Sunday, October 25, 2015

Ancient Khmer Mysteries in Southern Laos

                                                          by Jim Goodman

Phu Kao Mountain and its natural lingam
       Champassak is the last major town on the Mekong River in southern Laos.  A little further downriver, just above the Cambodian border, lie the Khone Falls and the Four Thousand Islands, the outstanding scenic attractions in the vicinity and the prime destination for most travelers.  But for anyone interested in history and ancient cultures, the special feature of Champassak is its proximity to Wat Phu, a temple compound built in the heyday of the Khmer Empire and still in use today.
       Among the mountains backing the plains on the western bank of the Mekong, one in particular stands out from all the others.  Called Phu Kao locally, at 1416 meters it is not the highest in the range, but distinctive from all the rest by the cylindrical, phallic-like protuberance on its summit.  To settlers coming here nearly two millennia ago, influenced by Indian civilization, especially Hindu religious concepts, this was a terrestrial manifestation of the god Shiva’s lingam.  The mountain became known by its Sanskrit name Lingaparvata (Lingam Mountain) and a temple at its foot, today known as Wat Phu, was dedicated to Bhadreswar, another name for Shiva.      
classic Khmer style at Wat Phu
       Wat Phu lies along the lowest slope of this mountain, about 11 km from Champassak.  The first religious buildings went up on this site in the 5th century, apparently under the direction of officials or priests from the ancient city of Shresthapura, about 4 km east on the Mekong.  From its size—3 square km—and its fortifications, it was obviously the capital of a state.  But the extent of its boundaries and the identity of its rulers remain uncertain. 
       Early speculation by Western archaeologists that it might be Chăm, probably based on the name Champassak for the province, seemed implausible by the fact that all other Chăm states at that time ran in a contiguous line along the south central coast of Vietnam, quite some distance from Champassak.   Others thought it an early capital of the pre-Angkor state of Chenla, though no inscriptions or other evidence exists about moving Chenla’s capital to Ishanapur, today’s Sambor Prei Kuk, where it remained until its eventual fall.
       Not much remains from that period, anyway; a few inscriptions and worn sculptures at Wat Phu, ramparts, temple foundations and broken stone pediments, some carved, in Shresthapur.  But from the early 10th century the area became part of the expanding Angkor Empire.  Eventually Angkor rulers established a road from Shresthapur to Angkor and began refurbishing the Wat Phu site with all the accoutrements of a classic Khmer temple compound.
barays and twin palaces at the lower end of Wat Phu
       Nowadays most of the extant structures at Wat Phu date from the 11th-13th centuries, when the Angkor Empire was at its peak and the architectural and sculptural styles established in the capital spread throughout the realm.  So there is much about Wat Phu that resembles Khmer religious monuments at sites in Cambodia and Thailand.  This is immediately obvious upon entering the area and seeing the pair of rectangular artificial ponds, called baray in Khmer, that lie in the front part of the compound.
       These barays date from the late 8th century and are essentially the prototypes for the barays subsequently constructed at Khmer sites in both Cambodia and Thailand.  Cosmologically, the barays represent the oceans surrounding sacred Mt. Meru, itself symbolized by the hillside temple.  Whether they had any further use is not clear.  Some scholars speculate they were part of an irrigation system, others that they were meant to hold back flood waters.  While incoming and outgoing channels have been found along the huge barays of Angkor, no such evidence has yet turned up at Wat Phu’ s barays.  They may have been strictly symbolic.
12th century palace at Wat Phu
       Just past the left baray, two ruined buildings of laterite and sandstone stand opposite each other, flanking a pathway lined with stone nagas jutting up on either side.  Local people call them the men’s and women’s palaces, though without any factual basis.  They date from the 12th century reign of Suryavarman II, the king who built Angkor Wat, who commissioned and endowed these palaces.
       Only the walls remain.  The roofs are missing and the interiors are empty.  But the railed windows, real and false doors, carvings over the doors and sculptural themes are all typical of classic Khmer artistry.   The imagery is all Hindu and no Buddha images, old or new, exist on the premises of either palace.  Yet Buddhist Lao devotees visiting Wat Phu leave offerings at the entrances to these palaces of incense sticks and little pagodas made from banana leaves.
