A shopkeeper puts the finishing touches on a colourful krathong.
The full moon night of the twelfth lunar month (usually in mid-November) is the time for the Loi Krathong festival. The word loi in Thai means “to float”, while krathong refers to a cup most commonly made from banana leaves.
A candle is placed inside the leaf cup, which is then placed on the water and left to float away, as an offering to Mae Khongka, or “Mother of the Waters”. During the months of October and November most rivers and canals in the Central region are flooded and in many places overflow their banks.
But in the month of November, this changes abruptly, and the weather turns fair and clear, and the hardest work is over for the farmers.
In the markets a few days before the full moon evening of Loi Krathong, you will see in shops many specially-made krathongs. Some, in exotic shapes such as birds and boats, are more like toys than traditional krathongs, and have only begun to appear in the past few years, mainly in the cities. Country people by and large stick to tradition in the construction of their krathongs.
The floating krathong often has a small coin inside, in addition to a candle and incense sticks. Some people even add a small portion of betel nut, although this is a tradition from long ago and is not often practiced these days.
In the evening when the moon begins to rise, people carry their krathongs to the banks of the nearest waterway, a klong, river or a lake.
After the candles and incense sticks are lit, the krathong is placed gently in the water and given a soft push onto the surface of the water.
Some people will then raise their hands in a sign of worship and prayer. They then watch the krathong until it floats out of sight under the serene light of the full moon.
Another Loi Krathong tradition is setting off fireworks, and children especially delight in this aspect of the festival. While they seem to enjoy the noise and light more than anything else, the fireworks do have an important role in many Thai celebrations, and are lit in the same spirit as candles.
THE NORTHERN LANTERN FESTIVAL & YI-PENG LOI KRATHONG November 4 – 6, 2006 at the Chiang Mai Municipal Office and citywide and along the banks of the Ping River
The following story was written by King Mongkut (Rama IV) in English in the year 1863.
In the reign of Somdet Phra Ruang there lived a famous Brahmin who was noted in the capital, and in all the surrounding country, for his great wisdom. There was no branch of knowledge whose depths he had not fathomed. He could read the stars, cast horoscopes, foretell eclipses, and fulfil the duties of a weather prophet. He was well versed in the mysteries of the theory and practice of medicine, and knew the names, habitats, and virtuous properties of all the plants that grew. As a theologian he could explain the origin of all things, and discourse upon the subtle doctrines of all the religions then known. He was an authority upon law, could tell what had been the customs of many people, and devise plans for firm and wise government. As a scholar of ancient practices he was unrivalled, and knew all the details of the growth and development of all religions and social usages. Such a man found great favour in the eyes of the sovereign, who made use of the Brahmin’s great wisdom in the management of his subjects. He gave him many honours and appointed him to fill many important functions. Amongst many offices that he held, two were given him on account of his unrivalled knowledge, namely those of chief physician and chief judge.
This encyclopaedic philosopher had a young and graceful daughter whom he called Nopamas. And as became a child of so wise a father, she was also well-skilled in many arts and sciences. Her beauty was the subject of every song, and her name was on everyones mouth. The whole nation was enthusiastic in their praise for her, and so great were her charms and abilities that even her own sex regarded her not with envy, but were proud that one of their number should be distinguished. She was almost as learned as her father and was wont to discourse upon all subjects with great intelligence. She was a clever poetess, a skilful musician, and an artist of great power. And when the poets of the country had exhausted all their vocabulary in describing her beauty and her talents, they began to sing of the honours she ought to receive, and greatest of all these was the honour of becoming the wife of the king. One day the king listened to a group of musicians who were merrily singing, and the subject of their song was the wondrous Nopamas, fit only for the wife of the sovereign. The song scorned the idea of her wedding any one of less degree, and eulogised her to such an extent that the listening monarch’s curiosity became very great. He returned to his palace, and sought for the ladies of his household. He told them all he had heard, and enquired if anyone of them knew anything of this peerless creatures. To the king’s eager enquiries they returned the answer that the song was true, but that no words could adequately describe the charms of the Brahmin maiden. The king could no longer restrain his desire to possess so fair a creature, and he sent the most elderly ladies of his retinue, according to the custom of the country, to ask her father for her hands.
