The religion and beliefs or the Black Tai, and a note on the study of cultural origins. พิมพ์ อีเมล
เขียนโดย Sumitr Pitiphat.   

 

SUMIT PITIPHAT. THE RELIGION AND BELIEFS OF THE BLACK TAI, AND A NOTE ON THE STUDY OF CULTURAL ORIGINS. JSS. VOL.68 (pt.1) 1980. p.29-38.

 

                              THE RELIGION AND BELIEFS OF THE BLACK TAI, AND
                                     A NOTE ON THE STUDY OF CULTURAL ORIGINS

                                                                              by

                                                                SUMITR PlTIPHAT*

 

 

The Black Tai are a  central  upland Tai group residing in Sip  Song  Chao  Thai  (literally
the "Twelve Tai" Cantons) in northwestern  Viet  Nam. They are found living in large numbers
in territory lying between the Black  River  and   the Red  River. The  nomenclature "Black  Tai"
("Thai Dam") stems from the distinctive color of their dress, different from that of neighboring
Tai groups  who  include  the characteristically  white - clad White Tai, and  the  Red Tai, who
embellish the edges of their otherwise black blouses with red.

The Sip Song Chao Thai are known to be an old home of Black  Tai and  kindred  groups
prior even to the expansion of Vietnamese power southeast of Annam.The Tai peoples on the
western side of Annam possess a long history of self-government up to the ascendency of western
Tai groups. Between the fourteenth and fifteenth  century  A.D. the  Black  Tai  came  under  the
protection  of  Luang  Prabang. Local  government  during  that  time,  however,  continued to
function independently. Beginning with  the Thon  Buri  and  continuing  through  the  Bangkok
period, Siam gained power over the Kingdom of Lan Chang2 and with  it  the  Sip  Song  Chao
Thai. In as much as Siam did not intervene in local government, the Black Tai remained under
the mild suzerainty of Luang Prabang.3

The Sip Song Chao Thai were adjacent to  Annam  and,  when  Vietnamese  territorial  am-
bitions spread to include them, its inhabitants were obliged to send tribute to Viet Nam in order
to maintain  amicable  relations.  Luang  Prabang  was  no  exception  to  this. When  Viet  Nam
fell to France, the Twelve Tai Cantons were included as a part  of  the  Vietnamese  colony. The
French rationalization  for  this  was  that  the  Cantons  had  originally  sent  tribute to Viet Nam,
hence France reckoned them as dependencies. This maneuver cost Siam the Twelve Tai Cantons
and all six of the adjacent Hua Phan Districts in 1888.4

The Sip Song Chao  Thai  were  composed  of  twelve  muang  or  loosely  federated  states.
Each muang comprised a  principality  ruled  by  the  tao, or  Black  Tai  nobility. In  the  traditional
political system the chao muang (chief of the muang) held hereditary title to the land, with  owner-
ship passing from father to eldest son. Similarly the chao muang position   itself  was  hereditary.
In the event the eldest son was judged unworthy, another was chosen to ensure the continuation
of the line. The Lo and Cam families furnished  most  chao  muang. Although  the  French, follow-
ing annexation of  the  Cantons,  altered  the  land  tenure  system  by  granting  title  to  individual

                 ____________________________________________________________________________

* Thammasat University, Bangkok

1. Prince Damrong, Chronicle Collection: Parts 7-11, National Library Edition, vol. 4 (Bangkok: Progress
Publication, 1964), p. 7.

2. D.G.E. Hall, A History of South-east Asia (London: Macmillan, 1970), 3rd ed., p. 462.

3. Prince Damrong, op. cit., p. 18.

4. D.G.E. Hall, op. cit., p. 686.


 

                                                            29                                            JSS 68.1 (Jan. 1980)

 

 

 

 

 

30                                                                 Sumitr Pitiphat

 

cultivators, they left intact the hereditary monopoly of the Lo and Cam families over the position
of chao muang.5 Unchecked in their internal authority,  the  autonomous  chao  muang  served
as barriers to the formation of any more coherent organization for  collective  action  in  the  Tai
highlands of northwestern Viet Nam. On the  other  hand,  they  also  constituted  obstacles  to
the external domination of the Tai country.6 Today the chao muang  persist  in  their  traditional
religious roles and continue to govern their muang according to Black Tai  customs. The  daily
way of life of the people has consequently changed very little.

