Monday, June 4, 2018

Keeping Their Identity: the Shan in Chiang Mai

                                        by Jim Goodman

Por Sang Long procession at Wat Ku Tao
       The Kingdom of Lanna ruled over most of northern Thailand from the late 13th century to the middle of the 16th century.  Its ruling family and inhabitants were mainly Tai Yuan.  But during its heyday the capital Chiang Mai was the most important city in the region, enjoying trade connections with neighbors in all directions.  As a result, many foreigners also came to reside permanently or temporarily in the capital and Chiang Mai became known as ‘the city of twelve languages.’
       One of these was Shan, or Tai Yai, a dialect close to that spoken by the Tai Yuan, with a very similar alphabet, by a people largely populating northeast Burma.  Some of the Shan immigrants ran businesses in Chiang Mai.  Others were involved in the caravan trade, transporting goods back to the Shan States or north to China. 
       They were never very numerous but as a community they remained through the period of Burmese occupation, from the conquest of Chiang Mai in 1558 until their expulsion in 1774.  But by then the city was deserted.  Not only were all the Shans gone, so were all the Tai Yuan, who had fled to isolated spots of rural refuge during the long campaign by King Kawila of Lampang and his Siamese allies to drive out the Burmese.   
traditional Shan style--male
traditional Shan style--female
       To repopulate Chiang Mai and other northern cities Kawila next led raids into northeast Burma, particularly Kengtung and Mong Pong, to capture people and take them back to Chiang Mai.  By early 19th century the Burmese presence and threat had been eliminated and life returned to normal.  Lanna was not an independent kingdom like before, but this time a vassal of Siam.  Over the course of the century Lanna gradually lost most of its autonomy as the government in Bangkok, worried about imperialist encroachment on all sides, sought to extend its authority over everything within its boundaries.
       However, Siam did not attempt to insulate itself against the Western colonialists.  It sought to engage with them commercially in hopes that would curb their voracious territorial appetite.  After Great Britain annexed southern Burma, Siam made a deal—the Bowring Treaty of 1852--that allowed the British to sell their products inside Siam and granted them concessions to exploit the teakwood business, as well as to bring in some of their colonial subjects to work in it. 
the main chedi at Wat Pa Pao
Burmese-style roofs over a shrine at Wat Pa Pao
       Burmese and Mon immigrants were already working the border area forests since 1840.  From the 1850s Shans also came, not only to the border provinces of Mae Sarieng and Mae Hong Sin, but to legging depots like Chiang Mai, Phrae and Lampang.  In Chiang Mai they settled in the neighborhoods opposite the moat on the northeast side of the old city. 
       The Shan are also followers of Theravada Buddhism and easily fit into Chiang Mai society, even at the upper levels.  Shan aristocrats felt an affinity with their counterparts in Lanna’s upper class and one high-ranking Shan lady, Mom Bua Lai, became the consort of Lanna’s King Inthawichayanonda.   In 1883 she sponsored the construction of Wat Pa Pao on Maneenoparat Road to service the Shan community.
Buddha images, Wat Pa Pao
Shan guardian at the viharn entrance
       Instead of following the Lanna style of the dozens of temples in the city, Wat Pa Pao’s designers created a compound in which every element, from buildings to sculptures, reflects the Burmese Shan tradition of religious art.  The original wooden main viharn has been replaced by a more recent structure of brick and plaster, with red, corrugated iron roofs.   Statues of a pair of armed Shan guards flank the staircase.  Portraits of local Shan personalities and historical events hang from the front interior walls.  At the end of the capacious assembly hall sit two Buddha statues, a large one behind a smaller one, both in the Burmese style.
the chedi at Wat Ku Tao
Universal Ruler Buddha, Wat Ku Tao
       Everything else in the compound is from the original construction and very different from those of Thai temples.  It’s more crowded, for one thing, with not too much space between the structures.  The narrow, four-tiered entrance gate is unique to the city, but similar to those in the Shan States.  Even more typically Burmese-Shan are the multi-tiered roofs over the smaller viharn and the little shrine next to it.  Both are heavily embellished with carvings along the edges of the roofs.   Such roof towers are quite common in Myanmar, but in Chiang Mai they only exist in Wat Pa Pao.
