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Pi Mai in Luang Prabang

posted Nov 27, 2011, 8:15 PM by Dong Travel Ticketing   [ updated Nov 27, 2011, 8:15 PM by Mickey Dong Hoang Thinh ]

PI MAI  in Luang Prabang

Pi Mai,the Lao New Year,is celebrated in a yoyous atmo-sphere all over the country.But nowhere else does it involve so many age-old traditions and colourful pageantry like in Luang Prabang,the World Heritage city in Northern Laos.


Luang Prabang, a rather quiet and serene town for most of the year,becomes bustling with excitement when April comes.People are busy cleaning their houses and putting the finishing touches to the decoration of the city.Student of the fine Arts School maje a fibre glass amal which is mounted to the procession float of Nang Sangkarn,the New Year Lady.In temples,novices clean the Vor,the golden palanquins in which abbots of the temples are carried in the processions.Pou Nyer,Nyar Nyer and their lion cub Singkaeo-Singkham are at the centre of the ceremonies.Pou Nyer and Nyar Nyer are the masks of the legendary ancestors of the Lao people.Legend goes that,at the beginning of time,a huge vine obscured the earth so that people could not grow rice and vegetables and the men and animals faced inevitable death.King Khun Boulom asked an old couple to cut the vine that nobody was able to get rid of.Knowing  that they would cer-tainly be crushed to death by the falling vine,the old couple requested the following generations to remember them.That is the reason why,in Luang Prabang,before people do anything,they would invite the ancestors to join by saying:Ma Nyer! Kin Nyer! (Come,Nyer! Eat,Nyer!)

The masks of Pou Nyer Nyar Nyer,which are kept in chests in Hor Thevada Luang(Sanctuary of the Great Divinities) at Vat Aham,near Vat Vixun,are invited to come out of their boxes to join Pi Nai celebrations.Each mask is worn by a young man while that of Singkaeo-Singkham,the lion cub.needs two men.

The ancestors and their lion cub perform several duties dur-ing the Pi Mai celebrations.First,they must go and fetch water at a spring on the bank of the Nam Khan River,called Bor Nam Kaeo (Spring of crystal Water).That water,brought in procession in small earthen jars,will be poured by Pou Nyer and Nar Nyer on Pha Bang,the sacred Buddha image,on the second day of the New Year.The ancestor’s masks participate in the two processions called Hae Nang Sangkharn and Hae Vor.When the first procession,starting from Vat Maha.That,also known as Vat That Noi arrives at Vat Xiengthong,the masks will dance there for the prosperity of the nation.When the second procession,starting from Vat Xiengthong arrives at Vat That Noi,the ancestors will dance,again for the prosperity of the Lao people.Pi Mai celebrations,this year,last from April 14 to April 17.April 14 is the last day of the out going year of the Tiger.

Early that day,there is a traditional market on the city’s main street,stretching forom the Kaysone Phomvihane Memorial Park and That Luang Grounds to the Hong Saerk Sports Club and Phousi Hotel crossing.All kinds of handicrafts will be on sale on both sides of the street.But two items are very popular:animals and banners.Animals,including birds,fish,turtles and snails are bought and then released into nature.This act of giving freedom and life is belived to bring about merits to those who perform it.

Colourful vertical banners depicting mythical animals of the Lao zodiac will be used to decorate sand stupas to be built in the afternoon on the otr side of the Mekong River.Starting at one o’clock,an uninterrupted ballet of pirogues bring revelers across the river to Had Sai Moungkhoun,a sand bank facing Luang Prabang.There,they build sand stupas,which they decorate with the banners.It is believed that each grain of sand delivers the devotees from a sin.

At the same time,a Baci is performed for guests attending the event and traditional sports games are organized on the sand bank.People can visit temples on the right bank of the Mekong River,like Vat Chomphet, Vat Long Khoun and the cave at Vat Tham.

The next day(this year,April 15)iscalled Mue Nau.This is a special day,which belongs neither to the outgoing year nor to the new year.Nobody should work or sleep during this day.

Hae Vor,the Procession of the Palanquins,os now more com-monly known as Hae Nang Sangkharn,(Procession of the Goddess of the Year).This procession derives from a very old  legend,that of Phanya Kabilaphom.

The seven daughters of Phanya Kabilaphom symbolize the seven days of the week.Each girl rides her own animal and holds her own regalia.Nang Sangkharn is always the girl representing the last day of the outgoing year.The last day of the year of the Tiger being Thursday(14 April),Thursday girl is Kilini Thevi.She rides an elephant.This year’s animal is the Rabbit.Nang Sangkharn was selected among the most beautiful firls of Luang Prabang in a beauty contest style election involving several stages.

On New Year’s day(this year,April 16),early in the morn-ing,people in their traditional silk dresses and ritual scarves,holding silver bowls and rice boxes,performTakbaat,the of-fering of food to monks.Hundreds of monks and novices in saffron robes from all the temples of the city walk in a single file along the streets and devotees place offerings including glutinous rice and sweets in their alms bowls.After Takbaat,lay people climb Phousi,the sacred hill in front of the Palace Museum.They place small rice balls along the staircases and pray at the stupa on top of the hill,which is the foundation stone of the city of Luang Prabang.

Baci ceremonies are organized in most of the homes to wish members of the family and friends good helath,hap-piness and prosperity.Young people perform the Khailava Somma rite,which consists in asking the elder members of the family to forgive them their shortcomings.In hotels and guesthouses,the management also organize Baci for their guest.In the afternoon,the second procession takes place,starting from Vat Xiengthong and proceeding back to Vat Mahathat,or Vat That Noi.

