Monday, July 5, 2010

Water and Forgiveness

The Loy Krathong song begins, “In the twelfth month on the full moon…”
By the Western calendar, the festival actually takes place in November, but by the Thai lunar calendar it’s the twelfth month. Not only are the months counted differently, but here in the village it’s actually 2542, since the original Year of the Buddha occurred 500 years before the first Year of Our Lord. I feel as if I’m a time traveler who has been transported 500 years into the future.
Loy Krathong is the second-most important celebration on the Thai calendar, and this presumably means the village will go all out. But when the celebration begins, I’m surprised at the dignity and restraint of the celebration. Unlike the prolonged and frenzied partying of the Songkran holiday, this harvest festival chiefly involves launching floating candles across the water to carry our sins away. No Las Vegas-like stage shows, no throbbing outdoor movies, no wobbly carnival rides.
Instead, after dark, we carry our modest krathongs (floats made of banana leaves and bearing flowers, candles and incense sticks) down to the village reservoir. The vast, placid reservoir is already fringed with flickering krathongs, which are bobbing near the shores from which villagers have launched them. It’s a windless night, so not many of the village’s sins have floated out into the middle, except where villagers are splashing and making waves to send them on their way.

Floating our boats of sin away is actually only one of several explanations I’ve heard about this festival. I’ve also been told that the festival involves giving thanks for the rains that irrigate the paddy fields. And in a combination of those two strains—expressing gratitude for the rains and asking forgiveness for sins--I’ve heard we are specifically asking pardon from the water gods for polluting the water. That’s a tad ironic, since the festival involves littering the waters with dozens of krathongs, some of which have come to include Styrofoam.
Still, it’s undeniably a lovely sight when the rivers and lakes of Thailand become oceans of flowers and fire this one night of the year. Perhaps the most spectacular celebration takes place in the ancient city of Sukothai, but the nearby Mekong River becomes a stream of candlelight as well.
But for this festival, the village has plenty of water and floating beauty. And of all the different explanations I’ve been given for Loy Krathong, it’s the asking-for-forgiveness explanation that I like the best. For me, this makes the ritual of Loy Krathong something like a sacrament, a visible expression of God conferring invisible grace. Or, as one definition says, “a rite in which God is uniquely active.” Amen to that. So I silently ask Jesus to forgive my sins before launching my krathong. My Buddhist friend, Maliwan, is crouched beside me, and she pauses before launching her krathong as well. “Now,” she murmurs, “we pray.” She bows her head. Our candles burn with remorse, our incense sticks send up a fragrant plea for forgiveness. Our sins set sail softly, sadly, but when our sin and regret stall a few feet from shore, we smack energetically at the water, sending the floats outward on concentric ripples of water. All my students are milling around, exchanging greetings and smiles. The whole village is out, and the feeling of a fresh start is in the air. It’s a beautiful sight, as dozens of candles flicker on the dark water.
Later, three of us from the village straddle a single motorcycle and ride to Ban Dung, where a krathong contest is being judged. Here is the lavish celebration I have grown to expect in Thailand. These krathongs are not modest—they are huge and elaborate, constructed of hundreds of tightly woven banana leaves, sculpted into royal birds and royal palaces and bedecked with festive lights.
But not only are the floating beauties of the water being judged—local beauties of the human variety are also competing for a crown. Beauty contests are another feature of Loy Krathong, and one young woman after another parades across the stage. As she crosses, pauses, and twirls, each woman’s measurements are pronounced over the loudspeakers to fervent applause.
Also posted on Strange Islands