       The yard to the right of the viharns is filled with chedis, columns and sculptures.  The tallest chedi, shaped like an inverted bell, the usual type in Thai temples, was modeled on those of Pegu, as replicated in the Shan States.  At the four corners of the base stand the mythical creatures called kilin, with a dragon’s head over a lion’s body. 
Shan woman at Wat Ku Tao
Khao Phansa ritual at Wat Ku Tao
       A couple smaller chedis stand in the yard, in between skinny trees, and a tall white column rises topped by the same multi-tiered type of roof that ascends over the shrine next to the small viharn.  A very different chedi stands between the viharns and the big, bell-shaped chedi.  It rises above a cubic stone shrine with the same multi-tiered roofs, also topped by a golden spire. 
Shan students at the Wat Pa Pao school
       In the late 19th century the concept of nationality began assuming importance.  The Shan migrants, as British subjects, were supposed to be exempt from corvée labor or labor tax imposed on Siamese.  But at the end of the century the Bangkok government promulgated land reform laws that took away most of Lanna nobles’ rights and laid a labor tax, in lieu of corvée labor, on all commoners, Shans included.
       Theoretically, Shans were exempt from the tax if they could provide documentary proof they were from Burma.  Most didn’t have such evidence.  Most were former poor farmers who migrated to Thailand to seek a better life—the usual immigrant motive.  They didn’t anticipate needing documents to stay.  Borders were looser in those days.  People came and went easily.
       Shan resentment boiled over into violence in the 1902 Shan Uprising.  It was not a very righteous campaign, though, not one involving those in the logging trade or urban commerce, and characterized by massacres and wanton destruction.  Shan bandit gangs in Phrae province started the rebellion, backed by Lanna nobles who hoped to retrieve their lost privileges.  The uprising spread to other northern provinces, though not Chiang Mai.
Por Sang Long at Wat Pa Pao
Shan girls at Wat Pa Pao
Bangkok dispatched troops to quell the uprising and from then on accelerated the rate of assimilation and integration of the north with the rest of Siam.  It appointed its own administrators, whittled away at the Lanna king’s authority and required school lessons to be taught in the central Thai dialect with the very different central Thai alphabet.  When the last king of Kawila’s dynasty died in 1937, no one succeeded him.   By then Siam was Thailand and the assimilation process was in high gear.
Por Sang Long procession in Wat Ku Tao courtyard
       Wat Pa Pao continued as the main religious center of Chiang Mai’s Shan community.  Specific aspects of Shan culture fell into desuetude, but the language remained in use domestically.  As the community grew in the last half of the 20th century, they expanded north of their original neighborhood and Wat Ku Tao, a couple blocks beyond Chang Puak bus station, became another focus of Shan religious activities.  Unlike Wat Pa Pao, where the monks wear yellow robes, like the Thais, at Wat Ku Tao they wear red robes, like in Myanmar and the Shan States.
       The unusual chedi at Wat Ku Tao was built in 1613 to enshrine the ashes of Nawrahta Minsaw, the first Burmese-born governor of conquered Lanna, (1579-1608).  It rises in five diminishing spheres, representing five historical and future Buddhas.  The large, two-story viharn next to it is in typical modern Thai style, but the main image inside is of the Buddha as Universal Ruler, a depiction commoner in the Shan States than in Thailand. 
       Dressed in royal costume and lots of jewelry, he rules over a future world when the Buddhist Dharma has triumphed everywhere.  On holidays like Khao Phansa, the beginning of the Buddhist retreat season, a network of strings stretches out from the image.  Devotees grab one of them to receive the blessing a monk has imparted into it. 
novice in the Por Sang Long procession
women in the Por Sang Long procession
       The main activity at this festival, though, is out in the courtyard.  A few commercial stalls go up, hawking food, textiles and other items.  Some people listen to monks’ lectures, others paste gold leaf stickers on a Buddha image and lay offerings at shrines, while a few men may do an impromptu music show with the ‘elephant-leg drum’ and a rack of cymbals.   Some folks come primarily just to meet and talk with each other, for festivals are social occasions as well as religious ones.  And both men and women dress in traditional Shan attire.
       Like Thai women, Shan women wear blouses with ankle-length sarongs, but the stripe patterns and embroidered sections differ somewhat from Lanna designs.  They may also wear headscarves with the flaps tied up over each ear, a particularly Shan custom.   It’s a Shan festival, so they want to look very Shan celebrating it.
