The king’s coronation, mundane ceremony, royal wedding, first ploughing ceremony etc. were among the important events at which the Thai Brahman priests officiated. The Ploughing Ceremony, the first of the traditional agrarian festivals, is basically of Brahman origin.
The Royal Brahman astrologers set the auspicious day and time for the Ploughing Ceremony held in the sixth lunar month, usually mid-May. The annual Royal Ploughing Ceremony that marks the start of the rice-planting season begins with a rite that holds the prophecy of prosperity of the country. This Brahmanical rite is to predict rainfall and the right types of crop to plant, thereby ensuring a good harvest.
The Royal Ploughing Ceremony, carried out in the hope of providing a bountiful crop marked the traditional beginning of the rice-growing season, has been performed since ancient times, but varies. Even today, Brahman astrologers set the exact date and time for the Ploughing Ceremony, which is not exactly fixed for other royal ceremonies. The exact date for the Royal Ploughing Ceremony (Bonn Chroat Preh Nongkoal), is not set on a fixed date, and as such it varies. Falling on the sixth lunar month (May), just before the rains begin, it marks the start of the rice-planting season, a good time for farmers to start working on their farm.
For a very long time, a ceremonial furrow used to be ploughed on the grounds in front of the National Museum in Phonom Penh. The royal astrologer calculates and fixes the auspicious day for the Royal Ploughing Ceremony, which the Bureau of the Royal Households would mark in the royal calendar which clearly states the date for both rites of the ceremony. The cabinet announces this as a Public holiday.
The fete is held usually on a lucky day that the astrologers designated in the waxing part of Vaisakha (April-May). This festival’s dates change annually, according to the Lunar Calendar. In 2007, the ceremony was held in Cambodia on 5 May, and in Thailand on 10 May. In the Khmer language, it is called Pithi Chrat Preah Neangkol, and in the Thai language, it is called Phraraj Pithi Jarod Phranangkal Reak Na Kwan. Its other name is bon crat prah ankal .
Known as Phraratchaphithi Chot Phranangkhan, the plowing ceremony was a purely Brahmanical ceremony, prior to the reign of Rama IV. Rama IV, the instigator of the elaborate public spectacle involving a Phraratchphithi Phutmongkhon complete with four queens to accompany the substitute king,” added a Buddhist component.
In the administration of oaths to officials, in ploughing the first furrow, and at the ‘Feast of the Waters’, the court Brahmins still play a part. The prayers they recite or chant on such occasions are in corrupt Sanskrit, often unintelligible, but are still written in the grantha characters of South India. The writing is palaeographically much later than that of ancient Kambuja.
During the ceremony, the official servings as the king leans against a tree with his right foot resting on his left knee. This standing on one foot earned him the popular name King Hop, his official title being Phaya Phollathep. This ‘Lord of the Heavenly Hosts,’ is a sort of Minister of Agriculture, to whom all disputes about fields, rice, and so forth, are referred.
In the ancient statutes, the Lord of the Ceremony is called Baladeva, or head of the department of lands. This high official, in princely attire and holding the title of Baladeva, formerly represented the king. This personage is obviously named for Balarama, Krsna’s brother, who accomplished so many wonders with his ploughshare.
Teachings of Buddha at the Royal Ploughing Ceremony
The Buddhist rite of prayers and blessing for grains and cereals is conducted on the first day prior to the ploughing day. An announcement at the ceremony highlights the importance of the ceremony, according to the Buddhist Dharma, which describes how Buddha’s power eliminated drought, and the rain enabled farmers to work on their farms. Then there is an announcement to honor King Rama I, followed by good wishes to the King and a call to ask all holy spirits to bless and to protect plants in the kingdom so that they might grow healthily. Then there is good seasonal rain.
After the announcements, eleven Buddhist monks recite a special chant covering all kinds of cereals brought into the ceremonial field. The two parts of the ceremony originally took place on two separate days. Later, the ploughing part was skipped. The government decided to re-establish the ploughing part in B.E. 2503 (A.D. 1960), and it was then moved to the Pramane Ground, also known as Sanam Luang in front of the Grand Palace in Bangkok, that used to be a ceremonial ground in the reign of King Rama I, II, and III. This helped to conserve this great traditional royal ceremony for agriculture. As a devout Buddhist, King Mongkut added religious rites to the ceremony.
