Tuesday, February 22, 2022

Captured Citizens: the Tai Yong of Lamphun


                                      by Jim Goodman


       Lamphun is one of northern Thailand’s premier attractions.  Founded in the 7th century under the name Haripunchai, it was the capital of a Mon kingdom that was the first organized state in northern Thailand.  It repelled three Khmer invasions and survived until conquered by King Mengrai of Lanna, in the late 13th century.  It was Buddhist since its inception, for its first ruler Queen Chamadevi introduced and patronized the religion upon assumption of the throne.  Besides its political achievements, Haripunchai also enjoyed a reputation as the center of Buddhism in the north.  Mengrai appreciated this, spared the city any physical destruction and continued royal patronage after establishing Lanna’s capital just 25 km north.

        Historic religious monuments are the main attraction for contemporary visitors.  They usually start with Wat Prathat Haripunchai, the city’s most splendid compound.  But there is more of interest in the city besides religion.  Just outside the eastern entry gate stand several stalls selling locally made cotton goods.  More of these are across the street and still more line up inside the picturesque covered bridge across the Kuang River.  On the other
of the river lies Wiang Yong village, where most of the cotton goods are made.

       The residents are people of the Tai Yong sub-group who were not part of Lamphun’s original population, who were mainly Mon, later mixed with Tai Yuan.  They are descendants of people kidnapped from northeast Myanmar as part of a program to repopulate northern Thailand after the expulsion of the Burmese.

       In the late 18th century, King Kawila of Lampang led a campaign that finally terminated over two centuries of Burmese rule in northern Thailand.  It was a long, slow, costly effort that depopulated the cities and many of the villages.  In 1796 Kawila officially re-established the Kingdom of Lanna in the newly rebuilt capital of Chiang Mai, but its shattered economy and agricultural production had to be completely rebuilt, too.  A new campaign of persuading villagers who’d fled to the forests to return to their homes proved inadequate. 

       The solution came from the traditional practice of war among states in Southeast Asia.  Rivals fought each other over their resources and people were considered one of them.  When armies invaded states their plunder included capturing local people and resettling them deep within their own state’s boundaries.  Kawila began launching such expeditions in the immediate area in 1797.  After ousting the Burmese from their last bastion in northern Thailand in Chiang Saen in 1804, Kawila turned his attention to two states in northeast Burma that had once been allies of Lanna—Chiang Tung (now spelled Kyaingtong) and Meuang Yong (now spelled Mong Yawng). Major roundups in 1805 and 1809 removed the entire population of many villages.

        Meuang Yong, close to the Mekong River, was founded in the late 13th century.  It fell under Burmese suzerainty mid-16th century, but that had all but eroded by late 18th century.  Its people were mainly the Tai Lue subgroup, like the majority of the population of neighboring Xishuangbanna.  Their language, customs and Buddhist practices are close to that of the Tai Koen in Chiang Tung and the Tai Yuan of Lanna.  Their transplantation to Lanna would at least be to a familiar cultural environment. 

       In 1805 the Lanna government officially re-opened Lamphun.  The people abducted from Meuang Yong were re-settled in Wiang Yong, just across the Kuang River, for only the original Lamphun inhabitants, plus other Tai Yuan immigrants, were permitted to live within the city proper.  Another raid in 1809 augmented the numbers in and around Wiang Yong.  Lanna raids also abducted people from other Tai Lue settlements in Burma and Xishuangbanna, but these were dispatched to Nan and other provinces.  The Tai Lue of Wiang Yong subsequently became differentiated and known as Tai Yong.

       Far from enslaving their captives or discriminating against them as not full members of Lanna society, the campaign’s goal was to make them fully engaged citizens.  The Tai Yong chieftains pledged loyalty to Kawila’s state and in return were granted autonomous authority over their own community.  Class relations and social rules and customs that had prevailed in Meuang Yong would continue in Lamphun.  The ultimate authority would be the Lanna king, who ruled on matters of national interest but left local affairs to the charge of Tai Yong leaders.  It was a type of political arrangement common throughout Thailand at the time.  By acknowledging suzerainty Lanna had made a similar deal with the Kingdom of Siam.

       The new citizenry began cultivating the land and recreating the life they had back in the old country.  Other captured and resettled communities did likewise.  Some, like the Tai Koen from Chiang Tung, were noted for their craft skills, especially lacquer workers and silversmiths, and were relocated to the southern part of Chiang Mai.  The Tai Yong had no particular reputation for any special craft.  But in the tradition of self-sufficient farmers their women knew how to weave the material that clothed their family’s bodies.

       Weaving was an old tradition in the area, like most anywhere else in Asia.  A weaver operating a frame loom much like what is still used today is one of the relief sculptures depicting scenes from life in old Haripunchai on the wall behind the queen’s statue in Chamadevi Park.  Tai Yong women were already used to weaving for their own needs.  Their people traditionally raised cotton along with rice and vegetables and every girl learned how to spin thread and weave while growing up.  Now, with the reestablishment of Lamphun, Chiang Mai and other cities, they had a market for surplus production. 

       It’s a laborious process, especially in the beginning.  After picking the cotton bolls from the plants in the fields, the worker then runs the cotton through the rollers of a gin to crush the seeds within it.  The next step is to fluff the ginned cotton to remove the foreign matter.  Then it is ready to mount little by little on a spindle mounted on a frame with a wheel.  Turning the wheel starts the spinning of the cotton into thread.

