Laos : Baci, Soukhuan, Phoukkhen, its origins, functions and implications

 

Un Baci d'accueil à Ban Moungsoum (1995)

A welcome home Ba Baci in Ban Moungsoum, Laos (1995)

“The Baci is the Lao ceremony par excellence”, wrote Nhouy Abbhay, a Lao poet and literary man, while Marcello Zago talked about a “homecoming” (retour aux sources) and Jeanne Cuisinier “the insertion into the Whole” (insertion dans le Tout). It’s a ritual to “dedicate someone in the major periods of his life” for Jean-Baptiste Pallegoix. For its part, the Geza Roheim Association asserted that “the Baci is a calling back ceremony of the souls which can’t be studied outside the Lao culture system of representation”.

For the T’ai-Lao or Ai-Lao people, whether they live on their ancestors’ soils or far away in the diaspora, the Baci, also known as Soukhuan ou Phoukkhene in Lao, is henceforth part of the art of being Lao (Cf. https://laosmonamour.wordpress.com/2012/02/26/lart-detre-lao/) as well as the fact of living in a house on stilts, consuming sticky rice and playing the khene (a mouth organ made with a special bamboo stems).

A welcome home Baci in Ban Mouangsoum, Laos (1995)

A welcome home Baci in Ban Mouangsoum, Laos (1995)

The Baci is a social fact of primary importance. It has become, over the turmoil and political changes, especially after the great exodus of the years 1975-1980, the symbol of a certain idea of being Lao, made of family solidarity, of true and sincere friendship, mutual support and sharing, respect for elders and ancestors, loyalty and kindness as well as a certain carelessness instilled by centuries of laissez-faire and forgiving everything, the famous Bo Pen Gnang Dork (« Never mind »).     (Cf . https://laosmonamour.wordpress.com/2012/02/21/bo-pen-gnang-dork/)

For the Lao diaspora, to take part in a Baci is a warm and joyous interlude, during which they can almost feel as if they were actually in their homeland, and once seated around the phakhuan (tray containing a decorated cone flowers, ritual strings, and containing the Khouan’s meal), they would be then in communion with their cultural and social roots.

The Baci has taken such a societal importance that Lao citizens in the West can’t decline an invitation to this ceremony whose social role is much more important than its original religious, cultural and familial functions.

A Baci in Paris before a trip to Laos (1995)

A Baci in Paris before a trip to Laos (1995)

Thanks to articles published on the net, we all know for sure that a Baci is organized around a phakhuan with the presence of relatives and friends and chaired by a morphone (master of ceremony), that’s why this paper will review the Baci’s origins, its functions, its meanings and its contribution to territorial ecology of Lao culture or T’ai-Lao, as a whole. First of all, we will try to understand and define the concept of Khuan whose complexity is only matched by its vital importance to the health and even the survival of its owner:  animate beings, whether humans, animals, or plants.

Khuan, mind, soul etc…

According to the annals of the ancient history of Laos and legends reported by our ancestors, each human being has 32 Khuans. For orientalists and Western scholars, this derived from the 32 signs on the body of the Buddha himself. And « 32 » is the perfect number. They also argued that there are more khuans, and up to 92 with 36 khuans in the front and 56 Khuans on the back in non-Buddhist populations, such as T’ai Dam (Black Tai ), T’ai Deng (Red Tai), T’ai Soung or T’ai Lü and so on. According to them, only the Theravada Buddhists (small vehicle) admitted the existence of 32 Khuans and 32 parts of the body.

But Okin Soumpholphakdy, a scholar of Lao culture and traditions, didn’t agree. « In Buddhism, we speak of the Buddha’s signs (or laksana) with 32 signs in the front (Maha Laksana) and 90 signs on the back (Anu Laksana), » he said.

A family Baci in Paris before a departure to Vietnam of a young couple (2012)

A family Baci in Paris before a departure to Vietnam of a young couple (2012)

According to Pr. Soulang Dejvongsa, former Permanent Secretary of the Lao Royal Academy and former journalist at RFI, there are « 32 Khuan luang (large Khuan) and 90 Khuan noy (small Khuan) » with a particular reference to a prayer of khuan commonly used today: « Let thy 30 Khuan back. Let thy 90 Khuan gather! « . In some prayers or invitations, they called back « 32 front Khuan and 50 Khuan from the back. » Referring to the work of Lebar, Hickey and Musgrave, Elena Gregoria Chai Chin Fern, from the Malaysia Sarawak University, said that of the 32 Khuans, 20 come from the father and 12 from the mother. But she did not explain, however, if we have 20 male Khuans and 12 female Khuans. Oddly, I never heard of this distinction of the origins of Khuan in Laos.

Jeanne Cuisinier, cited by Zago, reported that the T’ai Muong, in Vietnam, distinguished two categories of Khuan: the first, called wai, fulfilled the functions of protection, and the other, called bia, ensured the animation and the life force. For T’ai Dam, T’ai Lü or T’ai Muong, some of the Khuans are going to Heaven and the others remain on Earth after the death of the wearer. « It is interesting to note that Marini, referring to Leria, assigned the same belief to Lao living in Vientiane, in the sixteenth century, » noted Zago.

Nevertheless, these tracks did not provide explanations for paternal and maternal origins of the Khuan. But one thing is clear and recognized by everyone: we own Khuan from birth and without them our existence on earth will cease immediately. These « invisible beings » (Okin), with an independent life, never missed an opportunity to leave the body and to go out for a ride.0198-Copierter

According to our beliefs, these wandering Khuans might, well, decide not to return to their original body for various reasons. This could create a vacuum, an imbalance or disharmony inside the person, deserted by his khuans, so he might even get sick and, in some extreme cases, die!

The Khuans of younger persons are very instable because the Khuan and the body have not known each other for a long time. And that’s one of the reasons why we tell young people who sneezed: Ma you heuane you sane (Please stay at home), or Yai soung (Keep on growing); for fear that these precious Khuans would leave their body. Sometimes, we add Hiane nangsü keng keng deur (May you succeed in your studies).

“The older people are believed to possess stronger khuan because of their age. Their khuan are stable and firmly attached, unlike the young. The younger the person, the more vulnerable the khuan is and the tendency to lose the khuan, when frightened, is high. The khuan of children under the age of ten are considered very weak”, explained Chai Chin Fern.

She had also given an interesting light to a very common situation in Laos, especially at a time when modern medicine had not yet created a place for itself in the countryside and mountainous areas: babies who cry at night during their sleep. “When a young child cries in the middle of his/her sleep, it is believed that his/her Mae Kaw (his/her mother from a previous life) has returned to play with him/her. When the crying continues for several nights, it is said that Mae Kaw has brought him to a faraway place and some of his khuans have gotten lost and could not return home. In such an instance, a soukhuan ceremony will be held”, she said.

Orientalists, researchers as well as Lao and Thai scholars therefore agreed to assert that Khuan is one of the most important components of our body, but also that of animals and certain utilitarian objects related to human beings’ everyday life, such as a house, a cart, a pick, a rake, a plow, a knife, a pan and so on.

A welcome Baci in Thakhek, Laos (2014)

A welcome Baci in Thakhek, Laos (2014)

And it is this belief that every animate or inanimate thing can have khuan that the Lao people organised a pardon ceremony (Phithi Sombad Somma) to ask pardon and protection from their parents and family after a Pimay Lao (Lao New Year) Baci. They repeated the same rituals towards parents, family, the home, the stoves, the dishes, the utensils and everything that is involved in the daily life and makes it easier, more enjoyable, after the small Baci on the wedding day (Cf. https://laosmonamour.wordpress.com/2012/10/03/lao-wedding-in-honour-of-tiva-and-bretts-mariage/).

For the same reasons, T’ai-Lao people are accustomed to requesting permission to a place’s genie before cutting a tree or branches, or before picking fruits, flowers or vegetables in the forest.

According to Mr Okin, all animate creatures (human, animal and plant) and inanimate (shoes, a glass of water, a bottle of alcohol etc.) can have a Khuan or khoan (node or point attachment) or a vinnana in Pali (Vijnana in Sanskrit, a consciousness). With two distinct categories: a relentless succession of birth and death, rebirth and new disappearance and so on, it is the cycle of metempsychosis; and that of the Phra Arahanta (or arahant) whose enlightened conscience no longer contains kilesa (default impurity of the mind). And when he died, he entered the parinibbana (final disappearance of all consciences).

In the first case, it is our perception and our heart that provoked the birth and disappearance of vinnana from objects and beings, rebirth and new disappearance and so on continually. This is the vinnana which is still governed and controlled or directed by the infernal trio of Anicca-Dukkha-Anatta (impermanence/dissatisfaction, suffering and pain/non-self).

 « This is the vinnana that we commonly called Khuan in every day’s life and the vinnana still roams the Universe, it is called in Lao phi or phantom« , said Mr Okin.

A famiy Baci in Paris (2014)

A family Baci in Paris (2014)

Max Weber, quoted by Chai Chin Fern, shared Mr Okin’s view by stating that « these spirits or souls can ‘dwell’ more or less continuously and exclusively near or within a concrete object or process. » « The spirits may temporarily incorporate themselves into things, plants, animals or people. This is a further stage of abstraction, which is scarcely ever maintained consistently. Spirits may be regarded as invisible essences that follow their own laws, and are merely ‘symbolized’ by concrete objects, » added Weber (The Religion of India, 1961).

The venerable Maha Thera Nyanadharo, founder of the monastery Bodhinyanarama from the monks of the forest’s traditions in Tournon (France), in July 1977, estimated that vinanna and phi are the same and only one reality. The only difference lied in the perception by scholars and the Sangha, who call it vinnana and ordinary people for whom this is phi.

Achanh Soulang shared the same opinion: « In the general sense, Khuan and vinnana are two different entities. But at their origins and before they had been enriched by explanations and developments, these two terms were not different except that Khuan is the Lao language and vinnana the Pali’s. However, vinnana can also mean phi or phet (peta). »

To illustrate the unstable and vagabond nature of the Khuan, our ancestors were accustomed to tell us the story of two friends walking in the forest. When one of them felt overwhelmed by fatigue, he lay under a tree to regain some strength. As soon as he fell asleep, the friend who stayed awake saw coming out from the top of the head a cricket (sometimes it’s a butterfly). The insect, very gay and alert, jumped from branch to branch, walked on the river banks, took a bath before returning to his original body. When he woke, the friend who was well rested then expressed his delight to have a wonderful dream: a walk in the forest, swimming in a river, and so on.

Ruth-Inge Heinze, cited by Chai Chin Fern, used a psychological approach and particularly Sigmund Freud to emphasize that « human beings have souls which can leave their habitation and enter other beings; these souls are the bearers of spiritual activities and are, to a certain extent, independent of the ‘bodies’.« 

A wedding Baci in Oregon, USA

A wedding Baci in Oregon, USA

“Originally, souls were thought of as being very similar to individuals; only in the course of a long evolution did they lose their material character and attained a high degree of ‘spiritualization’”, added Heinze (Tham Khwan. 1982).