In the evening,the Naga,a mythical giant serpent who is the protector of Luang Prabang,accompanied by hundreds of schoolchildren holding lamps will wind its way down from the top of Phousi Hill to the pond in the Palace Museum where it will rejoin the Nagi and procreate for the prosperity of the country.

On the second day of the New Year(this year,April 17),the Pha Bang Buddha image is taken in a solemn procession from the Museum to nearby Vat May Souvannaphoumaram.When the statue is installed at Vat Mai,Pou Nyer and Nyar Nyer,the legendary ancestors of the Lao people,are the first to pour scented water on it,followed by dignitaries and the people.The statue will stay three days at Vat May to be worshipped by devotees before being brought in another procession back to the Museum.

In the evening of this day,one episode of Phalak Phalam,the Lao version of the Ramayana,will be performed on the grounds of Vat Mai.After that,several dozens of Nang Kaeo,celestial deities,will perform a 14th century dance for the people.

Water,sympol of purity and renewal

Water plays an important role in Pi Mai celebrations.Houses are cleaned and washed.Buddla images are taken down from family altars to be washed and then sprinked with scented water by all members of the family during the three days.At each temple,some Buddha images are put in small pagodas in the court so that people can pour scented water on them.

The sacred image of Phabang is brought in a solemn procession from the Museum (former Royal Palace) to nearby Vat Mai Souvannaphoumaram where Pou Nyer and Nyar Nyer,the legendary ancestors of the Lao people,the dignitaries and all people pour scented water on the most venerated statue.In every home,younger members of the family respectfuly pour water on the hands or their parents and grand parents in homage and to wish them happiness and longevity.Among young people it is customary to splash water on one another.This is rather pleasant as April is the hottest month of the year.

Baci to wish everyone a Happy new year

On New Year’s Day,in almost every family,people gather for the Baci or Soukhuan ceremony.Baci ia a reminiscence of Brah and Animism.It is believed that the main parts of the human body are inhabited by Kwan or spirits.In some circumstances,some of those 32 or more spirits may leave the body to wander around and get lost in the universe,thus causing you to become weak and vulnerable to dangers and illnesses.It is there-fore important to call those spirits back so that you would retrieve your own self again.This typcal Lao ceremony is performed on important oc-casions in life such as births,weddings,before traveling,convalescence or after the death of a relative and also to welcome important guests.

As participants are seated on the floor,around a tray of flowers and sweets,a celebrant,most of the time a former monk,starts the ceremony with Buddhist prayers and then calls all the spirits back through poetic incantations.Then,participants tie a white cotton thread around one another’s wrist wishing him or her all the best,especially Anyu(longevity),Vanna(beauty),Sukha(health) and Phala(strength) to overcome all dangers.Baci is always followed by a meal.

The Kabilaphom enigma

Phanya(Lord) Kabilaphom was a Demigod.He was omni-scient and powerful.One day,he vas very upset when he heard that a young scholar,Thammabarn Koumarn,the son of a rich merchant who had studied abroad,had acquired uni-versal knowledge including the language of birds.The Demi-god summoned the young man to his palce to put to him an enigma.”Where is a man’s Rasi(aura) in the morning,at noon and in the evening?”he asked.If within seven days,he fails to find the answer,he will be beheaded.But if he finds the answer,the Demigod accepts to be decapitated.

After looking throught all his books and consulting all eminent scholars in vain,Thammabarn Koumarn was prepared to die.He went into the forest and lamented under a tree.Suddenly he heard a couple of vultures chatting over his head.As he understood the language of  birds he listened carefully to the conversation.”where and what to eat?”the she-vultures asked.”Don’t worry”,the male said,”we shall feast on Tham-mabarn Koumarn’s body as he will be beheaded because he cannot answer Phanya Kabilaphom’s enigma”.”Is the enigma that difficult?”the female asked.”Not al all.In the morning the Rasi of man is in his face because the first thing he does when he wakes up in the morning,is wash his wash his face.At noon,it is in his breast as he sprinkles water on it to fight the heat.In the evening,he washes his feet before going to bed”.On hearing that,Thammabarn Koumarn jumped for joy and rushed to Phanya Kabilaphom’s palce to give the answer.

The Demigod recognized his defeat and accepted to be de-capitated.But then,there was a big problem.As he was a pow-erful divinity,his head,if thrown on the earth,would scorch the whole world;if thrown in the water,all rivers would boil and all fish would die.If thrown into the air,the atmosphere would burn so no being would be able to breathe.That would be the end of the world.

With magnanimity,Phanya Kabilaphom proposed a solu-tion:his head should be placed on a golden tray by his seven daughters and deposited in a profound cave.Once a year,it should be taken out of the cave and carried in processions.That is why,each year,during Pi Mai,the seven daughters of Phanya Kabilaphom solemnly escort their father’s head on a float in two lavish processions,followed by the whole people of Luang Prabang.

Phanya Kabilaphom’s daughters symbolize the seven days of the week.Each girl rides her own animal and holds her own regalia.Nang Sangkharn is always the girl representing the last day of the outgoing year.The last day of the year of the  Ti-ger being Thursday(14 April),Thursday girl is Kilini Thevi.She rides an elephant.This year’s animal is the Rabbit.

Pou Nyer and Nyar Nyer are the legendary ancestors of the Lao people.