           Until the Viet Minh drove the French  out  of  northern  Viet  Nam,  following  the  battle  of
Dien Bien Phu (1953), the Twelve Tai Cantons were under French colonial rule. The agreement
dividing Viet Nam in two at  the seventeenth parallel placed the Twelve Tai Cantons, as a  part
of the North, under Viet Minh  jurisdiction.  Because  some  Tai  groups  helped  the  Viet  Minh
against the French, the Viet Minh promised the Tai a measure of home rule. Other Tai  groups,
however, having sided with the French, had to evacuate and find refuge in South Viet Nam and
Laos, which remained under French rule for some time after.

          This writer received an invitation to join the Ethnic Minority Research Project of the
Ministry   of   Social   Welfare   and  Labor, Laos, in  1973. He  took  this  opportunity  to  conduct
a preliminary study of the Black Tai displaced  by  the  current  Indochinese  war  in  Laos. Most
of the Black Tai in Laos were at that time settled in  hamlets  around  Vientiane;  the  remainder
were scattered throughout different districts of Laos.  Data  concerning  religion  and  beliefs  of
the Black Tai were taken from interviews with  Black  Tai religious  practitioners  (mod  and  mo)
and many other knowledgable refugees in Laos, as well as from local manuscripts and reports
from other researchers.

 

Belief in spirits

          Religious beliefs of Black Tai are mainly centered on phi (spirits), khwan (life essences)
and cosmology. Man is felt to be under the power of many spirits, both  malevolent  and  bene-
ficient. They are ranked in order of importance as follows.

           (a) Spirits of the Sky (taen or phi fa) are gods or angels who live  in  heaven  (the  sky). In
their omnipotence the taen control events both good  and  bad  that  befall  all  creatures  living
on earth. Man must conform his behavior to the wishes of the taen in order to be  deserving  of
his mercy and to enjoy a happy life;  to  displease  the  taen  is  to  invite  misfortune. Tai  life  is
thus totally circumscribed by the wishes of taen. A partial listing of the taen pantheon  includes
the following individuals, each with his individual duties and power.

      Taen Luang is chief taen and overseer to all other taen. As supreme judge in controversies
affecting the taen, he sees that justice is done all around.

               ________________________________________________________________________________

         5. Frank M. Lebar et al., Ethnic Groups of Mainland  Southeast  Asia (New Haven:  Human  Relations  Area
Files Press, 1964), p. 222.

         6. John T. McAlister, "Mountain minorities and the Viet Minh: a key to the Indochina war", in Peter

Kunstadter, ed., Southeast Asian Tribes, Minorities, and Nations (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1967),

vol.2, p. 781.

         7. William J. Gedney, "White, Black and Red Tai", The Social Science  Review, Special  Number, 1-24, 1964.

 

 

 

 

 

                                                           BLACK TAI RELIGION AND BELIEFS                                               31

 

Taen Pua Ka La Vi is responsible for men's  prosperity  or  lack  thereof.  He  regulates  the  sky,
weather and seasonal rainfall.

Taen Chad is responsible  for  sending  men  to  be  born  on  earth,  and  for  determining  their

fate.

Taen Naen is responsible for giving the khwan and controlling the lifespan of men.
Taen Boon is responsible for giving wealth and prosperity to men.
Taen Kor is responsible for health, particularly children's health.

Taen Sing are the patron of the Black Tai lineage and ensure  good  fortune  for  every  member.

Taen Sad   is   responsible   for   regulating   men's   conduct: catching  wrongdoers, meting  out
punishment, and protecting good men from evil.

Taen Hung Khao is responsible for light, and making people beautiful.

