Sunday, October 21, 2012

Assault by Ghosts: Politics and Religion in Nan in the 18th Century

In the 1989 issue of Crossroads: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, David K. Wyatt presented an interesting article: Assault by Ghosts: Politics and Religion in Nan in the 18th Century regarding the principality of Nan in northern Thailand. He noted an account found in a chronicle regarding Wat Phrathat Chae Haeng, a Buddhist reliquary whose history stretches back to the 14th century.

In the year 1157 (or what might be considered 1795 by the European/American calendar system) at Muang Ngua, the devas took the form of ghosts who went around the city assaulting monks and the residents. The spirits dropped written messages demanding that the Chae Haeng reliquary be restored, or else they would continue to annoy and torment the city. The officials began construction and restoration of the reliquary for 5 months, and held a celebration. The ghosts then stopped bothering the public.

Over the course of Wyatt's analysis, he suggests "It is curious that the "ghosts" working on behalf of the deva guadians of Wat Chae Haeng, though taking the form of pret and yak, did not necessarily behave as pret and yak. If I understand such things correctly, such supernatural beings normally work rather more subtly than resorting to simple physical violence: One does not normally think of pret and yak as beating people up. Nor, one would think, would pret and yak drop written messages to underline their purpose. Contemporaries wishing to give the deva the benefit of the doubt might explain away these actions by concluding that the deva were working through ordinary human beings whom they had possessed for the purpose."

Wyatt suggests that the monks could not directly report that they had arranged the restoration of the reliquary through public protest because that would be seen to undermine and challenge the authority of the rulers. But couching it in "religious and supernatural terms, however, the could both preserve what they considered to be an important episode in their history and make a subtle point for the edification of future princes."

A careful reading of this incident has significant potential for a number of our writers today, and a renewed appreciation for the stories of old.

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