting gear like crossbows, traps, snares and rifles, spinning and weaving material, ritual items and sets of local Jinuo clothing.  The museum has never been properly maintained and the glass cases are so encrusted with dirt the exhibits within them are only visible from the sides.

       Traditional clothing is similar throughout Jinuoshan except in Mengwang District in the northeast, where the government sponsored a sub-group recently to move from deforested hills to vacant land in the plains.  The women’s much longer peaked cap reaches to the waist in back, while the blouse, wraparound skirt and gaiters are similar they do not wear the same kind of colorful jacket, but plain blue or purple cotton or silk.  Men wear black jackets with red trimming and a red sun, with spokes like the drum, over the front pocket and the upper back.  Mengwang clothing differs from the Jinuo norm, but its components and style make it recognizably Jinuo.  And though the last longhouse residents in Jinuoshan moved out in 2002, the collective spirit survived and villages stage their own village feasts and celebrations in which all the residents participate.   It’s essential to being Jinuo.     


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For more on the Jinuo see my e-book Xishuangbanna:  the Tropics of Yunnan

      

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Early Excursions to Aini Villages in Yunnan

 

                                                by Jim Goodman

 

       When flights became available from Chiang Mai to Kunming in Yunnan I had already been living in Chiang Mai a few years and had been working with the Akha ethnic minority group in the northern hills.   We produced traditional clothing items, mainly shoulder bags and jackets in Western sizes, the colors from natural dyes, which was my own role in the project, a skill I picked up in Nepal before I moved to Chiang Mai.  There was a market for such things in the late 80s and early 90s and by living moderately the work basically paid for my research, having the ambition to write a book about them. Ever since I met them I had been curious about their original homeland.

       Only a small portion of the Akha lives in Thailand.  They are more numerous in Laos, Myanmar, and especially China, from where they originated, and where the greatest number of sub-groups lives.  Thailand has only three.  The majority are Ulo Akha, characterized by tall, tubular headdresses and intricate line-stitching embroidery.   The next largest are the Lomi Akha, whose women wear a silver-plated attachment behind a cap fully studded with silver half-globes and employ a lot of appliqué on the bags and clothing.  The third and smallest, concentrated at Pamee and other villages near Mae Sai, are noted for their cross-stitch embroidery and lavish use of silver on the women’s headdresses and clothing components.  I worked with all three.

       The Ulo and Lomi Akha came into Thailand from Myanmar, but the Pamee sub-group came from Xishuangbanna in Yunnan, China.  On one of my regular visits I met a relative of my host family who was staying in Pamee a few months to make money in the litchi orchards.  Yunnan was opening to tourists and he invited me to come to his village in Xishuangbanna.  That provided my main excuse for going and I arranged a flight for the summer of 1992.

       After a few days taking an extended look at Kunming and the nearby Stone Forest, I flew to Jinghong, met Akhas on the street, greeted them in Chinese, then rattled off some sentences in Akha along the lines of—You are Akha people, are you not?  I’m an American person. I live in Thailand and work with the Akha people and can speak a little Thailand Akha language.  Can you help me?  In that way I learned that my friend’s village, called Paseu, was in Xiding district in Menghai County.  In those days there were many places in the province still off-limits to foreigners.  Beyond Jinghong, Mengla County was still closed and in Menghai County only the towns of Menghai and Menghun were open.  I needed a permit for Xiding district.  Thanks to a demonstrable ability to speak the Aini language (as the Akha are officially called in China) that was no problem.

       Because of the novelty of a foreigner at all in Xiding, and one who could speak their language, an Aini shopkeeper invited me to stay with her family that night.  It was raining anyway, so they wined and dined me, examining my Thailand Akha photos, until after midnight.  Next morning we met an old man who knew where Paseu village was, so my Xiding hostess told her son to take me there, along with his Chinese friends, who would all share the task of carrying my luggage.

       After quite a long hike, pausing for rain showers, we arrived at dusk and the boys turned to me.  Who did I know here?  Ajeu who worked in the litchi orchards in Thailand.  Someone took us to a house belonging to an Ajeu fitting that description, but we didn’t recognize one another.  Turned out he worked in Pahee, one of Pamee’s satellite villages.  But you’ve come a long way, he said, and must be hungry, so stay for dinner.  In the course of the meal the word about us spread through the village and before I could finish eating the other Ajeu, who’d worked in Pamee, came to the house and afterwards took me to his home.