(b) Spirits    of   the   Village  and  Muang  (phi  ban  and  phi  muang). Every  village  and  muang

has some kind of spirit(s) which protects the village or the muang and ensures peace and prosperi-
ty. The phi ban or spirit of the village has a small house in which to live. Usually the phi  muang
is a royal spirit (phi chao) which might dwell in the forest, a hill  or  a  tree. Some  muang  keep

a shrine for them to live in the area of the lak muang ("city pillar"), which is regarded as a taboo
area. This  area  is   only used for the religious rite called Sen Muang. A feast must be given to
both phi ban and phi muang every year. If there is a disaster or inauspicious event then another
feast must be offered.

         (c) Ancestor Spirits. When a parent or the male  heir  dies,  a   part   of   his   khwan   and   phi   is

invited to live in the house of the eldest surviving son. A special altar called hong  hong  is   con-
structed. The Ancestor Spirit receives a feast and ceremony at least once every year,  although
well-to-do families might have more  frequent  commemorations. If  members  of  the  family  do
not conduct a ceremony and a feast for the spirit, it is believed that the spirit causes bad health
to afflict the family. These  ceremonies  and  feasts, if  performed  often, bring  good  fortune  to
the family.

        (d) Spirit  of  the  Forest,  Spirit    of   the  Soil, and  Others. Spirits   also  dwell  in  the  forest,  soil,

 hills, rivers and the other natural elements. If one of them  is  displeased  it  brings  misfortune.

 When there  is  a  sudden sickness in the family, a member of the family must invite a mod or

 sorcerer to come over  and  determine what kind of spirit brought sickness  to  the  family. The

 spirit then receives the feast or offering that the mod thinks is proper to alleviate the misfortune.

 

Belief in khwan

Black Tai believe that the taen create men to be born on earth. Taen Naen is responsible
for supervising the creation and giving khwan to  individuals. He  sees  to it  that  the  shaping
of human form is in accordance with the form of the  Black Tai  male  and  female  archetypes,

 

 

 

 

 

32                                                              Sumitr Pitiphat

 

Pu Chang Lo Po Chang Ti and Mae Bao  Mae  Naen. When  the  bodies  are  finished   they  are
handed   over  to  Taen  Chad  who  determines  their  lifespan  and  dispatches  them  to  earth.

The human body is composed  of  32  khwan  found  in  32  important  organs  of  t he  body.
These khwan are invisible but they endow bodies with the infinite qualities of life. During normal
times these khwan remain in man; and only if all  the  khwan  are  present  in  one's  body  does
one feel normal and enjoy good health. If something upsets one of  the khwan  then   the  owner
feels sick or unhappy. The khwan are very sensitive beings and may readily  depart   from  one's
body, especially if one becomes frightened or sick. As  a  result  Black  Tai,  when  sick,  perform
a ceremony to recall the owner's missing khwan.

When a person dies all khwan will depart from the body  in  groups  for  different  destinations.
Khwan of the body (khwan kok or  khwan  ton),  for  example,  will  return  to  Muang  Fa  (heaven),
while khwan of the head (khwan hua) will return to the place prepared for the khwan of ancestors
by his children. When there is no son, the khwan will go to a  small shrine (tup)  of  the  daughter
erected near her house, but is forbidden, however, to enter the  son-in-law's  house.  The  khwan
plai
or shadow go to Lam Loi, as explained in the section below on Black Tai cosmology.

Those khwan that leave the body must be  sent  to  different  places  by  mo, mod  or  koi  kok
(the eldest son-in-law). When a person dies his eldest son-in-law, who has already left the house,
will be the person to deliver the deceased's  khwan  to  destinations  in  Muang  Fa  appropriate  to
his   position  in  life.  According  to  the  Black  Tai  belief  the  final  dwelling  place  of  a  khwan  in
Muang Fa is  related  to  its  owner's  original  standing  in  the  world.  Those  of  high  standing  in
the society, such as chiefs and noble men, are sent to Luen Phan, a  heaven-like  place  for  Black
Tai. Lam Loi is a less exalted  destination  in  Muang  Fa  than  Luen  Phan;  and  it  is  thus  where
the khwan of common people are destined to go.