During the reigns of King Rama I, II, and III, the ceremony was purely a Brahmanic rite with no participation of Buddhist monks. The royal ploughing ceremony, then known as Phraratchaphithi (Royal ceremony), or Chot Phranangkhan, was observed every year. Since the Sukhothai era (1257-1350 A.D.), this magnificent ancient Brahminical rite of grand dimensions was an event eagerly watched in Thailand. It continued in Ayutthaya and Ratanakhosindhu (Bangkok) periods.
During the Bangkok period, the ceremony was fully observed without omission of any portion of the original rites, as they were performed since the first Chakri king, although the actual ploughing was not done by the King himself. In the current Chakri period, the original rites and ceremonies have been carefully maintained. The Ploughing Ceremony in the days of the Ayutthaya kingdom (1350-1767) declined in importance. The king who no longer participated in the ceremony instead delegated to a representative, the Lord of the Ceremony, to be in charge of conducting the ceremony.
Realizing the significance of the ancient Thai tradition, King Rama I ordered the revival of several royal ceremonies such as the Coronation Day, the Royal Ploughing Ceremony, and the Ceremony to Take an Oath of Allegiance. A lavish ceremony Rama I introduced in the early Bangkok days (1782 onward) was reduced to modest dimensions by Rama VI (King Vajiravudh), who also revived the Sukhothai tradition of personally appearing at the Ploughing Ceremony. Rama IV (1850-67) added a Buddhist component, and was the instigator of the elaborate public spectacle involving a Phraratchaphithi Phutmongkhon, complete with four queens to accompany the substitute king.
The once exclusive Brahmanical rites now share the first day with Buddhist prayers and rituals. While in the afternoon monks place a Buddha image in one of the erected pavilions at Sanam Luang, in the evening, a Brahman propitiated the Great Gods enshrined there such as Phra Isuan, Phra Brahm, Phra Narai (Ram), Phra Umabhagavadi, Phra Mahavighanesuar and Phra Laksami for a good harvest. Brahmin priests placed the images of Lord Vishnu and Lord Siva in another pavilion, all in readiness for the second and main day of the ceremony.
In Cambodia, at least one festival is held every month, consistently from the past until the present. Cambodian people call it Pithi Tvear Tos-meas, or ceremonies of twelve months of the year, classified into two major groups, those organized during the rainy season and those in the dry season.
The Royal Ploughing Ceremony and Fete of Neakta are the two festivals performed at the beginning of the rainy season. Neakta is a Deity, and the fete of Neakta takes place probably a fortnight after the Royal Ploughing Ceremony. Local ceremonies of this type are organized to invoke the spirits to manage to procure rain for farming. The Khmers believe that Neakta or ancestor spirits would stay around to look after their children, and are responsible for preventing the younger generation from getting various epidemic diseases. They also ensure sufficient rains for farmers and prosperity for all in general.
The Royal Ploughing Ceremony (Pithi Chraoat Preah Naingkorl) observed for many centuries in Pisak (May) at the initiative of a Khmer king in the ancient time, is held to pay tribute to the Goddess of Earth [Mother Bhumi] for her gracious favor of providing land to farmers to cultivate their rice. It is actually performed in the sixth month of the Khmer lunar calendar, and marks the beginning of the rainy season.
On the second day of the ceremony, a colorful event, the ceremonial drum bearers wearing elaborate red garments walk in procession. The Brahmin priests clad in white and the young women dressed in traditional Thai attire followed the Lord of the Ceremony, decked out in a white gem-studded tunic. Adding to the drama of the day are the two white oxen, harnessed to a crimson plough adorned with gold fittings.
The Royal Ploughing Ceremony (Bonn Chroat Preah Nongkoal) marked the auspicious commencement of the tilling of the paddy field. It being designed to give an auspicious beginning to the new planting season, the people did not dare to commence cultivation till this festival was held.
The main activities of the ploughing ceremony are the actual ploughing of the field by the Lord of the Festival (Phraya Raek Na) with a pair of ceremonial bulls and the scattering of rice seeds from gold baskets carried by four fair ladies (Nang Thepi). Along with this, the traditionally dressed Brahmin leaders interpret omens to forecast the amount of rainfall and the bounty of the harvest in the coming season and chant and blow conch shells.