       Ajeu was my host and companion the next several days as I explored the forest, nearby villages, the tea gardens where most of them worked, and the Xiding market on my way back to Jinghong.  Almost all the Akha here had never seen a Westerner before, but my use of the language, even though a different dialect, made the proper impression and at social gatherings I brought out my Dictaphone and played recordings of Akha dancing ground songs in Thailand.

       Most socializing with guests and neighbors takes place during an extended dinner.  First meat and vegetable dishes fill the tables, along with rice spirits, which must be quaffed in the beginning and frequently afterwards throughout the meal.  Cigarettes are also liberally distributed and the men even smoke while they eat.  For a while they only take bits of meat and vegetables as they smoke, talk, drink, joke and laugh.  It’s at least 40 minutes before the women serve the rice and soup.  Even then the pace of eating only picks up slightly as the atmosphere continues to evoke a celebratory experience of eating and drinking in human company.

      In this the Akha in China resembled their cousins in Thailand.  They also shared customs like the internal domestic wall separating the men’s side from the women’s side, the use of shamans and spiritual specialists, rituals of the December New Year, and the Swing Festival.  As tea cultivators they did not observe festivals and rites associated with growing rice nor maintain their village gates.  They did not grow cotton or indigo, so bought their clothing components from the markets.  Traditional clothing was not so common in the villages and when posing for family portraits the females had to do some borrowing for a traditional look.  The men dressed modern style and the only man around with a traditional Akha jacket was me.  In the Xiding market I did see some women dressed traditionally, wearing conical headdresses or ones like in Pamee, but often plain jackets without embroidery.  Younger ones did not dress in Akha clothing, but carried traditional shoulder bags, usually heavily embroidered.

       So I had much to relate to my Akha friends and workers back in Thailand, but on the next trips to Yunnan I concentrated on the northwest and its people, resulting in a book published later that decade, and didn’t visit Aini villages again until late 1997.  By then counties were opening to foreigners at an accelerated rate and I conceived a long-term research project that would take me to all parts of the province for a book that was eventually published in Kunming as The Exploration of Yunnan.  One of the first stops was Lancang County, where the largest ethnic group is the Lahu, most of whom are Christian and live in modern style.  However, the county also hosts sizable Aini communities, still traditional, as far north as Shangyun, but mostly south of Lancang city. 

      I was with a Chinese friend who was taking me to meet his Wa connections in Ximeng after Lancang and he had a friend in Lancang who used to be a police officer stationed in Jiujing, about 25 km south.  He arranged a car and driver to take us to a typical Aini village near the town.  It lay within the forest, several km down a dirt road turnoff from Jiujing.  The people were rice farmers, but their fields were not visible from the village.  The houses were similar to those in Thailand, made of bamboo and wood with roofs of thatch.  Some had roofs of wooden tiles and a few dwellings were brick houses in the contemporary style.

       By coincidence it was Aini New Year, celebrated here three 12-day calendar cycles earlier than in Thailand or Xishuangbanna, where it occurs in late December.  It was the third day, featuring the settling of accounts at the headman’s house, and the rice liquor flowed freely.  They even gave me a bottle once I was introduced to the scene and began conversing.  They celebrated other festivals like in Thailand and had the full range of traditional authorities:  the headman who mainly handles outside affairs, the dzoema who is the authority and ultimate arbiter on cultural matters, the pima who is the spiritual specialist and memorizes the oral  traditions and history, the blacksmith who is also chief architect and oversees house construction, and the shamans, to whom people go when medicine does not ease their afflictions.

       Perhaps because it was festival time more of the people, even males, dressed in traditional clothing, though women tended to wear red and white checkered headscarves instead of ornamented headdresses.  Their shoulder bags and the lower half of the vests and jackets were heavily embroidered but with colors restricted to pink, red, white and magenta.  The bags were also bigger than usual and the skirts longer and bulkier.  They wove and dyed their own cloth and strips of indigo cloth were hanging on some of the balconies, just like in winter in Thailand.

