Village mons or Bangkok พิมพ์ อีเมล
เขียนโดย Michael Smithies   

SMITHIES, MICHAEL. VILLAGE MONS OF BANGKOK. JSS. VOL.60 (pt.1) 1972. p.307-333.

 

 

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                                           VILLAGE MONS OF BANGKOK
                                                                     by

                                                      Michael Smithies

 

The Mons, also known as Raaman or Taleeŋ, are to be found in
scattered communities in Thailand in and around the central valley.
The areas of Paklat (Prapadeng) and Pakkrek are well-known for their
colourful Sŏngkraan festivals, when beauty queens release fish into the
river, but it is less well known that Mon-speaking enclaves survive in
Kanchanaburi, Lopburi, Uthaithani, and much nearer the capital in
Pathumthani, Nontaburi and even in Bangkok (province). The Mons
are a respected minority with an ancient past. They are the remnant of
the earliest-known civilisation in Southeast Asia, and were exposed to
Brahminism and Theravada Buddhism more than a thousand years before
the arrival of the Thais and the Burmese in the area. Historically the
Mons suffered a fate similar to that of the Chams. With the conquest of
Pegu by Alaungpaya in 1757 the Mons were left, in the words of "the
father of Mon Studies, Halliday"1

 

                                         "a people without a country"2

and there were successive immigrations of Mons from Burma into Siam
in the second half of the eighteenth and first half of the nineteenth
century. No exact figures are available for the number of Mons in
Thailand. La Loubère3 gives the impression that they were present in
considerable numbers, and Pallegoix, quoted by Bowring,4 gave the figure
of 50,000 Mons out of a total population of 6 million persons. Seiden-

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1.) H.L. Shorto, ADictionary of Spoken Mon (Oxford University Press, London) 1962,

       p. xiv.

 2.) R. Halliday, "The Immigration of the Mons into Siam" in JSS X/3, July

       1913.

 3.) La Loubère, A New Historical Relation of the Kingdom of Siam (Home, Saunders,

       and Bennet, London) 1693 p. 10.

 4.)Sir John Bowring, The Kingdom and People of Siam (Parker, London) 1856, p. 81.

 

 

 

 

 

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faden5 more recently estimated there were 100,000 Mons in the country.
Several Mons when questioned by this author gave, without any evidence,
an airy figure of 'about one million' which is certainly exaggerated.

Because the Mons, since Dvaravati times, have tended to assimilate
with newer ethnic groups on the scene, any precise figure of their numbers
would be difficult to obtain. There is moreover a distinction to be made
between Mon speakers and those who are ethnically of Mon descent, the
latter group, obviously, being much more numerous. The younger
generation is educated in Thai and illiterate in Mon, but it is not true
that none of the Mons in Thailand "can ... read their old script"6 : a
number of old people, mostly men educated in Mon temples, can still
read the language, and there are several temples, particularly in Prapa-
deng, where Mon manuscripts are read and the sermons preached in Mon.
Seidenfaden states, however,

 

"It seems therefore sure that one day the

Mon will be completely absorbed by the Thai"7

 

and this view is entirely reasonable.

As anthropologists are well aware, languages and, even more so,
customs show remarkable tenacity in the face of all the forces of assimi-
lation. The onset of incipient industrialisation appears to hasten these
forces. It is therefore surprising to find, in villages so near to Bangkok
as to be part of Bangkok province (the smallest in size in the country),
that Mon customs and language still survive. What follows is a brief
note on customs noted in a Mon community on a canal appropriately
called Klong Mon, leading off Klong Lamplatiew near Laadgrabang, and
only 1 kilometre from the railway line or some 40 minutes from Makkasan
Station.8 In this community, Mon is still spoken by all the adults among

____________________________________________________________

5) Erik Seidenfaden, The Thai Peoples (Siam Society, Bangkok) 1958, pp. 116-7.

 6) Seidenfaden, op. cit.

 7) Seidenfaden, op. cit.

8) I am much indebted to the villagers of Klong Mon for their patience in dealing

 with my questioning, and particularly grateful to my chief informant in this

 study, Mr. Boonsong Saraphan, of 40 Moo 6, Klong Mon, Laadgrabang.

 

 

 

 

 

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themselves, who however can also speak Thai. The children are
addressed in Mon and usually reply in Mon. In some families they use
Thai acquired in the schools to express more complex ideas when
conversing with their elders. The children nearly always speak Thai to
each other.9

The most immediately striking aspect of the Mon community is
that the external and internal appearances of the houses are completely
different from standard rural Thai houses. The Mon dwellings are not
raised off the ground in the living and kitchen area, where the floor is of
beaten earth : if there are many daughters in the house, the floor is
smooth, but if sons are more numerous the floor does not get the
attention it would otherwise receive. Some southern (Thai/Malay)
houses are like this; so are many fisherman's huts beside the shores of
the gulf and the huts of some Chinese vegetable growers near the capital.
The cattle, always buffaloes, are brought in at night and tethered to a
horizontal bar in one part of the living area. Projecting into the living
area is a raised wooden platform which extends back into the inner part
of the house where the family sleep. The outer area underneath the
platform, usually only a metre off the ground, is used for storing. The
walls are of matting, atap or corrugated iron and the roof also of atap or
corrugated iron. The atap is bought and not made in the village. The
floor in the inner sleeping area is sometimes raised a few inches above
that of the part extending into the living area. The sleeping arrangement
is usually that the wife and husband (and, if they are living in the same
house, the wife's or husband's parents), the younger male children and
all the daughters sleep in the inner area, though under separate mosquito
nets from those of the parents. The male children of the age of about
fifteen or above sleep on the floor area projecting into the living room.
In many houses a symmetry of sleeping positions was noted.