This position had been confirmed by Anuman Rajadhon, a Siamese scholar and specialist in his country’s rites and traditions, quoted by Zago: The word (Khuan), which originally designated the soul, has only now “a vague meaning of something mysteriously abiding in the body which gives health and prosperity to its owner. » According to Marcello Zago, this evolution of something permanent to impermanence is linked to the arrival of Buddhism and its growing importance in an area once dominated by animism and Hinduism.

The Khuans, invisible entities that have their own life, independent of the holder body, are thus important and vital parts of a living being. It is impossible to distinguish them, separate them from their habitation and they exist since the birth of their bodies.

The body would not be alive without the spirit nor the mind efficient without the body because of a close interdependence between them in the living being, » explained Philippe Cornu, Buddhist scholar and translator of Tibetan texts. He is also a lecturer at INALCO and a professor at the Catholic University of Leuven (Belgium).

A wedding Baci in Thakhek, Laos (2013)

A wedding Baci in Thakhek, Laos (2013)

« When Khuan or vinnana are in our bodies, we are in good health, » added Mr. Okin.

Philippe Cornu, who is also president of the Buddhist Studies Institute and author (his last book: Buddhism: A Philosophy of Happiness? (Seuil, 2013), then detailed the causality between the body and the mind: « This relationship is lived through sensations (vedana in Sanskrit) resulting from physical contact between the senses (eg sight) and their objects, that is to say external phenomena (eg. shapes and colours). The sensations are the basis of perceptions (samjna) where one imagines what the external objects are.”

The difficulty lies in our inability to know whether these spirits or Khuan are or are not in our body. « We cannot see if Khuan are present or absent because they exist and are born according to impulses of our own heart or thoughts. It is also said that Khuan or vinnana living in a human body like to go out for a walk », explained Mr. Okin.

So, how can we define precisely the khuan?

For Marcello Zago, quoting Lao authors, « the first meaning of this term is ‘a reality without body, inherent to the life of men and animals from their birth ‘. It is a reality that strengthens, enlivens, and determines the balance. It is also the reason of the success and prosperity of this part« . He then added his own view: « The Khuan are the reason and the condition of progress, of what is good and what is accidental. »

Stanley Tambiah and Richard Davis, quoted by Stephen Bailey, respectively, consider this a « spirit essence » and « psychic energy elements” while Georges Condaminas, probably taking up the dictionary definition of the Vientiane Literary Committee, spoke of “soul” or “vinnana”.

Barend Terwiel, quoted by Chai Chin Fern and Bailey, offered a variety of definitions from the ego to prosperity through soul, morality and grace. Charles F. Keyes and Sachchidanand Sahal, cited by Mayoury Ngaosyvathn and Bailey, respectively referred to khuan as « vital essence » and « vital force of life ».

The newlyweds during a Lao wedding Baci in Paris (May, 2012)

The newlyweds during a Lao wedding Baci in Paris (May, 2012)

It is true that Western missionaries, the first to venture into what Zago called « a forest without path » have greatly influenced their successors. Thus, Bishop Cuaz, in his French-Siamese dictionary (1903) and his French-Lao Glossary (1906) only evoked khuan in the expression “to lose his head“which he translated by “Sia-Sati, Khuan Hai”, and “to make up for the damage” that he translated by “Tham Khuan Sia”. These two terms are Siamese.

In 1854, Father Jean-Baptiste Pallegoix, one of the first Westerners to write about Laos, translated Khuan by « crown » or « angel who is in the head » before adding two more expressions in 1896: « guardian spirit » and « object of affection ». In 1912, Pierre Guignard had given meanings similar to those commonly accepted nowadays with “vital spirit”, and “soul” for Khuan; and “topknot” for Chom Khuan.

However, his two other definitions –“make amends” for “tham Khuan” and “make a sacrifice to health” for “Soukhuan”– raise questions.

On the one hand, Tham Khuan can mean to make amends if only the author of the customs’ transgression does sit around the Baci with his/her victim. However, if it is only the family and relatives of the assaulted that organize the ceremony, it no longer applies to this definition. It always means Tham Khuan in Siamese, but only in the sense of “to strengthen » the khuan and « make them happier » when they are back in the body of the victim of a transgression so they can give him joy, harmony, health and success.

As far as Soukhuan is concerned, it cannot mean under any circumstances “to make a sacrifice to health”. The T’ai-Lao organize a Baci to recall the wandering souls so that they re-enter our body. This is primarily a family reunion that brings together not only close relatives, but also the inhabitants of a village or a city, who are the representatives of a social solidarity with the honouree by a Baci. Whatever the circumstances presiding over a soukhuan, there is nowhere the idea of sacrifice!

Zago, who had quoted these authors, freely admitted that the translations provided « make little advance to research, either because of the difficulties of interpretation, or perhaps because of the authors’ lack of contact with popular beliefs », but he could not correct them.

Marcello Zago had translated « khong-Khuan » to « thing-Khuan » when it is only a « gift », the Lao term is formed with the words « khong » (thing) and « Khuan ». But they must not be separated because it’s the same and only word (ຂອງຂັວນ). Similarly, it would be equally absurd to separate ca from deau (cadeau in French or gift) to grasp its meaning.

The Italian churchman’s error, as usually made by Westerners in general, is his willingness to « stick » closely to the word to understand its meaning. But in the Lao language, most words are formed with two or more elements that, taken separately, have their own meaning. For example, kine-khao is written ກີນເຂົ້າ and means « to eat » in the general sense, as in « come to eat », « enjoy lunch or dinner » (ma kinekhao), but also « to eat rice » since kine means eating and khao rice.

A family Baci in Vientiane (2011)

A family Baci in Vientiane (2011)

I still remember the pride of our French teacher when we were at the third year of secondary school who believed he had the profound sense of the word thank you in Lao (khobchay, ຂອບໃຈ) by explaining that, according to a Lao friend and expert of our language, it’s a feeling of great depth since it comes from the heart. As we were students who were respectful of our teachers, we did not contradict him even though we knew for sure that he had made the same mistake as many scholars and orientalists who usually translated the word by separating khob (edge) from chay (heart), while khobchay is only one word in Lao.

In defense of Marcello Zago and Western scholars, who dared to rush on crooked and slippery paths of the Baci and the Khuan, books and documents in Lao also lack many details but are full of expressions difficult to grasp for uninitiated. Thus, it is written and said look (or mia) Keo look (or mia) Khouan for the child or the woman we cherished the most, in one word: ລູກແກ້ວລູກຂັວນ while Westerners retain only the last two elements of the word to explain that the beloved child or beloved woman are called look or mia Khouan (beloved child or wife).

Moreover, these expressions are not of common use and it is only found in the tales and legends or the prayers of Khuan where, precisely, everything is exaggerated and magnified in order to attract the wandering souls and to make them return to their original « home ».

Two connoisseurs of Asian culture and traditions, Malaysian Chai Chin Fern and Laotian Mayoury Ngaosyvathn had also misinterpreted the concept of chomkhouan (ຈອມຂວັນ) or topknot.

« From my own research, there are actually two types of Khuan. One is at the crown of the head called Chom Khuan, whereby the khuan exit and return into the body. The other Khuan is the body khuan or otherwise known as Khuan khing (ຂວັນຄີງ) which is believed to be 32 in total, » wrote Chai Chin Fern.

But, strangely indeed, she didn’t mention the head or chomkhuan in her personal list of 32 Khuan, the nearest part is the head hair (pom tang lai). In addition, if she considered chomkhuan as the other category of Khuan, so it could not be the entrance and exit door -a material entity, palpable and visible- of the Khuan, which are, by definition, realities without body and therefore invisible to the naked eyes.

A family Baci in Paris in honour of our French friends

A family Baci in Paris in honour of our French friends

Mayoury Ngaosyvathn, former Deputy Director at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and author of Lao Women, Yesterday and Today (1993), said that « traditionally, it is forbidden to touch the middle of the head of a baby, known as the chom khamom, before it is two years old. The head is sacred perhaps on account of the belief that the Chom Khuan (highest khuan) is found above the chom khamom or crown of the head, which is also where the khuan is believed to leave and enter the body ».

Mayoury Ngaosyvathn’s error is all the more disturbing because she mastered the Lao language and its subtleties. But saying that Chom Khuan is the highest khuan is simply a translation word-for-word of the Lao term which consists, once again, of two elements: Chom (top) + Khuan.

It was also surprising to see Chai Chin Fern committed the same error because she has extensive knowledge of Lao culture and traditions. Thus, she delivered an original approach on baldness: “It is also believed that baldness is caused by the constant ‘movement’ of Khuan entering and leaving the body through the head”. She seemed to suggest, perhaps, that the Khuan of scholars, international artists, leading researchers and physicians-surgeons, pioneers in their field of expertise, most of them are bald, are more turbulent -so smarter?- than those of an ordinary person…

Strangely indeed, she didn’t mention women. She is probably convinced that Khuan never leave those who are behind the creation of mankind and those who have the great honour to procreate. Niels Mulder, cited by Stephen Bailey, has recognized the special place of women in T’ai-Lao cosmology: « The Thai locate the reliable order of morality and goodness in the Buddhist temple community, the home, the mother and the female symbols of Mother Earth and Mother Rice. »

If he had done his research in Laos, which shares many similarities with the Isane region, Mulder would have reached the same conclusion about the role of women.

Chai Chin Fern also noted a typically Lao feature, almost a misogyny subject: why don’t we say that a woman with a double chomkhuan would have two husbands like the male sex, which, they say, would have two wives if he has two toupees? In Lao society, it is not forbidden for a man to have several wives as long as has financial capacities while a woman is condemned to remain faithful to his first and only husband. Moreover, many widows, even quite young, have never remarried while widowers have systematically rebuilt their love life, most of the time with a younger woman.

When a man is married to several women, the No. 1 wife is called Mia Ngai, literally « great wife » or principal wife who has all institutional rights, and others mia noy (small wife, or secondary wife).

A wedding Baci in Paris

A wedding Baci in Paris

The difficulty to identify the khuan’s notion, their origins, their functions and their place in our life, even though a large population is concerned –from South China and Sipsongphanna to Cambodia and Vietnam, the Borneo Isle (the Iban, Dayak and Berawan), the Malay Peninsula (the Toba-Batak), Malacca (the Kelenen) and people in Melanesia (Chai Chin Fern, Zago)-, lies in the oral traditions of these people.

Although the Baci is their everyday life, Lao people never sought to theorize on khuan’s nature. However and unlike Mr. Jourdain, who was making prose without knowing it, the citizens of Dork champa’s country vaguely feel that they need khuan for their well-being and their happiness. And knowing that their khuans are rather volatile, they have to organise a Baci to call them back from time to time.