       Three months later, February 1998, my Yunnan exploration included sojourns to Xishuangbanna to visit the oldest Aini settlements in Menghai County and find out where they lived in Mengla County.  In Menghai County the biggest and oldest villages were in Gelanghe Autonomous Aini District.  With an adventurous young Chinese friend I headed there.  There was only a dirt road then, climbing quickly into the hills southeast of Menghai, that were speckled with forests and slash-and-burn farms, augmented by tea gardens and fields of sugarcane.  Halfway to the town, straddling the crest of a hill was the Aini village of Yakoulaozhai.  The previous year, to mark its 125th anniversary, backed by a grant of 5000 yuan from the county government, the village erected a magnificent entrance gate.  Based on the original traditional entry gates, destroyed during the Cultural Revolution and not rebuilt since, it was bigger and more richly decorated with carvings of weapons and other symbols to repel demons from the protected sacred site of the village.

       Most houses were traditional style—stilted bamboo and wood structures with roofs of thatch or wooden tiles.  The people we saw were all dressed modern style.  We didn’t stay long, for our destination, 6 km south of Gelanghe, was Pasha, an even older and bigger village.  With over200 houses, all of them in traditional style, Pasha had already spawned two satellite settlements a short distance away.  It lies on a slope that’s not very steep and the highest neighborhood is on the crest of the ridge.  Up here stands the festival swing, next to two simple and ordinary size entry gates, with carved male and female figures beside them to remind spirits this is a human zone and not for them.  Pasha had these gates because three years earlier the current dzoema personally revived the tradition.  The other two villages didn’t have them. 

       One big difference between the Akha in Thailand and the Aini in China was ideological interference.  In Thailand outsider attempts to change the traditional Akha Way came from Christian missionaries and Buddhist proselytizers.  In China it was periodic government campaigns against ‘superstition’ that undermined tradition.  Another casualty of this was the absence of ancestral altars inside Aini houses, still very much part of Akha life in Thailand.  At least there was never a campaign against embroidery designs and the survival of this tradition was very evident in Pasha, especially among the older women, who still wore traditional garments and were currently busy stitching in their free time.  The younger ones rarely wore them, except for the shoulder bag, but all the babies had traditional caps, festooned with beads, cowry shells and coins.

       In Mengla no one could tell us where the Akha lived, but I assumed they must be near the Lao border province of Phong Saly, which was heavily Akha-inhabited.  I chose to look in the vicinity of Nankexing, a spot on the map next to the border.  There was a border check post at Manzhuang, but when my friend explained I was researching Akha/Aini in China for a book the police permitted us to proceed.  However, they couldn’t tell us where the Aini might live.  We got a ride part of the way, then hiked past thick forest on both sides of the road and after another hour came, not to Nankexing, but to a stone pillar marking the China-Laos border.

       Fortunately a woman turned up heading back to her village and informed us an Akha village lay 3 km ahead and the nearest Lao border check post was several km further on.  We hiked to this village, called Pakeu whose residents were the original inhabitants of Nankexing.  They fled to Laos to avoid the political campaigns of 1958.  They had moved down from the mountains a year ago, closer to their sugarcane fields, so their houses were a bit ramshackle, yet the interiors were in the same traditional style as in Thailand.  The men’s side and women’s side had separate hearths and a wall divided them.  The ancestral basket was stored in the far corner of the women’s side beside the dividing wall.  Water was carried and stored in bamboo tubes.

       This was the first Akha sub-group I met whose women wore, instead of skirts, black shin-length trousers.  On top they donned a black long-sleeved, side-fastened jacket that reached to below the knees.  Aside from the cuffs and a tab next to the left side of the neckline, it was all plain black.  On their heads they wore a close-fitting cap with a flat board rising up from the back, all swathed in black cloth.  A line of silver studs decorated the front brim and round silver pendants hung on chains on both sides of the face.  Unmarried younger women cropped their hair short and many wore no headgear.  For those who did, it was a skullcap decorated with coins, silver studs and the same round pendants hanging down each side, as well as long strings of beads and white seeds dangling from the back of the cap.  More of their sub-group lived north on both sides of the border and I met them again years later in Mengban district.