 

Religious practitioners

Black Tai employ mo (priests) and   mod  (sorcerers) as  their  religious  practitioners. Mo
are considered educated and  knowledgable  in  the rules and  customs of  their  people. They
serve as advisors, and perform sacred ceremonies. When there is a misfortune affecting the people
or the muang, the mo will be called upon for advice by the chao muang. He will base his advice
on chronicle and records of their muang. Prerequisite to becoming a mo is membership in  the
Loung family. Monastic candidates must learn about astrology, and customs  of  the  Black  Tai,
as well as detailed  ceremonial  praxis. Historically  these   positions  and  attendant  discipline
were transmitted down from father to son within the Loung  family. The phrase "Loung hed  mo
Lo hed tao"
means that the Loung family functions as  priest  while  the  Lo  family  acts  as  the
Lords or chiefs of the cantons. Later people from other  families such  as  Ka  and  Koung  who
were interested in learning those arcanae  were  accepted  as  priests. Today  'mo-hood ' is  no
longer the exclusive province of the Loung family.

The chao muang usually designates a wise, educated priest to be head priest, ong mo, in
the muang. All important books and records  of  the country  are  kept  by  the  ong  mo. He  also
serves as final interpreter of rules and customs of the country. Two helpers assist the  ong  mo

 

 

 

 

 

                                                         BLACK TAI RELIGION AND BELIEFS                                              33

 

in all capacities such as the Sen Muang ceremony : ong chang and ong ngae.

Sen Muang is one of the most  important  of  these  ceremonies,  believed  by  the  Black  Tai
to ensure peace, stability, prosperity, and freedom from disease and other misfortunes. Because
of its significance the ceremony must be carried out with grandeur  in  keeping  with  high  station
of the taen and the muang spirits it honors. The ong mo and his aides divide the  work  of  prepar-
ing the feast. When the ong mo  finally sets up the date  and  time  for  the feast the  chao  muang
gives the ong mo all responsibility.Normally the ong mo permits ong chang to prepare ceremonial
objects to be used, while the ong ngae supervises the  cooking,  butchering,  drinks  and   sweets.
When every thing is in order, the ong mo  initiates  the ceremony  by  bringing  over  the  important
scriptures of  the  muang,  called "Pub  Soe  Mo" ("Book  of  Priests") to  be  read.  Sometimes  the
ong chang or the ong ngae are asked to read. Then the  taen  and  the  spirits  of  the  muang  are
invited to come down and take part in the feast. The invitation is first  sent  to  the  most  important
taen, then  on  down  according  to  significance  and  rank of the taen and the spirits. Taen Luang
is the first   to  receive  the  meal, followed  by  lesser taen and spirits. In this ceremony Nang Mod
Muang (the  female  sorcerer  of  the  muang) will  come  to  sing and beg the spirits to protect the
muang and its people from all misfortune  and  to  make  its  dwellers  prosperous  and  peaceful.
When the ceremony is  finished  the  Black  Tai  will  enjoy  the  feast  themselves  with  food, drink
and fun.

When there is sickness Black Tai use local medicine such as herbs and plants as their first
treatment. If the condition of the patient does  not  improve  then  they  believe  that  it  is  the  work
of certain spirits. To cure this a mod is employed.

Mod can be of both sexes, but a mod must come from the mod lineage where  his  father  or
relative has been a mod. The candidate is first possessed by the mod  spirit  informing  him  that
he is chosen to be a mod. After finally deciding himself, the candidate will be trained in  astrology,
ways of performing ceremonies, curing the sick, and contacting different spirits. These are
taught by a senior mod.