In November 2012, I was surprised to see myself asking for a familial Baci after having been trapped in a circulation accident. I did feel, then, that the harmony had been broken somewhere inside of myself and I needed a Baci to call back something indescribable but essential to my well-being, my khuan, “what is the innermost in a man, his life, his vitality and his well-being”, as put Marcello Zago.

Okin Soumpholphakdy had also underlined the importance of khuan and khoan or node or attachment point: “In nature, almost everything has a node, like the Jackfruit’s node, the mango or the longan and so on (…). If these attachment points disappeared, these fruits would fall down and die. We have the same phenomenon inside our body with large gut’s nod, those of small guts or the gullet and so on… And when these nods are broken, we run the risk of falling ill or even dying for a breach of cervical nerves because our consciousness (chit in Lao, citta or vinnana in Pali) hided themselves in these nodes.”

 At the origins of the Baci

According to the stories told by our forefathers and based on current practice observed from five to six generations in our family, the Baci or soukhuan or Phoukkhène could have been practiced for the first time when the T’ai-Lao were living along the upper Mekong River from its source in Tibet and southern China, the Yunnan region specifically. It was also the proximity to the Chinese people that would have given us the Khuan term which is said Hwun in Mandarin and has exactly the same meaning as in T’ai-Lao.

But according to other sources, and especially the legend of Khun Borom or Khun Bulom, the Baci dated from the creation of the human world by, precisely, Khun Borom Maharaj. A verse of an epic poem proclaims in effect: « Khun Bulom pountèng lève hai Look Keo ork kine muong; Khun Chuong pong penh sok » (Khun Bulom had organized everything for the beloved son to conquer the city; And Khun Chuong would bring luck). This phrase was repeated in several invitations to Khuan which are regularly added: « Tock bay nee mène tock maichan Khan bay nee mène khan maikeo; Phor mè pound teng lève chung dai gnor ma… ». (This tray is in rare maichan wood; This cup is in emerald wood; The parents had prepared with love before installing them here …).

A grandma greating into her family a grandson in law (Laos, 2013)

A grandma greating into her family a grandson in law (Laos, 2013)

Maichan is a fragrant wood which was used to scent the water for a Buddhist ceremony. We rubbed a pumice on the maichan and we got a fine powder which then gave the water a very subtle scent. In our family, it was used until the early 1970s and the arrival of the imported Eau de Cologne. Nowadays, it is almost impossible to find this rare wood. As for emerald wood, it is up to the legend and would only exist in Heaven.

According to Barend Terwiel, “for thousands of years, calling the soul back in the body has been a custom in China (…) and is still performed now. And they organise a Zhao Hwun -almost the same sound as in Lao soukhuan– to recall vagrant Khuan or in case of illness.

In The Songs of the South: An Anthology of Ancient Chinese Poems (Zhu Ci), translated into English by David Hawkes, two poems were written in the third century BC about the Khuan’s rituals:  Zhao Hun (Summons of the Soul) and Da Zhao (The Great Sumons).

Zhao Hun, a four parts poem, tells the genesis of hwun’s rituals with God sending an ancestor to earth to carry out the recall of wandering souls if needed. The prayer of Khuan itself is the third part of the poem. As in T’ai-Lao rituals, the invitation contains warnings against unfriendly encounters, dangerous or harmful beings followed by a list of magnificence of love as well as victuals waiting for the Khuan at their original home. The other poem, Da Zhao, also inspired by the shamanic traditions, followed the same construction as Zhao Hun, but is much shorter.

These two poems, very rare and the oldest documents about souls or khuan or hwun’s rituals, had demonstrated beyond any doubt their Chinese origins and the T’ai-Lao who had used them (or adopted them?) at the same time had also embellished them by adding references to Buddhism in particular (see below).

These two precious documents invalidated Phya Anuman Rajadhon’s assertion, saying that the word « Khuan is a Thai term identical in sound and meaning to the Chinese word soul. » Knowing that the Thai people was part of the same T’ai-Lao community living along the Mekong River in Southern China, the word khuan could only be T’ai and was therefore shared by people in Yunnan, Burma, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and of course Siam or Thailand now.

A wedding Baci in Paris (May, 2012)

A wedding Baci in Paris (May, 2012)

Moreover, the Kingdom of Siam was only founded in 1350 by King Ramathibodi, many centuries after Khuan’s rituals were practised by T’ai-Lao people in Southern China, and the oldest mention of the Thai people (Siam or Syama in Sanskrit) dated from the 12th century on an inscription found at the Angkor Wat complex, in Cambodia.

In China, it is the mother of the sick child who is in charge of the restoring Khuan ritual or Zhao Hwun. Jan Jakob Maria De Groot, cited by Chai Chin Fern, recounted as follows the ceremony:

« A mother hastens up to the roof of her house, and, waiving about a bamboo pole to which is affixed a garment belonging to the little one, exclaims several times in succession: ‘My child… (child’s name), come back, return home!’ In the interim, another inmate of the house beats a gong loudly to arouse the attention of soul. After a while, the vital spirits are expected to recognize the garment and slip into it. And so, along with it, they are taken back to the sufferer and placed either upon or at the side of his bed« . (The Religious System of China. 1892)

This Zhao Hwun ceremony closely looks like that of Sonekhuan (ສ້ອນຂັວນ), Wankhuan (ວານຂັວນ) or Eunekhuan (ເອີ້ນຂັວນ) in Laos where these rituals are organised after the injury (with bleeding) of a family member in a fall, a car accident or any violent event. In general, it is the grandmother or the aunt of the wounded who undertakes the Khuan’s fishing mission.

A welcome Baci to a new born bay in Paris (1990)

A welcome Baci to a new born baby in Paris (1990)

Equipped with a Kheun (ເຂີງ, a kind of rattan or bamboo scoop with very fine mesh, a circle of about 50 to 80 cm in diameter) and a khong (ຂ້ອງໃສ່ປາ) as for a fishing outing of small fish and shrimp, she went to the place where had occurred the accident. She also brought along a pair of ritual cotton, flowers, sticky rice, a boiled egg, a banana, cookies and a pair of candle. Once there, she began to make the same gestures as if she was fishing, claiming loudly: « Mayer Khuan yer … Khuan of ... (person’s name) fell, injured or lost, please come back home today. Grandmother had come here to welcome you back home with rice, food and very much love… « 

While repeating her speech, she also made the gesture of putting Khuan into the khong and once everything was supposed to be back, she wrapped the khong with a white cloth or a scarf before bringing the Khuan back into the house where she was greeted at the entrance by other parents who would acclaim: « The Khuan have arrived. Mayer Khuan yer… » Then, all the persons would accompany the grandma to give back the Khuan to its owner by tying ritual strings around his wrists and offering him his khuan’s food.

Khung and khong

Khung and khong

It’s also a grandmother or an aunt, but rarely a male member of the family, who handles a wanekhuan. The main difference with the sonekhuan lies in the use of a hoat (a type of couscous maker in bamboo and used to make steamed sticky rice) and a log of wood with one end still burning. Instead of making the gesture of catching crayfish, the person in charge of the ritual will move back and forth the log by repeating the same prayers.

Another variant of the Baci is the Sout Khuan Kong (ສູດຂັວນກ່ອງ) which can be imperfectly translated by a Khuan’s prayer around a rice basket. To undertake this ritual, we entrust a kong khao (ກ່ອງເຂົ້າ) to a pagoda for three days and three nights. Inside  the kong khao  were previously placed a boiled egg, a glutinous rice ball, a pair of candles, flowers, a banana, a piece of cane sugar and, of course, a pair of cotton cords and the clothes of the ill person. After three nights of blessings and prayers by monks, the kong khao is returned to the home of the khuan’s owner. A Phouk khene is then held to wish him/her a speedy recovery.

A rice basket that can be used in the Soud khuan kong ritual

A rice basket that can be used in the Sout khuan kong ritual

Finally, the Sout Khuan Luang (ສູດຂັວນຫລວງ) or a capital khuan’s prayer is intended to help the healing of heads of families and the elderly who are sick and whose traditional or modern medical treatment had not given desired effects. We set a phakhuan, with all its usual components, plus uncooked glutinous rice, candles and incense sticks whose number corresponds to the age of the honouree. In addition, we need two candles of the length of his/her head, one of them weighing three bath (or 45.7 g) is intended to decorate the top of makbeng, and the other one of the length of its trunk. A khanhha with five pairs of candles and flowers designed to pay homage to the Buddha’s five precepts (Cf. Infra) are also part of the device. Just like a banana leaf cone or an envelope containing money for the officiant. The sick person’s clothes, perfume, jewelry etc. are also placed on the phakhuan.

In the evening -between 9:00 p.m. and 10:00 p.m.-, and for three nights in a row, the Morphone will recall the wandering souls of the ill person, because the best time to get in touch with invisible beings is during the night. After this exceptional ritual, the owner of the Khuan is honoured by a Baci to let him/her enjoy all its benefits and heal quickly. He/she will conclude the Sout khuan luang by offering steamed sticky rice to monks during a takbad or almsgiving.

Two markbeng made of Bank notes

Two markbeng made of Bank notes

Even if we do not have any written evidence, our family has always organized a Baci in the last six generations, making it quite likely that we were observing the same ritual before in our family and in Lao society as a whole.

The original reason of the Baci’s ritual is the joyous nature of the T’ai-Lao people for whom everything is a pretext for a boun or a party, associated with a highly developed sense of hospitality (« Welcome a foreigner can contribute to make him a friend or an ally if he had any aggressive intentions, » as we used to say) and a steadfast solidarity. These people also knew how to enjoy a reasonable profit from Mother Nature and the environment and they never lost an opportunity to share a drink or a meal. And have fun!

“We, the Lao people, we have a good character because of the many encounters and exchanges with other peoples, but also because of the natural difficulties experienced throughout our trip before settling on our current lands. Therefore, to express our joy to have arrived safely at one place, we thank in words the genies; we also offer them flowers as a sign of goodwill and benevolence. We do this even before leaving a place to another. At the same time, we offer flowers or ears of ripe rice to our parents and the elders to honour them, to ask forgiveness and blessing, » said Okin Soumpholphakdy.

And after these rituals, we shared a meal, sang, danced and had fun as we do today. Little by little, someone might have the idea to structure the meeting around a more formal ceremony, the Baci, to give it more importance and to strengthen furthermore family ties.

It was certainly in these circumstances that the very first Baci, or soukhuan, had been organised even though our ancestors had rooted the khuan’s rituals to Heaven, called Muong Thene. Before being sent to born on Earth, every couple was tied together by a thread at the wrist. But during their trip, they were separated by violent winds and storms, symbols of the difficulties and trials pending in the human world. Scattered into the wide world, they are then forced to go in search of their other half, known from Heaven. We say in Lao Khad Tere Thene, NeneTere Far (ຄາດແຕ່ແຖນ ແນນແຕ່ຟ້າ). And once found, the two beings are once again united in a Baci to form a couple, ready to perpetuate the human species. The symbolism of the wrists’ ligation during a Baci makes all its meaning and importance in the context of this legend.