The ladies went, and their mission was entirely successful. The old counsellor who had received so many favours from his sovereign was glad to have an opportunity of showing his gratitude in this way, so he willing presented his renowned daughter to his royal master. He sent her to the king, who ever afterwards treated her with great tenderness and affection, and soon made her chief of the ladies in the palace. Both of them enjoyed the greatest happiness when in each other’s company, and whenever Nopamas was not engaged in fulfilling her duties in her department of the palace, she held converse with the king, delighting him with her great wisdom and knowledge, and charming him with her compositions in music and poetry.
Soon after their marriage there occurred a celebration of the Kathin ceremony, and the king desired of fair Nopamas to accompany him on his water procession. Now, although this beautiful wife had married a Buddhist king, she still remained true to her Brahmin faith, and worshipped her own idols and spirits according to the precepts her father had taught he in her early childhood. It was a Brahminical custom that, at the end of the year, all people should prepare suitable offerings to present to the genii of the river, in order to obtain pardon and the absolution of their sins. Towards the end of the year, when the people were getting ready to celebrate the Kathin, Nopamas secretly prepared to perform her own religious rites, and for this purpose she made a small boat-like structure, called a “krathong”, made of banana leaves. She then loaded it with paddy husks to make it float in stable equilibrium. She stitched strips of plantain leaves together, and pinned them around the edge of the little boat by way of ornament. Over the ballast she spread smooth clean plantain leaves, and on this green leafy deck she placed a little cargo of betel-nut, betel leaf, parched rice, and sweet scented flowers. She took several fresh fruits of a fleshy character, such as the papaya and the pumpkin, and deftly carved them into representations of fruits, flowers, and animals, and piled them up in a conical arrangement in the centre. The artificial flowers she stained with the juices of other plants to make them resemble real blossoms. Here and there she fastened one of her own sketches or paintings, and finally finished the work by adorning it with storied umbrellas of paper, tiny flags, toy implements, tapers, and scented incense sticks.
On the first evening of the Kathin ceremony the boats were arranged in front of the palace landing, as usual, and the stats barge with the glass throne was moored there, pending the arrival of the king. Suddenly everyone’s attention was attracted by a strange-looking object that was being floated to the royal landing. It was the Krathong that Nopamas had made. She intended to light the tapers and the incense sticks, and sent the float adrift to bear he message to the spirits, at the same time that the royal party should set out to visit the temples. But as soon as the Krathong had come to the landing, all the ladies, and the members of the royal family, who were assembled there to wait for the coming of the king, crowded round it, and begged to to be allowed to examine it, so Nopamas had to explain the design and the meaning of this, her handiwork. So great was the interest exhibited by everyone in the pretty toy, that no one noticed the arrival of the king, and he seeing the crowd so noisy and so attracted, enquired, what was the cause of their merriment and amusement. Someone told him that everyone was busily admiring a float that this beautiful consort had made. He then ordered the object to be brought to him that he might also see and hear about it. When he saw it he could not find sufficient words to express his admiration of the skill that had designed and constructed it. He requested to be allowed to keep it, and Nopamas knelt before him and presented him with the decorated krathong. He again praised the work, but more still did he praise she who had made it. But when he had examined it a little longer, he discovered its purpose, and said, “This is the offering of a lady of the Brahmin faith,” and Nopamas answered him saying, “That is so, for I am a Brahmin, and hitherto Your Majesty has not interfered with my religious belief, so at this season of the year, I have made this little krathong with the intention of floating it down the river as an offering to the spirits of the water,as is right and proper for a maiden of the Brahmin faith to do.”