The mod lao (male sorcerer) performs and cures the sick who are in a  very  critical  condition.
He is able to do this because he knows all the prayers and possesses sacred objects to be used
against the evil spirits. Besides this knowledge, mod lao has the  power  to  call  mod  spirits  and
their subordinates from the mod country to come  and  fight  for  the  lost  khwan  of  the  patient  in
the event that the spirit is  stubborn  and  does not   want  to  return  the  khwan. The  ceremony  of
mod  lao  is  usually  accompanied  by  trumpet  or  flute  playing  throughout. In  cures by the mod
lao,
the mo phi or flutist is the one who arranges the  offerings,  called  kai, which  are  composed
of   rice,  egg,  cotton,  clothes  of   the   patient,  alcoholic   drinks,  chicken, betel  nut   with  leaves,
fruits, and other food. The mod lao proceeds first by  accusing  the  spirit  which  he  believes  has
caused the illness. Verification  follows, by  pouring  rice  grains  over  an  egg. The  mod  predicts
whether, if his hypothesis is correct, an even or odd number of rice grains will remain on the  egg.
If the test initially fails (i.e. refuting his guess), the mod  selects  another  spirit  and  in  the  same
fashion subject his new choice  to  the  rice  grain  test. If  this  time  the  spirit tests  positively, the
mod will seek a repetition of his success. Only a succession of successes at this gives him definite

 

 

 

 

 

 

34                                                              Sumitr Pitiphat

 

proof or assurance of which spirit actually caused the illness.  After  that  the  mod   tries  to  com-
municate with that spirit by anticipating his wants, asking why he caused the illness,how should
the patient ask for pardon, and what sort of  food  or  feast  would  please  the  spirit  most. When
it is known what is desired, the appropriate items  are  prepared  and  offered  to  the  spirit. After
that the mod implores the spirit to return the patient's khwan.  Whether  the  spirit  does  or  does
not want to return the khwan to  its  owner  is  ascertained  once  more  by  guess. If  the  spirit  is
still unresponsive the mod lao calls the mod spirits and their subjects, e.g. elephant, horse  and
swan, to come and compel the recalcitrant spirit to release the khwan. Different  kinds  of  magic
are used to force that spirit until he gives up.When the struggle is won,the mod invites the khwan
to return, bathes it, and bids it to dwell in the patient's body. In  some  ceremonies  such  as  Sen
Muang, the mod lao usually uses a very frightening method, such as sacrificing a  live  sheep  by
sword.

The mod ying (female sorcerer) are usually invited to come and cure patients who are not
critically ill. Mod ying usually cure by merely entreating the spirit and  giving  a  feast.  Generally
they do not have the power to  force  the  spirit. There  is  no  playing  of  trumpet  or  flute  when
mod ying perform.

Only if the illness is caused by taen, is the begging ceremony, asking  sympathy  from  taen,
performed. It  is  forbidden  to  compel  taen  because the Black  Tai  believe  that  the  taen  have
power over the mod. Therefore  most  Black  Tai  prefer  mod  ying  in  ceremonies pertaining  to
taen such as Sen Muang and the ceremony for prolonging life. In cases when the female mod is
able to practise magic, she may be able to perform the work of the male mod. A  mod  ying  who
can chant beautifully is usually chosen as Nang Mod Muang for the Sen Muang ceremony.

 

Black Tai cosmology

"Khwam  Toe  Muang " ("History  of  the  Muang")  relates  that  in  the  beginning  Earth
("Din") and Heaven ("Muang Fa") were joined by a mushroom-shaped structure, the bottom
part of which was  Earth, the  top  Heaven. The  top  was  for  taen, the  bottom  for  mankind.
The two were so close originally that many conflicts  broke out between men and taen. This
caused inconvenience to man's ancestor, Pu Chao, who cut the connection between Earth and
Heaven so that the sky floated far above Earth, almost out of sight.