Shiva and Parvati astride the bull Nandi
       Though it has long been a Buddhist site, originally Wat Phu was dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva.  Thus Shiva is the central figure carved on the typanum, the leaf-shaped, fully carved section mounted above the doorways.  One nice example depicts Shiva and his wife Parvati astride the bull Nandi.  Most others show him above the head of the jawless monster called kalas.  Sculptures of rishis, Shiva’s devotees, adorn some of the columns.
       A few stone sculptures of seven-headed nagas and hellish demons stand on the grounds outside these palaces.  From here on, Wat Phu’s unique features begin to stand out.  Just beyond the palaces is a small temple dedicated to Shiva’s mount Nandi.  There’s not much left of it, besides the foundations and lower walls. A few stone sculptures of seven-headed nagas stand on the grounds outside.  But there’s no shrine to Shiva’s mount in any other Khmer temple compound in the region.  It was here, in 1991, that archaeologists found inscriptions linking the site to Chenla, in the form of dedicating statues, long since disappeared, to the parents of a Chenla king.
the jawless monster kalas
portrait of a rishi
       From Nandi’s temple the dirt path soon ends at a shrine to a bigger than life-sized statue of a Khmer warrior.  This is the start of the ascent to the main temple, on a staircase of long rectangular stone blocks, flanked by frangipani trees that blossom with fragrant white flowers in mid-winter.  Brick terraces lie on either side of the staircase, though no one knows what use, if any, were made of them.
remains of the Nandi temple and the path to the main shrine
After a moderately steep stretch, the staircase terminates at the main temple.  Recently outfitted with a corrugated iron roof, the rectangular building is not too much larger than the one dedicated to Nandi down below.  But it is in better condition, even though some of the extant sculptures are partly obscured by white encrustations.  The figures include Indra atop a three-headed elephant, Shiva, rishis, warriors and goddesses, augmented by floral and geometric patterns.
       Just behind this temple, next to a cliff, lies a small spring.  In ancient times the water from this spring was channeled to run over the lingam installed in the temple.  When Wat Phu became a Buddhist center instead of Hindu, sometime in the 13th-14th centuries, a Buddha image replaced the lingam.  The one installed today, of indeterminate age, is definitely in a Lao style, if rather primitive looking, and not Khmer.  It remains a popular object of veneration to the local Lao people.
odd courtyard image
venerated ancient warrior image
       Yet vestiges of its origin as a Hindu shrine abound in the area.  Just outside the temple stands a stone sculpture of the Hindu trinity.  In the center stands multi-headed, multi-armed Shiva.  To his left sits four-headed Brahma and to his right sits Vishnu.  A short walk from this sculpture is a boulder with an elephant carved into its face and a stone makara, a mythical sea-creature.
Lao Buddha in the main shrine
Also in this area is the most unusual sculpture in Wat Phu, or in any Khmer temple compound.  This is the famous, or even notorious, ‘crocodile stone’ that is apparently one of the original sculptures in the area.  Legend has it that this stone carving, roughly the size of a man lying down, was the site for ancient human sacrifices.  Supposedly the victim was tied along the outlines of the sculpture.
       The allegation originated in an interpretation of an 8th century Chinese history of the short-lived 6th century Sui Dynasty.  In writing about Chenla, the text describes a Lingam Mountain near the capital, with a temple on its summit, “always guarded by five thousand soldiers and consecrated to the spirit named Po-do-li, to whom human sacrifices are made.  Each year the king himself goes to the temple to make a human sacrifice during the night.  It is thus that they honor the spirits.”