High-ranking Buddhist monks at the temple of the Emerald Buddha performed this important ritual of the Cultivating Ceremony/ the grains blessing ceremony, wherein an image of the Buddha ‘Calling Down the Rain’ is invited out. Buddha’s right hand is in the attitude of calling down the rain, whereas his left hand is trying to catch it. The sacred rice to be used the next day is blessed on the eve of the Ploughing Ceremony, when paddy and the seeds of forty other crops and ceremonial items to be used in the Ploughing Ceremony are sanctified in the Royal Chapel of the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, within the compounds of the Grand Palace. These ancient rituals for a bountiful harvest in Thailand are an amalgamation of Brahminic and Buddhist rituals, and the two are found to be inseparable.
After wetting his hands and anointing his forehead with lustral water, His Majesty the King, or a representative who presides over the Cultivating Ceremony, receives the royal blessing and performs religious rituals and prays for the abundance of the nation’s crops. The king pours lustral water over the rice seeds, the sacred plough, the Lord of the Ceremony, and over the Nang Thepi, the young women who represent heavenly beings and who will carry the blessed rice seeds.
His Majesty the King confers Phraya Raek Na, the nine-gemmed rings and the Royal Goad with royal approval, performs the function and anoints the heads of four Thepis and sword to be used in the Royal Ploughing Ceremony that follows the next morning at Sanam. Among the prayers chanted is the Mongkol Katha (the blessing spell). Then, the Chief Brahman reads the proclamation on the Cultivating Ceremony, which seeks to bring propitiousness to the crops.
Later, Phraya Raek Na and the Thepis leave for the back of the ceremonial pavilion in Sanam Luang, where Phraya Raek Na washes his hands in a bowl. The water is then fed to the ceremonial bulls located there. Then Phraya Raek Na and the Thepis spend time with the bulls in preparation for the Ploughing Ceremony to be held the next morning.
Lord of the Ploughing Ceremony
The Royal Ploughing ceremony was originally conducted at Phaya Thai rice field, but when it was reestablished in A.D. 1960, the Sanam Luang Ground was chosen as the ceremonial ground during the reigns of King Rama I, II, and III. With the introduction of changes, the king or the leader of the country designated the new duty to a respective high-ranking officer, Phraya Raekna, who performed the ceremony.
The ritual of ploughing the field follows on the entry of the entire procession, led by the Lord of the Ploughing Ceremony to an area barricaded with bamboo fences that are decorated with flowers and leaves. They are joined by a team of sacred white bulls, festooned in flowers and drawing a sacred plough of red and gold. Four celestial maidens (consecrated women and the Queen of the sowing ceremony (Nang Thepi’or Nan devi), follow Phra Raek Na carrying silver and gold baskets filled with the blessed seeds, on a pole over their shoulders.
Before the start of the ceremony, the Phraya Raek Na receives the royal blessings together with a ceremonial ring with nine different gemstones and a staff, to carry on all the rituals in his palace. The Lord of the Ceremony and the four maidens are anointed on their foreheads and in the palms, and given a conch and bel leaves. Earlier, His Majesty the King only presided over the rituals. Nowadays, the king takes part in the festivities, but doesn’t play the leading role.
After donning the ‘panung’, the Lord of the Ploughing Ceremony, armed with a goad received from the Brahmin priest presiding over the ceremony, takes the gilded handle of the plough, which has been wrapped in red cloth by the Brah Maha Raja Gru, and whips up the pair of magnificent oxen caparisoned in harness of red velvet and gold thread. The team ploughs three ceremonial concentric deep furrows in an oval shape. While he ploughs, senior Brahmin priests walked in front, chanting and blowing conch shells alongside the plough, sprinkling lustral water on the earth before him at the conclusion of each circuit.
Four dowager ladies of the nobility follow. From the baskets they carry, they scatter and sow rice seed over the newly turned earth amidst the blowing of conchs by five Brahmin priests. The Lord of the Ploughing Ceremony then ploughs the earth again, covering over the seeds by three more rounds, which completes the symbolic ploughing. Nine being an auspicious number in Thailand, the Lord of the Ceremony leads the sacred oxen nine times around the marked field. Green-costumed drummers, Brahmans and drum and umbrella bearers complete the procession. The ruling monarch led long processions while his representative, the Phraya Raek Na (Lord of the Ceremony), performs the ploughing rites.
An Age Old Ritual Connects South Travancore with South East Asia
Magha puja Day, one of the most important Buddhist celebrations, that falls on the full moon day of the third lunar month (about the last week of February or first one of March). Maka puja is Meakh Bochea in Khemer.