Animals at this time were able to talk. This  caused  noise  that  could be heard even  in
Heaven. Angered, taen dispatched a drought to kill both men and animals.Concerned about
the  drought,  Pu  Chao   performed   a   ceremony   asking  for   rain.  With  such  abundance
was his request granted that a great deluge ensued, taking many lives. Saddened, a sympathetic
taen placed men, animals and all their belongings on the great floating  pumpkins,  or  bottle-
gourds, so that they would not perish in the flood.  After  the  floodwaters  had   receded  taen
let Tao Soung and Tao Ngern again return to Earth. Tao  Soung  and  Tao  Ngern   then  took
wives, becoming the progenitors of mankind. Further stories relating the migrations  of  men
spanning time from antiquity to present fill out the historical manuscript.

When a person dies Black Tai gather and read the "Khwam Toe Muang" as a way to direct


 

 

 

 

                                             BLACK TAI RELIGION AND BELIEFS                                                 35

 

the khwan of the dead back to their ancestors and Heaven according to prescription. If this is
not done the khwan might lose their way. "Khwam  Toe  Muang" is,  therefore, very  important
in the study of the history and concepts of the Black Tai world. It used to be transmitted orally
from generation to generation from ancient times, and was recorded in the  Black  Tai  script
several centuries ago.

The original place where Heaven and Earth were connected is believed  by  Black Ta i to
be the region of the Tat Pi Fai Waterfall in Muang La (or Son La)  of  the  Twelve  Tai  Cantons.
While this waterfall is a jumping-off place for human khwan  on  their  heavenward  journey, it
is the point of termination for those of animals, for they are unable to accompany their human
owners aloft.

Directly above man's territory, the khwan of the deceased comes to the territory of th e mod,
a dwelling place for those who are well versed in  magic. Like  that  of  men, the mod  country  is
wide and abundant with food. Lam Juong Klang  comes  next, a  dwelling  place  for  the  khwan
of common people and a meeting place of khwan plai or shadow. Here the khwan of the people
have a place to stay, work and eat just as in the city of man. Next one reaches the bank of Ta Kai
River, a frontier to yet a further level of Muang Fa where one meets a frontiersman   named  One
Kuon Fan Long. For the fare  of  one  duck  plus  two  bi (unit  of  money) the  boat  man   Nai  Lo
provides ferry service. Those with special power (such as the mod) cross this  serpent-infested
river by magical means. Arrival on the farther bank brings one to   a  cool  and  fertile   place  cha-
racterized by mulberry plots. Young people who die  come  here  because  there  is  a   big  park
for amusement; the khwan  of  young people  like to play games such as spindle toy, saba, and
cock fighting. Kuang   Lin  is  an  area   for  playing games. Nearby is a place for those who died
by accident such as drowning, falling  from  a  tree or  being  bitten  by  wild  animals. This  area
is called Muang Phi Wai. After   this  territory  one  reaches  Lam  Loi,  the   highest  level  for  the
khwan of ordinary people. The living conditions here are similar to those on earth: houses   and
fields are to be found and those who live here must earn their living and build their own  houses.
There is even a well called Bo Nam Kin Yen for khwan  to  quench   their  thirst. High  mountains
called Phukao Kum Kao Ngo Muang Fa surround this area, and  lying behind  these  mountains
is a crossroads called Sam Sip Kae. From this departure point there are many ways to proceed
to the dwelling place of taen and khwan of the aristocracy and royalty.

The houses of Taen Luang, Taen Chad, Taen Ker, Taen Sing and other taen  are   located
on the left side of the Sam Sip Kae crossroads. On the right  side  is  the  Taen  Naen's  factory
for making human forms. Lying straight ahead is a place for the khwan of high-ranking  people
who are usually from the Lo and Cam families. Great chiefs live in an  area  called  Luen  Phan
Loung, while minor chiefs and aristocracy live at Luen Phan Noi. Those who live at  Luen  Phan
do not have to work hard; mere wishing secures them all that  they  require. Between  Sam  Sip
Kae and Luen Phan and other points  along  the  way  of  Muang   Fa  are  many  strange  lands:
near the Sam Sip Kae intersection mentally  ill  and  other  abnormal  spirits  of  the  sky  live  in
a place called Nang Bid Nang Buen. Beyond this there is a river, called Nam Kieng, and a boat
where khwan must pass to go to Luen Phan.The riverbank is wide and edged by a deep forest
of mango and other trees. Some trees are so big that their leaves shade three  mountains.The