       This is all the existing evidence about human sacrifice at Wat Phu.  The identification of Phu Kao with the Lingam Mountain of the text is not definite, for it is possible other similarly shaped summits, while not as striking, could have been designated by Hindu kings elsewhere as their own Lingam Mountain.  Moreover, no temple compound remnants exist at the summit of Phu Kao, much less evidence of encampments for five thousand soldiers, or even a designated pilgrim’s path to the summit.  And if the crocodile stone were a sacrificial stone, why was it outside the temple?  Finally, we must consider the possible prejudices of a Chinese historian writing about the ‘barbarian’ customs of a faraway ‘barbarian’ state.
the 'crocodile stone'
       On the other hand, there’s no plausible explanation for what the crocodile stone might have been instead.  No other Khmer temple compound holds such an image and the crocodile was not a creature common to mythological tales.  Crocodiles, as well as elephants, existed in the area at the time, so perhaps both carvings simply represented the outstanding fauna of the vicinity.  But without a satisfactory alternative explanation, the legend of the human sacrifice stone lives on, mentioned in all the guidebooks, perhaps because it’s easier to believe in old myths than to accept their refutation.
       Sometime around the late 13th century Theravada Buddhism began replacing Hinduism as the religion of the people of Champassak.  At Wat Phu devotees of the new religion substituted a Buddha image for the Shiva lingam in the temple, but made no other changes to buildings or statues in the compound.  Angkor’s political authority over Champassak, and the lands north and northwest of it, began weakening the following century and the province wound up being the birthplace of a new kingdom.
the Hindu Trinity:  Brahma, Shiva, Vishnu
       By the early 14th century the Lao portion of the Khmer Empire had dissolved into a string of more or less autonomous states, over which Ayutthaya was trying to establish suzerainty.  A newly born grandson of the prince of the northernmost state Muong Sua, later to be renamed Luang Phabang, supposedly had 33 teeth, a feature considered both inauspicious and threatening.  As a result, the ruler ordered him put on a raft and floated down the Mekong.  Eventually the raft reached Angkor and the Khmer Court rescued the boy and raised him.
       This is the legend around Fa Ngun, whom the Khmer king raised as his own son, appointed a royal tutor for him and eventually arranged for Fa Ngun’s marriage to one of his daughters.  In 1352 the Muong Sua prince died and was succeeded by his son, Fa Ngun’s father.  But when he died seven years later, the Muong Sua court passed over Fa Ngun and installed another relative.  Fa Ngun persuaded the Khmer king, who probably hoped to restore Khmer political influence in Laos, to give him an army to assert his claim to the Muong Sua throne.
twilight on the Mekong at Champassak
       In 1359 Fa Ngun’s army crossed into Champassak, swept aside local resistance, continued upriver and eventually conquered Vientiane and Muong Sua.  But rather than restoring the authority of his former Khmer patron, Fa Ngun proclaimed the foundation of a new kingdom called Lanexang—Land of a Million Elephants—the precursor of the modern state of Laos. 
       Champassak had another brief fling of historical importance as an independent state in the 18th century, when Lanexang broke up into three countries.  But otherwise, the records are sparse and one of the lingering mysteries of Wat Phu is the fate of the Khmer who once lived there.  Today less than 6000 ethnic Khmer live in Laos, whose population is about 6.5 million.  What happened to the Khmer soldiers used by Fa Ngun to establish his kingdom?  And all the Khmer who came to worship Shiva at Wat Phu, where are their descendants?
       In 2001 UNESCO declared Wat Phu a World Heritage Site.  The award citation praised its “integration of a symbolic landscape of great spiritual significance to its natural surroundings.”  This is obvious upon entering the site and is still the main attraction of Wat Phu.  But it is the unsolved mysteries—the use of the barays, the motive behind the odd temple to Nandi the bull, the ’crocodile stone’, the vanished Khmers—that accentuate the mystique of the place.  They tease the mind with fancied ‘explanations’ and thereby enhance the excursion.
ancient stairway to Wat Phu's main sanctuary
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Sunday, October 18, 2015

And the Beat Goes On—the Variety of Vietnamese Percussion

                                                            by Jim Goodman

drummers at a temple ritual in Hanoi
        Drums have always been a part of Vietnamese culture.  Drums and other beating instruments are part of every musical ensemble, from trios to full orchestras.  Yet historically speaking percussion per se was not simply to accent the rhythms of musical melodies.  Drums played a role in situations where there was no music to accompany.  Drumbeats of regular cadence announced the passage of high mandarins through the streets.  Sentinels beat big drums to announce fires or the bursting of a dike.  Authorities used drums to assemble citizens.  Even during the performance of songs drums were used independently of the music to underline the sentiments of songs.  Drums even amplified the audience reaction with drumbeat rolls to underscore the applause or a run of discordant beats to emphasize disapproval.
playing at the Hai Bà Trưng festival
       Besides drums, gongs and chimes also have an ancient tradition.  Originally these were made of stone.  Artisans shaped different sizes of tubes for the chimes and usually cut the stone gong in the shape of a fat crescent.  Later on bronze became the favored material.  Chimes were only installed in temples, but gongs, though also in the temples, were used in processions, both religious and secular.