A Boun in a countryside in the 1990's (Mission)

A Boun in the Lao countryside in the 1900’s (Gallica.bnf.fr)

According to Okin Soumpholphady, the Baci ritual or the soukhuan as we are organising it today; with a phakhuan and all its elements, a morphone (master of ceremony in charge of Khuan’s prayer) and assistance, followed by a common meal; dated back to the reign of King Visounnarath, great grand-son of King Fa Ngum, between 1501 and 1520.

For his part, Fa Ngum, the unifier of Lao principalities into a single kingdom, Anachack Lanxang Homkhao (Kingdom of a Million Elephants and the White Parasol), in 1354, introduced Buddhism in Laos and proclaimed it a state religion. Along with Buddhism, he brought Cambodian-Indian civilization, including floral art, Buddhist masters, scholars, artisans and so on. The Phra Bang, a gift from his stepfather, the Cambodia’s king, had become the palladium of the Lanxang kingdom, and Luang Prabang, the former royal capital, was named in homage to Phra Bang.

Phrabang

Phrabang

Married to Princess Keo Kèngkanya, Fa Ngum, who had spent his childhood in the royal court of Angkor after a forced exile in his father’s company, also brought the word Baisi into Laos. « Lao people had started using the term Baci since the reign of Fa Ngum. Baci is not a Pali or a Tham word, but it’s a true Lao. The same word exists in Khmer, Baisi, which means ‘to offer flowers as a gift’. With the influence of Buddhism in everyday life, we then made embellishments to the Baci ceremony and began writing Khuan prayers which have been repeated from generation to generation since then. Like King Fa Ngum who has joined his life with Princess Kèngkanya, Baisi and Baci have also become a single entity», noted Mr. Okin.

Thai scholar as well as Chai Chin Fern, Marcello Zago and Stephan Bailey had translated Baisi as « rice of prosperity. » They had probably taken the literal translation of the word-for-word from Bai-si with Bai, cooked rice, added with si or sri or sirimongul, that means to clean, to make it shining and alive, as explained Mr. Okin who then detailed as follows the deeper meanings of the word Baci:

“Ba or Bakhane means the man or thao (sir) or decoration. Baci therefore means washing, cleaning respected people, offering them flowers to make them more beautiful, fitter in order to give them more luck, more health and well-being. This is a way to give value and respect to the person honoured by a Baci,” he said.

Then, during the reign of King Visounnarath a step forward had been taken to organise the Baci with a phakhuan and all its components, ritual cotton cords, an officiant, assistance, drink and food. Visounnarath was a very pious king and with high intelligence: he was responsible for, among other things, Vat Visoun’s plans and Khuan’s prayers. Pimay Lao legends with the seven Nang Sangkhane and Thao Thammaban Khoummane as well as that of Pu-Gneu, Gna-Gneu (Cf: https://laosmonamour.wordpress.com/page/2/?s=pimay) could also have been written during the reign of King Visounnarath.

Pougneu Ghaneu

Pu-Gneu Gna-Gneu

As we have seen, the word Baci is a typical Lao term and by the way not reserved for the Khuan’s rituals held in honour of important people or the members of the royal family. Therefore, we can use whether Baci, soukhuan or Phoukkhène to refer to this strong symbol of the art of being Lao.

Phakhuan as the momentary centre of the Universe

The Khuan’s tray, or Phakhuan in Lao, is the most important element of a Baci ceremony because it is in charge of attracting wandering Khuans to return to their original home thanks to the abundance of khuan’s foods (chicken, boiled egg, sticky rice, fruits, cakes) and drinks (alcohol, water, fruit juice, soda), but also colourful flowers that adorn the markbéng and the light illuminating the way back that shines above the phakhuan, considered as the momentary centre of the Universe, here and now.

The phakhuan also derives a portion of its large force of attraction from solidarity and friendship expressed at the same time and toward the same and only one person –the host of the Baci- by family and guests. Throughout the Khuan’s invitation, he/she is indeed the centre of attention and he/she is in communion with all the people sitting around him/her through the white cotton thread, held by all, which connects him/her to the phakhuan, to the officiant and to the rest of the casual community. Hands clasped in front of his/her heart, symbolising the depth of his/her respect and feelings towards invisible entities and towards human beings, the Khuan’s owner is also in fusion with the tutelary gods, celestial beings and spirits, invited by the morphon to preside over the ceremony, which is itself placed under the protection of the Three Jewels: Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.

A Phakhuan

A Phakhuan

Momentary centre of the Universe, the phakhuan has also become the meeting place and cooperation between invisible beings and representatives of humans who can pool their strength to create a new universe made of auspicious items (day, time, objects, beings etc.). And this can contribute to facilitate communication between people united by a common destiny and wandering Khuan.

The presence of a markbéng at the centre of phakhuan, a direct influence of Buddhism according to Orientalists, Lao and Thai scholars, reminded of Mount Meru in the Buddhist, Persian, Hindu and Jain mythology. Centre of the Universe and the origin of everything, it would correspond to Mount Kailash, located in Tibet, and whose name in Sanskrit is Meru or Sumeru. As on the outskirts of this sacred mountain where, it is believed, the « stones pray », bowls filled with khuan’s food -always in an impair number- are set down around the marbéng. This is therefore an area of mediation and meeting between the invisible world and the mortals. The content of these bowls are then offered to the person (or persons) honoured by the Baci who will thus be united once again with all his/her Khouans, and find his/her harmony and well-being.

Dork Hak or Love flower

Dork Hak or Love flower

The markbéng’s architecture, a cone with at least five floors turned upward, is another tribute to Buddhism: the number five represents the five precepts of Buddha (do not kill, do not steal, refrain from harmful sexual behaviour and deception, do not lie, and do not drink alcohol). Moreover, they represent the five floors of the human world which together with the six floors of the Havens constitute the Kamaloka or the universe of sensory pleasures.

A markbeng made by my mom, Thakek (2005)

A markbeng made by my mom, Thakek (2005)

The candle placed on top of markbéng and whose length corresponds to the head circumference of the person(s) honoured by a Baci symbolizes the illuminating light of Dharma to help mankind to follow the path of Knowledge and to leave the darkness and suffering that resulted. At the same time, the light of the candle shows the way back to Khuan scattered in the Universe. Finally, light as a symbol of life was obtained by the happy meeting of three worlds: the human (intelligence, skill, labour), the vegetal (cotton) and the animal (the bees which give honey and wax). Besides, three is another important figure in Buddhist cosmology. Furthermore Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, it also represents the perfect balance and perfect harmony between body, mind and protective invisible beings. What a beautiful symbol of life in a simple candle!

The flowers provided several functions while transforming the scene of a Baci into a magical garden, as in the legends of the Lao country and called Soane ad outiyan, with colourful flowers, happy people, shouts and chants, a profusion of food and drink etc…

Although they are primarily intended to beautify the phakhuan and make the auspicious atmosphere for both assistance and Khuan, flowers also give life to the markbéng like snow crystals transforming Mount Kailash into a living being with soul, magic and beauty. Moreover, they carry strong symbols. Thus, white indicates purity of feelings, innocence of hearts and perfection of the whole (assistance, date, time, venue, ceremony etc.).

Dork Champa

Dork Champa

If they are yellow or orange African marigold flowers, it is a tribute to Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, the two colours are those of monks’ clothes and equipment (bag, bat’s protection –a bat, or an almsbowl, is a kind of big bowl used for the quest of monks’ food- hat etc.). Called Dork Daohuong in Lao (ດອກດາວເຮືອງ), they are supposed to bring vitality, wealth, progress and well-being to all and especially to those honoured by a Baci.

Finally, Dork Champi, a variety of Dork Champa or plumeria, they are to bring longevity.

For the wedding Baci, the makbéng will feature three or five « arms » or branches in banana leaves, as the markéng, and are the symbols of the many children to come into the family. The flower of love, Dork Hak in Lao, is preferred by the masters of ceremony since it’s synonymous with eternal love. Abroad, fuchsia or red roses adorn both markbéng, a distant reminder of the heavenly palace when the original couple were staying in Heaven, with plastic Dork Hak adding a nostalgic note to the Phakhuan.

Unlike in some civilizations where aesthetics are the final objectives, for Lao people everything is a sign, a symbol, a message or a tribute to something or someone. Everything has meanings! However, they don’t neglect the beauty and refinement…

A wedding Baci with two phakhuan (Paris 2012)

A wedding Baci with two phakhuan (Paris 2012)

Ritual rice and eggs

Sticky rice, the Lao staple food which is also consumed by Chinese and Japanese people in particular, has obviously a special place in a Baci with boiled eggs since they are khuan’s favourite foods.

« Rice, the staple food in East Asian, South Asian and South-East Asian, is not just a food item but is rich in symbolism. It is viewed as a life-giver God and is an inseparable life force. Rice symbolizes survival and sustenance and therefore is worshipped and glorified in many rice-producing countries. However, sticky rice (khao niew) or glutinous rice occupies a special position above the normal rice (khao chao), » said Chai Chin Fern.

ເຂົ້າຫນົມ

Khao Nhom

For Lao people, sticky rice is the basis of everything they consume daily. It accompanies of course each and every dish and every meal, including breakfast. In addition, it is used as a main ingredient for khaotom and khaonhom (steamed rice cake or cooked in boiling water), the strong white alcohol (Lào khao ເຫລົ້າຂາວ in Lao), the choum (Lào haï ເຫລົ້າໄຫ. This beverage is based on paddy and fermented in a terracotta jar. Once it’s ready, it is consumed with a rod of a special variety of bamboo, which exists only in the region of Khammouane (centre) and by adding water), alcohol not yet distilled (Lào Tho ເຫລົ້າໂທ). We also use sticky rice as ferment for Laotian sausages made from fish, beef or pork (som ສົມປາ ສົ້ມຊີ້ນ ສົ້ມຫມູ) or fermented vegetables (somfak ສົ້ມຝັກ). It is also used as a binder in the bamboo shoots soup, orc (ເອາະ), stewed dishes (mock ມົກ) –that’s our potato starch-, and is the basis of several delicious desserts including the famous khao lam. This dessert, sold in small white bamboo trunks alongside the roads or during Buddhist festivals (there are sold frozen in the West), is based on rice, mixed with taro, sometimes black beans, sugar and marinated in coconut milk inside a young bamboo trunk before being cooked over a flame. Once cleaned and open (you peel the last layer of protection like a banana), the preparation is wrapped in a bamboo diaphragm which gives it a delicate flavour and a beautiful presentation! You can consume it with a pingkaï (roasted chicken on the grill).

But the most important function of sticky rice is to be the main offering at a Buddhist takbad ritual which is improperly translated into French and English by alms giving. This is, in fact, the pious action and supreme generosity of all Buddhist practice since dana, donation or gift in Pali, is an act to increase the spirit of generosity and selflessness. Dana is also the basis of kusala (good deed or blessing in Pali) with sila (virtue, morality) and bhavana (progression, development). The practice of meditation or bhavana is intended to strengthen the concentration and detachment.