___________________________________________________________ 

9) No analysis of the linguistic situation will be attempted here, for it would be
beyond the scope of this note and the author's competence. Readers are referred
to the works of Shorto and Halliday, inter alia. Mon is, of course, completely
different from Thai, being atonal and belonging to the Mon-Khmer linguistic
group. Mon script is again completely different from Thai script, and was
adopted by the Burmese after the conquest of Thaton in 1057 by Anawrata.

 

 

 

 

 

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 village1

Halliday, in his standard book on the Mons,10 makes no mention
of the beaten earth floor of the living area, which makes the houses quite
distinct from their Siamese counterparts. Seidenfaden11 states "the
Mons build their houses like the Thai, only that their houses are always
orientated east-west"; Halliday12 more cautiously says "It would seem
that Talaing houses ought to be so built, but the rule is by no means
generally carried out either in Siam or Burma." Certainly in the village
observed, there was no general pattern in the orientation of the houses
and when asked the Mons replied it did not matter, but depended on the

___________________________________________________________

10) R. Halliday, The Talaings (Government Press, Rangoon) 1917, pp. 22-23. This

        is a detailed, perceptive and still largely valid account of the Mons, primarily

        based on a study of communities in Burma but also referring extensively to

        Mon practices in Siam. 

 11) op. cit p. 117.

 12) op. cit p. 27.

 

 

 

 

 

village2

 

 

 

 

 

 

village3

 

 

 

 

 

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land available. In all houses seen, people slept with the heads to the
south or east. The Mons state that one can also sleep with the head
towards the north, but never, as with the Thais, to the west, the direction
of the departed.

The houses are remarkably devoid of furniture or decoration.
There might be a wooden bench and a table and chairs, often of the
folding metal variety, for eating. The only decorative items, which
however are basically functional, are the woven rush (T: kòg, M: roh)
sleeping mats, with patterns picked out in strips dyed in different colours.
These are quite different from Thai mats (T: sýa, M : həgao); they are
not sold but each household makes them for its own use. Halliday13
implies that only the women make these, but in the village observed
sometimes men also make these gay traditional sleeping mats. Rice is
stored inside the house, along with all machines for husking and winnowing
the rice.

The area surrounding the house is no different from a standard
Thai house. The dogs and chickens stay outside at night, though when
eating in the house, chickens sometimes run in and out of the living area,
as do the dogs. A profusion of trees and shrubs surrounds the house.
A particular preference was expressed for jasmine, but there was no
visible evidence of this in the predominance of banana trees that were
actually growing there. There is also a spirit house (T : sâanphráphuum
M : alà? thii), mention of which will be made later. No pigs are kept,
though there is no interdiction against eating pork. This seemed
somewhat inconsistent and on inquiry it was only possible to ascertain
that 'the Raaman (Mon) spirits would not like it', and 'there would be
no progress if one raised pigs'. A rationalizing explanation was given
by a younger Mon who pointed out that Muslims lived in the next hamlet
and perhaps it was out of deference to their presence that pigs were not
kept. The Mon/Muslim contiguity dates from as long ago as anyone
can remember; the area was probably settled by both in the second half
of the nineteenth century. Each house has at least one large boat for
transporting rice and usually two or three smaller boats for everyday
transport requirements. There is no road, no piped water, no electricity
and no telephone, of course, in the village.

___________________________________________________________

13) op. cit p. 51.

 

 

 

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Physically the Mons appear different from Thais. Women no longer
in their early prime wear their hair in a bun at the back of the head, and
frequently cover their heads, both in and outside the house, with a strip
of cloth or towelling in the form of a turban. They also have, noticeably
before marriage, a preference for very bright and often clashing colours
in their dress; they have a reputation for beauty which their gay costume
enhances. The men commonly wear trousers, or checkered sarongs
made of silk for special occasions. Like the Thais, they sometimes wear
Buddha images around their necks, particularly if going on long journeys.
The turbans of the women, the men's sarongs and the tendency to be
somewhat darker skinned than the Thais make it difficult to distinguish
the Mons from their Muslim neighbours, and the Mons themselves say
they cannot always outwardly tell a Muslim from a Mon.

They have no dietary restrictions and their food is completely
similar to Thai food though they also eat field mice and snakes as do
northeasterners. They rarely drink tea or coffee in their houses, mostly
because they seem to consider it an unnecessary luxury. Their festivals
are marked not only by meals at which all are welcome, but sometimes
by music played on the Siamese fiddle, xylophone and Chinese harp :
they particularly enjoy singing alternating refrains (M : khajεεmccn), a
kind of Mon lamtàd. The well-known game of sabâa is occasionally
played in the village, particularly at Sŏngkraan ( M : atá? ) after the
traditional releasing of fish into the canal by the village girls dressed in
their best and brightest clothes.