       When the wheel has accumulated enough thread the worker removes the loop and mounts it on a winding frame to turn the loop into balls of thread, the easier to mount as warp threads on the loom and weft threads into the shuttles.  The amount of thread required depends on the length of the intended bolt of cloth, which is often several meters and more.  Mounting the lengthwise warp threads is time-consuming work, for each has to be separated by heddles that connect every other one to one of the foot pedals.

       The weaver sits on a bench behind the loom and depresses one of the foot pedals while pushing the heddle frame forward.  This creates an opening in the warp thread set, through which the weaver throws a shuttle of weft thread.  Then she knocks it firmly into place moving the heddle frame and then opens a new shed by depressing the other foot pedal and this time tosses the shuttle through the opposite direction.  The threads are thus locked into a tight web.

       Tai Yong style has evolved over the centuries, especially after the introduction of aniline dyes.  Nowadays weavers still produce pieces in soft, pastel colors resembling the shades and tones of vegetable dyes in the past.  Some use supplementary weft to add more pictorial designs across the fabric.  The more typical contemporary Tai Yong style, though, features a bold display of bright horizontal stripes in multiple colors, separated and accentuated by wide bands of black. 

       Tai Yong textiles of all kinds, as well as clothing and other items made from them, have been boosted by the growth of tourism in recent decades, more so with domestic tourists than foreigners.  Tai Yong goods are available beyond Lamphun Province, from shops in Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Lampang and Bangkok.  Besides enabling a more prosperous life, the growing interest in and appreciation of Tai Yong crafts has contributed to a sense of ethnic pride.    

       The compound of Wiang Yong’s Wat Ton Kaew, built next to a surviving 16th century chedi, contains a Tai Yong Museum, as well as a weaving workshop.   The museum is an elegant stilted wooden building, its entrance flanked by two tall carved wooden posts.  The open ground floor displays antique furniture, musical instruments, old photographs and other items.  The much larger exhibit upstairs includes sculptures of Buddha and mythical animals, carved chests and containers, old typewriters, umbrellas, baskets, ceramic jars and vases, kitchen tools, antique women’s garments and all things associated with weaving.  On the walls hang framed historical photos of royal visits, famous monks being honored and Lamphun beauty contests from the 1960s.     

       In recent years the Lamphun fabric business has branched out from weaving cotton cloth to silk production and ikat dyeing.  Because silk threads are thinner than cotton the mounting of the warp threads and the weaving itself takes much longer.  And then there’s the trouble of raising the silkworms and acquiring the thread.  This was not a Tai Yong village tradition, so the new silk business started with outsider investment and work is confined to a few suburban factories.

       Other Tai Yong villages beyond Wieng Yong also got into the weaving business and today two of them, still actively involved in the trade, are in Pasang District south of Lamphun and are popular tourist attractions.  Several km beyond the town a tall wooden entrance gate flanks a side road leading a bit further to Don Luang village.  The cluster of shops and textile displays starts at the beginning of the settled area.  Most of the looms and dyeing sites are in houses in the side lanes.

       Shops hold bolts of cloth which they sell by the meter, cotton sarongs and a wide range of ready-made clothes.  Their stocks may also include locally woven cotton turned into bed sheets, curtains, pillow cases, table cloths, purses and shoulder bags.  Some of these items will be dyed ikat-style.  Ikat is a form of resist-dyeing in which the dyer covers the cloth in a specific design marked with beeswax or some other impenetrable matter.  When the cloth is immersed the covered parts do not receive the dye.  Afterwards when the cloth is washed and the beeswax boiled off the design appears as the part that resisted the color.

       This method can lead to some pretty imaginative results.  Dyers give the pieces several dye bath immersions, modifying the placement of the resisting element each time, even the colors used in the bath, to make ever more complex and colorful designs.  Most of the items are blue and white, but there are other combinations, the results of re-dyeing.  Some pieces sport sections, like sleeves, collars or just adjoining parts of the t-shirt body or trouser legs, dyed with different color and pattern combinations.

       About 4 km past Don Luang and through a similar entrance gate, lies the larger and more interesting Tai Yong village of Nong Ngeuak.  While also a weaving center, other crafts are both produced and taught here.  A bit distant from the highway traffic it’s a very quiet village, little disturbed by interruptions of noise from cars, trucks or motorbikes.  The people are very friendly and hospitable to visitors and a few offer home-stay accommodations.  Visitors are far fewer since the outbreak of the pandemic a couple years ago and the craft activity much reduced, but those who do come still enjoy a pleasant experience.     

       The village can boast of one of the most beautiful temples in the province—Wat Ngon Ngeuak, built in the style of their original homeland in Meuang Yong, Myanmar.  The compound entry gate is roofed and decorated with large stucco figures.  The main assembly hall is of modest size and smaller shrines in the yard feature carved and gilded embellishments.  The most graceful building is the library, standing on blocks in a rectangular pond.  It has a double roof with interior walls filled with religious frescoes.

       Across the street is the village park, with a giant spinning wheel standing at one end and flower beds stretching in front of it.  Beside it is a stilted house identified as the village’s own Tai Yong Museum, with a similar collection of exhibits as in Wiang Yong.  Craft centers are scattered throughout the village.  One shop produces sandals made from old rubber tires.  Another specializes in “owl bags” made by stitching together different small pieces of a variety of cloth. The same technique is also used to make long skirts.  There’s also a basketry center and, naturally, a few weaving workshops.

        One is a natural dye outfit that uses indigo and a group of local roots, fruits and vegetables to make the colors for all their woven work.  Because of the time and work required for the dyeing the products are more expensive.  But there is a niche market for such items, mainly among traditional-minded Thais, enough anyway to keep the skill and heritage alive.

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