My mom taking part in a Takbad at Ban Mouangsoum (September 2011)

My mom taking part in a Takbad at Ban Mouangsoum (September 2011)

Regarding the takbad ceremony, the dominance of sticky rice and its importance were illustrated by the story of an elderly Indian woman who had nothing but rice bread she had just cooked to do her dana to Buddha. But once Buddha had gone away, she was consumed with remorse wondering whether she would be affected by bab-kam or sin to have donated a hot food she kept in her skirt (in Buddhism, ladies are forbidden to touch monks and Buddha statues). As soon as he realized the confusion of the old lady, Buddha went back to explain to her that to donate the most vital food for a being with a good heart and purity in gesture and intention, will bring much boun (or merit) to its author.

Actually, sticky rice is used very abundantly in all rituals, whether they are Buddhists, animists and Hindus as in the Phonhhakeo or the miraculous rain during a Baci or the departure of the coffin from a house, the preaching of a particular sermon called Thibphamonh. The paddy is used to manufacture puffed rice which is thrown along the funeral procession to the place of cremation (see https://laosmonamour.wordpress.com/2014/03/03/laos-mort-obseques-esprits-passage-renaissance /).

Rice, represented by the mother Phosop in Asian mythology and which had its annual Baci, is so respected by the T’ai-Lao that nobody will ever dare to walk over or beat it (to get it out of its ears) without asking permission or forgiveness beforehand. Similarly, we have to present an apology if we had to throw it after a meal by claiming: « I know that you are the mother of the food. So please forgive us to having to throw you and do not get upset by depriving us of rice in the future. « 

A rice field in Luang Prabang (2011)

A rice field in Luang Prabang (2011)

According to Chai Chin Fern, besides Lao people, Chinese and Japanese also use the first quality sticky rice in religious or cultic rituals. The Japanese manufactured mochi that they cling at their front door in honour of protecting genie on New Year day. Then, on the 11th day of the New Year, known as the day of Kagami biraki, mochi is opened, cooked and consumed by all family members. Among the Chinese, it is on the 24th day of the 12th lunar month that every household prepared a sweet cake made from glutinous rice (Nouk Mi in Chinese) and sugar which is then offered to the kitchen’s genie before it ascent to Heaven to make an annual report on the actions of each family to the Emperor of Heaven. Everyone hopes that the kitchen’s genie would show more forgiving about some of his/her not so clean actions.

In addition to its function as a staple food for a number of people in Asia, sticky rice also fulfilled an important function of mediation between the invisible world and our world that is looking for more contacts and exchanges with the unspeakable as the technological development reduced the space of spirituality.

Besides sticky rice, the other essential khuan’s food during a Baci is, of course, hard-boiled eggs. If necessary, we can have a familial Baci with just an egg and sticky rice pending a grand ceremony with a phakhuan and guests. These two items represent the three essential elements of any Khuan’s ritual (see above) with the cotton strings (see below).

According to Western and Asian researchers, the egg is the symbol of the foetus and its presence at a Baci served to remind wandering Khuan to return to their original body which is the child’s when he/she was born and that they had helped to become a human with 32 khuans in 32 parts of his/her body. Khay-Khuan, which most Orientalists literally translated into Khuan’s egg, played a key role of alert and warning to vagrant Khuan. Should they stay away and should not return today, right away, in their home, the human Khuan’s owner might suffer, fall ill and even die. Therefore, they are also responsible for the health and the welfare of the person that they had helped to become a thinking being.

A khuan chicken

A khuan chicken

Jeanne Cuisinier, cited by Zago, considered the Baci’s egg as « the substitute for animal victims » (Sumangat, Soul and Worship in Indochina and Indonesia, 1951). Because of its animist and Hindu origins, the egg and the chicken are the only foods of animal origin to be part of the essential khuan’s foods with sticky rice. Even though meat is consumed thereafter, at the common meal or a wedding banquet, it had never been placed around a phakhuan. Very rarely, a pig’s head can take place beside the Khuan’s chicken.

Zago believed that « the egg is a sign of life in embryo, fertility. Perhaps it reminds the cosmic egg. »

At a wedding Baci, it is the sharing of an egg, the young couple giving each other half a boiled egg, which formally symbolized the union between the two people to whom society had to show from now on its solidarity, its respect and consideration (Cf. https://laosmonamour.wordpress.com/2012/10/03/lao-wedding-in-honour-of-tiva-and-bretts-mariage/).

A khay khuan and other khuan's meal

A khay khuan and other khuan’s meal

Strangely, a boiled chicken, with its head and its claws, had only a secondary place in a Baci even though it had a khuan’s name (kay-khuan) like boiled eggs and sticky rice. Its presence is not essential and probably responds to an animist concern: the officiant will look at its legs and sternum bones to perform divination. Besides, in the countryside where foods were rather scarce, we often took advantage of a Baci to kill one or more chicken(s) which is/are then consumed at the common meal. A Baci is primarily a celebration, a sharing of foods, friendship and togetherness as well as a communion.

Ritual strings

Phai-phoukkhène, the cotton strings used to tie the wrists of the persons honoured by a Baci, is the key element of any Khuan ritual which cannot simply take place without them.

Phoukkhène means, precisely, « linking arms« , and it would be impossible to do so without strings…

Phai Phoukkhene

Phai Phoukkhène

Dr Thongrith Phoumirath had thus explained their magical character: « During the ceremony, the morphone invokes the power and magic of the Gods and the guardian spirits, seeking their blessings. The threads, which should have double knots in the middle to contain these blessings, thus appear as receptacle of an exterior magical power that make them different from ordinary threads and give them meaning and value accepted, respected and understood by the participants in the ritual. »

Normally, a ritual string has three white cotton threads, white is the symbol of purity, solidarity and true as well as sincere friendship between brothers and sisters siblings. It is also synonymous with peace, luck, innocence and the good health, family and societal harmony while symbolizing the permanence of a community.

Over the last ten years or so, the influx of foreign tourists has made Baci or soukhuan one of their top centres of interest along with the offering of food to the monks at dawn, or alms giving, and different Buddhist festivals. Most pagodas had begun to manufacture and bless several types of Phai-phoukkhène to meet the growing demands of Lao diaspora as well as tourists. Thus were created strings of various colours (orange, yellow, burgundy, green etc.), braided bracelets or elastic ones that will slide around the wrists by pulling them. They have therefore changed their status: from single guardians of wishes and desires, they have also become gifts, souvenirs or objects of propagation and development of an old Lao country custom. For Lao nationals around the world, the Phai-phoukkhène is the materialization of their common love, of their attachment to their ancestral land but also their pride in being the custodians of such a beautiful culture.

Phai Phoukkhene with a kata in the middle

Phai Phoukkhène with a kata in the middle

In some parts of Laos, the number of cotton strings may amount to five, seven or even nine threads, each number has its own meaning and function. We have already seen the importance of the number three figure in Buddhist cosmology. The other numbers should comply with animistic orders or concerns related to Hinduism, Buddhism’s precursors whose influence is still very much alive. But these two old orders have never confronted with the main religion.

Martin Stuart-Fox, quoted by Chai Chin Fern and Stephen Bailey, had captured the perfect symbiosis of these different philosophies: « It can be said that in Laos, obeisance to the spirit world, to a degree unsurpassed in other South East Asian Theravadin Buddhist societies, does not conflict with the adept’s private spiritual quest for the accumulation of merit. » (Politicization of the Buddhist Sangha, 1982).

Marcello Zago shared the same view while specifying the role of each of the two schools of thought: « Animism and Buddhism form a structural religious unity and appear as two components or subsystems of the unique religion of Laos .With regard to animism, the Lao search for the well-being and terrestrial protection, while the shift to Buddhism is in response to essential problems of life, it is a way of extra temporal salvation.»

The most common Phai Phoukkhène

The most common Phai Phoukkhène

The strings with five threads are reserved for a Baci held in honour of the soldiers or militia before they leave to the front to give them protection, luck and victory. Sometimes, this Khuan’s ritual takes place at the return from assignments of these same persons to show them recognition of the population. Seven threads are used to present the best wishes and accomplishment to students who are going abroad or to another city to attend University, or before an important exam. We use the same kind of strings for a Baci of thanks to the nurses and doctors who had treated and cured a patient.

Finally, we tie nine threads ritual cotton cords to the wrists of regional personalities (mayor, governor), national officials (minister, general) or international representatives (ambassadors, special envoys, foreign ministers etc.) to welcome them while expressing our joy and honour to host them, while expressing our recognition towards the major public achievements of these officials. We organise the same Baci to show our happiness toward officials who had been promoted or received an honorary medal.

« This ritual organised for visitors is not only an honour bestowed upon them, but is also a true acceptance in the social community; they are accepted as members. It’s also a protection for the society against what is foreign and unknown and therefore dangerous. It is also a protection for the person receiving it, » stressed Zago .

Phai Phoukkhène with Bank notes (Laos, May 2014)

Phai Phoukkhène with Bank notes (Laos, May 2014)

Traditionally, it is recommended to keep these lucky strings for three days in order to prevent Khouan having returned to the body from escaping again, the three’s number is synonymous with balance, harmony and permanence in accordance with the Three Jewels (Buddha, Dharma, Sangha). Some say we should keep them until they fall off by themselves. If one were to remove them, it is better to tear them with one’s teeth, not untie the knots because it can let out the khouan, nor cut them with a sharp object (knife, scissors …) for fear of frightening the khouan that had just come back home.

In conclusion, phaiphoukkhène is of a paramount importance in a Khouan ritual. They are not only the visible and palpable elements, the reality of a ceremony where reign invisible beings coming from different cosmologies of T’ai-Lao world, but they also serve as a visible symbol of strong ties between the members of the same community.

A phaiphoukkhène on the wrists could even become a rallying mark to a culture, a land and a country. It indicates that since I have presented to you wishes by tying ritual cotton strings around your wrists, and that you have accepted them, I became a member of your tribe and your family of friendship, of sharing and of solidarity. From now on, our heart will beat to the same rhythm. And with that indescribable feeling coming from the inner circle of ourselves, we are united for life. We are no more than a single spiritual person, a certainly elusive reality, but that was materialized by your Lao style greetings with your hands joined together and lifted in from your head.

And it is precisely the strength of friendship and the power of this solidarity showed publicly in front of the family and the society, and with the blessing from invisible beings who were both witnesses and protectors, that make a Baci, materialized by the phaiphoukkhène, create a strange sense of well-being and happiness, a kind of inner contentment and peace in the heart of all those who had taken part in what has become the best symbol of the art of being Lao.

Louise Dallaire, a lady from Québec who has felt in love with Laos and its culture, has recognised the magic of the phaiphoukkhène during her four months stay as a volunteer social worker in Laos. She had been honoured by a Baci for the first time in Paris in 2012 and then in Thakhek,  two years later.