       Still, their attire was quite a contrast to the bright and colorful outfits of all the other Akha I’d encountered.  But with our final excursion it was back to the kind of Akha ensembles I was used to seeing.  We went to Mengman in the southwest corner of the county and at once met Akha girls in full traditional clothing similar to Thailand and Menghai County.  From them we learned of Akha villages west of the town past the rubber tree plantations.  These villages were well off thanks to the rubber business and all the houses were newly made brick in the local Dai style.  Only the big swing distinguished it as an Akha village.  When I commented on that, a villager suggested going to his sister’s village on the Lao side of the nearby border to see something more typically traditional.

       It was a 90-minute hike over a plain, a Lao army post visible to the south, to the edge of the forest and the site of the village.  Here, as promised, all the houses save the headman’s were in the classic Akha style.  (His was brick.)  All females dressed in traditional garments, though none wore the calf-wrappers common elsewhere.  And instead of a heavy beaded pouch holding down the skirt in front they wore loops of beads across the right hip, fastened to the waistline front and rear.  As it was already late afternoon the headman invited us to stay the night and attend the house-warming party of a neighbor.

       The males spent an hour slaughtering and cutting up a big pig and when the feast began ate separately from the women.  Young women kept replenishing the tables with freshly cooked pieces of pork, while the host made sure the rice liquor made regular rounds, and I passed around my photos of Akha in Thailand.  The meal was long, marked by much conversation about their culture, comparing aspects in each country.  They also had the same origin myth as that narrated to me in Pasha, Jiujing, Xiding and Thailand, memorized in full by the village pima.

       We returned to the headman’s house fairly late and a little drunk, but there was one more old-fashioned traditional experience coming up to enjoy—opium.  Behind the partition wall on the female side an older woman was lying on her side smoking her pipes.  She soon finished and turned over her place to a young man who proceeded to prepare a couple pipes for himself to smoke and then several each for both of us.  My friend had never smoked before but this was something still common at that time in northern Thailand, where until recently many Akha villages cultivated the plant.  At the end of the session our host only asked payment for what the Chinese smoked.  Mine was complimentary because I spoke their language.  Now I had a final anecdote to relate when I returned to Thailand’s Akha villages. 

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Saturday, March 26, 2022

History and Legends in the Mountains of Chiang Mai


                                         by Jim Goodman

 

       The best-known mountain in northern Thailand is the one that stands just west of the city of Chiang Mai.  Called Doi Suthep, it rises 1676 meters and the streams flowing down from its slopes have always irrigated the vast fertile plain below.  It’s not the highest peak in the north, but especially revered for its temple, Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep, which enshrines a famous religious relic—a part of the Buddha’s shoulder bone.  The temple dates its construction to 1383, about a century after Mengrai had established the Kingdom of Lanna over most of northern Thailand.  The site was selected by mounting the relic on the back of a white elephant, a most auspicious animal in local culture, and turning it loose to choose its own way.

       The elephant immediately headed for the mountain, ascending it through the forests.  When it reached a point at 1070 meters altitude it halted, trumpeted three times, then laid down and died.  The people cleared the immediate area, built the temple and installed the relic.  It has been a popular Buddhist pilgrimage site ever since, particularly after the monk Kruba Sivichai, from Li district, Lamphun province, organized devotees in the early 20th century to construct a road to the temple.  As the century progressed Doi Suthep became a top tourist destination, for the temple and its cultural significance, as well as views of the plains from a clearing along the road, an occasional royal residence further on, the nearby Hmông village of Doi Pui and the jungle trails for forest exploring. 

      Most visitors are aware of the temple’s origin, but not of its name.  Doi Suthep was named after a famous hermit called Wasuthep, usually depicted wearing leopard or tiger skins, his long braided hair coiled in a bun. who lived here around the 8th century.  He was said to be the descendant of two cannibal ogres, Pu Sae and Ya Sae, who were terrorizing the area until the Buddha appeared before them.  When the ogres attacked he repelled them with kindness, against which they had no defense.  So they submitted, converted to Buddhism and were appointed as spirit guardians for the area.  He also gave them one of his hairs as a relic, which was later installed in a pagoda at Wat Doi Kham, on a small oblong hill ten km south of Chiang Mai.  Today large statues of Pu Sae and Ya Sae sit in a shrine at the foot of the hill.

       The hill lies back from the highway about a kilometer.  A very tall Standing Buddha dominates the first view.  Within the temple compound is a very long Reclining Buddha, as well as a large Seated Buddha, 17 meters high and reputedly the largest of its type in Asia.  The pagoda was supposed to have been first built in 683 CE.  It collapsed in 1966.  During its reconstruction, people discovered a hidden chamber underneath containing several old images.    