       The urge for percussive expression did not remain limited to drums, gongs, cymbals and chimes.  The Vietnamese also developed a range of clappers and woodblocks to produce rattling and knocking sounds subtly different from each other and from the sounds they could obtain from their drums.  The clappers consisted of a pair of flexible bamboo tongs, on the end of which were mounted a pair of thin, crescent-shaped pieces of wood, or an animal head which struck a wooden disk, or a pair of slit hardwood blocks.  When handled skillfully these sounded like castanets.
       The woodblocks included solid pieces, partly hollowed blocks or carved frogs with a ribbed back, and pieces shaped like big seeds, with slits in one side.  Exactly how big the wooden piece was and how much of it was slit or hollowed determined precisely what kind of sound it gave when hit with a wooden mallet.  And they were all slightly, to a trained ear, recognizably different.
slit hardwood knockers
       Bells of various kinds included the bronze temple bells as well as small bells attached to sticks or lotus shaped- wooden rattles, or embedded in hollow, hand-sized rings.
       The range of percussion also included bamboo tubes of various sizes that when struck gave off different sounds accordingly.  The tubes could also have a corrugated band of notches on one side, like the carved frogs.  When the player rolled the mallet along the notches it produced a scraping, rattling sound similar to that of the washboard used in jug bands in the rural United States. 
       The ensembles that entertain diners at swanky restaurants in the big cities of Vietnam use several different percussion instruments in their shows.  Among the more recent additions to the percussion set are small, handle-less porcelain teacups.  The player holds a pair in the fingers of each hand and rattles them at the appropriate moments.
playing the wooden frog
teacup percussion
       Clappers and woodblocks join the drums, gongs and other instruments in festival processions, too.  On these occasions, though, an essential percussion instrument is one that is of strictly Vietnamese origin, not taken from the Chinese or any of the hill peoples.  Called sênh tin in Vietnamese, it is kind of a two-piece coin clapper.  In the left hand the player holds a pair of narrow wooden boards, about 2.4 cm wide and 1 cm thick.  The top piece is 30 cm long, ribbed on the top surface, and joined to a bottom piece 33 cm long, which is ribbed on the bottom surface.  The two are joined at a point about 8 cm from the near end.
sênh tiền players
       About 1 cm from the far end of the lower board a mounted screw, standing upright about 2 cm, holds a pair of old coins with square holes in the center.  Two more upright screws at the end of the upper board hold a pair each of these coins.  At the hinge the clapper opens up to about 75 degrees.  When the player opens the clapper at the hinge and closes it the coins on the screws jingle.  In the right hand the player holds a similar wooden board, 31 cm long, about 2.3 cm wide and 1 cm thick.  Both the top and bottom surfaces are smooth and usually embellished with some flowery mother-of-pearl inlay.  This piece is ribbed on the sides and the player draws the ribbed sides against the ribbed top and bottom surfaces of the coin clapper while playing it.
       The most common appearance of this instrument is at the head of a procession column during one of the big annual festivals.  The sênh tin players are usually women, but occasionally include one or two older men.  The men will dress in the ancient farmer style, with a loose, translucent, thin black tunic over a side-fastened shirt and a pair of trousers, yellow headband and, just for the procession, a bright, spangle-studded sash.  The women wear the loose, four-flap tunic over long skirts and a white blouse, multi-colored belt with a long front end, and thick red headbands.
