Thousands will this month travel to Saraburi for Tak Bat Dok Mai.
You see a great rocky bluff, swathed in woods at its base, with temple spires rising above, glinting in the sun. You see crowds – but you know you’re there without looking, by the noise. Loudspeakers blare out the spiel of some official-cum-fairground barker, repeated every two minutes in an endless ear-bashing cycle. Put some ear plugs in, and everything’s fine. It’s sunny, it’s a holiday, it’s a party, and people are flocking from miles around and even from Bangkok to the fun of the fair and the beauty of the setting.
It’s Tak Bat Dok Mai, the flower offering festival of the Shrine of the Holy Footprint, held on the first day of the waning moon of the eighth lunar month, which is normally in July, and known as Asalha Bucha. This year, Tak Bat Dok Mai will be held on July 11. Thousands of people come to make merit by giving flowers and incense to the monks at Wat Phra Putthabat – the shrine’s Thai name – in Saraburi province, central Thailand, on this holy day each year, but that’s not all they do. They eat at numerous stalls, they buy all sorts of things from vendors, they roam around under the trees, they watch the parade, they explore and enjoy the unique beauty of the labyrinthine sanctuary.
One of Thailand’s royal temples of the first rank, and therefore a highly significant sacred site, the Shrine of the Holy Footprint is magnetic for its high status alone, but its dramatic character is the real draw. Clinging to the foot of a rocky outcrop amidst the flatness of the Central Plains, Thailand’s rice bowl, the sanctuary has an eccentric layout and idiosyncratic structures which are immediately appealing. Add to this the great beauty of individual buildings and the first-class upkeep of everything and you have one of the country’s most exquisite sights.
What are its origins? Wat Phra Putthabat comes out of this legend. Early in the 17th century, King Songtham of Siam sent monks to Sri Lanka to worship the Buddha’s footprint on the hill of Sumankut. When they got there, the Siamese monks were surprised to find their Singhalese colleagues asking them why they had come so far when, according to the ancient Pali texts, another authentic and sacred footprint existed in Siam. When King Songtham heard this, he set up a search for the footprint. It was discovered in 1606 by a hunter who had wounded a deer which disappeared into a hollow and came out perfectly well. Under the bushes, the man found a hole in the shape of a foot, filled with fresh water. After drinking the water, he was immediately cured of a skin disease from which he had long suffered. On hearing of these miracles, the king marked out the area, and built a sanctuary there.
Those first buildings were destroyed by the invading Burmese in 1765. The sanctuary as it is now was built under the Chakri kings who have ruled since 1782. Approaching from separate sides, two stairways lead pilgrims upwards to a summit of dreaming spires. Pristine white chedis of all sizes cluster round the ornate mondop, the pavilion which shelters the footprint itself. No mortal foot this, it is a stylised impression 150 cm long, 53 cm wide and 28 cm deep, covered in gold leaf, and surrounded by a gilded parapet which is swathed in golden silk.
Bronze and blue mosaic tiling swathes the outer walls and pillars of this sacred shrine whose stepped spire reaches far heavenward. Its beauty and significanceexert great magnetism on the people who flock to pay respect and then to make merit by ringing the great bronze bells which half-surround its platform. Young and old, local or foreign, believers or not, everyone has fun making their own music on this impressive string of heavy percussion.
It is to this shrine that the monks climb at the climax of Tak Bat Dok Mai. But first there is the fun of the parade down on the road below. A marching band in emerald green jackets, boy scouts and girl guides in formation, beauty queens perspiring elegantly on flower-decked floats, folk dancers and folk musicians, papier-mâché models and masks, drummers and revellers – all parade or prance past the gawping crowds, who especially enjoy the sight of the Thai celebrities who turn up and join in the ramwong dancing.
When the ramwong revellers and their drum party reel past, the air is so thick with liquor fumes that you could get drunk just by inhaling. While most paraders are visibly wilting under the glare of the sun and the stare of the spectators, these funsters are in their element frolicking and rollicking by.
They bring to mind the ribald humour of the province’s motto, “nom dee, guree daeng”, which can be taken two ways. According to taste, you can believe that Saraburi’s prime products are good milk and hot curry, or scarlet women with nice breasts. “Up to yooo!”, as they say.
After all this, the serious business. The long file of monks follows and the people press forward to lay wan khamin flowers and incense sticks in their alms bowls. Also knownas khao phansa flowers, they only grow around July, the start of Buddhist Lent at the entry of the rainy season, which is what khao phansa means. People pick them from the rocky hillsides around about.
At khao phansa, monks retreat to their temples and laymen traditionally enter the monkhood at least once in their lives, be it for the whole three months of Lent or, more usual now, for just a few weeks or even days. In this way, Thai men acquire deeper religious understanding, progress along the path to enlightenment, and bring merit to their parents, especially mothers.
They need qualities like forbearance if they are to survive Tak Bat Dok Mai, filing under the merciless sun amid an excited throng insistently piling offerings
into their bowls to overflowing, hounded by a media circus of cameramen and photographers, climbing the long steep stairway to the footprint shrine.
The monks pay their respects to the shrine, sitting on the red carpet around the footprint and chanting, and then they descend, again in stately single file, the other flight of steps, to be given a final honour of remarkable devotion. People kneel to rinse the holy men’s feet with cool fresh water — a cleansing of the mind and soul for the devotees — as they pass slowly downwards in a long saffron stream.
The ceremony is over. It remains only to skip after the TV celebrities, and ooh and aah and snap them on mobile phones. And to have something more to eat and drink, for snacking is a Thai article of faith. And to go home and tell everybody about it.