One feature of life in Thailand of which the Thais can feel rightly proud is their sense of community, which we in the West seem to have lost with our alternate focus on things rather than people. One visible manifestation of this is a series of rituals that feature the use of a thick cotton thread known as 'sai sin' (sacred thread).
Monks and/or temples often feature in these rituals. In a country where almost 95% of the population is Buddhist, you could easily assume that sai-sin rituals are integral to the Buddhist faith. In fact this is not the case. Those of us who read "The da Vinci Code" know that Christian rituals sometimes feature elements of paganism. In the same way, the sai-sin tradition predates Buddhism, with its roots in animism (spirit worship). Over the centuries it has become integrated into Thai Buddhism, along with various other animist and Brahmanist rituals.
Here in our village I recently watched Council workers and volunteers working their way along local streets, unraveling a large ball of sai-sin. They fastened the thread onto poles and fences above head height, leaving lengths branching off for each house along the way. It was then the responsibility of each property owner to connect their own piece of sai-sin to this spine of cord, circling it around the eaves of their home to form a loop. Although a foreigner, I too performed my civic duty up on a ladder that day. Thus every house and street in the village became, in the space of a day or two, something akin to a giant spider's web with the temple at its centre. Within its grounds, sai-sin was everywhere, linking various structures to statutes of the Buddha. Lengths of cord branched off and dangled down above each seat ready to be tied around the foreheads of monks and spectators at the ceremony that followed. And then, at least for a time, each home and member of the community became as one.
Sai-sin in use at a temple ceremony
This is an annual event here, and one which occurs in conjunction with a temple ceremony known as 'song naam phra' (pouring water on the Buddha). The date of the event coincides with the anniversary of the completion of the chedi, a concrete structure adjacent to the temple featuring statuettes of Buddha.
(As an aside, the 'song naam phra' ritual is more commonly associated with 'Songkran' held in April each year. This event lasts several days and features enthusiastic water fights in the streets and public places, and involving both Thais and foreign visitors.)
The notion of a local Council in any western country expending time and energy to connect its constituents via a length of string incomprehensible, but here it is accepted by all as a worthwhile and valuable exercise in community development.
Similar to the ceremony at our temple, but on a smaller scale, are house ceremonies and northern Thailand weddings. These rituals are known as 'phiti mongkhon', and also use sai-sin to connect and to share blessings amongst participants. Although certainly Buddhist in intent, again, the notion of string-tying was most likely inherited from pre-Buddhist animism.
'Tam boon koon baan mai' is the term given to making-merit by offering food to monks in one's own home. This usually occurs soon after a new home is constructed and generally involves a large gathering of friends, neighbours and family. It is, in effect, the Thai version of a 'house-warming' party.
Sai-sin attached to a Thai home
In these ceremonies sai-sin is draped around the perimeter wall of the home before passing through a window into the room where the ceremony is held, and then passed out again and on round the yard until the premises are completely encircled. Then it is brought back into the room again, and the roll is placed on the mat beside the head monk.
During the chanting that follows, he will unroll the sai-sin passing the thread through his fingers before passing the ball to the next monk. Each monk then holds a piece of the thread and passes the ball until it reaches the last monk. The connection between the monks and the thread is thought to form a sacrosanct circle as the chanting infuses the thread with sacred power. It is believed that anyone who is within the circle will be blessed and protected from harm and evil.
A traditional wedding in northern Thailand features a cord-tying ritual called 'poo kor muer'. This is held at the bride's family home, and is officiated by a village elder, who often received training as a monk earlier in life. The couple kneels on large pillows in front of the elder who prepares a tray with many pre-cut sections of sai-sin cord. These are then provided to guests older than the wedding couple, who tie them on the wrists of both the bride and groom. This act symbolizes the couple's commitment to each other and unbreakable bond of their marriage; it also shows that their marriage is a social bond as well as a personal relationship. As they bind the couple's wrists, each guest congratulates the newlyweds and wishes them happiness, good health, and financial prosperity. Meanwhile a separate length of sai-sin links the foreheads of the bride and groom.
A roll of sai-sin
The ritual of tying thread around the wrist also occurs in situations other than a wedding ceremony, but for similar reasons. This includes casual visits to a temple to be blessed by a monk, which often occurs in conjunction with the giving of a small donation (a merit-making gesture). In this situation the monk will tie a short section of sai-sin around the left wrist of male visitors. Monks cannot touch females, who therefore need to fasten the cord themselves to their right wrists.
Sai-sin is also used at temples during the preordination ceremony for novices. Attendants use it to tie the candidate's wrists to ward off evil spirits, as before they are ordained they are believed to be vulnerable to danger and in need of extra protection.
In many rural areas of Thailand, some hosts (typically elderly people) still tie thread onto visitors' wrists to welcome them and/or wish them a safe onwards journey and good health.
The Akha hill-tribe of north-western Thailand have their own cord-tying ritual, believing it to be a "soul string" that stops the soul from becoming lost while maintaining a connection to the tribe.
While weddings in the east of Thailand do not feature the 'poo kor muer' ritual, there is a Lao/Isaan tradition of phuuk siaw ('tying friends'). There the white cotton string is known as 'baa-sii'. The cord is first blessed by monks or shamans, and links those tied with it to a source of special power. In the more shamanistic Lao/Isaan rituals, this may well be ritual offerings presided over by a maw phawn (lay preacher). The significance of tying string around the wrist here is to bind the spirits attached to various body organs or bodily functions (the 'khwan') to the person being tied.
Finally, sai sin also plays an important role at Thai funerals, and the following article mentions its use in this context :
http://www.thai-blogs.com/2011/08/05/what-to-expect-if-you-are-invited-to-a-thai-funeral (Note also the eighth photograph - showing monks in a procession)
Bruce Bickerstaff's book 'Your Investment Guide to Thailand' is available online in both hard-copy and e-book formats - Please refer to www.burning-bison.com for further details.
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