Sabâa (M: hanèe?) is a traditional Mon courtship game, played between
two groups of about 15young men and 15 young women, all unmarried, who
sit facing each other on two long benches some 10 metres apart. The earth
floor between them is specially smoothed by pounding it, adding water
to the earth to make it malleable, and a temporary roof structure is
erected over the floor. The sabâa themselves are circular wooden discs
(M: kon?hanƹƹ?) which are either rolled, or flipped, or kicked 'depen-
ding on the set' from one side to the other across the smooth floor; the
sabâa of the men are bigger and heavier than the sabâa of the women.
Leaders of the men and the women are appointed and they indicate who
will play in what order in each game. The women are seated first on

 

 

 

 

 

village4

 

 

 

 

village5

 

 

 

 

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the bench and the men aim their sabâa at the sabâa of the person they
have selected as a partner and which is placed upright on the ground. They
then go up to their partner, whether they have hit her sabâa or not, sit
on the ground, and engage in repartee. They will do this two or three times
in each set, as arranged by the leader. Then there is a ramworŋ interlude,
the men take up positions on the bench, set their sabâa upright and the
women aim their sabâa, go up to their partner, sit in front of him on the
ground, and likewise engage in repartee. When this set is over, after
another ramwoŋ interlude, the next set, decided on by the leaders, is
played—the method of throwing might be changed so that for example
the sabâa is balanced on the foot and thrown from the foot. The art
comes less in standard bowling techniques than in the story-telling and
jokes that go with the game. The women are relatively reticent, but the
men after rolling their sabâa engage in lengthy repartee. It takes from
9. p.m. to 6 a.m. to go through the whole game. The game is always
played at Sŏngkraan in April, for three consecutive nights, and might be
played on two other occasions, the trudmɔɔn and soŋnnâamphra, which
are primarily religious occasions.

The women have to give money before the game to the owner of
the place (T : câwkhccŋbôn, M: alà?hɔjˀ) where the sabâa is played.
The women also have to help prepare the earth. The men do not have
to give any money or help in the preparation of the place, and the game
cannot take place if the men do not turn up. The women have to sit
and wait for the men, who must always come from another village.
No one can play unless properly dressed; the women in phàasin,
blouse and sabai, the men in sarongs and shirts. In contrast to the
expenditure here, the women receive money from the men at ordination
ceremonies (see below). This is an interesting parallel, as though the
women needed to pay for the pleasure of finding a husband, but needed to
be paid for the pain of losing, albeit temporarily, members of the male
community.

Traditional anthropological labels—matriarchal, patrilocal or what-
ever—do not take into account the characteristic fluidity of family groups
in the region, current economic pressures, and the relative ease with
which new homes can be erected. Mon men tend to marry (T : tεɜŋŋaan,

 

 

 

 

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M : həmàw ) around the age of 22 after completing military service
obligations, but their brides are usually younger. The Mon young man
usually chooses one of his own race; intermarriage with Thais is quite
common, but very rare with the nearby Muslims. Marriage has only
fairly recently been formalised and couples merely cohabited before.
They marry at the house of the bride but the couple may reside subse-
quently either in the house of the groom or the bride, according to the
agreement reached by the go-between who arranges the marriage (T :
thâwkέε, M:ˀ akənwùut). There is no water pouring ceremony: the
couple pray and seek their parents' forgiveness and the elders give their
blessing. A feast is held to celebrate the occasion and priests attend

this.

Families tend to be numerous and ten children not exceptional.
Probably because of the proximity of the capital, relatively few young
people would appear to stay in the village, which tends to consist
largely of the very old or the very young. This falsifies the residence
arrangements of the family but it would seem that by the time a
married couple is middle-aged, if not before, it has its own home, and
the elders continue to live in their own homes. Generalisations of this
kind are notoriously error-prone, however; in one family all the children
lived in the capital and the old couple ceased to farm, but lived off
money sent by their children. They looked after a grandchild whose
presence for some reason was inconvenient in the city.

Family relationships, outwardly at least, are uncomplicated.
Paternal sanction is needed for any decision of importance. There is
the usual respect for elder siblings on the part of the younger, balanced
by the greater responsibility the former have to assume in contributing
to the family economy. Minor wives are not kept or not admitted to,
and the economic situation of the villagers probably enforces monogamy.
Kin are scattered in other Mon communities in the greater metropolitan
area though of course most are to be found in the same village. Inciden-
tally, because of the closed nature of this small community, even Mon
private actions become public knowledge which may account for the
apparently high standards of morality, particularly in their few commer-
cial dealings.

 

 

 

 

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raditionally all the inhabitants of the village are rice farmers,
but the proximity of Bangkok increasingly allows farmers to seek part-
time jobs as carpenters or plasterers in the capital in the dry season if
there is not sufficient to keep them occupied in repairing their boats at
home, and their children to find permanent employment, especially if
they have gone to the secondary school at Hua Takay. The one point on
which the gentle and unassertive Mons show feelings of pride in
themselves is in their ability as rice farmers; in this they feel definitely
superior. Such superiority if real would doubtless lie in skill and
application rather than in techniques, for the methods used, with
ploughing by buffaloes and irrigation from natural flooding, are the same
as those employed in Thai villages in the central plain. The Mons
observed buy all their wants, including cloth, in the local market with the
profit from their rice-farming. Only chickens, eggs, fish and readily
available vegetables like water spinach are acquired in the village.

Rice is usually planted (T: damnaa, M: tΛmméəˀ) in June from
small shoots or seedlings in partially flooded land. Some 15-20 people
plant at the same time in a field. Muslim day labourers from the nearby
village are hired to assist in this work. They are available because they
plant their own fields, if they have any, by scattering the seed on dry
earth (T : wàanhέεŋ, M : krasc?) and one person can easily do this alone;
Muslims in the locality appear not to have much land. Workers are
paid 25 baht for transplanting one rai (1600 square metres). If the rains
have not come in time, the fields are flooded by using a petrol driven
water pump. Nearly all houses have these, usually adapting their boat
engines for the pump. The harvest is gathered (T : kiawkhâaw, M : rosc?)
in December and January. Muslim labour is also hired for harvesting,
the rate being 70 baht for one rai, harvesting being harder work than
planting. Among the Mons, labour is not hired but the able-bodied
help each other harvest on a village-sharing basis, usually about twenty
men and young women working from 8 to 4 or 5, with a break for lunch,
for two months in the open fields. There are no special working groups.