       These have been removed and hardly anything remains from ancient times.  It still attracts regular devotees from the district, and occasionally Buddhist Palong women from the hills to the west, brightening up the crowd with their distinctive red and black jackets, red sarongs and wide silver belts.  Besides the Buddha shrines and imagery, one of Wat Doi Kham’s temples is dedicated to Queen Chamadevi, the original ruler of Haripunchai (now Lamphun), the first organized state in northern Thailand.  She was born in a Mon family in a village west of Lamphun, but due to the scarcity of records from that time, the events of her life and career have long been intertwined with legends and myths.  Among these are her connections to Wasuthep and his role in the founding of Haripunchai.   

       According to local legends, when Chamadevi was still an infant, an eagle snatched her from her cradle and flew to Doi Suthep.  The hermit Wasuthep harried the eagle into dropping its prey over a pond.  A lotus flower sprang up to receive the baby.  Wasuthep rescued the child and raised her as his own, imparting his wisdom on the ways of the world and training her in martial arts.  When she reached puberty he decided to divine her future and discovered that she was destined to become the ruler of a great new state.

      That was something he couldn’t really train her for, so he decided to send her downriver by boat to Lawo (now Lopburi), the nearest of several Mon kingdoms in central Thailand.  He put two monkeys in the boat to keep her company, the origin of Lopburi’s sprawling monkey community today.  When she arrived at the palace in Lawo the royal family considered this an auspicious event and raised her as a princess in their own family.

       She became quite beautiful as she matured, arousing the ardor of neighboring Mon princes, all of whom she refused.  One suitor opted to attack Lawo with his army to force her consent.  Drawing on her martial arts lessons from Wasuthep, the princess herself led the city’s soldiers to repel the assault.  She never did marry, though she did have a lover and was pregnant by him when suddenly she got the call from Wasuthep to come up and take charge of the new state.  He had already laid out the capital as a walled city in the shape of a conch, bounded by moats and a river.  She left her lover behind and made the long river journey up to Haripunchai, arriving with an entourage that included 500 Buddhist monks.  She gave birth to twin sons later.   

       The region around Haripunchai, in addition to Mon villages, was largely inhabited by the Lawa people, especially the Doi Suthep area.  Chamadevi subdued them and instigated their conversion to Buddhism; that much is historical fact, but exactly how has been the subject of legend and fancy.  Accordingly, the Lawa chieftain Viranga sent spies to learn about the new intruders and they reported how beautiful the queen was.  He fell in love by hearsay and sent a message of proposal.  She refused.  His army attacked, but was beaten back, thanks to the queen’s magic elephant Blackie Purple, named for its color, whose green tusks disintegrated anything it touched.

       A more popular version has Chamadevi making a deal with Viranga.  Since he claimed supernatural powers she demanded he prove it by hurling a spear from the top of Doi Suthep to the center of Haripunchai.  She even gave him three attempts, confident he couldn’t succeed.  However, on his first throw Viranga’s spear landed just outside the city walls.  Maybe he did have such powers, she worried, so devised a trick.  She congratulated him forgetting so close, said she was sure he would succeed next throw and to please wear this special hat she sent  that she had made for him for the occasion.      

       The hat was made from her underwear soiled by menstruation, thereby automatically canceling his supernatural powers.  Viranga donned the hat, huffed and puffed and hurled his spear and it landed at his feet.  Aware of the deception he threw his last spear straight up and stood with his chest exposed so that when it fell back down it pierced and killed him. 

       The spear-chucking challenge and Chamadevi’s reception at Haripunchai are part of the interior wall murals at Wat Chamadevi in Lamphun.  In the temple devoted to her at Wat Doi Kham the wall murals behind her altar depict her life with Wasuthep, clad in tiger skins like an Indian rishi, with q Buddha image in his cave.  There are vignettes of her abduction by an eagle, Wasuthep rescuing her, bringing her up as an infant, giving her weapons training as a girl and sending her off to Lawo with the monkey companions. 