Based on a number of signs read from the Earth, King Meakh determines the weather patterns and predicts whether or not this year will provide a good harvest. In that case, Meakh in ‘King Meakh’ denotes maka only. In Kerala, maka is known as the birth star of rice. Meakh is the ceremony star/ star of ceremony.
The asterism makam or magham in the month of Kanni used to be celebrated as the birthday of rice in South Travancore, till recently. “On this day, the cows of the house are decorated with sandal paste and flowers, and given various kinds of sweetmeats. The ladies of the house take ten or twelve grains of paddy (rice), anoint them with oil and, after bathing in turmeric-water, consecrate the grains by the recitation of certain hymns, and deposit them in the safe room (ara) of the house. If there are in the house any female members born under Makam star, the duty of performing the ceremony devolves on them in particular. This is really a harvest festival, and has the securing of food-grains in abundance (dhanyasamriddhi) for its temporal object.” Dhanyasamriddhi means increase of money and wealth.
Siamese lower garment/ loincloth for both women and men in the past consisted of a piece of cloth. Pah nung is the Thai name for this traditional sarong-like garment. Wrapped around the body and tied in a knot in the vicinity of the navel, it can be left dangling. But traditionally, the front end of the pah nung is brought up and folded between the legs to the back, where it is stuck behind the belt. In Tirukkural (1023), Valluvar says:
“The Lord himself will wrap his robes
And lead the one bent on social service.”
Farmers clad in their traditional dhoties can be found ploughing their fields in Nanjil nadu even today. Wearing the minimum length of cloth enables the farmer to carry out ploughing activities with ease. Loin cloth is kaupeenam/ langhottis. Charthu is dressing. Ulchaarthu is said to be the king’s kaupeenam. Perhaps the first underwear worn by humans, this is an adaptation of the Indian dhoti, which Prince Sri Supanma of Cambodia introduced to Cambodia.
Rain and Farmers
Climate, the prevailing or average weather conditions of a place, is determined by the temperature and meteorological changes over a period of years. By contrast, weather is the general condition of the atmosphere at a particular time and place, with regard to temperature, moisture, cloudiness, etc. While climate is predictable and the farmers are enabled to regulate their annual routine based on his expectation of climate, weather is unpredictable, except for the immediate future. The peasant remained forever in human history with no protection against drought, severe frost, excessive rain, hail-storms and deep snow which cannot be foreseen, except for a few hours ahead.
While he could adjust to climate, the vagaries of weather were beyond his knowledge and understanding. “It was weather, in the main, that caused an abundant crop one year and dearth another. There may have been -indeed there were- long-term variations in climate and some have claimed for them a powerful influence on human destiny, but to the traditional peasant they were obscured by the fluctuations of weather. The day-to-day variations in weather were of amplitude far greater than any slow, cyclic change in climate. The peasant was aware only of weather. What mattered to him was the extent to which the harvest in any one year departed from a vaguely sensed average. It was like the seven good years followed by the seven bad, except that there was no weatherman, in the shape of Joseph, to give him warning of what was to come.”
Primacy of rain was known to the ancients, as is evident from the Kural and Bhagavad-Gita. Thirukural (No: 11), says that the world maintains its course through life given by unfailing rain. Thus rain came to be regarded as the true ambrosial food of all that lives. Bhagavad-Gita Gita (III.9), says: “All things which have life, are produced from the bread which they eat, bread is produced from rain; rain from divine worship and divine worship from good works.”
The use of remote sensing technology for detecting the vagaries of weather is a Metsat program. Remote sensing technology enabled India and other developed countries, to forecast agricultural output three months prior to harvest. After doing it in wheat growth, it was further extended to rice and all other crops in the years to come.
Today, the Indian Meteorological Department is establishing auto-weather stations and Doppler radars for weather forecast. While space technology comes in handy in the recent past, thodipuzhithi or pozhuthumudi held its day in the distant past. In fact, Nanjil nadu came to be known for being the harbinger for broadcasting rice and plough culture. Circumstances led the way for the Ploughing Ceremony to be relegated to the background, but the elderly people still retain nostalgic memories of the ceremonies held in their boyhood-days.
This paper is a sequel to the author’s book entitled Nellum Sanskritiyum (Rice and Civilization), which is built on the hypothesis that cultivation of rice originated in Nanjil nadu. A biography of the word ‘nangol’, this book dismisses the notion that rice cultivation originated in South East Asia. [January 18, 2009]