       The sênh tin players usually lead the column.  The processions are generally slow and stately, while the sênh tin players both dance and play their instruments.  The space for their performance is quite limited and always inching forward, but the players make good use of it.  Their dance steps are slow but rhythmic, the movements of their arms and legs as graceful as those by chèo stage performers.  The bright flaps of their costumes swirl colorfully when they turn and all their gestures and steps correspond to the subtle rattling and tinkling of their instruments.
ca trù performance in Bạch Mã Temple, Hanoi
       One of the simplest percussion instruments is the phách, which is simply a thin, slightly curved piece of hardwood beaten with a pair of wooden sticks, and played by a ca trù singer.  She sings traditional folk ballads dating back many centuries that praise the beauty of the countryside and the joys of rural life. The genre is also known as hát đào, after a young woman named Đào who sang such songs to the Chinese soldiers encamped by the river.  So charmed were they by her voice they kept drinking more and more alcohol to enhance their appreciation.  When the soldiers had become completely drunk Vietnamese guerrillas suddenly swarmed into the camp and pushed the drunken soldiers into the river, where they all drowned.
       After the expulsion of the Chinese and the establishment of the Lê Dynasty hát đào’s popularity spread.  At the Lê court it became the favorite form of royal entertainment.  Comprising a single female singer backed by three instruments, one stringed and two percussion, the shows were quite restrained, almost austere, compared to the stage productions of chèo and tung put on by the previous Trn Dynasty court.  But to enjoy hát đào performances Vietnamese music-lovers did not have to depend upon a royal invitation to come hear it at the court.  Inns sprang up in the capital that employed hát đào singers in more private settings.
       Customers at these inns, mostly male, celebrating the birth of a son, promotion in rank, conclusion of a business deal, etc, purchased a number of bamboo tally cards (trù) upon entry. At the conclusion of each song they gave some of these to the singer, the number of trù depending on how much they liked the song.  When the inn closed for the night the proprietor paid the girls according to the number of trù they received.  The singing genre then acquired another name—ca trù (songs of the tally card)—that today is used interchangeably with hát đào.
playing the phách for a ca trù song
       Usually the set began with a song the first line of which was, “Now that the evening is falling, whoever wants to buy sadness in handfuls, I shall sell it to him.”  Their repertoire included old folk songs, boatmen’s ballads, antiphonal singing (quan h), the compositions of scholars, and tunes from neighboring countries, and later on from France.  Nowadays the inns have disappeared, but the ca trù tradition has enjoyed a revival in recent decades.  Besides regular shows at Đình Kim Ngân in Hanoi’s Hàng Bc Street, ca trù is now part of many festival programs.  And the songs and presentation have not differed since classical times.
        The singer herself sets the basic rhythm playing the phách.  A small cylindrical drum adds extra percussion.  Providing the melody is an indigenous three-stringed instrument peculiar to Vietnamese music called the đàn dáy, invented for this genre and played exclusively by men.  The đàn dáy player has to fit a melody into the framework provided by the beating of the phách.  The drummer uses his instrument less for the rhythm than to make his own comments on the singing.  If he likes it he plays a quick roll on the drum several times, as a kind of applause.  If he doesn’t like it he merely raps the side of the drum twice.
       Cylindrical drums of various sizes are part of the orchestras backing other forms of traditional entertainment, such as water-puppet shows, chèo and tung theater.  In addition to providing rhythm for the music, drums also serve to heighten the atmosphere of selected scenes in the drama being staged, and to enhance the excitement during festival contests.  Temples also have needs for drums, with large ones installed inside to accompany rituals and smaller ones stored fur use in festival processions.
the "thunder drum" for Hanoi's millennium
drum-making at Đọi Tam's festival
       The religious and cultural revival characteristic of 21st century Vietnam has been a real boon to the economy of Đi Tam, a village in Hà Nam province south of Hanoi.  Đi Tam is one of the country’s hundreds of craft villages and its specialty is making drums.  It supplies drums to temples and theater groups all over Vietnam and its craftsmen also made the huge drum, 2.3 meters in diameter, installed in the Hanoi Citadel for the city’s millennium celebrations in 2010.
