311th Meeting – Tuesday, May 12th 2009
“Examining Tung: Northern Thai Banners and their Cambodian Counterparts”
A talk and presentation by Rebecca Hall
Present: Susan Morgan, Celeste Tolibas-Holland, Naripaz Soler, Katrina Michel, Carole Beauclerk, Bonnie Brereton, Karin Bode, Renee Vines, James Bogle, Rudolf Ormerga, Lisa Keary, Tee, Ken Dyer, Robert Bloeser, Derrick Titmus, Janet Illeni, David James, Mark and Dianne Barber-Riley, Ron Emmons, Adriano Ovalle, Patricia Cheesman, Fred Lambersof, Sylvi Vekve, Jacques Leider, Louis Gabaude, Ian Ross, Adam Oswell, Rebecca Weldon, Felicity Aulino, Kevin Moore, Bodil Blokker. An audience of 32 plus a couple more.
I begin my
presentation today with
a basic statement about banners in
If you have visited
wats or even
been near a wat with an upcoming celebration here in
A significant part of
on Buddhist banners has focused on
In addition to my
I spent September through December 2008 in Siem Reap
Northern Thai Banners
The hand woven cloth
I have largely focused on in my research here in
These banners vary widely in appearance; for example, some supplementary weft banner styles include large prasat motifs and others may feature the twelve animals of the zodiac. Northern Thai supplementary weft banners may include dense patterning and motifs throughout their length, sparse patterning, or they may have designs focused at the end that hangs closest to the ground.
These banners hang at the wat for several reasons. The most common that I have seen all around the north are banners hanging for special occasions: to announce a wat festival or ceremony or some type of meritorious event. For this purpose, banners hang around the perimeter of a wat, along the path or road leading up to a wat, and around the buildings at the wat. With bright colors and fluttering lengths, they function very well at getting attention of passersby and at creating a festive, attractive atmosphere. During the festival season, it is possible to drive around and see roads and paths leading up to monasteries lined with banners to announce any variety of meritorious celebrations. When not hanging, these banners are kept in storage at the wat.
Other banners in Northern Thai wats are hung inside image halls, filling the space along the wall, near the columns, or near the main Buddha images. These banners can be hung in large numbers, most often in wats in Tai Lue villages, but more often they may be hung as a series of single banners in a relatively inconspicuous place.
While it might be a bit of a generalization to say so, these banners, hung inside or out, often look the same, or at the very least they look quite similar. What I cannot judge at this point in my research is whether or not this was the case in the past. In fact, whenever I try to take a stab at this question I conclude it is not the kind of thing I can resolve for the time being. It will take further interviews, specifically focused on the older members of communities, and archival research focusing on extant photographs. While I am interested in understanding if a difference in appearance may have existed in the past between these banners, I should highlight what a young monk once emphasized to me: that no matter what the banners look like or where they are hung, they all have the same meaning – which is to gain merit and help the deceased get to heaven. Banners are typically donated by the women who make them, who then gain merit for themselves but equally importantly transfer much of that merit to deceased relatives such as a parent or grandparent in order to help them in their next life.
While variation in
banners’ appearances and names (which I acknowledge I have not
be commonplace here in
You can immediately
see from this
photo that Cambodian banners take a very different form than the
banners, and as I mentioned at the beginning of this talk, they are
from scraps of cloth or lengths of cloth that are cut and then sewn
banner shape. Cambodian banners are also called “tung.”
The banners can
be large or small, and very colorful or just white. According to
interviewed, there are four or five different types of banners but I am
concerned with two for this presentation today. Although
I did not emphasize names of banners
in my discussion of the Northern Thai tung, I bring them up here
Before I explain the names of the Cambodian banners and the difference between the two types, I want to explain a simple detail about the banners I am about to discuss. To keep it simple, they basically come in 2 different sizes: large and small. It is not difficult to differentiate between the two, as the size differences are quite pronounced. The large banners are hung in pairs (always in pairs!) outside on the grounds of the wat and the small banners are hung inside of the buildings.
First we have tung rolok which are banners with horizontal bamboo rods systematically placed throughout the length or “body” of the banner. Tung rolok have a specified number of horizontal rods that correspond to whom the banner is honoring: mother (12), father (21), sangha/monk (14), dhamma (38), Buddha (56), and more. These numbers were consistently counted and stated to me by each and every person I interviewed. These banners really can be quite large and difficult to photograph, especially because they are often fluttering around in the wind. This movement is in fact what their name refers to as the word “rolok” translates as “waving” and thus the “tung rolok” is a “waving banner.” These large banners are always donated and hung in pairs. Importantly, “tung rolok” are not always large; this is also the name given to the small banners hung around Buddha images that take the same form as those large banners, with the horizontal rods used throughout the length.
Large tung aphithoam are associated with funerals, yet again small banners with a similar shape are given the same name by interviewees. These banners do not have horizontal rods throughout their length; instead they have four bamboo rods at the top and four near the bottom with a length of cloth in between. It was explained to me that the 8 rods are representative of the eight-fold path of Buddhism, but I am actually hesitant to believe that is really the reason that this banner type has 8 rods. The name “aphithoam” which made absolutely no sense to me when I first was hearing in interviews it is the Cambodian word for “abhidhamma” which is one of the three pitaka (texts, or “baskets”) of Buddhism and translates to mean, basically, “higher teachings.” If I understand correctly, the reason these banners have been given this name is that portions of the abhidhamma are read at funerals, where the large tung aphithoam are hung.