 

 

 

 

36                                                                Sumitr Pitiphat

 

cemetery of the Spirits of the Sky, called   Pa  Hei  Muang Fa, is  in  this  forest. Near  the  forest
is the arid  and  barren  land  of  Muang  Kora   which  cannot  be  utilized  for  cultivation. In  this
area there is a city for young men and women who died before being married and had to leave
their lovers behind on earth; in Muang Kora a sad and gloomy atmosphere pervades. A  magni-
ficent forest full of gold and silver trees is next reached. Prosperity  is  everywhere; overhead  fly
gold and silver birds picking various kinds of fruits from the trees. Next to the area of  the  silver
and gold forest is Muang Taen, the community of  the  taen, which  is  the  highest  level  in  the
universe of Black Tai.

From the foregoing cosmological outline we observe that the Black Tai  accounts  contain
no depiction of hell or purgatory. No matter whether the doer's action is good or bad his khwan
is destined to some level of Muang Fa; there  is  no going to  hell  for  prolonged  suffering. The
writer thus infers that a concept of hell or damnation is not among the original Tai beliefs.Later
some Tai groups might have picked up this from Indian religions  or  other  cultural  influences.

 

In conclusion: what characteristics reveal about cultural origins

The religion of the Black Tai is one of animism, stressing the worship of phi and khwan. These
beliefs in phi fa or taen and khwan prevail in all Tai groups. Such Tai  groups  as  the  Siamese
(central Thailand), Tai  Yuan, Tai  Lue, Tai  Lao, Tai  Phuan, and  Shan  have  had  contact   with
other cultures for a long time.These groups have adopted some of the religious beliefs of India
and mixed them with their own original beliefs.  Some  Tai  groups  have  already  lost  most  of
their animistic beliefs. For example, the  Tai  Phuan  of  Ban  Chiang  of  northeastern  Thailand,
who migrated from Chiang Khwang  in  northern  Laos  in  the  early  eighteenth  century,  today
practise Theravada Buddhism. This group still practises  the  khwan  ceremony  but  the  belief
in and understanding of taen has almost completely  lost  its  significance. Taen  or  phi  fa  are
known vaguely to the Tai  Phuan  as  angels or  gods  who  live  in  the  sky  and  have  authority
over   men   and   the   weather.  But   the  people  of  Ban  Chiang  are  ignorant  of  the  original
concept of the Black  Tai  universe  and  of  the  intricate  classification  of  duties  and  authority
appropriate   to   the   different    taen.  Like  many  other  Tai  groups  in  northeastern  Thailand,
the people of Ban Chiang have been  influenced  less  by  Hinduism  than  by  Buddhism. They
know only vaguely about Hindu gods. Their life in a rural area prevents  them  from  performing
elaborate Brahmin ceremonies which mainly  devolve  around  the  royal  court.  However,  they
accept the Brahmin-like priest as a virtuous person   similar  to  the  Buddhist  monk.  In  some
places, people prefer to have the person who performs important ceremonies dressed in white
like a Brahmin priest. The Siamese of central Thailand also have  some  knowledge  of  khwan
ceremonies but the detail has been largely lost or combined with  Brahmin  elements; and  the
ceremonies have declined to some extent because the people have embraced Buddhism and
hold important ceremonies according to Brahmin ritual. Nevertheless the Siamese have  often
heard and still use certain phrases which reflect their old beliefs about khwan such as  khwan
ta (khwan of the eye), khwan jai (khwan of the  heart), khwan  hai (lost  khwan),  and  khwan  ni
di fo (khwan leaves one's body when he is frightened); but they  do  not  know  these  concepts
in much detail. Today it is very hard to find anybody  in  Bangkok  who  knows  the  significance
of the word "taen".