       The tradition began with the visit of the Vietnamese sovereign Lê Hoàn in 986 to perform a royal plowing ceremony.  For the occasion, two Đọi Tam villagers presented the king with a 1.4 meter-tall drum they’d made, nicknamed the “thunder drum” for the deep sound the size of it produced.  Ever since then Đọi Tam has been producing “thunder drums” and others of various sizes.
fitting the staves in place
       The village today holds about 2200 residents, with around 600 engaged in drum production.  Craftsmen pass on the skills to their sons and their sons’ wives, but not to the daughters, since they will marry out.  Children become aware of the trade and its tradition from an early age, while apprenticeship, when they learn how to make and repair drums, starts at around age 14.  The village also has a drum troupe, of 12 males and 48 females, who play at other village festivals or for government-sponsored shows.
       Two small hills lie just outside Đọi Tam.  At the top of one of these is Chùa Long Đọi Sơn, originally built in 1118 and more or less in continuous use since.  On the 19th day of the 3rd lunar month the temple is one of the venues for celebrating Đọi Tam’s annual festival.  Devotees come to make offerings, including messages to the gods written by scribes seated in the courtyard, and watch the dancers performing rituals honoring the Holy Mothers.
testing the drumhead
       Meanwhile, at the village communal house (đình) at the edge of Đọi Tam, male elders in silk robes and tall miters conduct rituals honoring the 10th century founders of the drum-making tradition.  Following this comes a kind of ceremonial demonstration of the final stages of putting together a drum, performed by a pair of young men costumed in red headbands and bright red and yellow sleeveless tunics.  The wood for the staves, which comes from the jackfruit tree, is already cut into its curved shapes, but has to be filed down along the edges for the staves to fit together perfectly.  When the staves are ready the workers use a hoop to hold the staves and put them in the proper barrel shape.
       The last step is to attach the drumhead, made of buffalo hide, shaved thin and sun-dried in preparation.  While a fastening hoop keeps the hide in place, workers use a hammer and a small stake, constantly sharpened, to make little indentations in the hide against the wood of the rim.  The penultimate step is to test the drumhead by dancing on it.  With final tightening and a last inspection by the elders, the task is completed.  The past has been honored and the present blessed.  As for the future, drums are still a feature of life in Vietnam.  And Đọi Tam will continue to produce them.
"thunder drum" in a Hanoi temple
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Thursday, October 8, 2015

The Art of a Tày Funeral in Northern Vietnam

                                               by Jim Goodman

ornate Tày coffin for the soul of the deceased
       Đng Danh village, in Yên Nnh commune, straddles the main road north out of Thái Nguyên city, just a few km short of the provincial boundary with Bc Kan. It lies on a small but flat plain, bounded by wooded hills.  People live in rectangular wooden houses, usually stilted, with thatched or tiled roofs.  The interior is a long open room, with both the separate bedroom for the elders and the kitchen at the far end and a small ancestral altar room off to the side.  A raised plank lies along the widow side, where the guests sit when received.  Underneath the floor is the storage space for threshing machines and other farming tools, while in the back sits a shed used for roasting tea leaves.
       It is a typical settlement of the Tày people, Vietnam’s largest ethnic minority (1.7 million), who live in scattered, separate valleys and foothills throughout the provinces north and northeast of Hanoi.  They speak a language of the Tai-Kedai linguistic group and are closely related to the Nùng in Vietnam and the Zhuang in China.  They have interacted with their ethnic Vietnamese neighbors for centuries and have adopted much of their lifestyle and customs.  They retain a strong sense of ethnic identity, though, mainly manifested in their traditional religious beliefs.  Like the Vietnamese, they venerate ancestral spirits and local tutelary deities, but their general orientation is Taoist rather than Buddhist.   
Taoist paintings displayed for the funeral rites
       Compared to the ethnic minorities of their neighbors in the hills, the Tày traditional clothing is rather plain.  Most Tày women dress in dark, sedate colors and wear plain jackets over trousers or long skirts, with little or no embellishment in the form of ornaments or embroidery.  One doesn’t go to a Tày village to photograph women wearing exotic colorful clothing.  And anyway, in Đống Danh nobody, male or female, wears traditional clothing anymore. 