The current (1971) price for rice is very low, being 700 baht a
kwian A fairly average sized holding would be 25 rai. One rai yields
30 taŋ (100 taŋ=1kwian), using no fertilizers. If no labour is hired and

 

 

 

 

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no seedlings bought, this gives a return of 5,250 baht per year. One
typical family, 9 in size, estimated its monthly expenses at about 1,000
baht, the difference being made up by the income of 3 persons working
in Bangkok. This however causes much expenditure on petrol to take
members of the family to the nearest road and railhead each day.
Clothing, school fees and books for the 4 children of school age represent
a considerable expense.

A Chinese merchant comes to the houses to collect the rice; he
pays cash, but farmers sometimes have to wait 7 to 10 days for the
money after the rice has been collected. Loans are available from the
Chinese middle-men during the year in times of stress, at 50% interest,
the guarantee being the future rice crop. Cooperatives can obtain
money from a local bank at 10% interest; 150 farmers in the area can
obtain through the cooperative 3,000-5,000 baht each, depending on their
land holdings.

No attempt is made at crop diversification, and it is to be doubted
if the flat heavy clay soil which is inundated for six months and parched
the rest of the year could readily produce anything except rice. A latent
cottage industry exists in the making of attractive sleeping mats, but only
sufficient for domestic use are made at present and none are normally
for sale. The Mons' chief asset after their rice would appear to be their
labour which finds employment in the capital.

The major part of community activity centres on the temple. The
Mons consider themselves more devout Buddhists than the Thais. Reli-
gious ceremonies take place in the temple and monks only rarely visit
houses in connection with religious or social duties. From a material
point of view, the life of Mon monks would appear to be easier, though
on the other hand they seem to conform more closely to formal religious
prescriptions.14 They may have no contact with money and may not
spend their time in non-religious activities, such as carpentry or other
handicrafts. The temple boys row the boats when the priests go begging
for food early in the morning; usually there are some six boys and only
one priest in a boat. As elsewhere in Thailand when monks go begging

__________________________________________________________

14) The reformed Thamajutnikaaj sect owes its existence partly to King Rama IV's
having met a Mon monk.

 

 

 

 

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for food by boat, people place only rice in the priests's bowl, and curries,
soups and fruit are offered to the priests and given to the temple boys
who place them in a pintoo, with a different tray for each; Mon priests
do not therefore have their food placed indiscriminately by merit-makers
in the begging bowl as is the lot of Thai priests whose food soliciting is
landborne.

The head monk of the village, a fluent Mon reader and speaker,
said that every holy day the sermon was preached in both Mon and
Thai—Thai in the morning and Mon in the afternoon. He estimated
a morning attendance of 30-50, mostly women, and very few for the one
p.m. sermon. This he put down to the time rather than the language (it
was incidentally pointed out that a few years back when one of the local
radio stations ran a programme in Mon for an hour in the evening, every
single house along the canal tuned in to listen). No attempt is made
to convert the nearby communities of Muslims or Chinese Mahayanists,
in conformity with the non-proselytizing nature of Buddhism.

The abbot confirmed that Mon monks go relatively little to visit
houses of parishioners. Their presence is normal at ceremonies of
topknot cutting, marriage, death, and the completion of a new house.
He estimated the presence of some 80 families in the nearby Klong Mon
and another 150 further up the main canal dependent on the temple,
some 80% in all being Mon. There are normally 5 monks in the temple,
with 20-30 during the Buddhist Lent.

The temple, Wat Sudthaapôt, has occupied its present site on Klong
Lamplatiew since 1908; previously it was one kilometre down Klong
Mon, a space now marked by an empty plot of land. When the original
temple was built was not known. The only visible sign that the temple
is Mon rather than Thai is in the neon sign in Mon (made 'at great
expense' according to the abbot) to replace the wooden name-plate of
the temple. This sign, lit at night by the temple's generator, decorates
the tower holding the water tanks. The monks' dwelling houses are
raised off the ground on posts, as in a Thai temple, and are therefore
unlike Mon houses. In the temple compound can be seen the long
narrow boats used by the monks for collecting alms and food in the early
morning.

 

 

 

 

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Also in the temple compound is a plaster and brick construction,
reputed to be 'about 20 years old' but probably older if the style of the
guardian sailors' dress is an indication of date, erected by the son of a
nephew of two persons referred to as Nai Lua and Nang Liang who, in
the reign of Rama III, reputedly went to Ceylon and brought religious
texts and books back to Siam. The memorial is curious rather than
beautiful, and disfigured by a decaying corrugated iron canopy.

It would appear that young Mon men conform closely to the ideal
that all males before marriage should enter the priesthood, and the
occasion is, as in Thai villages, one of great rejoicing and ceremony. At
one ceremony witnessed almost the entire village turned up to eat lunch.
Young men made monetary offerings on the occasion to the girls assem-
bled, in the following fashion. Names of the men were recorded in a
register, and at the appropriate moment, one was called to present an
envelope containing one's cash contribution to a beautifully attired young
lady, each girl taking turns to receive the gift, to be kept for her own
use (as mentioned above, the women however have to pay for the pleasure
of the courtship game sabâa). The act of going up to offer the gift was
interspersed with songs accompanied by drums. Then the future priest
was borne aloft, richly attired in the most exotic costume imaginable
and protected by ceremonial umbrellas, and carried in procession to the
temple. There, he changed into a loin-cloth, his head was shaved in
the săalaa while juggling acts were performed by the village youths.
Subsequently he donned white for the usual ordination ceremony.