Phra Ruang was a good Buddhist and a devout believer in the teachings of his own religion. Still, the Krathong looked very pretty, and he had a great desire to light the incense sticks and the tapers and send it adrift as Nopamas had intended. But he was afraid of the opinions of the people. For if he should make this offering to the spirits and not to Buddha, he was afraid the people might upbraid him and accuse him of having abandoned his religion for that of his wife. But he could not resist the temptation to see what the krathong would look like when it was illuminated, so, not without some little misgivings, he lit the lights upon the leafy boat. And still he was not satisfied, for he wanted to see it drifting away into the darkness, with the tapers reflecting their glittering light in the flowing waters. Therefore he cast about in his mind for some excuse to explain his actions, and presently he spoke in a loud voice that all around him, whether upon the landing-stage, the banks of the river, or in the boats before him, might hear, and said, “To all the property, such as temples, pagodas, and spires that are dedicated to Buddha on the banks of this river; to all his sacred relics, such as his bones and hair, wherever they may be in the subterranean regions concealed from the eye, under the river, or in places which Buddha has pressed with his feet, when moving in his might or in his natural state; to his footprints in this river, or in the ocean which receives the stream of this river, – to them I offer this krathong and its contents as worthy of the great Buddha. To him and to the relics and to his property I reverently dedicate this krathong. And whatever merit I may obtain by this deed, that merit I do not appropriate for myself, but give to the genii, in whose honour the krathong was first made by Nopamas, for I too reverence the spirits she intended to honour.” Having finished this speech in defence of his actions, and having satisfied his own conscience, he placed the brilliantly illuminated float in the water, for the stream to carry away to the sea..
But all these proceedings, though very complimentary to Nopamas herself, did not in any way realise her idea as to what was due to the water-spirits from who was a Brahmin. As she had now no offering, she at once set to work to make one. She hastily gathered fresh leaves and bound them together into a square, shallow box. She cut bits of banana stem to fasten to it, and in the middle she quickly stuck a few tapers and joss-sticks, borrowed from the people round about her. Into the boat she cast anything she could find, lit the tapers, made her vows and resolves mentally, and cast the toy adrift to follow the one the king had already launched. The monarch saw it, and knew who had made it so quickly, for there was but one woman in the land who had the knowledge and the skill to constructed a new krathong so easily. He was loud in his praise, and the people, stirred by the example thus set them, took everything that they could find that would float, stuck lighted tapers and incense sticks in them them, and put them in the water, till presently the river was all ablaze with twinkling lights, and the air was full of the joyful sound of merry laughter.
The king was highly delighted with the sight, and ordered that it should occur annually in honour of the wise and beautiful Nopamas. And he entreated the genni of the river to take possession of the hearts and minds of all his subjects at this season of the year, for ever and ever and compel them to hold a great festival, which he named for short “Loy Krathong”. Loy means to send adrift, and Krathong means: a little basket-like boat containing small flowers and other offerings suitable for the water spirits. There are those in the country who say that all the descendants of those who witnessed the first ceremony, are slaves of Phra Ruang, and that at the proper season their minds are forced to obey his wishes, and send adrift the taper-bearing floats.
For seven hundred years the ceremony has existed, but its details have changed with each succeeding generation. A few years after its initiation the king ceased his visitation to all temples that were not near at hand, and all the fireworks that used to be let off on his arrival were brought together to make a gorgeous display at the palace landing. The king sat on a throne to watch the general amusement, and then sent adrift one or more krathongs.
Since the foundation of Bangkok the ceremonies of Kathin and Loy Krathong have branched off from each other. During the first and second reigns of the present dynasty the nobles vied with each other to make more and more gorgeous krathongs. The third king found that this was unnecessary as it had cost the nobles big expenses for nothing, so he stopped it as a royal ceremony, but the people still continued with it and so the Loy Krathong has since then become a public ceremony instead.
The story was written by King Mongkut (Rama IV) in English in the year 1863 and published in the Bangkok Calendar It was also abridged by Ernest Young in ‘The Kingdom of the Yellow Robes’ (1898). The above version was taken from ‘Understanding Thai Buddhism’ by M.L. Manich Jumsai and published by Chalermnit Press.
“Loy Krathong Song” is arranged by Ped Samatha
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courtesy of the Bangkok Post
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