Suep Chata

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title.alternative : Life Prolonging Tradition
event date.month : January,February,March,April,May,June,July,August,September,October,November,December
event date.lunar month : can held every months
location :
province / region
subject : rites of passage
relations :
keywords : life lengthening,Lanna,prolonging life
creator : Panita Sarawasee
date.issued : 12 Jan 2016
date.last updated : 4 Jul 2016

Life Prolonging Tradition

                   The Lanna tradition of Suep Chata or prolonging one’s life, or the life of any other important thing, is observed on numerous occasions. Its purpose is to boost the morale and spirit of the people, as well as to ensure prosperity, well-being, good luck and long life. It is practiced as a grand ritual which requires a cooperative effort at least at the village level. Also a lot of ritual things are needed in performing the rites. The ritual can be held separately or together with some other rituals. Or it can be held to boost the morale of some individuals, monks, the village, the city, even of some lesser things such as a rice barn or an irrigation weir. The important thing is that it must focus on only one cause at a time. The prolonging rites of different causes may not be all the same; nevertheless, they all manifest a mixed systems of belief – Buddhism, Hinduism and animism. This Suep Chata tradition is widely practiced in northern Thailand, also in the societies of the Tai Yai, the Yong and the Tai Khuen in the Shan State of Myanmar, as well as of the ethnic Lawa also in northern Thailand.

 

The Suep Chata Legend

                   Legend has it that Sariputta, a chief disciple of the Buddha, once had a 7-year-old novice as his student. The novice Tissa was supposed to study Buddhist teaching with him for 1 year. One day it struck Sariputta that the novice looked very doomed. This could be interpreted, as stated some ancient physionomy texts, that he would soon meet with untimely death. In fact, he was to live on for one more week only. Sariputta decided to let the novice know about his fate so that he would have enough time to bid goodbye to his parents and relatives. The novice grieved over the worst news. In distress, he headed home. Along the way, he came across a lot of big and small fish struggling for life in a parched pond. He did an act of mercy by scooping up the dying fish and releasing them in a big river. Then again he chanced to see a deer trapped in a hunter’s net. Again he saved its life by freeing it from the trap. At home, the family was informed of his approaching death, and they grieved. Seven days went by, yet death still did not come. The novice, on the contrary, looked radiant. So he was sent back to his teacher. Sariputta was so surprised to have been proved wrong. The novice told told Sariputta about the kindness he had shown to the fish and the deer. The good deeds of having extended the lives of those animals turned out to be a blessing that also saved his own life. This legend explains why Lanna people have come to believe strongly in the rite of prolonging life.

 

Types and rites of prolonging life

                   The rite is applicable not only to humans; in fact, anything related to humans also counts. So mainly there are 4 types of rite – to prolong the life of a city or town, a village or a house, a human, and crops grown by men.

                   1. The rite of prolonging the life of a city or town can be traced back to the reign of a Lanna king – Phra Chao Sam Fang Kan of the Mengrai Dynasty. The belief existed that when a new city/town was built, there had to be a city/town center too. Erecting this center was to be done at the right, auspicious time. Then if the city/town prospered and its people lived happily, a rite to prolong its life was necessary because it needed the protection of the guardian spirits. The life prolonging rite is essentially an expression of gratitude for the well-being of the city/town. Also, whenever some misfortunes befall the people, it is the time to perform the rite too.

                   2. The rite of prolonging the life of a village is done for the purpose of dispelling evils and bringing good luck. It is generally held once a year before the Buddhist Lent – on April 16th (the first day of the Lanna New Year), at the village’s spirit shrine (haw sua ban). The village folks provide their cooperative effort. They make the decorations consisting of e.g. flags, tiered umbrellas, banana trees, sugar canes, holy threads, banners, and an altar for sacrifices – to be offered to the 4 protective guardians dwelling at the 4 corners of the village, also to the other guardian spirits.

                   The sacrifices are similar to those in the rite of prolonging a human’s life. A cone-shaped pavilion is erected at the village center (jai ban). In the human’s rite, the sacrifice number is equivalent to, or slightly more than, the age of the person. But for the village’s rite, the number is always 108. Long-shaped items must have the lengths equivalent to a human height or the height of the tallest man in the village. Holy threads stretching overhead surrounds the whole village. Their ends are tied together at the spot where the principal Buddha image stands or sits in the jai ban area. The holy threads surrounding all the houses are connected to these main holy ones. Four large hex signs are placed in the 4 corners of the village. Some are also hung up at several village entrances. Food offerings and alms are put there too. Smaller hex signs are hung above the head and on top of the house gate, after the rite is finished. Colorful northern-style long banners (tung) are sometimes seen around the place.