All the usual Buddhist festivals are observed, but the most impor-
tant is that marking the beginning of the Buddhist Lent, T : Khâw Phansăa.
Special cakes are made and taken and offered to the temple; the young
people dress in their best and their brightest colours.

As among Thais, Buddhism, Brahminism and animism co-exist,
although the Mons do appear to place considerably more emphasis on non-
Buddhist supernatural forces. From birth on, the Mon child is reared in
a world of ghosts and taboos which limit his freedom and require special
rites. The midwife occupies a special place in this world, as one would
expect, and has functions later on in the child's life.

 

 

 

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The village midwife (T : mɔɔtamjεε, M : ?immi?), an old woman,
said, when interviewed, that nothing had ever gone wrong with all her
deliveries so she did not know what ceremonies had to be observed in
the case of still birth. Her services are less in demand now than in the
past, and for one year she had not assisted at any births until the day
before being interviewed for the second time. Expectant mothers now
tend to go to the local health centre in the nearby township. Traditional
births take place in the house. The midwife first performs a wâaj khruu
(M : yay koəcáa) ceremony. Joss-sticks and candles are placed on a
tray and prayers offered to one's teacher, to the Buddha, and the house
ghosts who have the form of winds. She then feels the body of the
mother to discover the position of the child and touches the body to
ensure a good birth. To deliver the child, the woman lies on the floor
with knees raised. When the child appears, the midwife puts her finger
in the child's mouth and cleans it out to ensure unobstructed breathing.

The umbilical cord is cut by placing a small clod of earth
underneath it and severing it with a strip of bamboo. The baby is washed
and tumeric put on the naval and all over the child as an antiseptic. The
child is then wrapped in white cloth with only the face exposed. It is
put on a cushion in a cradle. The mother is then made to drink vinegar,
and tamarind juice with much salt. No herbs are used for accelerating
healing; the mother is washed in warm water. Bricks are then heated,
washed, and wrapped in cloth and placed under the mother's legs and
back. A locally-bought stomach-warmer (T : jaachûdjuufaj, M : ujbaa-
mót) is put on the stomach. The afterbirth (T : ròg, M : sɔj) is taken
and placed on a small square of sleeping mat; salt, cooked rice and a
needle (symbolizing preservation, plenty and intelligence) are placed on
it and wrapped up with it; a small hole in the compound is dug and it
is placed in it. Rice, betel nut and betel vine are put in the hole and
prayers are offered to one's teacher, the angels and mέε thccranii (the
fructifying goddess of the earth) : the hole is filled with earth and
the surface made smooth. The mother is washed for three evenings
and the bricks are replaced when cold. The mother stays by a hot fire
(T: yuufaj, M : mɔŋəmót) 'to dry out the blood' for 7-9 days and nights,
the wood for the fire being laid in by the father before the birth. Usually

 

 

 

 

320                                           Michael smithies

 

logs of a small tree g. Combretum (T : máaj sakεε, M : chuuə?kεε) are
cut. The fire is kept in a large earthenware jar in the middle of the
room where the mother lies. Anyone in the family may place wood on
the fire during the time it is burning. The midwife is paid 50-100 baht
for her services.

The midwife's functions do not stop with childbirth. In the
Brahministic tradition, which used to be widespread among the Thais
but now has largely disappeared, most children still wear the topknot
(T : cùg, M : káaw coo), traditionally until the age of eleven, when the
long lock of hair is cut by the midwife, or her replacement if the original
midwife who assisted at the birth died in the meantime, and it is thrown
into the canal to float away in the belief that 'the brain will be clear'
thereafter. This is admitted by the Mons themselves to be a ceremony
of Brahmin origin. The occasion is one when friends and priests are
invited to eat at the house to mark the event with due ceremony.
Nowadays the cutting of the topknot may be performed earlier, at the
age of seven before the children go to the village school or even much
before, to coincide with another ceremony like dedicating a new house,
and thereby effecting an economy, the cost of a single feast being made
to serve for both ceremonies.

Children are brought up to respect the supernatural and are allowed
no dolls or masks, for 'the spirits would make the children mad' and
'make them hot' (give them a fever). Sculpture of any form is nominally
forbidden inside the house, though in one house a cheap green glass
Buddha on a raised shelf, in the manner of Thai houses, was observed.
However, calendars and photographs are not subject to this interdiction,
possibly because they became available in more recent times.

The pantheon of Mon ghosts is comparatively esoteric and
embellished with distinctive prohibitions. The Mon would appear to
have established three categories of universal ghosts. There are, first,
the malevolent ghosts which cause accidents and sickness, and which
come from departed humans; these are known as M : pet cia (T : phii
siŋ). Then there are the non-human house ghosts, M : aloh hɔj (T :
phĭi bâan), which act as human consciences; they have no material form,
and reward those who behave well and punish those who do not.
Finally, there are benevolent ancestor ghosts, M : paa nóh, thawh nóh

 

 

 

 

                                 VILLAGE MONS OF BANGKOK                              321

 

T : câw phôo, câw mέε), who have a dwelling place outside similar to
the spirit house where the house ghosts are symbolically located (though
in fact the house ghosts are normally considered to be found inside the
house), but the symbolic shrine to the ancestor ghosts is usually a little
larger. Apparently some Mons, perhaps feeling they have sufficient
ghosts to contend with already, do not pay homage to these ancestors;
but on the whole most people make offerings to them; a pig's head, if a
pig is eaten, is always reserved for the ancestors, and the milk of a young
coconut is also offered to them. There are, of course, a great number
of ancestor ghosts and they have many names; it is usually found
convenient to invite them all at the same time and make offerings to
them collectively.