 

 

 

 

 

                                               BLACK TAI RELIGION AND BELIEFS                                                   37

 

When considering the religious beliefs of Black Tai,  we  observe  that  the  characteristics
of taen differ from those of Hindu gods or deva, important  deities  such as Brahma, Siva, Narai,
among others. Moreover, the cosmology  or  concepts  of  the  universe  of  Black  Tai  are  quite
different from  those  of  Hinduism  and  Buddhism. Therefore, the  influence  of  Hinduism  and
Buddhism is not reflected in the religious beliefs of Black Tai as it is in some other  Tai  groups.
The influence of ancient Indian languages, such as Pali and Sanskrit, is absent from Black  Tai
speech.7 In contrast, in  the  national  language  of  Thailand (and, to  a  lesser  extent, of  Laos),
Khmer, Pali and Sanskrit  derivatives  are  found  in  abundance  while  many  words  that  come
from ancient Tai language have disappeared.

Not only do  religious  beliefs  of  Black  Tai  deviate  from  those  of  India,  they  fail  also  to
coincide with Chinese religion. The general character of   Black  Tai  religion  and  cosmology  is
not the same as that of the Chinese. There is, however, some similarity  in  respecting  and  wor-
shipping Ancestor Spirits. Ancestor worship cults, however, are not uncommon  to  tribal  people
and certainly not unique to the Chinese. Such similarities might show  reciprocal  influence  and
then, again, might  be  purely  coincidental. The  culture  of  the  Black  Tai,  particularly  language,
literature and government, does not reflect nearly as much Chinese influence as  we  can  easily
detect in such other ethnic southeast Asian groups such as the Vietnamese, Miao and Yao.

Because of the reasoning outlined above, we can surmise that the religious beliefs  of  Black
Tai are relatively free  from  the  Indian and  Chinese  influences  which  have  spread   throughout
southeast Asia over a span of 2,000 years.This fact is contradictory to the ideas of some scholars
concerning   diffusion   of  Indian  and  Chinese  cultures. Many  people  believe  that   the patterns
of  culture  in  southeast  Asia  are  essentially combinations  of those of the Chinese and Indians,
or have cultural bases drawn from China  and  India.  It  is  obvious  that  certain  ethnic  groups in
this region have adopted some cultural traits of  Chinese or  Indian  origin  and  mixed  them  with
their  own  for  so long  a  time  that  it  is  very  difficult  to  differentiate  the  foreign  traits  from  the
indigenous ones. Yet there are several ethnic  groups  who  still  maintain  much  of  their  unique
cultural identities.

The study of the religious beliefs of Black Tai thus helps us to define a new way to approach
the cultures of southeast Asia. Each group should be treated individually, and  previous  generali-
zations pertaining to the diffusion of  Indian  and  Chinese  cultures  questioned. These  generali-
zations were made on the basis of  limited  ethnographic  evidence. The  data  on  the  Black  Tai
give us some insight into the system of religious beliefs of  ancient  Tai  civilizations  prior  to  the
adoption   of  Buddhist  and  Brahministic  teachings, such  as   the  very  obscure  pre-Sukhothai
culture  before  the  thirteenth  century  A.D. We  have  increasing  evidence  from  Sukhothai  and
post-Sukhothai times when some Tai groups started to accept  and   integrate  both  Khmer  and
Indian influences into their existing  cultures. In  the  long  intervening  period  up  to  the  present

 

 

 

 

38                                                                    Sumitr Pitiphat

 

many changes have taken place, and it is now difficult to  identify  what  are  original  Tai  cultural
patterns, and what was the nature of the old Tai social system. If scholars direct  more  attention
to the study of now-veiled aspects of ancient Tai groups,  especially  the  non-Buddhist  Tai, they
can help in  promoting  understanding  of  the  origins  and  past  conditions  of  Tai  culture  and
society. This would be of great benefit to the  study  of  the  history,  anthropology, and  language
of the Tai, and permit a clearer understanding of the ongoing cultural evolution of these peoples.

 

 

 

 


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