Sunday, January 06, 2008

baci ceremony

Our trip from Xieng Khouang to Vientiane went more quickly than usual - I nodded off most of the time though I intermittently jumped away to take in the clear skies and far vistas along the road.
On Saturday, I had a baci at my house. This ceremony is also known as a Suu Kh-uan, or ceremony to call the souls. Most Indochinese cultures believe that each person has several main souls - the soul of the physical body, an eternal soul which continues on to rebirth, and an intermediate soul which can linger after the body dies (This is the soul which can linger and haunt people). Some people also believe that each of the openings in the body and organs have a spirit, or vital force as well (32 in all). Imbalances in the body can lead to sickness when one or more of the souls can wander so a baci ceremony invites the souls to return.
While Thai and Khmer culture are more strict about when they do string tying ceremonies - it should only be done for major changes in life when the souls are apt to wander, such as birth of a child, inviting the souls of the baby to stay with the family (the naming ceremony at one month), weddings, moving into a new house and major sickness, the Lao tend to have ceremonies for other occasions. They are an excuse to have a party - but they also function in welcoming or sending a guest, celebrating holidays or other occasions. My baci was just to bring people together to welcome the new year - and also to send back the old year, the end of which was very sad because a close friend of ours was killed in a road accident.
The Mor Phone are usually elders in the community, and usually older men who had been monks at some earlier time in their lives. Usually one man will 'officiate' the ceremony but for my ceremony this time, two elders came, plus the father of another friend. The role of the Mor Phone is to chant Buddhist chants, starting with the chant, "I seek refuge in the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha" - the person of Lord Buddha, his teachings and the community." Often call out the bad - taking a stick with the baci strings on it and passing it over the back of the person's hands, then burning one of the strings to destroy the bad luck. Then he will continue to chant, or tell a fable, and calling the spirits back to the body by the soft words and good thoughts. At the end, he will brush the strings - and good luck - back towards the person's body with the person's hands palms up to receive the blessing.
After that, it's fun and games. After the Mor Phone ties a string on to the main person's wrists with more chanting and wishes, everyone else does the same. Usually, you hold out a plate with everyone's offerings in one hand, with the other hand raised in thanks for the blessings as the people tie the strings to the wrists. Meanwhile, people add food and fill up a glass of alcohol to the plate - which you're expected to eat and drink everything on the plate.
Following the ceremony, the flower arrangement is carried to the person's bed room and you're supposed to sleep in the room with it for the next three days. Marigolds do have an interesting scent, which seems to affect dreams. Unfortunately, we had to return to Vientiane so the flower arrangement stayed in my room.

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