Mrs Dallaire during a Baci in her honour (Thakhek, December 2014)

Mrs Dallaire during a Baci in her honour with my mom and her first grandson  (Thakhek, December 2014)

“My bracelets open bigger doors. In a working meeting for our social project in Vientiane, the director asked in Lao where I got my bracelets. Souk (her landlord) explained. This was very important for her. The working meeting was so friendly and with so much openness. I feel so well with Lao people, I’m so happy too (….) I still have all the bracelets on my wrists and they amazed everyone because the Baci had taken place a month ago (…). I am still unable to get rid of them because they are my protection in adversity (…). We first look at my bracelets that intrigue. (…). On the street, an old lady saw my bracelets and spoke to me. In Savannakhet, two young men smiled to me and touched my arms while I was asking for my way to the Mekong… I am aware of the great gift that I was gratified and I’m as proud as I had got the most beautiful jewel in the world!”, she explained.

Thanks to its great importance and essential role in the Khouan rituals, we can just use the phaiphoukkhène to ensure a family Baci, if necessary. This is perhaps because it best represents the simplicity and depth of the T’ai-Lao’s soul while being the means of mediation between the invisible world of Sinsaksit (heavenly powers), and the mortals. Finally, it has the authority to retain the 32 Khouans in the 32 parts of the body, while preventing the entry in the same body of malicious or harmful forces. The phaiphoukkhène symbolizes the whole of a human being: its invisible elements and its material parts.

Khouan’s Prayers or invitation

According to Okin Soumpholphakdy, the Lao people had probably started writing texts for Khouan rituals, known today as the khuan’s prayer or invitation (ຄໍາສູດຂວັນ kham soudkhouane), under the reign of King Fa Ngum before being improved, developed and codified -with rhymes and specific structures for each Baci- during the cultural golden reign of King Visounnarath (see below).

And because they speak directly to the invisible world of guardian spirits, angels (Thévaboot, Thévada), of heavenly powers (gods, Pagna Thène, Phragna Inn or Indra) and of course to the Khouan, prayers or invitations always start with fixing the auspicious day and auspicious moment because all these non-human powers can only come to the world of mortals in the harmony of sentiments and the perfection of the stars. In addition, these invisible beings were contacted in Pali or Sanskrit at their origins. This is why the khouan’s prayers systematically start with phrases in Pali which represented a digest of the complete khuan’s invitation.

A Morphone preparing a wedding Baci (Thakhek, 2013)

A Morphone preparing a wedding Baci (Thakhek, 2013)

Here is an example:                                                                                                                                  « Sackhé kamé jaroupé khiri sikhàrà tàté jantà rickhé vimané thipé ratthéjà khamé tàrù vànà    khàhàné khéhà vatthoumhi khetté phoumma jayantu théva sàlàthàlà visané yakkhà khanthab phànakha titthanta santiké yanmùnivàrà vajanan sathàvomé sùnanthù… ».

(O highly respected Thevada residing in Paradise in the six floors of Kamaloka (Cf. Supra: Phakhuan and Makbéng) or in the 16 floors of Brahmans, or on the mountaintop, in the rivers, in the air or in any continent, in particular that of Oudone. Whether you are in Lao Lanexang land, in a village, a forest, in the rice fields or in houses or reside in the Earth, starting with Nang Mè Thoranie (Cf. https://laosmonamour.wordpress.com/2014/05/23/laos-naissance-a-la-laotienne-en-lhonneur-de-notre-petit-neveu-passaya/), or in the oceans. We ask for your kindness to invite Phra Vetsouvanh, the king of gnak (giant) Khonthanh and the king Naga, around here or far away, when you hear my prayer, please come here and now to give your blessings and your sacred vows to our child/small child …, who is honoured by Baci today, and the entire community gathering around him/her to help them have health, prosperity, joy, happiness until the end of their existence. And may they live a hundred years …)

To show that everything is auspicious, that the casual community is also ready to welcome Khouan and invisible powers, the person(s) honoured by a Baci and all the participants wear nice clothes, adorned with jewelry for the female and express on their faces the joy of life and the happiness of being together.

A Morphone calling back the khuan during a wedding Baci in Paris (May, 2012)

A Morphone calling back the khuan during a wedding Baci in Paris (May, 2012)

A Lao Buddhist scholar (the venerable Khamphoun Philavong) had explained to Marcelo Zago the importance of the khouan’s invitation: « The rite is effective. It shows what happens. Why? Because Buddha and deities obtain and give what is asked, they have power over Khouan, can recall them and renew them, even if they resist (…) The desire of the specialist, the assistance and the celebrated persons has its effectiveness, such as mediation; thought and desire are somehow creators. Because Khouan are not insensitive to invitations, offerings nor the care of friends.»

In his book Vatthanatham lè Papheni Bouhane Lao (ວັດທະນະທໍາ ແລະ ປະເພນີບູຮານລາວ 1967) Achanh Philavong distinguished the khouan’s invitation (kane xeun Khouane ການເຊີນຂັວນ) from the actual khouan’s prayer which he called Sood Khuane (ສູດຂັວນ).

« Inviting Khuan before each Sood Khuan, whenever there is time, is a good ceremony to ask for supernatural success and effectiveness (khuam Saksit ຄວາມສັກສິດ) from Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha, Thévada, Phragna Inn and Brahma, who have the power to grant us their blessings so that our voice (that of morphone and guests when they present their wishes while tying ritual strings to the persons honoured by a Baci) becomes Saksit. »

The term Saksit, that can be found in the Lao language in several expressions such as sing or khong-Saksit, khuam Saksit and bone Saksit for sacred objects, words and places, does not really have an equivalent in French or English probably due to the lack of invisible powers or beings not directly related to God in the Christian cosmology. The closest word is sacred in its ethnic or mythological origin.

Le kong-boun et les arbres à dons (Thakhek, août 2013)

The kong-boun and donation’s trees to pay tribute to sing saksit while transferring the boun to the deceased and asking for merits  (Thakhek, août 2013)

The T’ai-Lao believe, instead, that these powers deserve the utmost respect and homage since they can contribute to the solution of a knotty problem or, conversely, harm someone lacking respect or recognition toward them. Therefore, we have a double idea in Saksit: it is something eminently powerful, invisible, able to cause good and evil and that commands respect and sometimes even reverence. It would, perhaps, be a parable of the human being itself, who is capable of the best and the worst…

In his New French-Thai Dictionary (1977), Sri Pongsathat has also translated sacré (sacred) by Saksit, that deserves respect, scaring, while Khampheng Sengphachanh has also referred to sacred as Saksit and impossible to violate in his New Version English-Lao Dictionary (2011).

Inviting Khuan is similar in many respects to the prayers in churches, with the only difference that it speaks directly to the honouree by a Baci and his Khouan and not to Jesus Christ and to God. And that’s probably the reason why there is no need to have a monk to chair a Khouan’s ritual as in the Christian liturgy in which the presence of a priest turns out to be essential to celebrate a Mass.

As during a Mass where participants sing or recite poems or passages of the Bible, the casual community gathered around a Baci also brings his verbal contribution by repeating Mayeur Khouane yer (Khouan Please Return Home) once the magic phrase has been uttered by the officiant.

Moreover, Marcello Zago had been pleased to see a Christian village of Parsane region (south of Vientiane) compare Baci to a Mass while practicing both of them during a military coup in 1960: « After Mass, the leader of the Christian village decided to organise a Baci which was attended by all heads of families; it was an opportunity to come together, discuss and seek peace (…) Thus, in the soukhouan, we pray together for peace. It is interesting to note the link between Baci and Mass by the community aspect of prayer or by the communion banquet of the conclusion.»

We can obviously hold a religious version of Baci. In this case, we invite at least five monks at our home to make the Soot-nammonh, which is literally « preach water prayers » (holy water). This water is then dispersed with a branch or flowers by a monk on the people gathered in the household to bring health, happiness and prosperity to all. Generally, guests are donating lunch to the monks who may, if asked by their guests, tie ritual cotton strings around the wrists of the members of the family to wish them luck, health and happiness.

A Baci presided by the heads of nine pagodas after the funerals of my father (Laos, 2013)

A Baci presided by the heads of nine pagodas after the funerals of my father (Laos, 2013)

I remember having received health, success and well-being wishes from the venerable abbot (Chao Athikane Vat) from nine pagodas gathering in our house for the memory celebration for our late father in August 2013. A phakhouan with all the usual attributes, was installed in the room and had been blessed along nam monh, who was, in this case, the result of a Soot-lot-nam or water purification’s prayers performed by the nine Chao Athikane Wat and called Sayamoungkhoune prayer (ໄຊຍະມົງຄຸນ) (see religious aspects in https://laosmonamour.wordpress.com/2012/10/03/lao-wedding-in-honour-of-tiva-and-bretts-mariage/).

In the book Vatthanatham Bouhane Lao (Lao ancestral cultures, 1996), it is explained that « Sood nam monh with which we sprinkle and bathe ourselves, is a way to get rid of misfortune and bad omens, the nightmares and other misdeeds. It is also intended to gather Khuan simultaneously.”

Unlike a secular or civil Baci, the monks invited to the ceremony, that may be three, five, seven, nine or eleven, don’t address directly to the Khuan but will perform the Sayamoungkhoune prayer by burning above a large container of water, beeswax candles, specially designed and manufactured for the person (s) honoured (s): the headband, the length of his forearm (from the elbow to the tip of the index) and the height of the trunk (the navel to neck). Ritual cotton strings are deposited on the plate with five pairs of candles and flowers, called Khan-ha (ຂັນຫ້າ), since there is no Phakhuan.

A family Baci after our father"s funeral (Thakhek, août 2013)

A family Baci after our father »s funeral (Thakhek, 2013)

In 2013, we did have set up a Phakhuan, that’s why we were getting a traditional civil Baci, followed by a common meal in the company of relatives, people of the village, close friends and guests initially invited to the Boun in our late father’s honour. In these circumstances, an officiant had only to claim that the day, the time and everything are auspicious to present wishes to ourselves, our wandering Khouan were supposed to have returned to their homes of origin during the monks’ prayer. The loss of a father did provoke physical and psychological imbalance and a soukhouan ceremony always close the whole death ritual to notify the two worlds, the decease’s and the living’s, the beginning of a new era. And so that harmony between the mind and the body, as well as between the visible and the invisible world, has been restored and fortified.

Lao nationals in the diaspora have also contributed to the khouan’s prayers by writing new texts closer to their daily realities, with anecdotes, funny stories and experiences, giving the Baci a more casual atmosphere, friendlier and more warm too. If the Khouan’s owner is English or French, most of the invitation will be written in Molière or Shakespeare’s languages, and only introduction, which serves as an appeal to the gods and Khouan, and conclusion, composed of wishes of success and happiness, will remain in Lao with phrases in Pali.

