Death and life, the cycle repeats over and over. The ghosts of the past turn to the bountiful harvests of tomorrow. The Phi Ta Khon Ghost Mask Festival is a vibrant, raucous celebration of the cycle of life, rooted in a fascinating mix of local and national cultures.
Every year, previously at some time chosen by spirit mediums and now fixed on the first weekend after the sixth full moon, the local people of Dansai in Loei Province, Thailand, don colorful masks made from coconut husks and rice-steamer wicker baskets. They celebrate over three days, with activities including a parade of dancing to traditional tunes, shooting off rockets, and listening to stories of the Buddha.
The origin of the festival is not so clear, and combines elements of Buddhism, Brahminism (both from India), Animism, and local superstitions.
A Laotian Folk Tale Origin?
A Master’s degree dissertation from Rajabhat Institute in Loei proposes that the practice of wearing the ghost masks was passed on long ago from Luang Phrabang in the current nation of Laos. In the ancient Lan Chang Kingdom of Laos, Luang Phrabang tradition held a “Pu Yer Ya Yer” ghost mask performance in order to worship and appease ancestral spirits. According to one site on Lao folk tales, the Pu Yer Ya Yer legend arose as follows: “Many, many years, under King Khun Boromrajathirat, a huge tree rose from the earth and became so big its branches blocked out the sky and brought darkness and coldness to the earth. The king asked if anyone could cut down the tree. No one responded. Finally an odd couple named Pu Yer Ya Yer emerged and said they would give it a try. They labored for three months and three days and achieved their goal. The only problem was that they were standing in the wrong place at the wrong time when the tree fell and their spirits are remembered today.” You can see a traditional performance of the Pu Yer Ya Yer dance in this video, which appears to be a combination of traditional Chinese lion dance and local customs.
The Lao Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism has also produced a puppet version of the Pu Yer Ya Yer story.
The Buddhist Connection
A more pervasive belief (perhaps because of later state-sponsored religious influences) relates the festival more to the dominant Theravada Buddhist religion of current day Thailand. The practice of dancing with the masks has become part of a bigger religious event, called Bun Luang (Bun means “merit making” and Luang means “grand” in this context). The Grand Merit-Making festival combines the fourth-month merit-making practice with a Mekhong River regional tradition of Bun Bungfai (Merit-making sky rockets). In Dansai, the activities including setting off these sky rockets on the second day. (The more famous rocket festival is in another Northeastern province, Yasothon). The rockets may contain good luck tokens, and might be considered as pleas to the gods of the sky.
In this context, the ritual commemorates a myth of when the dead came back to celebrate the return of the penultimate manifestation of the Buddha (the reincarnation just before becoming the Buddha).
This is the legend of Prince Vessantara. Vessantara, meaning “born in the merchant quarter,” was born in Sivirattha Kingdom to a meritorious queen while she was visiting a bazaar. The generous prince was said to have asked his mother for money to give to the poor the moment he opened his eyes. He was so generous, in fact, that he gave away, to a drought-stricken neighbor kingdom, a magical white elephant which the locals relied on to bring rain. Fearing they would themselves suffer drought, the kingdom’s citizens convinced Vessantara’s father to drive him away. The generous prince wandered to Vamka Mountain with his wife and two children, and eventually even gave away his two children to an unscrupulous old Brahmin named Jujaka. Jujaka ended up selling the children to their grandfather, King Sanjaya of the Sivirattha Kingdom. Eventually, the Prince and his wife returned to reunite with the family, and the formerly drought-stricken kingdom also returned the white elephant. Such a happy ending deserved a tremendous celebration, of course, and legend says that even the dead arose to celebrate—this is the connection to the Phi Ta Khon ghost masks. The story is celebrated Cambodia, Burma, Sri Lanka, and Northeast Thailand, where the festival is known as Bun Phawet, or Phawet Merit-making.
The Dress and Accoutrements
The large, horned headpiece of the brightly painted and artistic masks are composed of bamboo baskets used for steaming the regional specialty sticky rice (the basket’s name is “huad” in the local language). The faces are carved from wood, banana trunks, or other innovative material.
The original clothes were stitched-together rags, though today’s versions are often colorful cloth collections representing various teams. Most of the costumes include a belt of hanging bells, and the traditional dance features rhythmic hip swaying adding to the cacophonic and exciting atmosphere.
Rather shocking are the ubiquitous fertility-rite associated phallic symbols, carried by both men and women. The timing of the festival is during the planting season, at the beginning of the monsoon; a critical time for the rain to come to nurture the new crop, and thus the importance of fertility symbols. Some are made from ax handles, others specially made, called Bhalad Khik. Other celebrants have taken the fertility symbolism even further, brandishing crude sliding puppets, including with depictions of pubic hair, on a stick performing sexual intercourse.
Mud men and buffaloes also relate to the fertility rites. The water buffalo symbolizes virility and strength, and is critical for planting and maintaining the fields. In the festival, one can see celebrants wearing water buffalo costumes, playfully charging the crowd. The mud men likely represent the fertile land itself…they travel along in the backs of pickup trucks filled with a mud bath, or walk along behind and perform antics such as throwing muddy fish nets about.
Since 1988, the Tourism Authority of Thailand has been involved with the festival, when it declared Dansai an official tourist destination. The tourist-promotion aspect has not been without some friction. One scholar examined a controversy in 2012 in which the local municipality produced a promotional video using the global superhit Gangnam Style dance of South Korean pop star Psy, without consulting the locals. Some community members took offense at the incursion upon their local tradition.
Other additions since the simpler origin include parades of beautiful women in traditional costume, representations of Brahmin priests and other figures from the Vessantara story, and, of course, merchants peddling all sorts of goods for the revelers.
On the other hand, the festival has always been a syncretic amalgamation of different traditions, and one can see that the community thrives on one of Thailand’s most colorful and charming local festivals.