       Đống Danh is not a remote village.  It is on a highway to a major, modern commercial city.  Culturally speaking, assimilation accelerates on the roads well traveled.  Other than living mostly in stilted houses and not ones on the ground, the villagers’ everyday life hardly differs from that of Vietnamese villagers in Thái Nguyên.  The major exception is that this Tày village has shamans, a traditional office disappearing elsewhere in the North, not only among the Tày.  And while Đống Danh villagers may or may not call upon his services for dealing with inexplicable illnesses or divination, which are shamans’ roles elsewhere, they do use the shaman for the most important of all life rituals—the funeral, and especially the dispatch of the soul of the deceased to the afterworld.  
ritual offerings at the funeral
the shaman on a circuit of the casket
       The Tày divide funeral ceremonies into two parts.  The first is for the body, which generally follows Vietnamese burial customs.  The second is for the soul, where the shaman officiates, dressed in colorful garments, in an environment garnished with religious paintings and other artful adornments; an explosion of aesthetic splendor, as if compensating for the drabness of unembellished traditional clothing and the dearth of house decorations.
writing messages to the gods
       In addition to the coffin for the corpse, relatives of the deceased also construct a special coffin for the soul, which the Tày believe remains in the area for ten days after the burial of the body.  Kept in a separate shed used only for this purpose, the typical coffin is about three meters long, one meter wide, with three tiers, the upper one topped by three separate roofed pagodas.  Colored paper and tinfoil covers the exterior, dominated by magenta, gold, pink and blue.  Several Taoist paintings drape over the sides and a strip of white cloth lies across the top.  Other Taoist paintings are mounted on the wall behind and above a small altar to the left of the casket.
       These paintings are similar to those used by the Dao and Nùng ethnic groups, as well as Vietnamese and Chinese Taoists.  Rectangular in shape, suspended or mounted vertically, they depict an array of saints, sages, warriors, judges and guardians; part of a vast pantheon of Taoist deities and intercessors that can be called upon to guard and guide the soul in this dangerous ten-day intermediate period from the burial of the body to the dispatch of its soul to the Land of the Ancestors.
praying over the spirit pole before it goes up
       Because the tradition of Taoist paintings is quite ancient, the style has become more or less fixed over the centuries.  The original artists followed common standards in portraying the individual sages, saints and such.  But the purpose of displaying the paintings during rituals is not to add art to the environment, although that’s a kind of side effect, but because the shaman will use his powers to invoke the aid of the figures in the paintings on behalf of the soul of the deceased.
       For this purpose he will wear special clothing embellished with embroidered figures of more or less the same as those of the portraits in the paintings.  The garment used for most rituals is a golden silk coat, three quarter-length sleeves, side-fastened, split at the waist and reaching to the knees.  It is open from the waist down and the two long panels hanging in front sport large Taoist deities.  Three small deities are stitched across the chest and a large group of them adorn the back.  
praying while wearing both ceremonial coats
       For some rituals the shaman wears a second jacket on top of the first one.  The extra jacket is short-sleeved, more like a cloak, black with a red border, and completely covered with brightly colored, embroidered rows of saints and deities, dragons, phoenixes, lions, warriors on horseback, Chinese characters and a pagoda.  On some occasions he may wear a hat with a dragon and a moon embroidered on the front and phoenixes on the back.  Other times he will wear a conical hat or even a baseball cap, both unembellished.
       The average mourner at the funeral will not be able to identify the deities and personalities depicted in the paintings and on the shaman’s clothing.  They are aware of their purpose and in the first several days of the transition period will make their own private supplications to these protectors.  But they do not need to know the names or the methods required to obtain their support.  That is the role of the shamans.  And on the ninth day they go to work.
       Rituals commence from mid-morning at the shed housing the soul’s coffin.  A portrait of the deceased sits on the ground next to the casket, flanked on one side by ritual offerings of food and liquor and on the other by a seated diviner, who tosses sticks and interprets how they lay when they fall.  An assistant shaman, dressed in ordinary clothes, sits beside him and recites prayers from a Chinese text.  The officiating shaman, wearing his golden ceremonial coat, sits with his ritual paraphernalia to the right of the casket.
rites beside the soul's coffin
After some preliminary prayers the circumambulations begin.  A horn player and a percussionist provide periodic musical accompaniment.  Mourning relatives and friends of the deceased, wearing the traditional white headscarves for funerals, make several slow processions around the coffin.  The head shaman also makes numerous trips around the casket, employing different hand positions or gestures at several points every three circuits.   One time he will bend over slightly, his hands open and fingers apart.  Another time he will grasp his left index finger with his right fist.  On some circuits he will wave a ceremonial dagger in certain patterns.