I'm calling the khuan as a master of ceremony (Paris 2014)

I’m calling the khuan as a master of ceremony (Paris 2014)

Here is an example of a khuan prayer written in Paris before the departure of my niece and her lover for a six months love Trip Gourmand in Asia (Cf. www.trip-gourmand.com):

May your wandering souls return home today, here and now

And remain in your body forever, for eternity

To watch over you, to guard your life and your health

To guide you on the road of your quest for truth

For the success of your search for identity

Throughout the six months of enchanted trip

To discover the people, to discover yourself without hindrance or nets

To live simply, to learn sincerity

To know real people, real authenticity

And also to find various recipes

(…)

And the six-month journey, sharing, interactivity is a test

A real test to be sure of what your heart feels

For living as a couple is a new life, a life to be built and to cherish together

A life of responsibility, since you will be bound for life

By sacred ties of love and self-sacrifice

So for you, too, our family proclaims with love

Mayer Khouan yer!

Despite the evolution of traditions, with the gender equality enshrined in the Constitution of the Lao PDR, the male sex continues to monopolize the function of officiant or morphone during a standard Baci with a phakhouan and all its attributes, with the participation of the family, village or city and ending with a banquet or a shared meal. As they used to do a long time ago, grandmothers and aunts keep on dealing with family soukhouan, sonekhouan or wankhouan.

This situation is undoubtedly the result of the influence of Buddhism since T’ai-Lao people believe that only male representatives, the only ones who are able to follow Buddha’s footsteps (becoming a monk), can get in touch with the invisible beings and the world of Saksit.

Only men can become a monk even for a few hours in order to escort a loved one to his/her final destination (Thakhek, 2013)

Only men can become a monk even for a few hours in order to escort a loved one to his/her final destination (Thakhek, 2013)

Stephen Bailey has also recognized this particular situation, noting that « the ritual words are crucial in all Lao rituals. » « The most powerful of these ritual words are the Pali texts chanted by the monks. The morphone’s most important qualification, even beyond having been a monk, is his ability to speak the words well and creatively so as to make them effective at each occasion », he said.

But it is also noted that more and more women, in Laos and abroad, assume the role of master of ceremony at Buddhist religious events, which suggests that in the near future they would cross the invisible barrier that still separates them from morphone’s function. Especially since they always occupy an important role in communication with the invisible world of Sing Saksit by assuming the function of Nang Thiem or Mè Thiem. « In daily life, women mediums commonly known as Nang Thiem (Lady in trance), or Maer Thiem (Mother in trance), play an important intermediary role between the world of human beings and that of the spirits, » said Mayoury Ngaosyvathn (1993) who also stressed the importance of women in history and Lao legend.

She referred , in particular, to the pair of old Pou Gneu-Gna Gneu who had volunteered themselves to cut a giant creeper that was obstructing the sky and depriving human beings of sunlight, and inevitably of life, and who was killed by falling branches  (Cf: https://laosmonamour.wordpress.com/2012/04/08/nouvel-an-laopimay/).

The academic also recalled the deeds of Nang Tantay and Nang Sida. The first had volunteered to be sacrificed in place of all the girls in the country, whom the king, her father, had threatened to execute in retaliation for the infidelity of his wife, the queen. The second gave herself to be sacrificed to the spirits in place of his father, the king of Champa, builder of Wat Phu, in southern Laos. As in fairy tales, the two princesses had been saved by her intelligence (Tantay) and a foreign prince (Sida). Another legendary woman ruled the kingdom of her husband, the father of Sinxay, when he was a monk.

A view from inside Wat Simuong, Vientiane, Laos

A view from inside Wat Simuong, Vientiane, Laos

Finally, all T’ai-Lao people, and even more and more foreign tourists know the legend of Yame Simuong (Lady Simuong), who gave her name to the famous pagoda in the center of Vientiane. When Vientiane was established as the new capital of Lanexang kingdom by King Saisatthathiraj in 1564, a young pregnant woman named Sao Sy was inspired to throw herself into the hole of the central pillar of the city while the Lakmuong (pillar of the city) was about to be planted. And she was buried alive. A supreme personal sacrifice according to some accounts, a ritual sacrifice -so necessarily organized – according to others.

The Baci and its multiple purposes

The importance and the value of the Baci rituals in the welfare of Lao people have been recognized by Western and regional specialists who all stressed that the solidarity, the friendship and the brotherhood expressed so warmly and so sincerely to the Khuan’s owners by representatives of the society and with the world of the invisible as witnesses, did produce a positive impulses and created a constructive atmosphere to achieve the desires and wishes of everyone.

As a matter of fact, the Baci turned out to be a unique opportunity in a man or a woman’s life where « the whole » (“le tout” in French) had been met and achieved with the presence of people from the same village or the same city, representing therefore society as a whole, Dharma and Sin Saksit, angels (Thévabut-Thévada), the tutelary spirits, Mè Thorany and, of course, Khuan. The « whole« , thus constituted, then helped to implement auspicious moment, the propitious moment here and then, as well as prosperous atmosphere to allow the symbiosis between the human world and that of the unseen. These interactions are conducive to the return of Khuan and the well-being not only of the persons honoured by a Baci but also the entire community gathered around them.

The new weds as well as their family are dressed in beautiful clothes (Oregon, october 2012)

The new weds as well as their family are dressed in beautiful clothes (Oregon, october 2012)

And that’s probably to be in tune with the surrounding splendour that khuan’s owners dressed themselves with elegance and sobriety -a white corsage and a Lao sinh for ladies, a white shirt and black pants for gentlemen-, sit calmly and with serenity, smiling to greet family and friends. Traditionally, they do not even have the right to express their pain when they are pinched by their guests at a wedding Baci. Unscrupulous friends explain their actions (of jealousy?) by their willingness to « help Khuan to enter the body. » In fact, a Baci is the only opportunity of social life in which physical contact between men and women is tolerated in public. The Soukhuan also temporarily removed societal hierarchies and turned everything into happiness and an indescribable feeling of bliss.

« True, on a theological level, the Lao believe that ultimate bliss is achieved in nirvana. But on a practical level, few feel they will ever reach this state. Khuan rituals represent an achievable stage of well-being for villagers that are associated with this life», noted Stephen Bailey.

For their part, Marcello Zago and Georges Condominas believed in the therapeutic virtues of the Baci since it created a propitious atmosphere on psychological and mental levels of the honouree. And if he/she was ill, support and solidarity from the whole community, representing by the presence of representatives from the village or the city, would constitute a huge psychological strength to help her/him to get better and to pull through. The fact that the phakhuan had become the momentary centre of the universe told the Khuan’s owner that she/he is, here and now, the most important person and the most loved too. This is why in the khuan’s prayers, we always referred to « good day » and « appropriate day » (musanh vanhsob ມື້ສັນ ວັນຊອບ).

Joy and happiness are on everyone's face

Joy and happiness are on everyone’s face

« The soukhuan therefore produces therapeutic spiritual health, because it actually restores psychological balance within and through the familial society because it provides the acceptance and respect for the person. Basically, there is an innate intuition in this way of doing things; that we need to heal the soul (the Khuan) in order to heal the body; that we must renew human depths to restore his/her physical health « , explained Marcello Zago.

It is well known and accepted that psychological well-being can produced beneficial chemicals to our health. Likewise, our bodies would feel better and is healthy when we have no worries and hassles, when we have joy of life and family harmony. It was moreover scientifically proven that tears, for example, release the body of tension and stress of everyday life. « Crying prevents the downward spiral of anxiety and depression, » said Dr Alexander Lowen, founder of bioenergy therapy.

The Geza Roheim Association acknowledged that « Baci, and especially its cultural representation on which it is based, illustrate etiologic and therapeutic concepts with clear gaps with our Western medical and psychological concepts.»

Dork Daoheuang

Dork Daoheuang

“The Baci showed the preponderance of a subtractive structure (the loss of something, the Khuan in this case) while most of ‘our diseases’ are included in an additive structure (…). The Lao Baci ‘closes the openings’ to possible malicious phi and other invisible (…). Everywhere, men have singular relationships with non-human entities, more or less terrestrial, more or less divine, almost always invisible. In all cases, these particular relationships have, among many functions, those of caring and the least of alleviating pain and misfortunes that hurt humans, » detailed the Association.

This goes back to what Levi-Strauss called symbolic efficiency.

The French anthropologist and ethnologist, quoted by Geza Roheim Association, wrote The Symbolic Efficiency (L’efficacité symbolique) from the analysis of a long incantation published by Nils Holmer and Henry Wassen (Mu-Igala or the Way of Muu, a Medecine Song from the Cunas of Panama) that a shaman used to help a mother experiencing a difficult delivery. After a systematic comparison between shamanism and psychoanalysis, Levi-Strauss concluded to the exact equivalence between the two treatments.

 « The symbolic effectiveness lies precisely in this ‘inductive property’ that possess , relative to each other, structures that are formally homologous and can be built with different materials at different stages of life: organic process, unconscious psyche, thoughtful thinking, » said Claude Lévi-Strauss.

Dork champa

Dork champa

The link between psychoanalysis and Baci is all the more surprising that in both cases a ‘doctor‘ (ຫມໍ in Lao) is in charge of the process: the officiant chairing a Baci is called Morphone, which means Dr of wishes or desires, or a « spirit doctor » (Mulder). In both cases, the practitioner care of illness or rather something intangible but really upsets and disturbs the harmony between the body and mind of a human being.

Stanley Tambiah, quoted by Bailey, has also recognized prophylactic and therapeutic functions to khuan rituals: « Khuan rituals are not so much to cure a disease -organic or mental (madness)- but to charge or restore morale, especially at rites of passage or situations of transition. In these cases, society attributes to the celebrant the state of mind in question; essentially the ritual is devised to say something to the celebrant and to create in his mind certain effects. » (Buddhism and the Spirit Cults in North-East Thailand. 1970).

In addition to its therapeutic functions, the Baci also helped to strengthen khuans that are already in our bodies, to make them happier so that they contribute to the well-being, good health and happiness of their owner (Zago, Okin ). These are the most important social function of khuan:  to gather relatives and friends for a happy moment of exchange and sharing!

Dork Hak or Love flower

Dork Hak or Love flower

The presence of relatives, friends, guests and villagers also contributed to make this auspicious moment so special and full of positive vibes for both those honoured by a Baci and the causal community. Because to take part in a Baci means that you and I as well as the relatives and participants still love you as much as in the past and still expect to achieve together major life projects in the future. That’s to say that we were all members of one big family forever…

The Baci can obviously play the role of mediator and conciliator in the event of disputes in a family or transgressions of customary rules without forgetting its function as a tribute and apology to parents, seniors, guardian spirits and other invisible powers. It simultaneously ensures the return of the offending person to his/her status as a man (or woman) who is still loved and respected by the community. He/she keeps on being a responsible citizen and human being with whom the family and society as a whole intend to work and succeed with.

