Thailand is divided roughly into five parts: north, northeast, central, east, and south. Northeast Thailand is called Isan in Thai. Making up a total of a third of the population and land area of the country, Isan comprises twenty provinces and at least fifteen ethnic groups, each of which believes in spirits that bring community rules and peacefulness. The way of life relies on traditional knowledge that is based on natural resources in the communities.
For the village guardian spirits (puta), each Isan community establishes a plant and animal conservation area called don puta. As the villagers are not allowed to harvest or hunt in these areas, the biodiversity is quite high in comparison to other areas, but they are also prone to over population. When over population becomes an issue, the villagers re-distribute the plants or animals in the community forest, where people are allowed to hunt or gather.
Lighting ceremonial fireworks during the ceremony © Usa Klinhom
In the central don puta area is a spirit house for the guardian spirit. The community selects one villager to be the tao jum who communicates between the guardian spirit and the community and who takes care of the don puta and spirit house. Every year, there is a ceremony for the guardian spirit to ask permission to plant rice. If the community does not hold the ceremony, then they will not be allowed to plant their crops. The ceremony day depends on the ethnic group. The Khaleung ethnic group, for example, has the ceremony on the third day of the waxing moon in the third lunar month, and the Laos ethnic group holds the ceremony on the first Wednesday of the sixth lunar month. In cases of emergencies, anyone who would like to plant before the ceremony is held should first see the tao jum and provide an offering to the spirit for permission.
On ceremony day, every household goes to the don puta with an offering of one liquor jar, one chicken, and two bundles of grass. One bundle of grass represents the people in the household, and the other represents the household’s domesticated animals. In some ethnic groups, the bundle of grass is replaced with banana leaves or bamboo sticks. In today’s market-oriented society, a local committee provides the offering for every household, and the villagers donate some money in return.
At the end of ceremony, the tao jum takes the lower jaw of chicken to foretell the situation of the community for the next year. If the lower jaw structure has a good shape, the community will be good and happy.
Another main reason of this ceremony is to share information about climate for the next season. The key informant of the community collects data by observing nature around the community.
Tao jum taking the lower jaw from an offered chicken © Usa Klinhom
For example, examining the color pattern on a monitor’s tail, the informant can predict the level of rainfall. If the end of the tail is black, it means there will be a lot of rain. In some communities, the informants fly a kite at night. The people listen for sound from the kite. If the kite drops before 21:00, it means that there will be little rain, but if the kite does not drop until the morning, it means that there will be a lot of rain. There is a lot of traditional knowledge involved with anticipating the weather for next planting season. These data are collected during the first, second, third, eleventh, and twelfth lunar months and are used when choosing which variety of rice will be suitable for that year.
The role of don puta has had historical relevance and importance in the traditional communities. Today, however, the area dedicated to don puta has been increasingly reduced because of social development pressures and misunderstanding in the government sector, which does not understand this tradition. In fact, some tracts of don puta have been used for government buildings.
In some communities, don puta has been destroyed, but they still have a tao jum and perform their annual ceremony in a closed area. The Department of Cultural Promotion has seen the importance of this traditional knowledge, and in response, they registered this knowledge as intangible cultural heritage in 2012.