through the Wat Ku Tao neighborhood streets
       The Shan in Chiang Mai never really lost their identity, but in the last few decades they have become more inclined to demonstrate it.  The official attitude towards Tai sub-groups and other minorities has also changed over the years.  Rather than continuing to subsume all sub-groups into a pan-Thai identity, Thailand, in this age of tourism, now advertises its diversity, giving more scope to cultural revivalism among the Shan, Tai Lue, Tai Dam and others.
       In 1997 Wat Pa Pao’s abbot set up the Pa Pao Foundation to Support Education, Art and Culture.  The following year the temple opened a school in the compound, first for adults and later for children.  The language of instruction is Thai and the courses are those taught in Thai schools.  In addition, it teaches children the Shan language and alphabet.  Books and magazines in the Shan language are also on sale at the temple.  The students wear traditional Shan clothing rather than Thai school uniforms.
       Wat Pa Pao also sponsored the revival of an old Shan festival called Por Sang Long, held for three days in late March or early April.  It marks the occasion boys temporarily enroll in the monastery as novices, a Theravada Buddhist tradition.  The Thai have the same custom, for every male is supposed to ordain once at some point in life, but with them it is a private affair, carried out any time of year, usually at the start of the retreat season.  With the Shan, it is done collectively, with sometimes dozens of boys all at the same time, making it a community event.
Wat Ku Tao abbot in the procession
novices carried in the Por Sang Long procession
       The Shan also add another aspect to the occasion.  Por San Long mimics an important event in the life of the Buddha, when he gives up his luxurious life in the palace to become an ascetic in search of spiritual salvation.  Shan families dress their boys in something resembling royal garments, jewels and crown and feed them special food, fit for a prince.  Fathers, uncles and older brothers hoist the boys on their shoulders and take them on a procession to and around the temple.  Afterwards, the boys stay in specially decorated cubicles for two or three nights. 
       Though its revival began at Wat Pa Pao, the celebrations there nowadays are rather small; this year, for example, involving about ten novices.  The Por Sang Long focus has shifted to Wat Ku Tao, held twelve days earlier this year, where over sixty boys and a few young men took part.  On the first day families prepared the cubicles in the temple compound and the novices had their heads shaved.  For three successive mornings relatives carried the splendidly costumed boys in a grand procession several times around the temple and on the third morning through the streets of the neighborhood as well.
Shan girls at Por Sang Long
novice in the procession
       Groups of two to five boys paraded, preceded by lines of devotees in traditional Shan attire, bearing money trees, banners on tall poles, trays of flowers and other offerings, and men playing ‘elephant leg drums’ and racks of cymbals.  Fully-grown young men sat in rickshaws or other mobile platforms or in a chair hefted by several bearers.  The abbot also rode a chair in the procession.  The atmosphere was both festive and polite.  Nobody pushed their way around or tried to stop any action to get a photo.  After the processions, many participants went to the market beside the eastern gate to shop for Shan textiles or dine at one of the restaurants.
       The crowd was almost entirely Shan.  Despite official publicity about this being a prime tourist attraction, only a handful of foreigners and perhaps a dozen Thai tourists from Bangkok came to observe.   Obviously tourism was not a factor in the festival’s revival.  The prime motive was ethnic pride.  In a fast-changing and homogenizing world, the Shan cling to their separate history and identity and with Por Sang Long celebrate the art of being Shan.

assembling before the procession at Wat Ku Tao
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  1. So very beautiful and informative.An excellent article with photos providing a riot of colour and sensory detail.

  2. Positive site, where did u produce the data with this posting? I'm pleased I came across it though, ill be checking back soon to learn what additional posts you include.environmental journalism courses

    1. HIstory of Lanna by Surassawadee Ongsakul for the historical parts, personal observation and research for the rest.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.