The Khuan rituals actively took part in the reconstructing process as a « whole » inseparable the 32 parts of the body and their 32 Khuans, especially after an accident, serious illness, birth too (Cf. https://laosmonamour.wordpress.com/2014/05/23/laos-naissance-a-la-laotienne-en-lhonneur-de-notre-petit-neveu-passaya/) or any other event that had disrupted the balance and vital harmony of a person.

Dork Khoune

Dork Khoune

Marcello Zago had grasped in this ritual the social and socio-psychological scope of the act of reparation: « This repair should be understood not as primarily a request of forgiveness, but as the restoration of a desired order (…). To offend someone, to insult him/her or to make him/her ‘lose face’ or reputation, not only hurt the outside, as we Westerners; the offense nearly destroyed him or her as a person, touches what he/she has in the deepest part of his/her person, his/her Khouan. Therefore, one should not only make legal but existential rehabilitation, to reinstate the offended person by the whole order in the consideration of parents and ancestors by honouring».

This shows that the Baci can restore in his/her whole a person who has been harmed in his/her honour and customs while bringing him/her back to occupy once again and fully his/her place in the society. At the same time, the khuan ritual recreates the harmony within the family, the town, the city and the society as a whole. Concord, mutual support and sharing as well as the full trust and harmony can contribute to the well-being and the happiness not only of the persons honoured by a Baci but also the entire community.

And whenever an unexpected event occurs in a family, a village, a town or a society, harmony and balance are broken since there is novelty, because there is change. For example, a birth brings great changes to the established family order. Not only there is a new member in the family, the woman’s status, who was previously a wife, a daughter or a niece, also changes. Thanks to the magic of giving birth, she has become a mother and an important member of the family and the clan to which she had given an heir! On a purely technical and material level, the arrival of a baby also transforms the daily grind of life into an atmosphere of great joy and happiness, but with a lot of easements absent before: shouting and crying from the baby, unwanted awakenings at night for the parents etc.

Dork champy

Dork champa deng or Red Champa

So, some Khuan could actually be tempted by a departure to another place that they hope would be calmer, more relaxing or more joyful, and surely more satisfying to their wandering nature. The organization of a Baci is even more necessary then the extended family must present its new member to the society. This ritual therefore has at least three important functions:

  1. To present and introduce the newly born within the community to be accepted as a full member; a new member with all his rights and duties;
  2. To recognize the new status of the wife who has become a mother, that means the one who had the chance to give life and the honour to procreate and to give a descendants to her family;
  3.  To bring back the balance and harmony, that were momentarily broken by the event of the birth, within the family, the village and the society in order to ensure well-being and happiness for all its members.

The particular importance of the Baci organised to welcome a mother into her place in society and to introduce a newly born baby is magnified by the fact that the guests cannot refuse to honour the invitation to this khouan rituals unless an extremely serious impediment. Because everyone deeply knows that if he/she was invited it’s because he/she is an integral part of this family whether by blood, by marriage or real friendship. To refuse to take part would amount to opting out of this great family, an act that very few people could afford because they know that this would amount to a voluntary excommunication from his/her common destiny. This would not only be the worst convictions for someone who had already been obliged to live away from his/her ancestral land, but he/she would also lose all his/her socio-cultural and religious roots.

A wedding Baci in Paris (May 2012)

A wedding Baci in Paris (May 2012)

The other Baci that we have to attend when we are invited is that of marriage. Strangely enough, these two events relate to the beginning of a new life. On the one hand, it’s the baby’s first steps in the society while the woman becomes a mother. On the other hand, the new couple who has officially changed its status from single to that of husband and wife, and they deserve now consideration and respect due to their new rank. For these reasons, the Lao make a point of attending a wedding Baci because they know they will need some day community’s solidarity and help when they or their children get married. Furthermore, they are also aware of the particular importance of participating in the construction of a new home, a new family, while having the privilege of witnessing one of the happiest events on earth.

Therefore, gifts to the young couple, whether of money or valuables, have a particular social weight. The guests are aware that their contribution is not only the testimony of a great friendship and a customary solidarity, but also a financial and material constitution of the basis of their own community, which are mutual help and sharing. They vaguely feel that the success -or the failure- of the new couple also depends on them and their presence. They are both witnesses (of the union) and guarantors of the agreement between the two beings.

The first T’ai-Lao or Ai-Lao to celebrate a Baci and to establish its rules would probably never imagined of so many social and psychological impacts from this small family reunion.  Moreover, they would never thought that the khouan rituals would require so much responsibility from the community who take part in a Soukhouane or a Phoukkhène.

A couple of new weds in Lao traditional clothes (Paris, May 2012)

A couple of new weds in Lao traditional clothes (Paris, May 2012)

The pinnacle of Lao culture

The Baci, which took its present form in the early sixteenth century during the reign of King Visounnarath, is not only an integral part of the symbols of the art of being Lao, but it is becoming more and more a philosophy of life in Laos, made of sincere feelings, easy living, hospitality and sharing. Under the protection of the Three Jewels and in the presence of celestial beings, necessarily invisible, it creates the magic of a complex communitarianism where the invisible world of Sin Saksit intermingle with human and representation of Mount Meru, to create a new universe, certainly temporary but able to allow mediation between the invisible beings, including Khuan, and humans.

   In search of an absolute happiness he knows however illusory, which already represents the beginning of wisdom, Lao citizen knows he can get the quintessence of life from the Khuan ritual. The Baci or Soukhuan brings him comfort, balance, harmony, joy and happiness, helping to give him his existential whole without which he cannot find well-being and inner peace.

Mayoury Ngaosyvathn has stressed the vital contribution of the khuan ritual in the psychological balance of persons honoured by a Baci and the casual community: « The soukhuan is a ritual which re-establishes the psychological equilibrium of the individual and that of his or her family as well as the community members (…). The soukhuan entails social acceptance and respect for the person undergoing the ritual. Curing or taking care of the soul, in effect, serves a psychological function because the ritual affirms the solidarity of those participating in it. To the extent, the ritual is believed to strengthen the soul or souls of the individual against possible dangers, or to restore diminished power, the person undergoing the ritual must undoubtedly feel ‘happier’ and from this point of view, the ritual is also psychologically therapeutic for the individual.»

A family Baci to a new born baby at a hospital

A family Baci to a new born baby at a hospital

We can therefore conclude that the Baci brings joy, happiness, harmony and solidarity to all. It simultaneously reinforces the existing attachments of friendship that are so magnified publicly and in the presence of invisible beings Saksit. By extension, the village, the town, the community as a whole can take full advantage of these positive impulses to consolidate the feelings of support, solidarity and respect.

Since the late 1980s and the socio-economic opening of Laos, Baci is henceforth a strong symbols of the art of being Lao, it has even become an essential national institution. It is now officially organized for the reception of foreign dignitaries, to mark important events in the nation, a way to « legitimize » the new regime, according to Grant Evans, cited by Chai Chin Fern, Stephan Bailey and Mayoury Ngaosyvathn.

 And Chai Chin Fern has noted that « the practice of traditional beliefs is part and parcel of the daily life of Lao. Although they have begun to embrace the modern world, the government of Laos has reinstated many traditional practices and ceremonies into mainstream society. One of them is soukhuan (…). The Lao government is trying to instill a sense of Laoness among its people through the revival of traditional customs (…). Today, the soukhuan is identified to Lao people (…). As it can be participated by people of other religious faith, it serves as a good unifying. Thus, an aged old tradition has been resurrected for a new purpose in shaping a Lao national identity »

If she noted that the Khuan’s original rituals had undergone changes in contact with Brahmanism and Buddhism, Ruth-Inge Heinze, quoted by Stephen Bailey, still sees four main functions of this central ceremony in the T’ai-Lao people’s life. It helps the restoration and the strengthening of harmony between the individual and his psyche, between the individual and society, between the individual and the supernatural, and finally, between the individual and the universe (Tham Khwan. How to Contain the Essence of Life, 1982).

After a Baci, a common meal (Paris, 2012)

After a Baci, a common meal (Paris, 2012)

The Baci allows everyone to find his existential whole whatever his religion, his origin or his social status. Every Lao citizen and his friends or relatives have had or will have the honour of a Baci at least once in their life because it is the pinnacle of the art of being Lao, the best expression of Lao life style, made of true, proud and sincere friendship, sharing and mutual aid, with also the idea of hospitality.

Inexplicably, I felt an impalpable well-being and inner peace after each of the many Baci which I had the opportunity to attend, either as a single participant, a khuan’s owner or as the Khuan master of ceremony.

As Sarah Shaw, an American tourist, I cannot explain where I got this feeling of happiness and this so communicative well-being provided by a Baci from.

Here is her testimony: Baci Ceremony Calls My Soul in Laos, in http://wanderlustandlipstick.com/blogs/wandershopper/2013/08/19/baci-ceremony-calls-my-soul-in-laos/)

For Louise Dallaire, the Baci “is a sacred moment”. When she was honoured by a Baci for the first time in Paris in October 2012, she said she had received “an unheard gift, a mark of friendship which I never dared to claim”.

Louise Dallaire honoured by a Baci in Paris (2012)

Louise Dallaire honoured by a Baci in Paris (2012)

« These moments are transformed into a kind of marriage, a final link with the community that welcomes me, envelops me, accepts me and carries me. In the Baci, I’ve found the form of ritual that is natural to me and I felt happiness invaded me without knowing why at first. It is a state of abdication, without resistance when the sadness is left behind. Then, I’m entering an area of faith and hope with the mutation of a negative state of mind into a more positive one. It is like witnessing the birth of a mad love and joy, because the impression of being deeply loved springs in us. And being surrounded by so loving persons creates an energy, an extraordinary wrap and inspires an unparalleled sense of love”, said Mrs Dallaire.

As Dr Thongrith Phoumirath noted, « the soukhuan is the key culture word that connotes and denotes the attitude, the thinking and worldview of the Lao people. To many Lao, it is the true marker of the Lao identity», it can also prove to be an exceptional means of mediation between Lao culture and non-Lao, who fell under its spell.

“To the Lao, the performance of the soukhuan evokes the history, the mythology and cosmology that have existed since the halcyons days of their ancestors (…). The soukhuan has become for the Lao a mechanism through which the Lao maintain links with and represent the past: maintaining and continuing their identity and tradition”, added Dr Thongrith.

The Baci, Soukhuan or Phoukkhène, which we are also organizing to host a new car – just like the baptism of a new boat or a yacht in the West-, to honour the newly harvested rice that had been stocked in the barn, a buffalo that had helped the work and any being or object directly involved in our everyday life, performs multiple functions. If it has become the most important symbol, the most striking too, of the art of being Lao, it also allows Lao nationals in the diaspora to get together for a good time and feel as if they were still on their ancestral land even if, actually, they are tens of thousands of miles away.

The Baci as a symbol of material representation of the Lao country is undoubtedly one of its greatest benefits.

This is, somehow, the miracle of life…

P.S.: Thanks to Tiane Soulatha for dedicating her precious time reading and correcting this paper.

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A wedding Baci and the sharing of boiled egg and alcohol (Paris, May 2012)

 

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