     No doubt her introduction of Buddhism to northern Thailand accounts for the presence of Chamadevi altars in Buddhist temples.  But Thai Buddhism, in terms of veneration, is male-oriented, towards the Buddha as well as famous monks.  Perhaps Chamadevi veneration, of a woman so much a part of northern cultural history and identity, redresses this innate religious imbalance, the way Devi worship does for Hindus and veneration of Mary among Christians.  Observers won’t see any difference in the prayers and offerings at images whether of Buddha or of Chamadevi.

       Besides the statues in her altar, the Wat Doi Kham compound features a gilded bronze image of her standing with a sword pointing to the ground, modeled on the one in Chamadevi Park, Lamphun, a painted terracotta one of her seated and a painting on an exterior wall of her standing in her royal regalia.  A couple statues of Wasuthep also grace the area.

       The next stop on the ‘Chamadevi Trail’ lies down Highway 108 from Doi Kham all the way to a temple in Hod district.  The route passes by Doi Inthanon, a peak of 2565 meters altitude, the highest in Thailand.  Swathed in various kinds of forests, it did not have any religious center, though two fine chedis stand beside the road near thesummit, with a good view of the plains below, built in late 20th century in honor of the last king and queen.  The actual summit is not accessible, for it is the site of a Royal Thai Air Force weather radar station.

      Originally known simply as Doi Luang—the Big Mountain—its contemporary name Inthaton is a contraction of the name of the last nominal ruler of Chiang Mai Chao Inthawichayanon.  Worried about the burgeoning lagging industry in the north and its threat to the mountain’s forests, he lobbied hard to protect the mountain’s ecosystem by declaring the area a national park.  This finally took place in 1954 and Doi Luang became Doi Inthanon.  Besides the range of tree species—tropical, deciduous and evergreen—the park includes several spectacular waterfalls, like Mae Klang, with good; paved roads to reach them.

        South of Doi Inthanon the next town is Chom Thong, site of a temple built on a hill resembling a termite mound (chom pluak in Thai) surrounded by coral trees (thong lang).  The temple and chedi were first constructed in 1451 and renovated often since then.  The town also claims a legendary visit by the ancient Mauryan Buddhist Emperor Ashoka, who came here to lay relics, long lost, along with details of them and the journey itself.

       Continuing south along the western side of the Ping River near Hod, one comes to Wat Phrachao Tho Muang.  It sits on a small hill back from the road, while on the plain below it, closer to the Ping River stands a partly dilapidated and propped up old brick chedi from the time of Chamadevi’s boat ride from Lawo to Haripunchai, built to commemorate her overnight stop here.  A large statue of her, seated and dressed in white, dominates the compound.  Other sculptures in the vicinity depict Kings Taksin and Chulalongkorn, Guan Yin and a big red Garuda.  A red ubusot and a white viharn sit side-by-side, each twelve meters high.

       In the Haripunchai Era Hod was called Pitsadan Nakhon and became known for a tragic love story at least a thousand years ago.  The protagonists were the local princess An Fah and a young man Noi Singkham who was the son of one of the ruler’s men.  Haripunchai had had a couple centuries of peace by then, yet this period was still characterized by sharp class distinctions.  When Hod’s ruler learned of his daughter’s affair he warned her that it was forbidden and if she didn’t break it off both she and her lover would suffer grievously, implying this social infraction was a capital offense.

       The pair refused and opted to escape from Pitsadon Nakhon by horseback.  They rode towards Ban Don Dan, with the ruler’s men, including An Fah’s brother, in hot pursuit.  In danger of capture the lovers decided on joint suicide.  To accomplish this they would drive their horse over a high cliff beside the Ping River.  As they approached their plunge Noi Singkham blindfolded the horse with a white cloth so that the animal would not see what it was doing.  Still, he hesitated going through with the act and so An Fah spurred the horse to carry out the deed.  All three went down together and perished, while An Fah”s brother reached the cliff and saw the horse’s footprints at the edge.

       The spot is called Pha Wing Chu—Runaway Lovers’ Cliff.  It is 250 meters long and rises 25 meters above the Ping River.  Doi Inthanon is visible in the distance.  A shed holding large standing statues of all three players in the drama stands several meters back from the cliff and a smaller sculpture of the lovers riding the horse is near the edge.  Sympathizers of the doomed lovers, over a thousand years later, still come here to lay offering, for examples, for affairs of the heart can inspire as much regard as those of the soul.


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