"Calling Of The Soul". A Peculiarly Lao Ceremony.

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March 10th 2011
Published: March 14th 2011
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In the land of a million elephants, the gentle giant is an iconic but endangered species. According to popular belief, in the cycle of reincarnations, the elephant constitutes the next stage below that of a human - maybe that's why the he had his own baci ceremony at the elephant festival in Pak Lay - for the baci ceremony is fundamental to Lao thinking; a ceremony to harmonise the individual, society, the supernatural and the universe.

Lao believe everyone has thirty-two guardian spirits, known as khwdn, each of which protects a specific organ or faculty. Sometimes, these spirits become restless and wonder away from their owner. They can be tempted away by strong emotion, by another being, an attractive place, or can be captured by a bad spirit. Absence, it is believed, can cause danger, disease - even death. To avoid disaster, neighbours, family and friends are invited and the bqasli ceremony is performed to bind the spirits to the soul.

In a large paddock the elephants were arranged in a long curving line close to the pha khwdn - a conical pyramid of banana leaves, flowers and fruits. Mahouts sat astride their necks, some stood close by nudging their trunks. The gentle giants munched and champed their way through palm leaves and shoots while an elder called across different worlds, chanting a long Buddhist mantra, his eyes closed, his palms clasped together, to call in the wandering khwdn. Monks in bright orange robes sat under a shaded pavilion, sometimes chanting in unison with the elder. A white string hanging from one of the elephants ears, looped the elephants and monks loosely together - this was the binding string, which would reunite the spirits with the owner. One of the monks rose and walked amongst the great beasts, splashing holy water over their trunks. The animals shook their heads and carried on chomping - nothing - not even a religious ceremony - distracts an elephant from eating. Each mahout was given a tiny pyramid of banana leaves, beautifully decorated with orange marigold flowers. These offerings to attract the spirits were rested gently on the elephants heads. A little baby elephant - too small for a mahout - had his offering of flowers clasped under the chain wound around his head and neck. After repeated calls and offerings the spirits were presumed to have returned to the host body. The fun started as everyone rushed forwards to tie a cord around an ear, a tusk, whatever could be reached. Surprisingly gentle for such huge animals, the elephants tolerated the crush, the pushing, the noise.

Spirit and body reunited, the elephants were lead away for another day of all things jumbo - rides, bathing, logging demonstrations, circus tricks. After the supernatural back to reality.

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