 

 

village9

 

 

 

 

 

322                                           Michael smithies

 

Spirit houses are well tended. There may occasionally be spots
inside the house considered sacred and the place of residence of the
house ghosts which are formless "winds" (T : lom, M : sháa). A house
post with a dark stain upon it would thus become an object of respect if
not worship. Shrines to the unusual are also erected; in one house
compound is a shrine for a stone reputedly found floating on the water
and thus a divine manifestation out of the order of nature; although the
stone was found three generations ago, it bears the marks of recently-
placed gold leaf and joss sticks are nearby.

To insure for the protection of the spirits and to atone for possibly
disturbing them offerings are made to the spirits before the harvest is
begun; fruit, rice and paper flags are laid out for them; much the same
is done in many Thai villages and by coastal fishermen on holy days be-
fore launching their boats for the night's catch.

Sickness requires the assistance of the village ghost doctor before
any recourse to modern medicines. The village ghost doctor (T : moo-
phii, M : mɔɔ rccŋəlôh), who in fact in this village is the husband of
the midwife, is called to assist in the case of undiagnosed sicknesses
(that is, all those not obviously caused by an external agent, such as a
cut from a boat propeller). Wearing a shirt and a sarong, or possibly
trousers, he goes to the house of the sick person and sits down on the
floor on the right side of the patient. He waves a five-branched stem
of star gooseberry, a tree apparently disliked by ghosts (T : majom, M :
nam cuəlãin) up and down over the victim and incants for about half an
hour in dog Pali, the entire meaning of which is lost on him but the
purport is not. According to the day (see table 2), he determines the
direction the sickness comes from, its cause and symptoms; he makes
clay images and arranges food and other offerings at the feet of the
patient on a specially made leaf tray, which is then floated on the canal
in the direction of the sickness with a specific incantation in dog Pali.
All this takes place in the evening or the night, because ghosts are only
on the scene in the hours of darkness, and the object is to exorcise the
ghost not only from the victim's body, but also from the compound of

 

 

 

 

village10

 

 

 

 

                                     VILLAGE MONS OF BANGKOK                                324

 

the house where the victim is lying. If the patient does not shortly
afterwards recover, then the illness is deemed not to be caused by ghosts,
and the patient then goes to the health centre at the nearest road-head.
The village ghost doctor is however usually consulted first.

The art of the ghost doctor was taught by a now deceased elder;
he is the only one left in the village now, though in another nearby Mon
community there are two or three other ghost doctors still practising.
There used to be female mediums but there are none now, and their
position was never important. They became mad when the ghosts
entered their body. The village ghost doctor only deals in living people;
the priests take over when someone dies. The ghost doctor is paid in
kind for his services; this particular doctor is fond of drinking, and
so he is given a bottle of 28° Bangyikaan alcohol, costing 6 Baht 50, as
his professional fee.

 

 

 

 

                                            (continued on next page)

 

 

village15

 

 

 

 

village16

 

                     

 

                               326                                          Michael smithies

 

                                                            TABLE 3

                               Incantations of the village ghost doctor15

The incantations in dog Pali were inscribed in Thai in a manual compiled
by the ghost doctor who could not read Mon.

Monday : Incantation อมยัคคิณีสวาหะ

Romanised Om yakakinee sawaha
Probable text in correct Pali โอม ยกขินี สวาห

Translation into Thai โอม ยักผู้หญิงทั้งหลาย เพี้ยง

Translation into English O giantesses! Amen.

Tuesday : Incantation อมรักขาพลายันติสวาหะ

Romanised Om rakkaka palayanti sawaha
Probable text in correct Pali โอม ยกขา ปลายนติ สวาห

Translation into Thai โอม ยักษ์ผู้ชายทั้งหลายย่อมหนีไป เพี้ยง

Translation into English O begone, all giants! Amen.

Wednesday : Incantation อมนะรัมจิตตะสวาหะ

Romanised Om na ramachitta sawaha
Probable text in correct Pali โอม น รม จิตต สวาห
Translation into Thai โอม จิตไม่ยินดีคือไม่ตกอยู่ในอำนาจของพวกยักษ์ เพี้ยง
Translation into English O may we not be in the

giants' power, Amen.

Thursday : Incantation อมสักะโรติสวาหะ

Romanised Om sakaroti sawaha
Probable text in correct Pali โอม สกกโรติ สวาหะ
Translation into Thai โอม สักการะบูชา เพี้ยง

Translation into English O let us pray, Amen.

Friday : Incantation อมยุมัสสะวาทีสวาหะ

Romanised Om yumasawatee sawaha
Probable text in correct Pali โอม ยมสสวาที สวาห
Translation into Thai โอม ขอสรรเสริญพยายม เพี้ยงTranslation into English O praise the Guardian of Hell,

Amen.

__________________________________________________________________ 

15) The Pali passages have been reconstituted by Acharn Swasdi Pinichchandara,
of the Department of Languages, Kasetsart University.

