Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Lao Culture: The Baci

One of the common images of traditional Lao culture around the world is the baci ceremony. 

The baci is held during new year celebrations, holidays, farewell parties, welcoming children or a return to home after a long journey, a recovery from illness or a remarkable achievement. The baci is regarded by many to be the most important ceremony in the Laotian community around the world.
It can also be referred to as su-kwan, or the calling of the kwan. The kwan are 32 spirits who watch over a person's 32 major organs and their spiritual essence. The baci ritual binds the spirits to their owner and is a way of expressing goodwill and fortune to others. 

A baci should traditionally be completed before sunset.

This ceremony can be performed by monks or respected elders who have been monks known as a mor phorn. 
At the center of these ceremonies is the pha khouan centerpiece, typically composed of banana leaves shaped into a decorated conical tower:
One will find the tower studded with bright flowers and sticks laced with white strings. At the base of the tower, you may also observe any number of foods placed there. This can include cooked and uncooked rice, fruit and drinks, boiled eggs and chickens, desserts and pastries. 

A traditional pha khouan will have two lit candles at the peak. 
As the audience sits around the pha khouan, the mor phorn will call the kwan to cease wandering and return to the bodies of the guest(s) of honor for the occasion. 

When this summoning of the kwan and their return is completed by the mor phorn, he is the first to start tying a string around the wrists of the guest of honor.

The guest of honor will typically have an egg or fruit placed on their palm while receiving a wish of good will and prosperity. The kwan are then once again asked to return and stay by the mor phorn.
Afterwards, the other guests at the occasion also place strings around the wrists of the guest of honor. These strings typically remain on the wrist for three days and must be broken or untied, not cut. There are others who wear the strings for longer, but most believe that to remove the strings earlier would negate the goodwill generated by the ceremony.

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