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Chapter 6.4.2

RLG206H5 Chapter Notes - Chapter 6.4.2: Rocket Festival, Swig, Fertility Rite

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Christoph Emmrich

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6.4.2 The Rocket Festival in Laos
Page 238 - 241
Wherever Theravāda Buddhism has become the dominant religious ideology It has coexisted with beliefs in indigenous
spirits and deities
This is because of how the Theravāda understand Buddha
o They think of him as a:
Although devotees turn to Buddha in their soteriological concerns, Buddha has transcended this world and does not interfere
directly in the mundane concerns of people
In Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia, Buddha occupies a position at the top, or “above the top” of a large pantheon of spirits
who are concerned with mundane affairs
o Pantheon is not always well organized, but it includes
Regional and local divinities
Guardians of towns and villages
Spirits of the dead
Demonic and autochtonous forces concerned with illness, fertility, protection, success, failure, etc.
The relationship of the rites involving these spirits (called nat in Myanmar and phi in Thailand and Laos) and the practice of
Buddhism has gotten the attention of scholars
Buddhists in these countries do not see any contradiction between their veneration of the Buddha and their veneration of
these deities
Rituals towards them vary, but there is a mixture of elements that might baffle Westerners brought up in more monotheistic
Rocket Festival
o Also called Bun Bangfai
o It is a Buddhist/ spirit cult celebration that is held in Laos and Northern Thailand
o The festival can be seen as a fertility cult that also honors the spirit of a particular village (phībān)
o At the same time, the celebration is the occasion for competition (in the form of launching bamboo rockets) between
different villages in an area
o Since the rockets are made by Buddhist monks, and since the villages owe their identity to their association with a
particular monastery temple- (wat), this competition has Buddhist ramification too
In some villages, the Līang Phībān ceremony and the Rocket Festival are merged
o Rocket festival = Bun Bangfai
o Līang Phībān = Feeding the spirit of the village
The village is open to outsiders
Gunpowder is sent to surrounding villages so that the villagers may make fireworks, which they bring to
the host village to be entered into the contest
Surrounding villages that don’t get any gunpowder may send only monks and spectators
What does the Rocket Festival represent?
o Along with Bun Phavet, it is equivalent of our fairs, bringing together large numbers of people
o Bun Phavet = Buddhist ceremony consisting the penultimate incarnation of the Buddha
o The Buddhist association of the Rocket Festival are less clear, but it is still regarded at a Buddhist ceremony by most
Lao villagers
o They think it honors the Visākhabūjā (the triple anniversary of the Buddha’s birth, enlightenment, and death
o Some Leo see “the survival of ancient pagan customs… Occuring at the beginning of the rainy season,, Bun Bangfai
is nothing other than an invocation to Phanhā Thāen (God of Heaven) to ensure the fecundity of the paddy fields
and the abundance of their harvests” in this ritual.
Villages and other participating groups are given 10 days to make their rockets
They must prepare charcoal, construct the body of the rocket, find an appropriate tail (a good stick of bamboo from a
single shoot that is 10m in length), squeeze the explosive into the body of the rocket, assemble the parts, decorate the rocket
with bands of brightly colored paper, etc.
Monks are usually the best rocket makers in the village
Monks have the greatest amount of time to devote to such tasks
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