 

 

 

 

 

                                       VILLAGE MONS OF BANGKOK                                  327

 

Saturday :            Incantation      นะโม พุทธาระคะนังอิติปิโสภัคคะวายักษาผลายันติสวาหะ

Romanised     Namo puttarakanang itipi so pakawa

                           yaksaa palayanti sawaha

 

Probable text in correct Pali     นโม พุทธาน อิติปิ โส ภควา

  ยกขา ปลายนติ สวาห

 

Translation into Thai        โอม ขอนอบน้อมพระพุทธเจ้าทั้งหลาย แม้เพราเหตุ

      นั้น พระผู้มีพระภาคพระองค์นั้น ยักษ์ทั้งหลาย่อม

       หนีไป เพี้ยง

                Translation into English    O let us pray to all forms of

                                                                             the Buddha, because of his

                                                                             power to chase away the giants,

                                                                             Amen.

Sunday : Incantation อมนะโมพุธธัสสะ   อมนะโมธรรมมัสสะ อมนะโมสังคุจสวาหะ

Romanised                Om namo puttasasa; om namo tammasasa;
           om namo sangkasasa sawaha

Probable text in correct Pali โอม นโม พุทธสส โอม นโม ธมมสส

โอม นโม สงฆสส สวาห

Translation into Thai     โอม ขอนอบน้อมพระพุทธเจ้า ขอนอบน้อมพระธรรม

   ขอนอบน้อมพระสงฆ์ เพี้ยง

Translation into English         O let us pray to the Lord

Buddha, to the Dhamma, and
the Sangha, Amen.

Among the Mons, the rituals observed for the dead are different
from those of the Thais. The cause of death as with the Thais is an
important consideration : if one dies 'well', that is, naturally, then one
may be accorded traditional honours. But if the cause of death is due
to an infectious disease or an accident, such as a gunshot wound or
drowning, then the body is given no ceremony and buried in the temple
area where cremations normally take place with as much haste as
possible. No cremation (T: phâwsôb, M: caorj fea?) is permitted for
fear that evil spirits will rise into the air with the smoke from the funeral
pyre. Cases of natural death however are treated with much ceremony.
The body is washed in the house, wrapped in a shroud and placed in

 

 

 

 

 

 

328                                       Michael smithies

 

a coffin. A kind of cloth canopy is erected over the coffin, supported by
six posts, three on each of the long sides, with white cloth suspended
from each; traditional sleeping mats are placed underneath the coffin.
No candles are placed around it. Ceremonies in memory of the departed
take place in the house around the coffin for three to seven days before
the body is taken to the temple where it may either be placed in a 'store'
(T, M : koodaŋ), sometimes for as long as one or two years, until an
appropriate time has been arranged for the cremation (the months of
March and April are popular, presumably because there is no work in
the fields to attend to at these times), or else it may be cremated without
further delay. As in Thai funerals, the coffin is taken three times round
the pyre, headed by a priest, who breaks an old coconut over the face
of the deceased when the body is in position on the pyre. In the
procession, people try to hold the long sacred thread from the coffin, or
hold on to those holding the thread. The firing of the pyre is always by
means of rockets on guide-wires, as in the manner of royal cremations
among the Thais, except that the officiating priest fires the rocket. Fire
crackers are only used with a 'dry' funeral, that is, when the body has
been kept for a year or so.

Dances of exorcism for spirits in living people used to be common,
but are now rare, except at funerals. In these cases, when the body is
at the temple, three or four women of any age, wearing phaasîn and sabai,
dance the khajƹƹ moon either on the evening before the cremation takes
place, or else on the same day as the cremation. They dance in front of
the coffin, to the background of phleey moon music led by the xylophone
accompanied by other traditional instruments. Standing more or less
on the same spot and effectively moving only their hands, they try to
exorcise the ghost of the deceased.

The Mons have another category of supernaturals which they refer
to as ghosts (T : phĭi, M : aloh) but which might better be considered as
taboos. The obligation to observe these taboos is thought to have been
inherited from the Mon ancestors. These are completely distinctive and
have no obvious parallel among the Thais.

The universal taboo affecting all Mons concerns the tortoise (or
turtle). All Mons have this tortoise tradition. If they see a tortoise

 

 

 

 

village11

 

 

 

 

                                      VILLAGE MONS OF BANGKOK                             329

 

M : ?aruk) and do not want it, or can avoid it, they can say 'It stinks'
(M : sa? ôoj) and pass on. But if they catch a tortoise or cannot avoid
one, they must on no account let il go, and must take it to the house,
cook it, and eat it in the form of a curry or whatever, after having first
offered the head and the feet" (but not the tail which is thrown away)
to the house ghosts in the spirit house. If however a tortoise is released
the Mon ghosts are considered to have been offended and any subsequent
calamity will be attributable to this act. Two exceptions are observed.
A very large tortoise (possibly here a true turtle) must not be eaten; it
is old and like an old person and so must be placed in the temple. A
tortoise with letters carved on its underside, roughly about the thickness
of a finger, is considered a protected tortoise since the characters are
carved on tortoises raised in the temple : likewise it must be released in
the temple grounds and not consumed. Tortoises of course are often
kept in Thai village temples, but there is no compulsion to consume them
should they be encountered away from the temple. The Mons themselves
can offer no explanation as to why a tortoise is treated in this way and
not some oilier creature. Many prohibitions have a practical origin in
remote time. One possible explanation is that tortoises damaged, or
weve considered to spoil, the newly planted rice in the fields. In Hindu
mythology a tortoise (turtle) is one of the forms of Vishnu and in the
churning of the sea of milk Mount Meru was sometimes represented as
reposing on the turtle's back; but the Mons interviewed seem unaware
of this and deny any symbolism in or rational explanation for the selec-
tion of a tortoise as a taboo which they term a ghost. Mons have the
choice of avoiding or absorbing the danger or sacred qualities represented
by the tortoise, but the fears the animal arouses or symbolises are real
and the taboo rigidly observed.