All of these banners, with the exception of the large white tung aphithoam, hang at Cambodian wats. The large tung rolok are most commonly seen hanging on long poles on wat grounds to announce a festival/celebration/gathering. Such banners are usually hung only for the duration of the festivities; they are raised the day before a festival and then taken down immediately after and stored at the wat. This short duration of hanging is practical as much as anything else – it helps to keep the banners in a nice condition and extends their life. At one wat where two large tung rolok hang year round, the abbot explained to me that the purpose was that people feel better when they see the banners.
The raising of the large tung rolok on its pole is an important part of the banner’s presence at the wat. In order for the banner to be hung for a ceremony or festival, it is first brought out of storage and then raised by the achar (layman who is a liaison between the monks and laity) and surrounding villagers who help hold it up. The banners contain a small pocket which is filled with money before it is raised – when it is lowered again this money will be donated to the wat or used by the achar to purchase things for the wat. As the banner is raised, the achar chants; it was explained to me that this chanting is a way to guide the banner to get to heaven; others told me that the chanting and banners themselves were intended to protect the wat from evil spirits.
The Cambodian banners
well to signal a wat festival, and in general in many of the interviews
were stressed as visual announcements of gatherings that would have
particularly efficient in the days before mobile phones. In general
far fewer banners hanging at a Cambodian wat for a festival than we see
The small banners
that hang in the
interior of buildings are widely varied although I rarely saw more than
scattered through the space or hanging near the main Buddha image.
these small banners would be hung at the four corners surrounding the
image, probably to mark the sacred space and cardinal directions in a
Khmer manner, in my opinion. As I have pointed out, these banners are
any variety of colors and styles. I believe that the wide variety of
individuality of these banners is likely a reflection that many more
make them themselves rather than commissioning them from specific
sewers and so
they reflect individual tastes and skills in a more broad fashion
what we have seen in
Comparison between Northern Thai and Cambodian Banners
In looking at the
Cambodian banners that I have shown you, I hope you have noticed that
there is some amount of variation in the banners mostly in terms of
size, overwhelmingly all of the banners have an incredible amount of
similarity. I saw this in many different locations I traveled to in the
country, as opposed to my travels here in
In looking at the Northern Thai banners, one of the most attractive and appealing things about them, especially to me as I researched and wrote my dissertation, is the fact that there is so much variation in their appearance, clearly reflecting both local weaving styles and the interpretations or intentions of the weaver. I have felt throughout my research on these banners that I am working on are underappreciated works of art.
The Cambodian banners
different from the Northern Thai banners in this way. Because the
are not hand woven but constructed with either scraps of cloth or cut
yardage, there appears to be a standardization of the banners not seen
Northern Thailand, at least not yet. Due to the nature of the
banners, there is less room for individual expression or interpretation
terms of the banners’ appearance: size, color, embellishment, and
the specific characteristics that differentiate one banner from the
I enjoy Cambodian banners quite a bit and feel there is still a rich
research still to be done on them, it was difficult research for me at
because I felt as though my aesthetic sensibilities and training as an
historian were not particularly useful or applied in the way they had
here in the north focusing instead on use and meaning. And again these
differences largely come down to the nature of the way that the banners
constructed and the materials. But let me add that people I spoke with
In addition to the
beauty of the
banners, their initial reason for hanging on the grounds of wat is
important. As I outlined already, the hand woven cloth banners here in
The banners hanging inside buildings at the wat have a different function yet the underlying meaning is largely the same. Clearly these interior banners do not announce ceremonies and they cannot bring people in from the streets as the pass by the wat. These banners remain hanging throughout the year and work as reminders of the Buddha’s teachings, visual clues about the respect that laity have for the Buddha, and the generosity of the laity seeking merit to be applied in their next life or for transference to others. Another purpose that cannot be overemphasized is that they are also specifically intended to make a sacred space more beautiful. Rather than draw passersby in from outside the wat, these banners add to the ambiance inside and retain visitors once they have arrived.
As we move further into a time in which fewer people make things at home for donation to the wat, and in a time where boundaries between religious and secular objects are increasingly blurred for purposes of tourism, national identity, and commercialism, what effect has that had and perhaps will it continue to have on the banners I have been discussing? I have already alluded to one such issue in talking about the banners here in Northern Thailand in terms of the loss of individuality and the fact that many, if not most, that are donated at wats are purchased at markets or commissioned from the weavers themselves. Will banners decline in number as fewer are purchased and donated at the wat? Or, more possible from what I have seen, will the banners hung inside buildings at wats disappear more quickly as plain banners continue to be hung to announce wat ceremonies? Given the evidence I have seen so far, I would certainly venture to answer yes to both of these questions. In addition I have seen consistently the appearance of banners at places completely unrelated to the wat and unrelated to everything I have outlined here.
I am still in the process of sorting out whether or not I can figure out if there is any specific connection or relationship between these two banner forms, from two different yet similar neighboring cultures. Clearly there are many similarities, only some of which I have emphasized in this presentation, although differences are apparent as well. A question I must ask but one which may be somewhat unanswerable is whether or not what we are seeing with these banners is a reflection of the nature of cloth or something much more. In saying “the nature of cloth” I want to be sure to clarify that I do not mean to imply that banners are hung at wats because that is a good use for cloth. Certainly after sitting through this presentation each of you can understand that there is more going on here than that. I have emphasized the role of banners at the wat and alluded to the connection that the banners have between heaven and earth.
Nevertheless, my goal
simple. I see banners as being an important component of Buddhist wats
Northern Thailand as well as in
Rebecca’s most interesting and entertaining presentation was followed by an equally enthusiastic question and answer session.