                   One day before the rite, called “wan da” or “wan tang da”, the villagers put together their gifts of cash and offerings, ready to be presented to the monks. Dishes cooked by many families are put together and offered to the monks too. The rite starts with the offering of the meal to the monks, who have been invited to come and chant blessing prayers. The believers can either light their candles separately or all together. After the prayer chanting is over, the monks bless the devotees by sprinkling holy water on them. This signifies the end of the rite. The villagers later take back home their own hex signs and bowls containing some holy water – to sprinkle their house as well.

                   3. The rite of prolonging a human life is believed to bring happiness, well-being and good health. It is held generally on merit-making occasions such as a house warming time, certain important anniversaries, or when some monks’ new living quarters are finished. The rite venue is normally the common room in the house or elsewhere spacious enough to accommodate the guests, or it can be a temple. The rite meant for a monk is held in a wiharn (assembly hall). Other than the venue, all the other things concerning the rite are very much like those meant for a layman.

                   Sacrifices are composed of a bowl for the teacher monk, bowls for the Triple Gems, a bowl for the destiny spirit, and other things such as areca nuts, wrapped tea leaves for chewing, cigarettes, sweetmeats, oranges, bananas, sugar canes, coconuts, boiled rice, cooked rice and meal dishes. More other things needed for the rite are whole tree stems or trunks (used as supports for big trees), banana shoots, sugar cane shoots, areca shoots, coconut shoots, etc. The host puts all the sacrifices together in the middle of the cone-shaped pavilion, which is large enough for the guests to gather. Holy threads are entwined around this 3-posted pavilion. The ends of the threads are tied into a knot, which is placed at the holy water bowl in front of the main Buddha image. An odd number (5,7,9 or more) of monks are invited to come and perform the religious rite. First, the host worships the Triple Gems by lighting the candles and incense sticks in front of the Buddha altar. Next, the grandfather teacher or master of ceremony reads aloud the “wane tan”, which is about the house construction. This is followed by a pledge to offer sacrifices and to dedicate the merits earned to the deceased relatives or loved ones. He also requests the Five Precepts from the monks. This done, the monks start to chant some Lanna prayers promoting long life, during which time the host and kins proceed to sit in a smaller, specially constructed pavilion-like structure in front of the monks and listen to the prayer chanting. Everyone of them has holy threads entwined around their heads. After the chanting ends, the host lights the ritual candles. Next they listen to the sermon delivered by the most senior monk. What follows is the wrist-binding rite in which the monks put some holy strings around the host’s wrists and sprinkle holy water onto the person. The ceremony is concluded by the invitation to the monks to eat the meal and to accept the alms. The other sacrifices are presented to the temple where the host normally goes to to do merit-makings, or they can be presented to the temple which organizes the ritual. Some presented items are quickly made use of e.g. the wood supports become the supports of a bhodi tree. The wood plants are put along wet and muddy paths. The plant shoots are planted. The growth of the trees symbolically means wealth and a good life for the host. The rest of the alms and gifts will also be made use of later by the temple.

                   4. The rite of prolonging the lives of plants and crops is not as popular. It is regarded more as a blessing act to ensure good yields, and to bring good luck to the host’s farms and gardens even in time of drought. The sacrifices are similar to those used in the human rite.

                   All the necessary ritual things are related to the power of nature and things in nature, according to Lanna belief. However these days even though the people are not really concerned about such significance, they follow the norms still. For example, the hex signs which are made with 6 woven bamboo strips forming 7 identical patterns are explained in Lanna legends as being the watchful eyes of the hawks which protect humans from wild animals and evil spirits. The 7 holes or patterns probably mean protection throughout the 7 days of the week. That is why these hex signs are always seen in the protective rites observed by the Lanna people.


Bibliography

นิตยา  จันโทภาสกร.(2526). สืบชาตา: การศึกษาเชิงวิจารณ์. วิทยานิพนธ์อักษรศาสตรมหาบัณฑิต สาขาวิชาจารึกภาษาไทย บัณฑิตวิทยาลัย มหาวิทยาลัยศิลปากร. (in Thai)

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