       At the end of each circuit, back at the starting point, he reads from a prayer book held open by an assistant and for a few rounds also drapes the ceremonial cloak over his shoulders.  Mourners, meanwhile, bring offerings to place beside the photograph of the deceased, such as the head of a pig and a bowl of cooked rice.  Action at the casket only concludes after a couple of hours.  Then there is a break until late afternoon.
       The program continues at a small altar erected in the yard several meters from the shed.  Here a junior shaman, also dressed in ceremonial coat, carries out a series of rituals involving recitations from a book and various hand gestures, with or without the dagger.  Beside him sits a scribe writing messages to the other world.  Meanwhile people move the soul’s coffin out of the shed to a mound nearby. 
spirit figure
        The next event is the erection here of the four meters-long bamboo spirit pole. While the pole lies on the ground the lead shaman slowly paces the length of it, bent over to read from scriptures held by the assistant, the family mourners right behind him, as musicians to the side of it play cymbals, gong, horn and drum.  When he reaches the top he recites more prayers, accented with stylized hand gestures, and then the mourning party erects the pole, just in front of the casket. 
      A fringed umbrella crowns the top of the spirit pole and two long decorative banners hang down nearly to the ground.   The shaman, now wearing both of the ceremonial robes, grips the banners while he recites prayers from a text held by the assistant.  At one point the sons and daughters of the deceased prostrate themselves behind the shaman, with the eldest son grasping the shaman’s feet.     
the soul's final procession
       At the same time, relatives prepare the casket for its eventual removal, setting it upon the bamboo carrying poles.  They adorn its corners with pennants, bundles of straw and flowers.  They remove the offering tray with the pig’s head, rice and liquor from the small outdoor altar to the ground in front of the casket.  They also affix crude paper cutouts of spirits or guardians to bamboo poles on both sides of the offering tray.  After finishing the rites at the spirit pole the shaman makes a last stop at the casket to perform another ritual beside the offering tray.
       Just after sunrise the following day, the tenth since the burial of the body, the mourners and shamans assemble at the mound for the final act of the funeral—taking the soul’s coffin to the cremation ground.  As the bearers lift up the coffin and proceed along the route, the bereaved family members crouch in a file in front of it so that the coffin passes directly over their heads.  Musicians lead the way, the shaman behind them, after him the one bearing the spirit pole, followed by the coffin, its upper tiers now wrapped in black cloth, and behind it the crowd of mourners.   
final prayers on behalf of the soul
       The stately procession marches along the road for about 1.5 km north, then turns on to a trail that leads to a clearing on the slope of a wooded hill.  The bearers place the casket on the ground, remove the black cloth around it and plant the spirit pole behind it..   The shaman dons his second ritual cloak over the first and begins a last prayer session.  This one is not so long, though, and soon the bearers set fire to the casket.  As the flames lick around it, they pile on dry brush to accelerate the process.  In scarcely twenty minutes the once splendid casket is a pile of ashes.  Only the spirit pole remains.  The prayers cease.  The funeral party returns to the village, secure in the belief that everything proper has been done to insure a successful send-off of the soul.
       The atmosphere throughout these two days is quiet, reverent and respectful, free of any emotional outburst of grief or lamentations.  That may have occurred during the burial ceremonies, when the shock of the finality of death was more recent a realization.  But by the final ceremony the focus has shifted towards insuring a proper departure for the soul.  All those seemingly tedious and repetitious rituals are necessary to enlist the help of guardians and good spirits to keep the soul on the right path and not be doomed to a bad afterlife.  One may not feel in need of them while alive, but at death they are critical to success.  For the Tày, it’s important to have a good life of course, but even more important to be sure to have a good death.

Fire begins consuming the soul's coffin.
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