There are additional animal taboos which are not universal to all
Mons but are restricted to certain families. These concern snakes (M :
suum), chickens (M : caain) and pigs (M : klooik). Members of a

_____________________________________________________________

16) Halliday (supra) in noting this says that only sometimes are the feet and tail
offered to the house spirit. He makes no exceptions to any tortoises, unlike
the village observed, except for sea turtles. Halliday also mentions the head
of the rice is offered at the same time: this is not the case in the village
described here. There is the possibility of confusion in both Thai and Mon
between 'turtle' and 'tortoise' since the same word, though different in each
language, is used to designate both species.

 

 

 

 

 

330                                          Michael smithies

 

household observe the taboo of the male household head, but women
observe that of their husbands, even in cases where the husband has moved
into his wife's family residence. But the avoidance/absorption feature
of the tortoise taboo is not repeated. Snake families may not kill or
eat snakes. Chicken families may not sell or give chickens (though they
may raise them, eat them, and kill them), and pig families may not raise,
sell, give or kill pigs, though they may eat them. As no Mons in the
village raised pigs, they could not sell or give them, and they cannot a
priori
kill them. In practice it is therefore difficult to see in what ways
a pig taboo family differed from any other Mon family (one possible
explanation might be that all the persons in the village descended from
a few 'pig families'). Pork is eaten however, being bought in the market,
and offerings to the spirit house in a pig family would include pork when
any is available.

No other animals are affected in this way. The cow is not reared
but the explanation seems to be practical; the land is too muddy for it to
be useful in ploughing and it is not as strong as the buffalo. Milk is not
normally drunk by the Mons, as with most Southeast Asian people. But
a buffalo may neither be killed nor eaten unless it dies. The fact that
buffaloes live in close community with the Mons and sleep in the same
house explains this practice; it is accorded semi-human status. In
practice when it dies it is sold to a Chinese dealer who then retails the
the meat in the local market, which all may buy to eat, including the
Mons. Similarly, and unexceptionally, dogs and cats, sharing the house
and much of the lives of the villagers, may not be killed or eaten.

village12

 

 

 

 

 

                              VILLAGE MONS OF BANGKOK                                331

 

village13

 

No other animals are raised (e.g. goats, M : ˀabet) or met with (e.g.
monkeys, tigers M : ˀnɔɔj, kalaˀ)—the jungle is too far away. There are
no prohibitions concerning any fish, crabs, shrimps (M : kaaˀ, ˀAtaam,
ŋuuj) and other water creatures.

One would be tempted to speculate in Levi-Straussian terms that
the Mon animal taboos fit into a scheme which rationalizing Westerners
find acceptable. The universal hereditary taboo is both a land and a
water creature, like the Mons themselves, and of the additional hereditary
'ghosts', one which is well known, the snake, is also a creature of the
same two elements. With the two less well-known hereditary 'ghosts',
the chicken is of two different elements, air and land, and the pig of
land only.

 

 

 village14

Unfortunately for such theorising, however, there is another taboo
which some families, not having additional animal taboos, maintain.
This concerns sticky rice cooked in bamboo (T : khâawlăam, M : halaam);
this may not be prepared or consumed by families inheriting the tabooo.
The prohibition stems from the bamboo, not the rice, for if the rice is
taken out of the bamboo, after being cooked in this way, and put on a
plate, it may then be eaten. In certain African countries the bamboo is
considered the dwelling place of ghosts because they can hide themselves
in the hollow stems unnoticed. Mons with this hereditary taboo when
questioned denied the presence of ghosts but pointed only to the

 

 

 

 

332                                          Michael smithies

 

requirements of family (ancestor) ghosts; bamboo is grown in the
compound and neither feared nor despised. One can only speculate as
to the origin of this taboo and wonder at its survival.

When questioned, the abbot of the village temple showed himself
to be fully aware of Mon Brahminical and animistic beliefs (as he is a
Mon himself, this is to be expected). He explained that those Mons
(that is, almost all) who were unable to overcome their fear of ghosts
and rid themselves of the taboo traditions had not arrived at a complete
understanding of the Dhamma. He did not indicate that any serious
attempt was made by monks to help remove these fears; it is easier to
accept spirit placation practices as traditional than to remove them as
being unorthodox or incompatible with Buddhist doctrine.

The continuation and cultivation of this active world of ghosts
and 'ghost traditions', or taboos, may well be part of distinctiveness of
an elite minority, having a more vigorous supernatural world than the
alien majority around them. It is difficult to reconcile this intensively
cultivated, and feared, world of the spirits and taboos with the brash
modernity of the capital. It would not be surprising if these customs
and traditions had survived in a remote and hermetic village, but it is
unexpected to find this separate society existing, complete with its own
language, within easy commuting distance of the world of skyscrapers,
nightclubs and traffic jams. To some it might come as a pleasant relief
to believe this could be possible. What makes these practices still more
interesting is that most people have been assuming for a long time now
that, specifically, the Mons were totally absorbed and no longer existed
as an individual ethnic community, and, generally, that all minority
groups and practices must of necessity disappear in face of self-evident
modernisation. Neither of these assumptions is justified. Even young
Mons having passed through all stages of secondary school believe firmly
in the existence of this active supernatural world and observe all the
traditional taboos without questioning them. It is remarkable to observe
the strength of the traditional belief system, even where Mons are also
part of normal Bangkok working life. Even more so then with the Thais,
the same person can function in two totally different systems without
any apparent strain and with equal acceptance of both.

 


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